Last updated on Sunday, 18 May 2008

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100 Top International Hockey Stories of the Century

Three stories a week were published thoughtout the 2007-08 season.
All stories ©

01-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80 81-90  91-100

61 Sweden stages biggest World Championship comeback
Helsinki, Finland
May 7, 2003

There is no major hockey rivalry that is internationally more underrated than the one between Sweden and Finland. It’s parochialism at its best, an uncompromised urge by each nation to defeat its next-door neighbour. Needless to say, a Swedish win means celebration in Stockholm; a Finnish success spells carnival in Helsinki.

And so it was that both countries came to a standstill on May 7, 2003, when the two national teams met in the World Championship quarter-final at Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena. A crowd of 13,441 meant that the arena was sold out beyond capacity. The party hats were on and the partisan Finnish crowd hardly reacted to Mats Sundin’s opening goal for Sweden because before the period was over Teemu Selanne’s two goals and a single from Tomi Kallio made it 3-1 for the home side.

Kimmo Rintanen and Selanne with his second chased Swedish goalie Tommy Salo to the bench as the Finns led 5-1 seven minutes into the middle period. They where on their way to the most emphatic win ever over their arch-rivals. But with backup goalie Mikael Tellqvist between the pipes things started to change for Tre Kronor. Only 80 seconds after the substitution, Jorgen Jonsson made it 5-2, but he and his teammates barely acknowledged the score, realising full well the Finns were very much in control still.

But midway through the game came the momentum titled heavily in Sweden’s favour, and once it swung there was no way back. Peter Forsberg cut the lead to two at 9:27 and Sweden all but silenced the crowd after Jonas Hoglund’s goal made it 5-4 with two and half minutes still left in the period. The Finns could physically regroup during the second intermission, but mentally they had already lost.

Peter Forsberg scored the goal that was the killer. He took the puck in his zone, charged into Finnish territory, went around the net and scored with a wraparound shot, jamming the puck past sprawling defenceman Janne Niinimaa and goalie Pasi Nurminen. That tied the game, 5-5, and it was just a matter of time before the comeback was perfect. With less than five minutes to go in regulation time, Per-Johan Axelsson’s deflection off a Sundin shot went past Nurminen. Sweden had regained the lead.

The shocked Finnish crowd had just witnessed what was both the biggest collapse of their national team and the biggest comeback effort in the history of top-level international hockey. Only by listening to Swedish radio reporter Lasse Granqvist’s hysterical play-by-play could one understand the importance of this game for Sweden and its fans. This truly incredible come-from-behind victory would have been placed higher on this list had the win propelled Tre Kronor to the gold medal. But after easily disposing of the Slovaks in the semi-final by a 4-1 score, Sweden lost to Canada in the final that became yet another unforgettable hockey classic, further up on the Top 100 list.
Mathias Tjarnqvist celebrates Peter Forsberg's classic 5-5-goal in what always will be referred to as the "comeback game".

Europhoto/Pekka Mononen

62 Soviets’ revenge for Lake Placid – 13-1 over Sweden
Gothenburg, Sweden
April 24, 1981

The loss to the American collegians coached by Herb Brooks at the Olympics in Lake Placid in February 1980 was a disaster for Soviet ice hockey and for head coach Viktor Tikhonov. To lose a gold medal is one thing, but to lose the most prestigious prize in sports to ideological rival USA, represented by a group of unknown students, was unforgivable.

Coach Tikhonov was determined that a humiliation like that would never happen again. As there was no World Championship in the 1980 Olympic year, the Soviet team had to wait until the 1981 World Championship in Sweden to avenge the Lake Placid debacle. But already during the European Cup in Innsbruck in August 1980, the Tikhonov-led CSKA Moscow showed that they meant business. In the four-team club championship CSKA destroyed the champions of Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Finland by an aggregate score of 26-2.

But it was the 1981 World Championship that was the bigger goal. The Soviets trashed Finland 7-1, Canada 8-2, Sweden 4-1, and Czechoslovakia 8-3 before the potentially deciding game of the double round robin against Sweden came up on April 24. Those were the days when the championships were decided only by final standings, so if the USSR won this one, the last game against Czechoslovakia would be irrelevant.

The Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg was filled to capacity (13.000) as the home crowed sensed an upset. A win for Tre Kronor could mean the first World Championship gold since 1962. Sweden’s coach, Bengt Olsson, said prior to the game that his team would have a chance if his Swedes didn’t allow an early goal. Things went according to plan. The game was scoreless after the first period. Now, if only Sweden could get the first goal and make the Soviets nervous…They didn’t. Viktor Shalimov got the first one at 1:44 of the second period. Vladimir Krutov scored the second less then two minutes later. Skvortsov, Maltsev, Shepelev and Golikov completed the scoring in the middle 20 minutes,a nd the score was 6-0. Game over.

But this was the year of the “rub-in”. Tikhonov was determined that the name “Lake Placid” would not be uttered anymore. When Thomas Steen finally got Sweden on board in the 13th minute of the last period, the scoreboard read 11-1. Skvortsov and Kapustin managed two more late goals to complete the most lopsided score ever in an all-decisive international championship game. Soviet Union 13, Sweden 1. In Sweden. Mission accomplished. Despite the destruction, Sweden got the silver medal and goaltender Peter Lindmark was selected to the all-star team and named best goaltender of the tournament.

Including this championship, the Soviets went on a four-year unbeaten streak that included 28 games, three World Championship gold medals and the 1984 Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo. Tikhonov and his Soviets could never undo history or change the result from Lake Placid, but at least they could try to minimize the historic relevance of that humiliation.
Soviet players celebrate their shellacking of Swedish goalie Peter Lindmark.

Scanpix/Olle Seijbold

63 Alexander Mogilny becomes the first Soviet NHL-defector
Stockholm, Sweden
May 2, 1989

In the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had just won its 21st World Championship title at Stockholm’s new and beautiful Globen Arena. Coach Viktor Tikhonov was happy. His team had swept through the tournament with nine straight wins, just like the good old days. Tikhonov knew that his rebellious fabulous-five unit of Vyacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov would soon leave for the NHL, but the succession was secured. Two immensely talented 20-year olds--Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov--would be teamed up with 18-year old Pavel Bure to provide Tikhonov more gold medals for years to come. This new troika would be as exciting as anything that Soviet hockey has produced. Mogilny was already part of the 1988 Olympic gold team in Calgary and was named the best junior player in the world following the 1989 World U20 Championship in Anchorage, Alaska. Fedorov established himself as a legitimate star with his six goals in Stockholm. Youngster Bure would join them for the 1990 championship in Switzerland.

Following the traditional end-of-championship banquet on May 1, the Soviet players were awarded two “shopping days” in Stockholm before the team was scheduled to return to Moscow on May 4. When the team gathered outside the hotel to go to the airport on this sunny May morning, there was, however, one player missing – Mogilny.

Two days earlier, Mogilny slipped away from the team’s hotel, assisted by the Soviet team host during the championship, Sergei Fomichev. Mogilny, who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1988, called Don Luce, the Sabres director of scouting, and asked for a meeting, indicating “he had some interest in coming out”. Luce flew immediately to Stockholm with the club’s general manager, Gerry Meehan. They met with Mogilny on May 4 at a secret location, the same day as the Soviet team left the Swedish capital for Moscow.

On Friday, May 5, Mogilny left Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport with the Sabres officials, and seven hours later they landed at JFK Airport in New York. Mogilny had been allowed to enter the United States under a procedure in which aliens are given permission pending a later determination of their status.

This was the first defection by a Soviet hockey player, and it became front page news the world over. That athletes defected from other eastern European countries was nothing unusual. Polish footballers, Czechoslovak ice hockey players, Hungarian boxers, Romanian wrestlers, East German rowers and Bulgarian weight-lifters left their countries illegally with regularity during the 1970s and ‘80. But never a Soviet hockey player.

The reason was simple. Hockey players during the Soviet era were a privileged group, and all of their basic needs were taken care off. But Alexander Mogilny was one of the first players of a new generation of western-oriented Russians who wasn’t satisfied with merely the basics. He knew of the NHL. He knew he was drafted. He realized that he had potential to earn a great deal of money while living a life where he didn’t have to take orders from a hockey coach eleven months of the year.

Only two years after Mogilny’s defection, the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore and players started to leave in greater numbers and of their own free will. Mogilny never played for CCCP again, but he did represent his native land one last time. In a twist of the highest irony, Mogilny returned to Stockholm seven years after his defection to take part in the preparation for the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. The national team he now represented was called Russia, and he once again teamed up with Sergei Fedorov.

Mogilny retired in 2006 after 16 NHL seasons and 990 games in which he collected 1,032 points, but no move he made was greater than that night on May 2, 1989, when he forsake his homeland to play hockey where he wanted, the NHL.
Alexander Mogilny chose number 89 on his Buffalo jersey to commemorate the year of his defection.


64 Moravec’s OT winner cements Czech dominance
Hanover, Germany
May 13, 2001

The Czech Republic won its first IIHF World Championship as a new nation in 1996. This started an era of unprecedented success in Czech hockey history. The 1996 gold medal game against Canada was decided after Martin Prochazka scored the winner with 19 seconds left to play of a 4-2 victory. Two years later, the Dominik Hasek-led Czechs won their first Olympic gold after the Dominator stunned all five Canadian shooters in a shootout in the semi-final and blanked Russia 1-0 in the final.

In 1999, the Czechs needed an overtime goal form Jan Hlavac to win the best-of-two finals against Finland after defeating Canada in a shootout in the semi-finals, but in 2000, they were clearly the better team, defeating their brethren Slovakia, 5-3, in a gripping gold-medal game.

Other hockey nations grew increasingly frustrated not by the losses but the way they were losing. The Czechs relied on a defensive system that was virtually impossible to penetrate, and they were deadly on the counter attack. They played hockey with the same speculative cunning as the Italians played soccer and nothing seemed to change in the 2001 World Championship in Germany.

They easily won their Qualifying Round group and the Czechs were surgical again in the quarter-final against Slovakia, winning 2-0. Viktor Ujcik was the hero of the semi-final against Sweden, scoring both the tying goal (2-2) in the third period as well as getting the decider in the subsequent shootout. And just like in 1999, the Finns were the opponents in the 2001 gold-medal game.

The game began as though the Czechs were finally going to run out of their stifling-defensive luck. Juha Lind gave the Finns a first-period lead and they went up 2-0 after two periods after a Juha Ylönen marker. But the Czechs never panicked. Martin Prochazka, the hero from 1996, got them on the scoreboard early in the third and Jiri Dopita scored the equalizer with six minutes to go.

Knowing that OT had become a Czech specialty, there was no one in the Hanover arena who reasonably believed that the Finns could pull out a victory in extra time. The Finns had an early power-play in the overtime and they had a flurry of chances, but the inevitable happened midway through the 20-minute fourth period. Pavel Patera found David Moravec in the slot, and Moravec’s backhand shot beat goaltender Pasi Nurminen. Sudden death. Over. The Czechs won, 3-2. They became the first – and so far only – team to win three consecutive World Championships since the Soviet Union era in the early 1980s.

Not only had the Czechs won all five gold-medal games in which they participated since 1996, but they had in the process won all five overtime games they had played (three shootouts and two sudden-death goals). The Czechs’ reign ended the next year as they – now as heavy favourites – were defeated 3-1 by an unspectacular Russian team in the 2002 World Championship quarter-final in Sweden.
David Moravec’ OT goal gave the Czech’s third straight WC gold and fifth major title in six years.


65 Igor Larionov openly revolts against coach, system
Moscow, Soviet Union
October 1988

It was still some seven years before the birth of the internet, so the news traveled slowly. But when the translated story finally hit western sports media, it was a shocker of massive proportions. Igor Larionov, the versatile centre on the first unit of the Soviet Union’s national hockey team, had written an open letter to head coach Viktor Tikhonov in the mass circulation magazine, Ogonyok. The Russian word “Ogonyok” means “small fire”, but what Larionov had set off was more like a bomb.

In a 7,000-word letter which ran over three pages, Larionov harshly criticized coach Tikhonov and the Soviet system under which the players laboured, saying things no one had ever dared to say before. “I published the letter to the coach to open the society’s eyes to what really was being done in this system,” Larionov said several years later when asked about his motives. “I wasn’t doing it for myself - I was doing it for the whole team.”

In the spirit of a newly-open media under head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, criticizing a sports authority shouldn’t have been considered such a novelty, even in 1988. But while Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” (openness) had reached many fields of Soviet life after 1985, the national hockey team was still very much Viktor Tikhonov’s domain over which he maintained strict and overwhelming control. The players literally ate, slept, and trained on his orders. The national team, as well as the club team CSKA Moscow (both coached by Tikhonov) practiced ten or eleven months a year, and team members were required to stay at the training camp (“baza”) for most of the time. While Swedish, Finnish, or Canadian players went home after a game or practice, Larionov and his teammates went back to the “baza” alone, without family or friends or a familiar living room in which to relax.

Larionov, 28 at that time, was fed up with this treatment. He wanted the world to know that while Soviet society was loosening its restrictions, the nation’s hockey heroes were treated according to old-style methods. Among Larionov’s criticisms were the endless hours away from home. “It’s a wonder our wives manage to give birth”, he wrote plainly in the letter. Realizing that his best years would soon be past him, Larionov also wanted one last chance to prove himself in the NHL.

Larionov’s open letter had both immediate and far ranging consequences. Tikhonov cut him from the CSKA team that went to North America for the annual NHL-tour and also from the national team that took part in the traditional Izvestia tournament. Defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov took sides with Larionov and left the team — another shocking declaration of independent thought — and as the 1989 World Championship in Stockholm, Sweden was approaching, the once unassailable CCCP team was, unthinkably, in disarray.

The Soviet ice hockey authorities realized that the battle was lost. They promised the “rebels” that they would be free to leave for the NHL if they committed to play one last time for the national team in Stockholm. Larionov and Fetisov agreed to this arrangement, and without so much as losing one single point, they swept the tournament in nine games and won the nation’s 21st world title.

A 5-1-win against host Sweden on May 1, 1989, marked the end of an era. This was the last time Larionov suited up for the Soviet national team as he soon after joined the Vancouver Canucks for the upcoming 1988-89 season and spend the next 14 seasons in the NHL. All the others on the famous “Green Unit” - Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov - also joined NHL clubs.

No one could have stopped the development toward a free and open team concept that mirrored the changes in Soviet society of the day, but it was Igor Larionov’s courageous act that most certainly sped up the process.
Igor Larionov's open letter in the Ogonyok.


66 Trail Smoke Eaters' gold ends hockey's amateur era
Geneva, Switzerland
March 12, 1961

The names might seem familiar, but the era was different and the game even more different from the 21st century we now live in. There was Legace and Tambellini, Martin, Jones, Smith, and Kromm, but their first names are from a time long removed: Mike Legace, Addy Tambellini, Seth Martin, Hal Jones, Harry Smith, and Bobby Kromm (who was also the coach) all played for Canada’s 1961 entry at the World Championships, the Trail Smoke Eaters.

At the time, this tournament was not seen as the end of an era or the final win or a turning point in hockey history, but in retrospect it was all three. During these years, Canada and the Soviets were the two favourites to win the tournament, and the final game between the two often provided the difference between gold and silver. This year was no exception. During the eight-team, seven-game round robin, the two top nations were nearly invincible, but when the Czechs beat the Soviets 6-4 and tied Canada 1-1, they made it a three-team race for gold. Canada finished first and claimed the gold thanks to a 5-1 romp over the Soviets, and although the Smoke Eaters and Czechs were tied with 6-1-0 records, Canada finished first because of a superior goal differential.

Indeed, the final game was dominated by the Canadians. Smith gave the team an early 1-0 lead, and then Jackie McLeod and Jones made it 3-0 after two periods. Yet as the players poured off the bench after the final horn, how could they have known the importance of this moment? The next year, Canada abandoned club representation in international hockey and adopted Father David Bauer’s proposal of a National Team. The Soviets went on to win every tournament for nearly a decade, and then Canada withdrew from competition. The next time Canada won gold was in 1994, some 33 years after the Smoke Eaters returned home to British Columbia to a hero’s welcome. Players from that ’94 team are more familiar to the modern reader: Kariya, Sakic, Shanahan, Arnott, Ranford, Sydor, Ricci. By 1994, there was checking allowed in the offensive zone; overtime and shootouts decided tie games; and, the team was composed almost entirely by players from the NHL—all unthinkable changes in 1961. The Trail Smoke Eaters truly were the last amateur champions, replaced over time, to be sure, but never forgotten.
Canada's gold winning team in 1961.


67 The perfect game against the best team: Czechoslovaks 7-2 Soviets
Helsinki, Finland
April 10, 1974

This is what coaches dream about – the perfect game. A game in which you don’t have to scream and shout, take a timeout, or write a myriad of X’s and O’s on the chalkboard between periods. A game where you simply relax and let the players do their job and just make sure they don’t wake up. This is probably how the Czechoslovak coaches Karel Gut and Jan Starsi felt on April 10, 1974, during the game against their eternal rivals, the world champions Soviet Union, midway through the 41st World Championship in Helsinki, Finland.

It must be remembered that the CCCP team had won every world title between 1963 and 1971. The Czechoslovaks broke the nine-in-a-row with their historic home win in 1972, but the Soviets bounced back emphatically by thrashing every opponent at home Moscow the next year. And, apart from winning ten world titles in eleven years, they also claimed four of the five last Olympic gold medals (1956, 1964, 1968, 1972). Further, in the 1972 Summit Series against Canada, the Soviets proved that they were as good as any team on the planet.

Of course, even the “Big Red Machine” lost the occasional game, but they never lost by a wide margin. Canada’s 5-0 win at the 1955 World Championship was the biggest win so far by any team against the USSR, but the Soviets had entered the international scene only one year earlier (albeit dramatically, winning gold from Canada with a 7-2 victory in the decisive game).

Nobody who witnessed the game at the Helsinki Ice Stadium on that day in 1974 will ever forget what happened. Vaclav Nedomansky got Czechoslovakia ahead in the eighth minute and two late first-period goals by teammates Oldrich Machac and diminutive Vladimir Martinec made it 3-0 at the first intermission. The Soviets were shocked, as was the capacity crowd. But things would just get worse for the team that never knew how it felt to be humiliated.

Ivan Hlinka got the fourth goal midway through the game. Bohuslav Stastny made it 5-0, and when Martinec got his second late in the middle stanza, the Helsinki arena scoreboard told the most incredible story: Tshekkoslovakia – Neuvostoliitto 6-0.

In the second intermission reporters were running around madly in the press centre, calling their offices and asking colleagues to search in books to find when was the last time a Soviet team lost by such a margin. The reply was, “never”. Fans in the arena and millions of TV viewers made a simplistic calculation: a 6-0 game after two periods meant a 9-0 final score! Could this really happen?

No, not quite. Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov’s consolation goals in the third period sandwiched Ivan Hlinka’s second marker for the night, but it still was a rout: 7-2 for Czechoslovakia – the biggest loss ever in the history of the Soviet Union ice hockey in an official game, including World Championships, Olympics, Canada Cups and the Summit Series. The Czechoslovaks had just played the perfect hockey game.

Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak had never before conceded seven goals in one game for the national team (he never did again, either). The Soviet team existed until 1991, but it never experienced a worse loss. But how do coaches Gut and Starsi and the players remember Helsinki 1974? With bitterness. The best game ever played against the most superior team didn’t earn the winners the gold medal.

These were the days when the tournament was a double round-robin affair and final position in simple standings determined the medals. Czechoslovakia lost the second game against the Soviet Union, 3-1. On top of that, they lost one game each to Sweden and Finland and had to settle for a silver medal.

But the 1974 World Championship will forever be remembered for one game when a team played perfect hockey.
Bohuslav Stastny (12) scores the fifth Czech goal.


68 Victoria Cup introduced—NHL clubs to face Euro rivals
Moscow, Russia
May 8, 2007

For 35 years or more it had been talked about, but finally in the fall of 2008 the world will see an NHL club team play European club teams in meaningful competition. It is the first of an annual tournament which will showcase full participation between the NHL and the IIHF. The winner will receive the newly-minted Victoria Cup trophy and one million Swiss francs.

This news was delivered by IIHF President René Fasel and IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner in a press conference on May 8, 2007, during the World Championship in Moscow. The previous day, when the IIHF announced the press conference and stated that the meeting would carry news “of historic significance”, several media worked almost through the night to break the news prior to the formal announcement, such was the anticipation of the historic association between North America and Europe.

The Canadian Press, Canada’s national news agency, did the best job with their sources, and it ran a story that declared confidently that “NHL clubs will meet European teams”. When the press conference started on May 8, the interview room at Moscow’s Khodynka Arena was full with international media, waiting for the story to be confirmed by the IIHF.

The Victoria Cup tournament will feature the club champion of Europe and an NHL challenger in a format that will be announced sometime in January 2008. The host city for the inaugural event has yet to be determined, and there is certain to be comprehensive television coverage throughout Europe and North America. The event promises to showcase the club-vs.-club competition to a global audience on a scale never before achieved.

The establishing of this tournament is the culmination of decades of competition, ambition, and dreams. After the success of the Summit Series in 1972, the Soviets started to send one or two club teams to North America to play a series of exhibition games against NHL teams during the long, professional season. These tours were successful but also created frustration because too often the NHL teams were squeezing the games in to an already packed schedule and were either too lethargic to play or, as a solution, filled their roster with minor-league replacements to rest their stars.

Nonetheless, teams such as Red Army, Dynamo, and CSKA played games from 1975 up to 1990, and since then NHL teams have increasingly held training camps or played exhibition games in Europe each September. In 1997-98, the NHL opened the regular season in Japan to generate interest in the upcoming Olympics featuring NHL players for the first time, and in 2007-08 the first regular season games were played in London, England at the new O2 Arena.

For hockey lovers and dreamers, the Victoria Cup is the start of something historic. Maybe it will help coax NHL expansion to Europe? Maybe it will be the start of a best-of-seven series between the European champions and the Stanley Cup winners? Or, maybe it will be an annual test which brings the best players from European teams together competing against the best form the NHL. No matter what happens, the hockey lovers around the world are the big winners.
Rene Fasel and Horst Lichtner usher in a new era of international hockey.

Jani Rajamaki, Europhoto

69 Andy Murray wins third gold medal, joins the legends
Moscow, Russia
May 13, 2007 -

Here’s an incredible bit of trivia: By winning the 2007 IIHF World Championship, Canada earned its 23rd gold medal, more than any other nation. Canada’s seven Olympic gold medals are also tops (tied with the Soviet Union). But despite Canada’s success from 1920 right up to the present day, only one coach has ever won more than one gold medal - Andy Murray! More incredible, only three other coaches, all Soviets, have ever had more success. The tandem of Arkadi Chernyshev and Anatoli Tarasov won seven World Championship golds between 1963 and 1971 (plus gold at the 1964 and ’68 Olympics); Boris Kulagin won three in the 1970s (with Vsevolod Bobrov as co-coach for two of those wins); and, Viktor Tikhonov won eight gold medals during his illustrious career (1978-92, plus three Olympic gold medals in 1984, ’88, and ’92).

But Murray stands apart from these great men. Under the Soviet system, a coach would train his team for eleven months of the year, preparing exclusively for the Olympics or World Championships year after year. Andy Murray, though, led Canada to gold on three very separate occasions with three completely different rosters—1997, 2003 and 2007.

He was named coach on those occasions first and foremost because he was available (i.e., his NHL team was not in the playoffs), and second because of his abilities and experience. In addition to coaching in the NHL, Murray has coached in Europe and is thoroughly versed in the international game, from the size of the rink to the duties with the media, and everything in between. And herein lies Murray’s “secret formula” - he is great Canadian hockey patriot, with European hockey smarts and shrewdness.

Each time Murray coached Canada, he had perhaps two or three practices before the team’s first game to formulate a style of play, determine line combinations, and select a starting goalie. In short, he coached on the fly. Yet three times he led Canada to gold, giving him the title of most successful coach in Canada’s international hockey history.

When Hockey Canada starts the selection process for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Andy Murray simply must be one of the top candidates. There is definitely no one with a better track record.
The goldsmith with his silverware, Andy Murray.

Europhoto/Jani Rajamaki

70 Swede Ulf Sterner - the first European in the NHL
New York, USA
January 27, 1965 

Ulf Sterner made his international debut at the 1960 Olympics at age 18, and for the next four years was a dominating centre in international competition. He was part of the team that won an historic gold at the 1962 World Championship in Colorado Springs, and a year later led the team to a silver medal. At the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Sterner led all scorers with eleven points in seven games.

A smooth skater, seamless passer, and scorer with enormous offensive talent, he was pursued by the New York Rangers in April 1963 to try the NHL. In those days for a European to make the NHL, was like putting a man on the moon. The center from the Swedish top club Frolunda in Gothenburg was interested, and he came to New York in October ’63 to attend training camp. At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had two Swedes of their own in camp, goalie Kjell Svensson and forward Carl-Goran Oberg. Toronto coach Punch Imlach assigned the two to the minors, but they refused to go. It was the NHL or nothing, so they returned to Sweden. Sterner, meanwhile, signed a five-game tryout with the Rangers, but because this was an Olympic season he worried about these games affecting his amateur status for 1964 in Innsbruck and declined to play for the Rangers that year.

The next year, Sterner came to camp more determined than ever to play in the NHL. He made a great impression at training camp and displayed excellent skill during several exhibition games with the Rangers, and he agreed to start the season with the St. Paul Rangers of the Central League. In two months, Sterner had adjusted, made tremendous strides, and was promoted to the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL. Again, he used his skills to his advantage, centring the team’s top line also featuring Ken Schinkel and Ray Brunel. The only criticism levied against Sterner was his unwillingness to play physically, but as he rightly pointed out, international hockey forbade body checking in the offensive zone, so a 60-minute game with heavy hitting all over the ice was something he simply wasn’t trained for.

Regardless, Sterner played well in Baltimore, and early in the new year he was called up to the Rangers to play in the NHL. He made his NHL debut on January 27, 1965, against the Boston Bruins, becoming the first European-trained player to take part in an NHL game. But Sterner stayed only four games without registering a point before being returned to the minors. The Bruins had played physically against him, and he refused to play a similar style. He was equally reluctant to instigate physical play. After another month in the minors, it was clear to Sterner he wasn’t going to get another chance at Madison Square Garden. He made up his mind to come home at season’s end, but during his career in the AHL he posted very fine statistics—18 goals and 44 points in 52 games.

Sterner continued to play in the Swedish league and internationally for another decade, earning a reputation as one of the finest players of his era. In 1969, the same year as Sterner was named Best Forward at the World Championships, the IIHF adopted the North American rule to allow checking all over the ice, and just four years later Borje Salming made it to the NHL and stayed for 17 years. He, too, was bullied in his first season, but having been trained with full body contact all over the ice made it easier for him to adjust. Nonetheless, Sterner made history in 1965 as the first European-trained player to make it to the NHL, albeit for four games.
Ulf Sterner - the European pioneer in the NHL.

Hockey Hall of Fame


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