I've said it before and I'll say it again - Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming just might be the most important player in NHL history.
Think about it. Without a tough, talented pioneer to blaze the trail, the European influence on the NHL over the past 40 years would have been significantly stunted. Salming, a warrior and an all star on the ice, was the perfect pioneer.
The NHL has long been blasted for ignoring European talent until the early 1970s, following Salming's arrival and the Soviets brilliant showing at the 1972 Summit Series vs. Team Canada.
As it turns out, that criticism should halted, as NHL teams began showing interest in European players as early as the 1930s.
Salming, who came over with fellow Swede Inge Hammarstrom, wasn't the first European trained player in NHL history. No, that honor goes to Ulf Sterner, another Swede. He was this Swedish prodigy in the early 1960s who dared to challenge the great Sven "Tumba" Johansson as the greatest player in all of Scandinavia at that time. Sterner signed with the New York Rangers for the 1964-65 season, and apprenticed in the minors. He proved to be as good a hockey player as most Canadians, but he completely shied away from the physical game, which was the number one reason why he only appeared in 4 NHL contests.
In discussion with fellow hockey historian Pat Houda, I was surprised to learn that Sterner was not the only European invited to NHL training camps prior to Salming's arrival.
Sterner was definitely at the Rangers training camp in 1964, but I have also seen some reports he was at the Rangers 1963 training camp as well. If Sterner was at the Rangers camp in '63, he was not the only Swede there. Similar stories was written for Folke "Totte" Bengtsson, Sören Blomgren and Jan-Erik Sjöberg.
Meanwhile goaltender Kjell Svensson and Carl-Goran Oberg attended Toronto's camp. All 5 of these players were said to be good enough to at least start the year in the AHL, but all returned to Sweden. The wanted NHL action or nothing at all, as they were not willing to end their amateur status for an AHL tour of duty. The Innsbruck Olympics were only months away.
Of course all of these Swedish players were outdone by Sven "Tumba" Johansson, who attended Boston Bruins camp in 1957. According to European hockey expert Patrick Houda, the Bruins were also interested in Czech stars Jaroslav Drobny and Vladimir Zabrodsky in 1949, while 1930s stars Josef Malecek (Czech), Richard 'Bibi' Torriani (Switzerland) and Gustav Jaenecke (Germany) were sought after back in the depression era.
Some believe there is even the slimmest of possibilities that a Swede named Monte Afzelius played for the Montreal Canadiens around the time of the NHL's formation or perhaps even earlier.
It is not clear how many other European players may have attended NHL training camps prior to Borje Salming's arrival. Houda suggests in 1968 the Detroit Red Wings invited four players directly from overseas. Those players were Swedish star Leif Henriksson and three Yugoslavian imports - Ivo Jan, Ciril Klinar, and Victor Ravnik.
The same year Vic Tisler and Toni Gale, both from Slovenia, were invited to Los Angeles training camp. Tisler, described by Houda as "Yugoslavia's Wayne Gretzky," played so well that he earned himself a contract with Springfield (AHL) where he played in 1968-69.
In 1969 Detroit invited Czech Peter Hejma, Finn Veli-Pekka Ketola and Swede Lennart Svedberg
Finnish star Lasse Oksanen may have also been in Vancouver's training camp in the early 1970s.
All of this is a fancy way of telling you that Ulf Sterner is one of three new profiles here at GreatestHockeyLegends.com. Also joining him are Sergei Priakhin, the first Soviet trained player to be given permission to play in the NHL, and Victor Nechaev, the first Soviet trained player to play in the NHL. All three are answers to great trivia questions.