“Never met a Swede I didn’t like,” is oft- repeated around the NHL, from the day Leaf scout Gerry McNamara first met Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1972, right up to this week’s team trip to Stockholm.
While we didn’t ‘go viking’ this time, there’s a saga from previous Leaf sailings to Sweden and Finland to verify their very co-operative citizens:
- A few tales came during a couple of comical chases of Mats Sundin, when he first was traded from Quebec to the Leafs for Wendel Clark in the summer of 1994. The Sun and Toronto Star had to find him in Scandinavian bush country, accompanying him to Leaf training camp in 2002 and following his contract difficulties a few years later.
Sun colleagues Mike Zeisberger and photog Mike Peake arrived in the Stockholm suburb of Bromma in ‘02 ahead of camp for a story on Sundin’s youth. The first random Scandinavian they met turned out to be the Leaf captain’s Grade 3 teacher, who happily directed them to his school, which obliged by supplying the duo his precocious yearbook photos.
Mats wasn’t so accommodating next time the Star sent intrepid reporter Paul Hunter over when it looked like No. 13’s days with the Leafs were done. Hunter narrowed down the posh neighbourhood to where he believed Sundin lived and asked a man out trimming his hedges if Sundin’s house was nearby.
“I received a stern lecture about respecting privacy,” Hunter recalled. “But after the guy dressed me down, he gave me directions to Mats’s house.”
Postscript: Sundin knew the Toronto media was coming and slipped out of town. His agent, Claus Eleflak, eventually got back to Hunter after many unreturned calls seeking Sundin’s whereabouts.
“Not every story has a happy ending,” was Eleflak’s way of apologizing for the deception.
- Contrary to popular belief, not every Swede is fluent in English. A large group of famished writers and broadcasters found out the hard way late one night at the Stockholm camp, well off the beaten track.
Having all missed dinner, we’d tried a few places either too crowded or closed, until the proprietor of a small family diner saw our group and beckoned us inside.
The menus were all printed in Swedish, with no pictures, and when we asked for translation, he just shrugged and smiled. Too hungry to care, we all pointed to something multi-syllabic on the list and hoped for the best.
A few lucky ones got variations of Swedish meat dishes, but Zeis ended up with a plain salad as an appetizer and an even larger plain salad as his main course.
- On the same trip we stumbled upon the Dubliner Pub. I knew only two Swedish bands, ABBA and Owe Thornqvist of animated Flintstones fame, who sang ‘Ay-ay-ay Wilma’ on the classic ‘he is Ollie, I am Slim’ episode. But Irish music is universally loved and we spent a great night at the ‘Dub’ with locals, enjoying the Blackfoot Brothers, a lively co-ed band.
Until an over-served Russian lad was the aggressor in a collision with TV’s Darren Dreger. A Cold War staring match ensued with friends on both benches ready to engage if it escalated, but Darren and his new comrade eventually ended the evening with a hug and an out-of-tune duet during the Brothers’ encore.
As host that year, Sundin made sure his teammates were well taken care of, including a getaway day at his cottage on the Baltic Sea,
“It’s just beautiful inside and it maybe has the best deck I’ve ever been on,” then-teammate Tom Fitzgerald said. “There were tables of food everywhere, lots of chicken and salmon. We went from the sauna right off the dock into the Baltic, like you see in (travel ads).”
- My initial visit to Sweden for the 1989 world championships, one of Salming’s last appearances for the Tre Kronor national team, was anything but routine.
The King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf, was at opening ceremonies at the golfball-shaped Globen Arena (now the Avicii, site of the two Leaf games this weekend), which had the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted. The first Swedish reporter I met offered me a tour on his boat through Stockholm’s island archipelago.
But it was the Randy Carlyle performance enhancing drug fiasco that everyone remembered. The anabolic steroid Mesterolone had somehow shown up in Carlyle’s urine sample when he was randomly tested after an 8-2 win over West Germany.
At age 33, near the end of his playing days, the doughy future coach of the Leafs looked nothing like a user of the banned substance.
“When we first heard the words ‘steroids’ and ‘Randy’ in the same sentence, everyone in the room laughed,” Canadian defenceman Dave Ellett told us. “(Coach) John Ferguson Sr. had the best line, ‘if that’s what steroids does for your body, a lot of people will want their money back.”
But after the Ben Johnson scandal at the ’88 Olympics this was another blow to national pride. Carlyle was hidden from the media and presumably on a plane home in disgrace, while his distracted team lost its next game, 6-5 to the host country.
Carlyle’s ‘B’ sample was expected to match the ‘A’ as in previous tests of accused athletes and that morning, myself, Frank Orr of the Star, William Houston of the Globe and Geoff Fraser, of the Canadian Press, were all summoned to Alan Eagleson’s suite at the team hotel at 6 a.m. The international hockey impresario was flanked by Canadian ambassador Dennis Browne and visiting Canadian Supreme Court Justice John Sopinka. Before his fall from power, Eagleson knew how to show he wouldn’t be intimidated in a road game.
“All the right people are in this room to declare war on Sweden,” Orr whispered to me.
Eagleson relayed news that Carlyle’s B sample was – incredibly – negative and from an adjoining room, the exonerated defenceman emerged. Shocked silence followed for a few seconds broken by Orr chirping: “Eagle, the last time a miracle like this happened, three wise men came from the East to see it.”
The only thing Carlyle could recall taking was an anti-inflammatory tablet early in the tourney for a sore shoulder and a Vitamin B injection 18 months earlier. Dieter Montag, of the IIHF medical commission, was at a loss to explain the discrepancy in the testing.
“In my opinion, there was a 1% chance that the ‘A’ test wouldn’t be confirmed. I checked it for hours and hours. I can’t say it was a mistake. But it happens”
Free to speak Carlyle snapped: “I think this whole drug testing thing is horses s**t. No player should have to go through it.”
- It’s ironic that the first time McNamara scouted Salming, playing for his so-called pacifist hockey nation, he was fighting a Canadian. The Barrie Flyers seniors happened to be touring Sweden facing Salming’s Brynas club, when McNamara dropped in to look at other Swedes. Trying to get on the ground floor of the European talent market right after the ’72 Summit Series, McNamara was immediately taken by Salming and Hammarstrom, who combined for seven goals in the rough game.
“I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” said McNamara in an earlier interview, quickly checking off the two names for Toronto’s protected list. “Borje had hit the referee (in an altercation with a Barrie player) with about three minutes to go and had been kicked out.
“I followed him to the room, knocked on the door, handed him my card and said, ‘You play for Maple Leafs?’ He said, ‘Yeah’. Then I said, ‘Inge play for Leafs?’ He said, ‘Yeah, go see Inge. Speak better English.”
McNamara returned in spring with chief scout Bob Davidson to see Salming sparkle at the world championships in Moscow. They also spotted slick Swedish winger Anders Hedberg. McNamara, thinking jackpot, added Hedberg’s name to his list, but thinks Davidson might have scared the latter off by being too brusque during the first interview.
“My biggest mistake was not putting Ulf Nilsson on there, too,” McNamara lamented. “Nilsson wasn’t a great skater, if you remember, and I wasn’t so sure about him.”
A year later, Hedberg and Nilsson made their way to Winnipeg and lit up the WHA, but Salming would be the prize for the Leafs.
“Borje was from northern Sweden and tough as nails,” McNamara said. “I’d go in our room after a game against Philadelphia and his body looked like a pin cushion from all the spears. But he never backed off an inch.”
Hammarstrom averaged 20 goals for four years, but lost favour with owner Harold Ballard for, well, being Swedish.
“I think King Clancy had the line about him going in the corner with six eggs and not breaking any,” McNamara said. “Mr. Ballard repeated that and it cut Inge to the quick. It had a lot to do with him leaving Toronto. He was years ahead of his time. He would have been flying (in a skill-friendly NHL).”
- We can’t forget the friendly Finns, encountered twice as part of the Leafs ’02 tour and again in ‘04 at the World Cup of hockey when Sundin and the Swedes met their old rivals. In visiting the former for an exhibition game against Jokerit, voice of the Leafs Joe Bowen got lost walking around Helsinki and stopped at a watering hole for directions. Spoiler alert: Finns like to drink, too.
“The only person other than the guy behind the bar was a middle-aged woman sitting there quietly with her glass. He’s in the midst of telling me which way to go when, boom!, this lady falls right off her chair and hits the floor hard.
“I’m in absolute shock, but he calmly walks over, picks her up, props her back on the stool and pours her another drink, never skipping a beat while continuing with my directions.
“I figured she was either his best customer – or the owner.”
Helsinki was my first taste of reindeer meat (sans antlers) and the famous Zetor Bar, a parody decor of old-fashioned rural Finland with seats welded onto farm machinery such as a tractor and combine. Wonderful people, but probably the most roughest dance floor I’ve every seen with lots of East Bloc sailors in port.
En route to the Sweden game, I pre-scouted a deserted pub near my hotel, perfect to write my post-game story. Most thought it would be an easy win for the Swedes and I could relax to fully exploit the six-hour deadline back home.
But the Finns pulled off a major upset in tying their ‘big brother’ and keeping them alive in the Cup and sending fans into major celebratory mode. A big garbage can bonfire was started on the subway platform, with a Swedish team sweater tossed in for kindling and around it began a chain dance to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine’ with rude English lyrics about Sundin.
Back at my ‘quiet’ establishment, which many happy fans had invaded, I encountered a fight in progress in one corner and the remnants of a wild wedding reception in the other. The new wife was in tears, comforted by all her bridesmaids, likely from some transgression by the passed-out groom next to her.
I grabbed a seat, opened my laptop and thanked the Norse gods I get assigned such trips.