Shocked and very saddened at the news that Börje Salming has died at the age of 71. The Toronto Maple Leafs shared a statement this hour: it’s here.
(Top image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
The August news of Börje Salming’s ALS diagnosis was devastating, and the update from his family, earlier this month, was dire: the disease has now robbed Salming, 71, of his ability to speak, and he’s having difficulty eating. “His illness is speeding along very fast,” his wife, Pia, told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. This week, the top men’s and women’s hockey leagues in Sweden announced that on the last weekend of November they will be dedicating Game Day #21 to raising money and awareness for Salming’s new ALS Foundation. Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidström is a member of foundation’s board, which you can find here. The ALS Society of Canada is here.
A version of the following post was published in August at TVOntario’s TVO Today.
He was celebrated, in his on-ice heyday, as the best offensive defencemen of his generation not named Bobby Orr. Börje Salming was an efficient defender, too, a shot-blocking, tempo-setting, hard-to-daunt mainstay of the blueline. Majestic is a word that crops up in newspaper accounts dating to his long tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And indeed, in the 1970s, his teammates dubbed him the King of Sweden.
When it comes to marshalling the accolades accorded Salming over the course of his 17-year NHL career, the challenge isn’t in finding a place to begin, it’s in making sure the catalogue encompasses the breadth of his achievement. Salming would, after all, become the first European-born NHLer to play 1,000 games in the league, and the first NHLer born and trained in Europe to be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In late 2016, he was ranked the eighth best player in Leafs’ 100-year history.
None of which, of course, quite quantifies the grace with which he operated under pressure and, in the turbulent NHL of the 1970s, in the face of outright attack. It doesn’t really measure the trailblazing he did, either, for European players in the NHL, as he heralded a new skilled and stylish era for the league, and swept North American hockey into its modern age.
Beyond that legacy, Salming, now 71, remains a beloved Leaf three decades after he last played a game in the blue-and-white. It was in a statement released by the team on August 10 that Salming shared the news that he has been diagnosed with ALS, an incurable progressive disease of the nervous system also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Salming’s diagnosis came after he’d begun experiencing symptoms earlier this year and consulted with doctors at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet.
“In an instant,” the former defenceman writes, “everything changed. I do not know how the days ahead will be, but I understand that there will be challenges greater than anything I have ever faced. I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day. In the meantime, there are treatments available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.”
“Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so.”
As they absorbed the shock of the news, fans, friends, and former teammates united in sympathy and support. “Börje, I am thinking of you in this tough time,” said a latter-day Swedish Hall-of-Fame defenceman, Nicklas Lidström. “Börje is the player I have looked up to my entire career former Toronto captain Mats Sundin told the Stockholm newspaper Sportbladet. “My role model and idol. He has guided me. … I wish him all the strength in the fight against this terrible disease.”
Salming’s hometown, Kiruna, lies far to the north on the Swedish map, in Lapland, 145 kilometres beyond the edge of the Arctic Circle. Built to serve local iron ore mines, it had a population of just over 10,000 in 1951, the year of Salming’s birth. His father worked at the mine, and died there in an accident when Börje was just five.
He and his elder brother Stig might have followed their father’s hardscrabble career path if it hadn’t been for hockey. The Kiruna that they grew up in, as it turns out, turned them into dedicated athletes. Salming has his own theory on how this happened: there was nothing else to do. “It was hard, cold, and dark,” he proposed in Blood, Sweat, and Hockey, the memoir he wrote with Gerhard Karlsson in 1991. “And if you wanted to have fun you had to make it yourself.”
In early outings, on outdoor ice, he was often assigned to tend goal, where he learned not to flinch. “I have never,” he later wrote, “been afraid to throw myself in front of the puck.” If he wasn’t the most talented player on the ice in those early days, he wrote, “my enthusiasm was unmatched.”
“I would have played hockey 24 hours a day if it were possible.”
Salming worked in a mine workshop as a teenager while he and his brother, also a flinty defenceman, played lower-league hockey for the local team. In 1970, to Sweden’s top club, Börje followed his brother south to the city of Gävle to join Brynäs IF, one of Sweden’s best teams.
Two years later, at 22, he was Sweden’s brightest young star, and that fall, he suited up for his country in the two ill-tempered exhibition games that a visiting Team Canada played in Stockholm before moving on to Moscow for the final four games of the iconic Summit Series.
His arrival in Toronto was set into motion later that winter, when (because some things never change) the Leafs were in need of a goaltender. The hunt took Toronto scout Gerry McNamara to Stockholm over Christmas in 1972, where his hopes of assessing the net presence of Sodertalje SK’s Curt Larsson were foiled when Larsson was sidelined by injury.
McNamara made do with a visit to the north to watch an exhibition game between Brynäs and the itinerant OHA senior Barrie Flyers. A left winger named Inge Hammarström scored four goals on the night, with Börje Salming adding one of his own — along with a game misconduct.
“In the midst of one commotion,” Salming confessed in his book, “I threw a tantrum and flattened the referee.”
The official might not have been impressed, but McNamara was. “They ran at him all night,” he later enthused about Salming’s performance. “And he never gave an inch.”
By the spring of ’73, the Leafs had signed Hammarström and Salming.
They arrived on North American ice that fall just as the NHL (along with its rival, the WHA, too) was exploding into a new and particularly violent era. As the perennially unruly Philadelphia Flyers would soon prove definitively demonstrate, intimidation and outright brawling could win you a Stanley Cup. The Leafs’ newcomers were targeted from the start, taunted as “Chicken Swedes” by slow-skating goons and their baying fans in the stands.
“I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming noted after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.”
Salming didn’t back down, and he soon earned a measure of respect that may also meant he was mostly left alone. That didn’t mean he’d hold back in his book. “Measured beside the goings-on in the NHL,” he wrote there, “the hockey we played in Sweden was kid’s stuff. I was certainly no angel in Sweden, but any anger I vented was like shadow boxing compared to the bloody violence of the NHL. Some days it was like a parody of sport.”
“The challenge for me was to play as fairly and well as possible and not to sink to the shameful level of the thugs,” he recalled.
In persisting — and outskating, as much as he could, the goonery — Salming would thrive, becoming the highest-paid player in Leaf history. By the time his career in Toronto ended in 1989, he owned a handful of team records, and stood third in all-time Leaf scoring, behind only superstar centremen Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon.
Twice he was offered the captaincy in Toronto, but he turned it down. “I shied away because of the language and all that stuff,” he said, looking back. “I probably should have done it.”
There were hard times, too. In 1986, the NHL suspended Salming for eight games after he admitted to using cocaine. Later that same season, he was, horrifyingly, cut across the face by an errant skate; 200 stitches were needed to close the wound. Two years later, he was one of several Leafs to feud with a choleric coach, John Brophy.
After playing a final year for the Detroit Red Wings, Salming departed the NHL in 1990, returning to Sweden to play defence for AIK Stockholm in the Swedish Elite League.
Salming’s Leafs, of course, never raised a Stanley Cup. The closest they came was in 1978 when they upset the high-powered New York Islanders to reach the semi-finals.
Roy MacGregor watched and wrote about Salming throughout his career. Writing in 1976, he trusted his perceptive eye to praise the purity of Salming reactions, concluding that while “Orr is easily the purest thinker hockey has produced, Salming may well be the game’s best reflex player. His is not as awesome a hockey talent as Orr’s, but it has its own beauty.”
Voted once to the NHL’s First All-Star Team and five times to its Second, Salming was twice runner-up in the polling for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s outstanding defenceman, falling short of Larry Robinson of the Montreal Canadiens in 1977 and 1980.
Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Throughout his NHL career, Salming remained a stalwart for the Swedish national team.
In 2008, he was voted to the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team of players deemed to have had the most influential sustained international, joining a line-up that also included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, and Wayne Gretzky.
Kitted out in the gold-and-blue livery of the Tre Kronor, Salming might have been playing at his peak when he led Sweden at the 1976 Canada Cup. Going into the early-September game against Canada at Maple Leaf Gardens, Canada’s strategy was all about waylaying and otherwise befuddling Salming.
“He’s too good,” left winger Bob Gainey advised. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”
“It’s nothing new, eh?” Canadian captain Bobby Clarke said, once Canada had finalized a 4-0 win. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”
“Everybody had the same instructions,” added one of Canada’s coaches, Scotty Bowman: “get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway.”
The King of the Belgians hoped that Antwerp’s shell-pocked roads would be repaired in time for the summerside Games of the VII Olympiade. In place of an athlete or a mythological god, the statue at the stadium when the main event launched that July depicted a Belgian infantryman hurling a grenade. In a city that had been under siege in 1914, then occupied by German troops through to the Armistice in 1918, it’s no surprise that the First World War shadowed every aspect of the 1920 Olympics. Canada’s Games got underway earlier, in April, with the first ever hockey tournament in Olympic history. Winning gold a hundred years ago, Canada’s team set a standard for Olympic hockey dominance that would last for three successive Games. After they’d finished up on the ice, the hockey players spent a week touring Belgium’s battlefields.
Wearing the maple leaf that year were the Winnipeg Falcons, who’d earned their place in the Olympics as national senior amateur champions. Rooted in Manitoba’s Icelandic community, the team had been a fixture of Winnipeg’s hockey landscape for more than a decade. In the spring of 1916, the roster had enlisted, almost to a man, with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, going on to serve in the infantry on the Western Front or, as in the case of 1920 team captain and future NHL star forward Frank Fredrickson, to take to the skies with the Royal Flying Corps. Another NHLer-to-be, defenceman Bobby Benson, had been shot in the knee on his previous visit to the Continent, when he was in the fight in northern France.
Having defeated the University of Toronto for the Allan Cup in March, the Falcons kept on going, training east to Saint John, New Brunswick. The weather was fair for their nine-day crossing to Liverpool aboard Canadian Pacific’s S.S. Melita, with Frank Fredrickson the only casualty: he cut his head falling out of his bunk. The team took light training on deck, jogging and calisthenics, and entertained their fellow passengers with “musical entertainments.”
Along with the hosts, the other teams that gathered in Belgium came from France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, the United States, and Sweden. The skilled U.S. squad was Canada’s main challenger; most of the Swedes were bandy players who’d never seen a competitive hockey game before, let alone played in one.
Antwerp’s rink then was the downtown Palais de Glace, demolished in 2016. In 1920, it featured a full and energetic orchestra, with room for an audience of some 1,500, many of them accommodated at rinkside at café tables. “Spectators dined and drank as they watched the various nations play hockey,” wrote W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father, who accompanied the Falcons and reported on the proceedings for several Canadian newspapers. The nets were unconventional — “like a folded gate” — and the rink was narrower than what the Canadians were used to. Still, Hewitt reported, “The Canadians declare the ice in excellent shape.”
The Falcons impressed the locals even when they practiced. After one work-out, curious Belgians surrounded winger Mike Goodman, also an accomplished speedskater, asking to examine his skates in order to understand just how their motors worked.
Olympic hockey that year was seven-aside, no substitutes permitted, and games played out over two 20-minute periods rather than three. Under the tournament’s knock-out format, Canada’s road to gold lasted just three games. Having swamped Czechoslovakia 15-0, they took on the talented Americans next. Soldiers from the local British garrison cheered on the Canadians, while U.S. occupation troops backed their team as the Canadians prevailed, 2-0. Next day, they wrapped up the championship by overwhelming the plucky Swedes, 12-1. Before the game, the Falcons ran a clinic for their opponents, tutoring before they trounced. Still, the lone goal Sweden scored came as something of a shock: Canadian goaltender Wally Byron was so surprised to see a puck pass him that he fell to the ice.
Once they’d finished their sombre battlefield tourism, the Canadians set sail aboard S.S. Grampian. It was mid-May when they docked on the east coast. Fêted in Montreal and Toronto, the Falcons were welcomed home to Winnipeg with a parade and a banquet and gifts of gold watches. “On the ice as on the battlefield,” a proud editorial asserted, “Canada gets what she goes after.”
( A version of this post appeared in Canadian Geographic in April of 2020.)
Earlier that same pandemic, Borje Salming was sharing his inspirational planter-hoisting workout regime from back home in Sweden. That was at the start of April, just before he turned 69. Not long after that, Salming shared the news that he was recovering from a scary bout of presumed COVID-19 symptoms that had sent him to hospital in early March.
Also debuting, in what’s turned out to be a busy season of Salming content: the best poem you’ve ever read about what the flinty Swede meant to those of us who grew up watching the Toronto Maple Leafs of the wayward 1970s. Ken Babstock won a Trillium Book Award for Airstream Land Yacht (2006) and a Griffin Poetry Prize for Methodist Hatchet (2011). His latest collection, from 2014, is On Malice. His “21” appeared in the magnificent April print edition of Toronto’s West End Phoenix, with illustrations by Jacqui Oakley; they feature here with permission.
If you’re not subscribing to the West End Phoenix … what are you doing? Why not? Correct your course, do it now, here. Follow the WE Phoenix @westendphoenix. Ken Babstock is @KBabstock.
Born in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden on this date in 1951, when it was a Sunday, Anders Hedberg made his original North American mark as a right winger playing for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets in the mid-1970s before he and linemate Ulf Nilsson migrated to the NHL’s New York Rangers. Nicknamed the Swedish Express, Hedberg won the Lou Kaplan Trophy as the WHA’s top rookie in 1975. Teamed with Nilsson and Bobby Hull on Winnipeg’s Hot Line, he helped the Jets win a pair of Avco championship trophies.
Deserving of more hoopla than it’s ever received is Hedberg’s record from the winter of 1977 when, at the age of 25, he became the first player in major-league hockey history to score 50 goals in fewer than 50 games. A 23-year-old Maurice Richard, of course, scored 50 in 50 for the Montreal Canadiens in 1945, and Hull did it at age 36 for the Jets during their 1974-75 campaign. Going into Winnipeg’s February 6, 1977, game against the Calgary Cowboys at the Winnipeg Arena, Hedberg had 48 goals. It was Winnipeg’s 49th game of the season, and the 47th that Hedberg had played in. Hedberg, who’d finish the year with 70 goals, scored two that night on Calgary goaltender Gary Bromley — that’s the second one he’s celebrating, above — and another into an empty net, sealing Winnipeg’s 6-4 win. “They’ll see Richard,” the winger said later, “they’ll see Hull in the record books, but they’ll still ask, who’s that Hedberg?”
Another Lou Kaplan Trophy-winner would subsequently surpass Hedberg’s mark, of course: in 1981, aged 20, Wayne Gretzky of the NHL Edmonton Oilers scored his 50th in 39 games.
A version of this review appeared in the December, 2018 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
I tend to talk on the ice. I’m speaking here not of the regular chorus of swearing and middle-aged male complaint that is the usual soundtrack of your typical Friday-morning pick-up hockey game — this has more to do with narrative. As the guys I play with will testify, if I’m not the one who’s going to score a goal, I will probably have something to say about whether the puck rollicked into the top corner or jinked there — or did the goaltender just plain foozle it? It somehow seems of vital importance, out there on the ice, lagging behind the play, to find just the right words for the hockey we’re playing here.
Hockey always did have trouble expressing itself. Part of that has to do, I think, with just how ridiculous an enterprise it remains. Don’t agree? Try to explain its fundamentals aloud, as if to someone who’s never heard of it — the skates and the sticks, the elusive puck, the fact that you’re not supposed to punch an opponent in the head, but go ahead, why not, it’s fine so long as you’re willing to sit for a full five minutes in the penalty box to ponder the assault you’ve committed and had committed on you.
That’s not to say hockey isn’t beautiful, with a power all its own that has to with its speed and surprise and its chaos, and how it distills our childhood and pride and hopes. This is also what makes it so challenging to translate it from ice to page. It may also turn out (as I’ve noted before) that the form by which hockey best expresses itself is … hockey. But that doesn’t mean the sport’s literature isn’t abundant and rewarding, and that it’s fiction can’t articulate the game as its played, gleaning its finer meanings, defining its passions, and unpacking why some of those might be problematic.
You still hear the old echo of a lament that hockey has never really generated a literature the way that other sports have — baseball, for instance. Hockeywise, I can confirm that it’s just no so. It may be that the game has yet to inspire a single towering all-encompassing piece of national prose — an icy Quixote, a Shahnameh containing all the hockey multitudes—but that’s probably a whole other discussion.
Many of the best novels are widely enough celebrated, some of them less so. If I were the one listing necessary hockey novels, I’d volunteer Roy MacGregor’s Last Season (1985) and the sweetly funny Understanding Ken (1998) by Pete McCormack, some Paul Quarrington and a Mark Jarman, a Bill Gaston, a Lynn Coady, a Richard Wagamese. That would be a start, and a rich one in style and story and character; from there I’d carry on.
As for what’s new, here’s what I’ve learned from surveying the spectrum of the season’s newest hockey fiction. Judging by the latest in both end-of-times annals and promising literary fiction, Nova Scotia seems to be at the centre of things. Out in the wider world, the most prolific and (I’m guessing) bestsellingest of hockey novelists would seem to be Swedish. None of them makes too much of an effort to express the game — most of the actual hockey is in the background or the past. Also: while I can’t really speak with any authority of what’s going on in the real world, fiction’s hockey players seem to be having a ton of sex.
Maybe should we start there?
I can’t say for certain when the words brooding and hockey and hunk were first put together in a sentence in novels populated by characters named Bex or maybe Kaija (whose bodies may or may not be made for sin), who catch the eye of and subsequently end up with hockey players called Duke or maybe Dante, colliding with them for several pages at a time in athletic ways that are (if they do say so themselves) so very hot.
How did this happen? I can’t tell you that, either. I know that five years ago when I made a project of reading as many hockey novels as I could, there were already Harlequins with titles like Her Man Advantage on the shelf, but nothing like the proliferation of hockey romances that’s now fevering the genre fiction aisle of your local e-reader.
This fall, I didn’t really know where to start scouting. I’ll tell you where I stopped short. Books I didn’t read include Kristen Echo’s Playoff King (Puck Battle Book 7) and Dumbass Trade: The Jock by Gavin Hardrock. I bypassed Kari Sawyer’s Nightfall— “a story of vampire-themed fantasy romance and ice hockey.” Also: Riley Knight’s The Goalie’s Secret: A Friends-to-Lovers Hockey Romance and Hockey Obsession: An Older Man Younger Woman Romance by Flora Ferrari.
I was browsing Jillian Quinn’s Pucking Parker(Face-Off Legacy Book 1) when I decided to all-in on Kelly Jamieson’s latest.
Jamieson, who hails from Winnipeg, has published a whole roster of novels featuring players from a fictional Chicago NHL team called Aces. These are books called Major Misconduct and Back Check, Slap Shot, Playing Hurt. I read the latest feverish installment, Big Stick, in which we’re introduced to Nick Balachov, hard-working fourth-line winger, gorgeous yet fragile. The book’s title — I don’t think I’m giving anything away here — refers to his penis.
I can’t remember who first makes the comparison — is it Nick or Jodie? The latter, whose surname we never learn, is a plucky single mum who’s a partner in a company manufactures sex toys for women. She and Nick don’t really hit it off at first, but then (spoiler alert) they do. How do we know? Something turns over in Nick’s chest; Jodie’s, meanwhile, fills with a soft warmth. Between them, they soon generate a whole lot more heat, which we know because Jamieson tells us. It — the heat — races through veins, and flares in bellies, where it also pools.
Need, too, is at work, twisting and throbbing; hearts squeeze and bump.
The anatomy lesson soon goes external, and escalates: it’s only a matter of moments before we’re into satiny neck-skin and sliding tongues. The adjectives taut and lush lead to verbs, ache and clench; there are needy noises and wordless cries.
This is just before, obviously, everything gets a whole lot more thermally explicit.
The hockey, by comparison, is relatively inert. It’s what Nick does when he’s not with Jodie. Chicago has a pretty good year, and Nick does solidify his place on the team, but when it’s not warmly exerting itself in bed or on sofas, Jamieson’s story is situated in restaurants as much as in rinks.
That’s not to say that there isn’t dimension to the story. Can I express my surprise here without it clinking with condescension: Jamieson amid all the lustful lurching, it’s actually a fairly layered story that Jamieson has rendered. There’s a sad sub-plot about Nick’s late brother and his concussions, and a bit of backstory to fill in his tough youth in the wilds of Scarborough, Ontario.
That explains some of the strife that Nick and Jamie get into, which they do, though don’t worry, it’s nothing too stressful. During my time among the hockey romances, I kept seeing the phrase repeated in blurbs and synopses, HEA guaranteed. That was new. You may have known that it wasn’t some sort of money-back offer or allergen alert, but I had to look it up to discover that what I was being promised was Happily Ever After. Big Stick doesn’t go so far as to flag it, but that’s the way it goes all the same, cruising along to its pre-ordained ending.
“Why does anyone care about hockey?” If you read Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s popular 2017 novel, that’s the question you might have faced up to — guiltily? — as you paged over to Chapter Five. Backman, who’s Swedish, made his debut with a non-hockey success of a novel called A Man Called Ove (2012) that has sold upwards of 2.8 million copies worldwide.
“Because it tells stories,” was the answer to the question in Beartown, a novel with hockey (and worse) at its core. Us Against You picks up where the previous story ended, offering thisrecap of the terrible heart of the first book: “A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl.”
As it was in the first novel, the game is more than simply a sport or a pastime here: hockey is a lurking, primal force that sustains the people even as it seems to punish them. In this new novel, an existential crisis that threatens not just the future of hockey in the town, but the future of the town itself. It’s all very menacing — if only merely minimally affecting.
The idea that hockey persists against all challenges is one that The Last Hockey Player pursues, too. Self-published by Halifax writer Bretton Loney, this is a novel I came across while I was out traipsing the tropics of hockey romancing. Loney’s brief tale has some of that, though mostly the story motors along on a bit of a Walking-Dead vibe.
The epidemics that devastated North American civilization 18 years earlier led to what’s known as The Crumbling. It’s an almost medieval life the people are living, now, in the little Nova Scotian village of The Barns, all bows-and-arrows and moose-skin cloaks. Sicknesses stalk the land still, along with marauders bent on murder. “The New Times are a nightmare,” is how our sort-of-hero sums it all up, the titular Hockey Player. The good news (I guess) amid all the lethal grimness: mankind may be breathing its last ragged breaths, but hockey — the cockroach of sports! — has survived.
Loney has fun with allusions to the all-but-lost hockey past, and also teasing out just how the hockey gets played on the ice of Sweet Water Pond, gliding on shinbone skates, batting a wooden puck with their hand-carved sticks. Before the big game with the neighbouring village, the home team bleeds out a rabbit to paint the lines on the ice. There’s a little fable about the corruption of this game that brings the people such joy to their everyday present, though this falters and like the novel as whole, it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its premise.
The season’s other Nova Scotia hockey novel is Searching For Terry Punchout, the first by Calgary-based writer Tyler Hellard. It’s an assured debut, wryly funny, and if it doesn’t carve any new, I’m still ready to count it as a quiet triumph.
The Nova Scotia Hellard depicts isn’t quite so dire as Bretton Loney’s plague-ridden version. There is some sex, none of it Nick-and-Jodie vigorous; mostly here it’s played for humorous rather than erotic effect.
It’s 2005 and Adam Macallister has come home, to Pennington, Nova Scotia. He left in a hurry, years ago, to pursue a career in journalism. He was escaping, too, It’s a retreat, sure: the pursuit didn’t really work out, though he has one last chance: Sports Illustrated has (more or less) commissioned him to write a profile of his father, who just happens to have been the NHL’s all-time fightingest fighter, known to all by the nickname he acquired as a young goon, Terry Punchout.
Fearsome as he once was as a fistic Toronto Maple Leaf — think Tiger Williams or Tie Domi, but unrulier — Terry is much reduced, an ancient 58, now, “weak and worn and wizened,” angry at the world, which means at his son, too. Adam arrives home bearing some ire of his own — and so, in quite a different way than it was in Big Stick, the heat is on.
“Beating people up on the ice would become Terry’s calling in life,” Adam writes. He means to dissect that, lay bare the meaning of what his dad was and has become while at the same time jump-starting his career as a journalist. Running into an old high-school buddy, Adam explains the slant he’s hoping to lend his article. It’s going to be, he says, “about how hockey’s violent culture fits into today’s society.” Oh, and also: “about redemption.”
His father, he posits, is “swimming in regret, and it could be that hockey — our national sport, so entwined with our sense of Canadian identity — is to blame.”
The fact that Adam (and, therefore, the novel itself) doesn’t really end up taking on these subjects in any sustained or serious way doesn’t really seem to matter, in the end. It’s a satisfying story all the same, with plenty of incident and smart insight into smalltown sociology.
I would have liked to have read the feature Adam files, finally, to Sports Illustrated. Does he redeem his career? Chart a course for his future? Tyler Hellard makes the decision to wrap up his story without answering all the questions he raises. Hockey does that, too, so this feels like familiar territory. We’ve been here before, as fans and readers, stranded out at mid-ice, somewhere between the apocalypse and HEA.
Searching For Terry Punchout
Invisible Publishing, 208 pp., C$19.95
The Last Hockey Player
Self-published, 128 pp., C$10.40
Us Against You
Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith
Simon & Schuster, 436 pp., C$24.99
Big Stick: An Aces Hockey Novel
Loveswept/Random House Canada (Kindle Edition), 264 pp., C$5.99
“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)
Mercy Rule: Canada opened the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, with three games in three days, beating Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland by a combined score of 85-0. Represented by Toronto’s Granites, Canada featured Harry Watson (he scored 37 goals in six games) and Hooley Smith (playing at left defense rather than more forwardly, as he tended to do, later, in the NHL). The Canadians — spoiler alert — went on to win the gold.
The Swedes — pictured here, above, in the dark sweaters — kept it close, sort of. The weather had been Black-Sea balmy, but a snowstorm briefly blinded the game during the first-period, which ended with Canada ahead by 5-0. In the second, Sweden’s goalkeeper got a warning from the American referee for dropping to his knees. Soon after that, the goalie, Ohlsen, stopped a shot from Canada’s captain, Dunc Munro, with his forehead. The players paused, as you’d hope they would, and Ohlson woke up after three minutes. Watson scored just twice on the secondary Swedish goalie before Ohlson returned near the end of the middle period. Brave man. To honour his pluck, Beattie Ramsey put two quick goals past him.
The Canadians took it easy in the third, reported the correspondent from Toronto’s Daily Star. It was during “a spell of loafing” that Holmkvist, the Swedish captain, almost got his team a goal. It was threat enough that the ever vigilant Ramsey woke up and scored for Canada, goading his teammate Smith to immediately add two more goals.
Next, well — we just couldn’t help ourselves, could we?
Final score: 22-0.
FIRST. The Swedes have long since packed up their golden medals and left Alberta along with the all the rest of the worldly juniors who’ve also headed home unburdened by any gold whatever. For fans across Canada, it was the semi-final loss to the Russians that soured the start of the year, killing our dreams of a home-ice championship not to mention dreams of revenge for last year’s shocking loss. It left us feeling … not … so … all … that … terrible after all. It’s true, isn’t it? Last year at this point the country was reeling after the Russians came back in the third period in Buffalo with a flurry of goals to snatch our gold away and leave us bruised and befuddled and doubting our national gumption. This time, though we may have lost, we did it like heroes (which we love), with all kinds of fight (which is what Ken Dryden was writing about in his latest call-to-arms in The Globe and Mail), knowing that if we’d been granted just a few more minutes, we would have pulled it out. Which we’re okay with, apparently. It didn’t hurt that the Russians won so poorly — all that sliding around on the ice to celebrate goals, the falling down and play-acting to try to draw penalties. If that’s how you’re going to play it, Russia, then that’s as good as a win for us, the way we keep score.
SECOND. After the semi-final, there was a headline in the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta that neatly summed up at least 40 years of rivalry between the two nations: “Russia and Canada Have Left Each Other’s Noses.”
Though maybe not quite. Over at Moscow’s Sport Express last week, they got hold of Russian coach Valeri Bragin as soon as he’d touched down at the airport. Judging by the imperfect automatic browser translation of the paper’s interview, his nose is still pretty full of Canada. Bragin had praise for the Swedes … up to a point. He admired their development program, the unity of their tactical focus. Their best players don’t rush to leave for North American rinks, he was saying, which helps them. In Alberta, they were rested, they were lucky. Coming home (the two teams having shared a flight) — how come so quiet? “It’s strange somehow.”
Enough about Swedes, though. What Bragin really wanted to talk about was Canada and Canadians and how their comeback from 6-1 down had nothing really to do with their own genius, they just accepted the gifts the Russians offered them. The Russian boys lost concentration, that was all. Oh, and the referees malfunctioned. I think that’s what he was saying. Here’s what my browser came up with:
With the score 6-1 referees just stopped working properly.
The cleanest bullet to Kuznetsov — silence. Canadians
stopped to remove, even for dirty beats and provocation.
After the match I was hurt to look at the guys. Sitting
on the ice with lumps, bruises. Well done, that suffered
all this mess.
The coverage next day was all about Canada. That was another thing. If anybody showed the Russian goals on TV, Bragin didn’t see them. “Not surprisingly, the question of refereeing no-one raised.”
It was Canada’s fault, too, that the Russians lost in the final. “The fact is that after the victory over Canada, the guys were devastated. Morally and physically.” The coach could see it, next day at practice, they were exhausted. In the final, the Swedes created no more than three chances to score before the overtime in which, sadly, the Russians made a mistake. If only it had been Canada in the gold-medal game, that would have been better. “Then the finale would have been quite different.”
Throughout their time in Alberta, according to Bragin, the Russians had the strong sense that everything was being done to prevent them from prospering. A grand conspiracy! The referees were in on it, apparently, and the press (of course) and also whoever changed the time of the Russians’ quarter-final against the Czechs from three in the afternoon to seven in the evening — obviously they were doing their best to wear out the winner before their meeting with Canada next day. The Russians also smelled a Canadian rat in their playoff accommodations, which were obviously arranged to keep them cold and far from practice ice. At least I think that’s the kernel of Bragin’s complaint. He added — laughing — that maybe when the Canadians come to next year’s edition of the tournament in the Russian city of Ufa, they’ll be put up two-and-a-half hours away in the village of Neftekamsk, where they can practice on the rink in the park.
THIRD. A post last week (Sincèrement Désolé, January 4) about Montreal’s Ken Reardon having gone to jail, briefly, in 1949 after he whacked a Chicago fan on the head with his stick mentioned a famous photo. It’s this one: