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Great Defensemen: Lars Erik Sjoberg

There is a great photo of Lars-Erik Sjoberg of the Winnipeg Jets carrying the Avco Cup, the championship of the World Hockey Association. The Jets were a power house in the old WHA. Bobby Hull and imported forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson got all the headlines, but the tiny defenseman they called "Shoe" was every bit as integral to the Jets' success. In fact, Sjoberg was the Jets captain for all three WHA championships.

In the 1970s the NHL learned to respect and love European players thanks largely to the success of pioneer defenseman Borje Salming. The WHA was much welcoming of Europeans, particularly at forward. Lars-Erik Sjoberg was a standout defenseman who never garnered the attention of Salming, but was in no way any less of a pioneer.

Sjoberg was just 5'8" and 175lbs, small for a defenseman of any modern era. But he was very heady, relying on great skating and positioning, as well as smart puck movement to create offense. They called him "The Little General" because he was such a key cog to the Jets dynamic offense. And defensively he was very solid, and caught many by surprise with a compact and clean physical game.

Sjoberg was making headlines before coming to North America in 1974. He was named Swedish Player of the Year (1969). In 1973 he helped Sweden capture the silver medal at the World Championships. They followed that up with a bronze in 1974, with Sjoberg named as Best Defenseman and named to World Championship All-Star Team (1974)

Sjoberg joined the Jets in 1974-75. Instantly he put up strong offensive numbers, especially in the assist column. In just 4 full seasons in the WHA (he missed most of the 1978-79 season with a torn Achilles tendon) he scored just 25 goals but 169 assists for 194 points in 295 games. In 1978 he was named as the top defenseman in the WHA that season. While the Hot Line of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson got all the accolades, it was the nimble and crafty Sjoberg who often heated things up with his brainy game.

A very confident individual, Sjoberg was a great leader, too. In addition to being named as Winnipeg's captain in 1976, he was also named captain of the Swedish national team for the 1976 Canada Cup. Hedberg suggested "Everybody talked about Borje Salming at the '76 Canada Cup, and he was great, but, defensively, Lars-Erik was our best player. You just couldn't beat him because he was such a great skater. He was so quick in the corners and he never made a mistake with the puck. He was our reliable guy back there."

And when Winnipeg joined the National Hockey League in 1979 he became the first non-North American born and raised captain in the NHL history. 

How good was Sjoberg? Ulf Nilsson called him "one of the best defensemen of all time." Anders Hedberg called him "simple but brilliant." And it was said that Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman greatly coveted Sjoberg more than any European player in the WHA.

Sjoberg's NHL story was a short one. He was already 35 years old, and the stripped down Jets had a terrible year, winning just 20 of their 80 games that season. Sjoberg openly talked about how he had no fun that final season, as the lack of winning really wore on him.

Sjoberg retired from the game and became a successful businessman back home in Sweden. He stayed very involved in hockey, serving as a scout for the New York Rangers. In 8 seasons as a scout Sjoberg unearthed the likes of Tomas Sandstrom, Jan Erixon, Kjell Samuelsson, Ulf Dahlen, and Raimo Helminen.

Unfortunately Lars Erik Sjoberg passed away of cancer in 1987. He was just 43 years old.


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