March 16, 2016

Leif Svensson

There was much excitement stirred in the summer of 1978 when the Washington Capitals signed Swedish free agents Rolf Edberg and Leif Svensson. They would become the first European-born and trained players to play for the Capitals.

With the success of Borje Salming in Toronto and Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson in Winnipeg, and the Soviet players internationally, NHL scouts were scouring Europe in hopes of finding the next big thing.

Leif grew up playing hockey with older brother Henry and Owe. Both of them would play high levels in Sweden, but only Leif would make it to the National Hockey League. He credit both of them as well as Mats Waltin, Bosse Berglund and Hakan Eriksson for helping him become a successful player.

Svensson was a big defenseman at six-foot-three and 195 pounds. He was a veteran in the Swedish Elite League with Djurgardens. He had really impressed two years earlier when a travelling Swedish team came to North America to play five exhibition games against teams from the World Hockey Association.

Svensson had often dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.

"I didn't look at it from an economic situation. Since I was a kid I had read about the NHL and then to have a chance to play against these guys is a great honor," he said.

The easy-going Svensson was solid in his first NHL season, scoring two goals and 31 points, though he said it took 25 games before he started feeling comfortable in the NHL.

"I feel like the first 25 games last year were like a hockey school for me, but after that I learned to have more confidence in myself," he said.

Confidence was very much the key. He finished the season as perhaps the Capitals' second most reliable defenseman behind Robert Picard.

A bad shoulder injury derailed his sophomore season in 1979-80, limiting him to just 47 games.

That second season saw another Swede arrive in Washington - Bengt-Ake Gustafsson. "Gus" would go on to become one of the best players in Washington over the course of the next decade. He was also always very complimentary of both Edberg and Svensson for their presence early in his NHL career.

Not that Svensson stuck around much longer. Despite having a five year contract with Washington, Svensson returned to Sweden in the 1980-81 season and tried to continue playing back with Djurgardens, but the shoulder injury never allowed him to return to his same high level of play.

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