When Samuelsson was with Hartford, Neely went after him on several occasions. The fights were always one-sided, with Neely throwing most of the punches, but Samuelsson, beaten but unbowed, stubbornly refused to modify his style. "Here's a guy who's not afraid to crosscheck you, use his stick or whatever," Neely says. "When you play the way he does, you've got to be willing and able to back yourself up."
Samuelsson just shrugs. "I know a lot of guys in the league can beat the——out of me," he says. "But I'm not going to change my attitude. The day I change my attitude is the day I go back to Sweden and play in the noncontact league."
Provided, of course, the Swedes would take him back. A native of Fagersta, a steel town in the center of the country, Samuelsson refused to play the passive European style. So did Los Angeles King forward Tomas Sandstrom, a transplanted Finn who also grew up in Fagersta. When they were kids playing on opposite sides, Sandstrom would smack Samuelsson with his stick, and Samuelsson would stop at nothing to clear Sandstrom away from the front of the net. Their battles were a preview of the style each would carry into the NHL.
At 17, Samuelsson joined a Swedish League team in Leksand. No one knew what to make of him. "Ulfie was something new," says Gunnar Nordstrom, a reporter for the Stockholm-based Expressen, the country's largest daily newspaper. "There was no one like him. All the other defensemen were softies."
"I saw him rough up a lot of players," says Sandstrom, who played for the same team. "Everyone kept saying that he was going to get killed if he played like that when he went to the NHL."
Samuelsson made the jump to the Whalers in 1984, when he was 20, and quickly proved he was a survivor. "He's got a junkyard-dog mentality, he's tougher than nails, and he's got a terrifically high threshold of pain," says Bill Clement, a member of the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies who now does television commentary on Flyer games and for ESPN. "He would have fit right in with the Flyers of the '70s, beside guys like Eddie Van Impe and Moose Dupont. He's crude, but Dick Butkus was crude, and he's in the pro football Hall of Fame. To me, Samuelsson is like a linebacker on skates."
Indeed, linebackers like the way Samuelsson plays. Jack Lambert, the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers' old Steel Curtain, was spotted one night on his way into the Civic Arena for a Penguin game. "Who's your favorite player, Jack?" someone asked. "Ulf!" Lambert growled, before he melted into the crowd.
"They really appreciate a good defensive player in this town," says Samuelsson.
In fact, he is as popular at home as he is reviled on the road. At times he has had his own rooting section in a corner of one of the Civic Arena's balconies. The fans' call to arms, displayed on a banner, was CRY ULF! Last spring it was countered by a sign hung in Boston Garden during the playoffs: KILL ULF! The Penguins were concerned enough about his safety that they had a heavily muscled bodyguard accompany Samuelsson for the entire trip to Boston, which ended with Pittsburgh sweeping the series. Nothing untoward happened other than the constant chants of "Samuelsson sucks!" from the stands.
Rick Tocchet was no fan of Samuelsson's, until he was traded to the Penguins by the Flyers last season. "No, I didn't like him," says Tocchet, a forward with a seemingly permanent four-stitch cut across the bridge of his nose. "In fact, like most people who don't know him, I hated him. But now he's probably one of my best friends on the team. I'd do anything for the guy."