The most-hated man in the NHL wears his enemies' scorn like a badge of honor. "You don't make friends on the ice," says the Pittsburgh Penguins' Ulf Samuelsson with a menacing grin. "It's not a social gathering. Some pretty vicious stuff goes on out there."
Samuelsson should know. He's in the middle of much of it. With most of his face protected by a plastic visor, Samuelsson emerges from the gray area between what is legal and what is despicable to zero in on his next victim. Without thinking twice, hockey's toughest Swede will gouge an eye, cross-check a neck, spear a midsection, deal a low blow or bang his knee into the fleshy part of someone's thigh. "I do whatever it takes," says Samuelsson. "Whatever it takes to stop the other guy. Whatever it takes to win."
His tactics are not pretty, but they are effective. Since Samuelsson, a 6'1", 195-pound defenseman, was traded to Pittsburgh from Hartford two years ago, he has earned a pair of Stanley Cup rings along with the enmity of most of his peers. "If they had a poll of players, he'd win as the dirtiest player in the league," said forward Bernie Nicholls, then of the Edmonton Oilers, after he was ejected from a preseason game last fall for getting into a stick-fencing contest with Samuelsson. "Nobody else is close. I hate the guy."
"I really don't care," said Samuelsson when told Nicholls's sentiments. "That's my job. If I can make a highly skilled player like that want to whack me instead of concentrating on getting a good shot, that's half the battle. Obviously I got under his skin pretty good."
"His job is to hurt people," said Minnesota North Star center Mike Modano during the 1991 Stanley Cup finals. "He goes for the knees a lot. He takes runs at you, and really all he's trying to do is hurt you and knock you out of the game."
A few examples. During the 1984-85 season, while he was playing for the Whalers, Samuelsson apparently flicked his stick into the eye of Montreal Canadien forward Pierre Mondou, causing permanent damage that brought Mondou's career to a premature end. Samuelsson said that it was an accident and that he wasn't sure whether his stick or someone else's struck Mondou. In 1991 Samuelsson's hits caused knee injuries to Minnesota's Brian Bellows and Montreal's Brian Skrudland. His most infamous run-in came during the Wales Conference finals that year when he collided with Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins. The resulting thigh and knee trauma has kept Neely, one of the league's best players, out of action for nearly two seasons.
Samuelsson, 28, swears he doesn't go out of his way to incapacitate anyone. "I'm not going to say I'm a clean player," he says, "because I'm not. But I don't think I've ever intentionally tried to hurt someone—unless I got hurt myself. Then I like to get even."
As his defenders—mainly his teammates and Penguin coach Scotty Bowman—like to point out, Samuelsson has taken plenty of cheap shots without complaint. And no matter how badly he's battered, he keeps right on attacking the opposition. After having elbow surgery last season, he was supposed to miss two to three weeks. He missed four games.
"He's a throwback to the old-time defensemen," says Bowman. "He stays back, he's not afraid to take a check, and he's not afraid to give a check. He's always there; he never backs off. He asks no quarter, and he gives no quarter."
Others aren't as appreciative of Samuelsson's style. "I've always hated Ulf, and I still do," says Mike Milbury, the Bruins' coach at the time of Neely's injury and now the team's assistant general manager. "Jerk that he is, he's always wearing that smirky grin that makes you want to punch him in the face. Then you do it, he takes it, and you're the one in the penalty box for two minutes feeling like a fool. He's not often called for retaliation, and that, probably more than any other thing, is why people can't stomach the sound of his name."