A tough little Icelander is an epithet you’ll see sometimes associated with Cully Wilson, born in Winnipeg on a Sunday of this date in 1892. On that day, or soon after it, his name was actually Karl Wilhons Erlendson, as regards his Icelandicness: at some point in his early childhood, his parents (father Sigurdur Erlendson and Metonia Indrisdsdottir) swapped old names for new. Karl became Carol, which was soon enough repurposed as Cully. Raised on Home Street in Winnipeg’s West End, he never grew beyond 5’8,” on the question of his sizing. As for his toughness, that seems to have been revealed in his earliest days as a hockey player, which started in a serious way in 1909 when, at 17, a joined the Winnipeg Vikings of the city’s Icelandic Hockey League in 1909. Wilson, a winger, made his professional debut when he joined the NHA’s Toronto Blueshirts in 1912. He won a Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1914 and then a second one, in 1917, as a member of the PCHA Seattle Metropolitans. In the NHL, he’d play for the Toronto St. Patricks, Montreal Canadiens, and Hamilton Tigers. After a stint with the Calgary Tigers of the WCHL in the early 1920s, Wilson finished his career with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1926-27. Known also as a (quote) goal getter — he scored 20 in 23 games in his first NHL campaign, 1919-20 — Wilson played a headlong style that earned him (a) many stitches along with (b) links to adjectives like tricky, fast, and peppery as well as (c) a reputation for mercilessness that had contemporary newspapers naming him the [sic] tobasco kid and a bad man of hockey. Cully Wilson died in 1962 at the age of 70.
Winnipeg-born this very week in 1894, Helge Bostrom didn’t arrive in the NHL until late in his hockey career: a bulky defenceman, he’d just turned 36 when he debuted for the Chicago Black Hawks in January of 1930. By then, his resume showed a year-long war-time stint with the Fort Garry Horse, the paperwork for which divulges that his eyes were blue, his complexion fair, and his feet flat (“no disability,” the examining doctor deemed). The teams Bostrom played after he got back to Canada in 1919 were some talented ones. Bostrom was a teammate of Duke Keats’ and Bullet Joe Simpson’s on a 1923 Edmonton Eskimos team that fell to the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals. Later, with Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons, he lined up alongside Frank Boucher and Hugh Lehman. A stout defender, Bostrom also gained a name for himself in those old western leagues for his penalty-shot prowess.
He played parts of four seasons in the NHL, serving as Chicago’s captain for the last of those, 1932-33. Adjectivally, contemporary newspapers have down as rugged and husky, a proponent of bang-up hockey and a past master in the art of interference — though he was also heralded as good-natured and a right smart fellow. Paging back, you’ll also see him referred to as the most stitched player in hockey history. As per Chicago’s Tribune, he accumulated 243 during his career on the ice, 140 of which were administered by Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor at Madison Square Garden, in November of 1931 after Bostrom’s ankle was deeply cut in an accidental encounter with a skate worn by Rangers’ defenceman Earl Seibert. The 142 isn’t a number I can vouch for, personally: I’ve also seen it given as 142, 144, and 187. Anyway, the wound was bad. “He was lucky he didn’t lose his leg,” Black Hawks’ teammate Johnny Gottselig said.
Bostrom played on with a succession of minor-league teams after he left the NHL in 1933, Oklahoma City Warriors, Philadelphia Arrows, Kansas City Greyhounds. He went on to coach the AHA Greyhounds, too, and eventually made it back to Chicago and the NHL: in 1941 Major Frederic McLaughlin hired him to serve as an assistant to head coach Paul Thompson. Helge Bostrom was 83 when he died in January of 1977.
Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.
There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.
“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.
It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.
(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)
“Hockey has been played by nearly every man and boy in Winnipeg this winter,” the local Tribune advised in March of 1893, “and not only by them, but a number of ladies, and nearly every school-girl who can skate — are adepts in the art.”
Matches of every conceivable kind have been played, and some of them very amusing ones.” Military teams figured in all of this, and we know from the paper’s report of a late winter match-up that the officers of the local garrison’s Royal Dragoons prevailed over those skating for the 90thBattalion of Rifles. The hockey then and there was a seven-man game, and the score ended up 5-3 for the cavalry. That the reporter on the scene decided to go all-out on the battle analogies I guess isn’t so surprising. “Fire flew from the eyes of Col. Knight and Capt. Boswell as they faced off in the second half,” he prattled. “Then there was Capt. Evans, bearing the scars of many a hard-won field, dealing destruction at every blow. Lieut. Verner dashed into the thick of every fray like the bolt from a Roman catapult; while Capt. Gardiner wore through it all the haughty air that marks the soldier’s calm disdain of death.” A Lieutenant Lang seems to have been tending the 90th net, and “like the warrior of old, directed the sheaf of deadly shot into his own bosom, that the goal might be saved. And saved it was, except when the puck went between his legs or outside the territory of his spread-out overcoat.”
The soldiers pictured here taking pause are on Winnipeg barracks’ ice, but this isn’t the heroic clash recounted above: the photograph is an earlier one, from 1891. Some of the players could be the same, possibly. It doesn’t look like a formal game, more like a scrimmage — or sorry, properly I guess that should be skirmish.
(Image: Henry Joseph Woodside/Library and Archives Canada/PA-016009)
“The thing about Ulf is that he seldom, if ever, misses a play. The reason we come out of our own end so easily is because Ulf gets himself into position to get the puck and then never gives it away. Anders and I work ourselves into position and he always finds a way to hit us with the pass.
That was Bobby Hull talking, back in 1976, about his Swedish linemates with the Winnipeg Jets, centreman Ulf Nilsson (seen above in 1977) and over on the right wing, Anders Hedberg. It was May of the year and the Jets had just beaten the Houston Aeros by a score of 6-3 to move closer to winning the WHA championship and the Avco World Trophy that went with it. Nilsson had a hat trick in the game and (as the Associated reported) he’d “also glared steadily into the eyes of Aeros’ players, prepared to drop the gloves if necessary.” Jets’ coach Bobby Kromm couldn’t ask for any more. “He played super hockey, offense and defense, scored goals and hit people. What else is there to do?”
Forty years later, the NHL Jets are set to honour Nilsson and his wingers: tomorrow, at a luncheon ahead of the weekend’s Heritage Classic, the trio will be the first players to be ushered into the team’s new Hall of Fame. The Swedes will be there in Winnipeg, but not Hull: as Paul Friesen of The Winnipeg Sun advises, Hull is staying away because — well, “it’s believed he’s upset with media references to his past legal trouble, which involved claims of spousal abuse from his former wives and his daughter.”
Nilsson was 24 when he first arrived in the Manitoban capital in 1974, Hedberg 23. They hailed from Nynäshamn and Örnsköldsvik, respectively. Nilsson had starred for AIK and Hedberg at Djurgårdens IF; both were stalwarts of the Swedish national team.
Was Nilsson maybe the toughest Swede ever to play big-league hockey in North America? Murray Greig says so, in Big Bucks and Blue Pucks (1997), a history of the WHA. Like Borje Salming and Inge Hammarström, who’d crossed to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs a year earlier, Nilsson and Hedberg found themselves … not exactly warmly welcomed the North American game. They were hacked and insulted — “took their initiation lumps,” as Mark Goodman later put it in Weekend Magazine.
It didn’t keep them from scoring. They both scored goals in the first game of the season and with Hull’s assistance, they kept on going. Nilsson finished the regular season with 94 assists and 120 points, while Hedberg (who also took home the league’s rookie-of-the-year trophy) notched 53 goals and 100 points.
Hull had seen enough of what he called “goon hockey” by the fall of the following year that in October of 1975 he staged a one-man wildcat strike, to protest hockey violence. “It’s been buggin’ him for a long time,” Jets GM Rudy Pilous said, “last year as well as this year.”
He was back after sitting out a single game. Did anything change? Hard to say. A few years later, in 1979, Anders Hedberg looked back on the nastiness he and Nilsson suffered when they first got to the WHA. “It’s always a problem when you let in anyone strange,” he told Goodman. “When something is established, you don’t want it to change because there’s no good reason to change it.” It made him think about Jackie Robinson. “Maybe we were a little bit like that when we first went to Canada. Through the press, guys would say, ‘Don’t come and take our jobs.’ But I think it enriches a sport for people from all over the world to play it. I like to think we bring something new to the game.”
Hedberg looked like he belonged in a Viking movie, Goodman said, and he had more speeds than a racing bike. Nilsson resembled “an American high school senior;” he handled the puck “like a Thai stick juggler.” By the time they left Winnipeg, they’d scored 376 goals between them in four seasons.
They jumped to the NHL in 1978. There was talk that they wanted to go to the Leafs, but they ended up as the New York Rangers’ best-paid players. They prospered in Manhattan, even though their production did decline (as yours would, too) without Bobby Hull on the wing.
The NHL wasn’t a whole lot easier on them than the WHA had been. Asked why referees didn’t call more penalties on players who attended the star Swedes with sticks and elbows and unpleasantries, Rangers’ coach Fred Shero thought about it for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “if we went and played in Sweden and Russia, we’d get the same treatment. I imagine the world is the same all over. Nobody likes a foreigner. What can you do? When it comes to foreigners playing here, we got to almost murder them before they call something.”
Ranger goaltender John Davidson sparked a brawl at Madison Square Garden in December of 1979 when he went after the Bruins’ Al Secord, whom he accused of “cheap-shotting Nilsson.”
A subsequent Associated Press report was careful to explain to its domestic readership: “Swedish players, because they prefer a finesse game, often attract rugged play.”
Davidson was happy to elaborate after the game. “They have so many welts on their bodies it looks like they’ve been barbecued,” he said of Nilsson and Hedberg. The AP dispatch went on to include the sentence fragments “several Bruins entered the stands and fought with spectators” and “four fans were issued summonses for disorderly conduct.”
“The two Swedes are considered among the league’s most polished players,” Dave Anderson noted a few days later in The New York Times. “Ulf Nilsson is the Rangers’ leading scorer with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists). Anders Hedberg, the Rangers’ other Swedish import, is second with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists).”
He had a larger point to make about the game with the Bruins, too:
Instead of acknowledging the European style and accepting the imports, NHL machos prefer to continue testing their toughness.
Following the melee, the Garden needed city policemen to disperse 200 spectators who threatened to overturn the bus.
Al Secord justified tripping the 165-pound Nilsson because, he said, the Swedish center had blind-sided him early in the third period, as if the Bruin defenseman had never been blind‐sided before. John Wensink, another Bruin, later called Ulf Nilsson “a little wimp,” but the NHL, even the Bruins, would be better with more little wimps like him.
(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-6669-001neg)