swede + sourpuss

Born in Sundsvall in Sweden on a Tuesday of this date in 1948, Inge Hammarstrom turns 72 today. Featured here on the cover of a Maple Leafs program from Febraury of 1974, Hammarstrom was 25 when he and his 22-year-old compatriot, Borje Salming, joined Toronto Maple Leafs for the ’73-74 NHL season. Celebrated in Toronto, where Hammarstrom’s speed and left-wing wile made an early impression on a line with Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe, the Swedes were not so kindly welcomed in other NHL markets. The Leafs went to Philadelphia to play the unruly Flyers two games into the season, losing by two goals to none. “I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming said after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.” Philadelphia winger Bill Flett told the Daily News that he’d chatted with Hammarstrom early on in the first period. “I told him that the first time he touched the puck, I’d break his arm.”

The Swedes showed no signs of intimidation. Hammarstrom finished his rookie season with a respectable 20 goals and 43 points; Salming, for his part, came in third in voting for the Calder Trophy that New York Islanders’ defenceman Denis Potvin won.

The Leafs fell to Boston’s Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that year. When in the fall of the following season they stumbled out of the gate, winning just five of their first 16 games, Leaf president and 70-year-old miserable curmudgeon Harold Ballard announced that the players should be ashamed to walk the streets of Toronto.

Coach Red Kelly wasn’t driving the team hard enough, Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin, and captain Dave Keon was derelict in his duty as Leafs’ leader. (Asked if he thought any of his Leafs were showing captainly qualities, Ballard singled out a winger the team had acquired in the off-season: Bill Flett.) On went Ballard’s rant, and on. “Things are too damned serene around here,” he griped. “That’s the trouble. I think we’re too fat.” No-one on the team was hitting. It was here that he (famously) picked on one of his second-year Swedes: “You could send Hammarstrom into the corner with six eggs in his pocket,” he sneered, “and he wouldn’t break any of them.”

If Ballard was hoping to jolt his team back to the win column, the bluster didn’t immediately do the job: the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them 8-5 next game out, and it took them five more outings before they eked out a victory. The Leafs did find eventually find their way into the playoffs the following spring, lasting two rounds before they were ousted by Philadelphia, the eventual champions.

Hammarstrom almost matched his rookie numbers that year, scoring 21 goals and 41 points. He’d skate for the Leafs in parts of three further seasons before a trade sent him to St. Louis in 1977. He played two seasons with the Blues before returning to finish his career at home in Sweden.