NASHVILLE — “I have worn his underwear,” Mattias Ekholm was saying after practice. “They are comfy.”
It used to take big meatballs to be a Swede in the National Hockey League, in the days when Fred Stanfield chugged up and down the wing among the NHL’s Original 12. “The more barbaric, archaic times of hockey,” as Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said Wednesday.
Alas, the era was brief. But it was the great defenceman-turned Swedish underwear magnate Borje Salming who did much of the heavy lifting, paving a path from Sweden to North America that today provides us with a Western Conference Final containing eight Swedes nightly.
Salming is thought of by this next generation of Swedish players as equal parts path setter and underwear king. “A little bit of both,” admitted Ekholm of the famously handsome legendary Toronto Maple Leaf, who both founded and posed in Salming Underwear after leaving the NHL.
“I think of him as a tough, tough hockey player. One of the first ones over here who really set the tone for Swedish guys,” Ekholm said.
Today, we are accustomed to the Henrik Lundqvists, Sedin twins, Henrik Zetterbergs and Erik Karlssons as genuine team leaders of our NHL clubs. But when Terry Crisp played for those Philadelphia Flyers teams of the ‘70s known as the Broad Street Bullies, they took pride in inoculating every visiting Euro with a lethal dose of the Philly Flu, a malady known to strike those players who were afraid to play at the Spectrum the next time around.
“Borje Salming was a hell of a hockey player, but he was targeted by us. So was (Leafs teammate) Inge Hammarstrom,” admitted Crisp. “We thought ‘Swedes? We can hit them. They’ll disappear!’ But we didn’t realize, they had guts, they were damned skilled, and they were strong on their skates.
“We’d find out, you might be the hitter. Or, you might be the hittee.”
Crisp’s Flyers bludgeoned their way to Stanley Cups in ’74 and ’75, the latter club being the last Cup winner with a roster comprised entirely of Canadian-born players.
“We’d say, ‘I’m from Rouyn-Noranda. I’m from Subdury. Them are minin’ towns. Yer not takin’ my job!’” Crisp recalled. “But what really pissed you off was, they were better than you. ‘What’s this?!? You bring a guy over who can play?’”
Today, the mystery of having a European teammate is ancient history, as is that old term, “Chicken Swede.” The Adam Larsson’s, Niklas Kronwalls, Mattias Norstroms and Mattias Ohlunds have long proven the Swedes to be as tough as Canadians.
In fact, in a time when Canadian NHLers are almost exclusively a product of upper middle-class income families, Swedes like Arvidsson are still coming off the potato farm. Or Ekholm, the son of an electrician from tiny Rattvik, a town of 20,000 people that lies three and a half hours west of Stockholm.
The trait that best defines the prototypical Swede today is their ability to adapt. They are the BILLY bookcase of NHL players — they can look good in whichever corner they are placed.
“I would say we are pretty coachable,” said the well-spoken Ekholm. “I feel like, the guys from Sweden are pretty smart and can pick up what’s needed. What the coaches want from them.
“If you have a talent like Filip, well, he’s not going to change his way. He’s just an unbelievable scorer. But look at a guy like Calle Jarnkrok (English translation: Iron Hook). He’s been one of those guys who has seen what’s been asked of him, and he takes on that role. Back in Sweden he was the goal-scorer, the No. 1 centre. Now, he’s taken on a defensive, reliable two-way centreman.”
Ekholm grew up 15 minutes down the lake shore from Forsberg, two Swedish kids out in the hinterlands who fate has put together in Nashville. Silfverberg is one of Ekholm’s closest friends from their days playing for Brynas and the national team.
For this playoff fortnight, the two are not communicating. Meanwhile, in Game 2, Forsberg sent a nice hello to Silfverberg when he impaled him on the end of a healthy spear.
Where did Forsberg get him? Where else?
Right in his Salming underwear.
No doubt, it was not “comfy.”