"It wasn't as bad as people made it out to be," Salming says, "but Swedes just don't know how to fight. In Canada kids are brought up fighting. In Sweden, never. It is the philosophy we have about the game." In fact, fighting can earn a season's suspension in Sweden. "North American hockey," says Winnipeg's Sjoberg, "is the only sport where fighting is allowed."
Sjoberg remembers his first fight with the Jets. "All of a sudden my gloves were off and some guy was pounding me," he says. "Then I realized I didn't know what I was doing. So I just stood there. Afterward, someone asked me if I thought I looked stupid. I thought the other guy looked stupid. You know, it's never the really tough players who pull this stuff, only the little punks who want to prove something. The difference between North American and Swedish hockey? Look at the teeth."
Last season Nick Fotiu, the Staten Island, N.Y. native whose left hooks and overhand rights have now earned him a job with the New York Rangers, had a speed bag installed in the New England Whalers' dressing room, and one day he tried to get Thommy Abrahamsson to use it. Abrahamsson walked over, took a swing and the bag hit him squarely on the nose. "You ought to put a team together and tour Sweden," Abrahamsson told Fotiu. "You, Johnny McKenzie, Schultz and a bunch of other guys. They'd love you in Sweden. Like a freak show. Maybe you could even put Muhammad Ali on skates."
Toronto Owner Harold Ballard has been low on the courage of one of his own Swedes, Inge Hammarstrom. "Hammarstrom could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break one of them," Ballard once said. On another occasion, after a game against the Flyers in which Hammarstrom had not been very aggressive, Ballard suggested that the Swede had contracted the "Philly Flu." One frustrated WHA coach, seeing Hedberg and Nilsson skate circles around his players, yelled at the Swedes, "How can you guys score 50 goals and not have any scars?" But New England Coach Harry Neale says, "I'll tell you about the Swedes. Ricky Ley hit Nilsson last season with what might have been the most violent clean check I've ever seen. I mean, I thought Ricky'd broken every bone in Nilsson's body. Well, Nilsson got up and got five assists against us."
Hedberg says he detected the strong anti-Swede feelings of Canadian players "right away" after his arrival in Winnipeg. In San Diego Andre Lacroix protested that the Swedes were "taking jobs away from Canadians." "We'd be cross-checked, speared and challenged to fights," Hedberg says. "I remember a couple of times we asked each other, 'What are we doing here?' Then we decided we had three courses of action: we could retaliate by dropping our gloves and fighting, we could be intimidated and stop playing our games, or we could keep going and try to ignore the provocation. Our game is to skate and score goals, and the only way we could do that was by following the third alternative. It wasn't always easy, but we were lucky to have Bobby Hull and an entire team behind us."
The not-so-subtle intimidation tactics that Canadians practiced on the Swedish players angered Hull, who called the intimidators "goons." Hull even staged a personal one-game strike as a protest against the harassment of his European teammates. Hull also has been a major force behind changes in WHA rules that now call for the expulsion of players who wield their sticks like Scaramouche.
Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and most of Winnipeg's other European players were recruited for the Jets by Dr. Gerry Wilson, an orthopedic surgeon in Winnipeg whose promising hockey career with the Montreal Canadiens was ended by knee problems. Dr. Wilson visited Stockholm in the winter of 1973-74 to do research on sports medicine and teach a course on sports injuries at the Gymnasium, a university that prepares physical educators in both the practice and the philosophy of sport. "I was fascinated by their entire approach to sport," Dr. Wilson says. "When I found out that Hedberg, Nilsson and Sjoberg were interested in playing in North America. I quickly contacted the Jets. We needed something. The simple economics were that we were drawing 2,400 to 2,500 per game in Winnipeg. There was some skepticism when they arrived, and grumbling that they were taking Canadian jobs away from Canadians. But by the end of the year they were bringing in 8,000 people a game."
Hedberg leads the philosophical discussion groups in the Winnipeg dressing room. "Sometimes it sounds like Oxford in there," says Coach Bobby Kromm. Hedberg once helped start a philosophy-of-sport course at Stockholm's Gymnasium, and now he and Dr. Wilson lecture at sports clinics and seminars throughout Canada. Hedberg glibly expresses his views on hockey (the way one plays can be improved by his understanding of the physical and psychological aspects of the game as well as his environment and physiology) and, for what it's worth, even Mussolini—"He controlled mosquitoes in the Mediterranean." Says Hedberg of Soviet players: "They'd never adjust to a society so based on competition, where money is too much power."
Sjoberg, who is 32, is writing his thesis to complete his Ph. D. in education, specifically the application of education to community planning. As captain of the Jets, he already has improved their community planning by convincing management that all bonus agreements should be based on team performances—not individual productivity. "Sjoberg was in Winnipeg for only a year, and then he was voted captain," Kromm says. "That tells you something about Sjoberg the man."
Salming, though, ranks as the outstanding player from Sweden; he is the Swedish Bobby Orr. Like Orr, Salming maintains a low profile, shielding himself from outside contact and keeping his words to a minimum. Like Orr, he plays with remarkable instinct and flair, displaying a recklessness that seems beyond reason or science. He has speed, a hard and accurate shot and surprising strength concealed in his lanky, wiry frame. He also has excellent balance and leverage on skates.