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NHL After European Stars As Early As 1930s

Josef Malecek
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming may have been the first European to excel in the National Hockey League, battling 1970s goons with class and bravery, and in doing so set off a European invasion that forever transformed the sport.

But there is a misunderstanding that the NHL was not interested in European players prior to 1972. In fact, NHL teams were intrigued by European stars as early as the 1930s.

A notable headliner was 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.

Some reports suggest Sterner 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 were 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 (though he defected to West Germany), Finn Veli-Pekka Ketola and Swede Lennart Svedberg. In 1972 they invited, and signed, Thommie Bergman. That was one season prior to Salming's arrival.

Finnish star Lasse Oksanen may have also been in Vancouver's training camp in the early 1970s.

Comments

@OnsideWithJouni said…
Finnish forward Veli-Pekka Ketola and Swedish Defenceman Lennart Svedberg were invited and attended Detroit Red Wings training camp in the fall of 1969.

There are pictures of young Ketola with Carl Brewer and Gordie Gowe at camp.

Lasse Oksanen did indeed attend Vancouver Canucks training camp in 1970. Oksanen played well in exhibition games and was the first Finland-trained player to be offered a contract. He declined and returned to Finland to run his gas station business and play hockey. NHL didnt pay that much back then.

Have heard that Lasse had some help at Canucks camp from Wayne Mäki, who spoke Finnish.

Toronto Maple Leafs had forwards Lauri Mononen and Juhani Tamminen as well as goaltender Jorma Valtonen attend their camp in 1972, same time as the Summit Series.

Years later, while working as a goaltending coach for Jaroslav Lokomotiv in the KHL, Valtonen was asked to stay home to train the clubs youngsters while the team took their flight to Minsk for their season opener.

His name appeared at first on the list of the deceased but he was still in Jaroslav.

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