Ten years ago there were six teams in the National Hockey League, the sport's only major professional operation. Bobby Orr was an 18-year-old rookie with the Boston Bruins. The average salary of the 120 players in the NHL was about $15,000. And, talk about ethnic purity, 99 17/100s% of the players in the NHL had been born or raised in Canada. Tommy Williams of the Duluth, Minn. Williamses was the only true foreigner in the sport.
Bjorn Johansson was a fifth-grader in Oredo. Sweden back in 1966, and he knew nothing about the NHL or Bobby Orr and certainly nothing about Tommy Williams. But hockey has had a major face-lift over the last decade, and now fifth-graders in Oredo know there are 30 teams in North America's two major leagues—the NHL and the World Hockey Association. They know that in 1976 Bobby Orr is a 28-year-old newcomer to the Chicago Black Hawks. That the average annual salary of the 360 players in the 18-team NHL is more than $70,000, while the WHA's paychecks have reached just about the same level. And that a once for-Canadians-only sport has suddenly become a smorgasbord.
This season some 15 Swedish citizens, including 20-year-old Defenseman Bjorn Johansson, will be playing in the NHL and the WHA, along with seven players from Finland, two from Czechoslovakia and, most surprising, approximately 60 from the U.S. One striking example of hockey's new melting pot was the training camp of the New England Whalers, where Coach Harry Neale had a 34-player roster that included 22 Canadians, two Swedes and 10 Americans, including two Harvard preppies and a black refugee from the Oakland ghetto named Henry Taylor. Another was in Boston where 21-year-old Matti Hagmann of Finland showed up for a tryout with the Bruins and easily won a regular job. Juha Widing of the Los Angeles Kings put hockey's foreign invasion into perspective when he said, "Once I was written about as the first Swede to score a goal in the NHL, but now they think I'm just someone from Flin Flon with a funny name."
Of all the foreigners, the Swedish players are having the greatest impact on the game. Bjorn Johansson was the first-round amateur draft choice of the NHL's California Seals (now the Cleveland Barons) this past summer, the fifth player selected and the first European ever picked in the first round. He easily won a job with the Barons.
Toronto's Borje Salming is hockey's most accomplished defensive defenseman and the darling of the crowds at Maple Leaf Gardens. When Salming was introduced with his Swedish teammates before a game against Team Canada in the recent Canada Cup series, the Toronto fans gave him a thundering five-minute standing ovation, punctuated with cries of "B.J., B.J., B.J."—Salming's nickname. Listening to the roar. Canada Captain Bobby Clarke said, "Don't these people know that we're the home team in this game?"
In Winnipeg, Defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg is captain of the WHA champion Jets, and Center Ulf Nilsson and Right Wing Anders Hedberg work with Bobby Hull on one of the league's most devastating lines; they combined for 141 goals last season. Hull calls Nilsson the team's "air traffic controller," because of the precise manner in which Nilsson passes the puck to his breaking wings. Boston Bruin Coach Don Cherry scouted the speedy Hedberg, who scored 50 goals last year, during the Canada Cup competition, then said, "Playing Hedberg in the WHA is like running Secretariat at the county fair."
In Hartford, snuff dipper Thommy Abrahamsson starts his third season as a regular defenseman for the New England Whalers, and his kid brother, Christer, starts his third as the Whalers' alternate goaltender. And in Minnesota, eighth-round draft choice Roland Eriksson has won a regular job at center with the NHL's North Stars; in his first NHL game last week, Eriksson had four assists against the New York Rangers.
Why this heavy influx of Swedes? The lure is basic. "We came over here for the experience and the challenge but mostly for the money," says Thommy Abrahamsson, who receives $80,000 a year from the Whalers. "Back home I worked as an electrician and played in the top [Elite] league, and between the two jobs I could make $15,000 or maybe $20,000 a year. With the Swedish rate of inflation, that's only $10,000 or $12,000 here in the U.S. And you can't eat too many lobsters on that. The life here is good." Toronto's Salming recently signed a five-year contract for $1 million, while Nilsson and Hedberg have identical Winnipeg contracts that pay them more than $100,000 a year. "We were considered gangsters when we left home to play for big money in North America," says Christer Abrahamsson. "Now kids all over Sweden want to be hockey players in North America."
Ironically, the advance guard of Swedes did not survive very long in pro hockey. Sven (Tumba) Johansson, Sweden's " Rocket Richard," failed a tryout with the Boston Bruins in the late 1950s, and Ulf Sterner flunked a four-game test with the New York Rangers in 1964 when he could not adjust to the hitting of the NHL pros. "The Rangers played tougher against me in practice than they did against the rest of the league," said Sterner as he left for home. But in 1972 the combination of NHL expansion and the creation of the WHA opened up hockey's job market, and the Detroit Red Wings imported three Swedish players. One, Defenseman Thommie Bergman, played regularly for the Red Wings for two seasons before jumping to the Winnipeg Jets. Toronto signed Salming and Left Wing Inge Hammarstrom before the 1973-74 season; Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and the Abrahamssons, among others, turned professional before the 1974-75 schedule.
From the start, the Swedish players had to combat the "Chicken Swede" image that most Canadian-born hockey players felt was the perfect description of the newcomers' nonviolent hockey style. "I was prepared for the runs players took at me," Salming says, "and I was ready for the spearing and so forth, but some of it was ridiculous." The Broad Street Bullies initiated Salming into the NHL in his first game in Philadelphia. In order, Salming was chopped down by Bob Kelly's stick, hacked by Ed Van Impe and punched repeatedly by Dave Schultz. Last spring Salming was the prime target of Philadelphia's intimidation tactics during the Stanley Cup playoffs. A pacifist, Salming refused to drop his gloves and fight any of the Flyers; in one game he simply held onto the shirt of Philadelphia's Mel Bridgman while the Flyer player was throwing punches at him.