Friday, May 11, 2012
Part of the first ground breaking group of European players to compete in North America, Ulf Nilsson, born on this date in 1950, first began his career with AIK in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1967-68 season. He would play seven seasons with AIK through the 1973-74 season. During that period of time Nilsson would make his international debut for Sweden, first at the 1972 Izvestia Cup in Moscow and later the 1973 World Championships, where he impressed with 5 goals and 8 points in 10 games and his way to a silver medal.
After his final season with AIK, he again participated in the 1974 World Championships, this time earning a bronze.
Elsewhere in the world of hockey, big changes were happening. The 12 team NHL had grown to 14 in 1970 and then the World Hockey Association came into being, competing directly with the NHL with 12 teams of their own, all looking to stock their rosters with talent.
The war between the established, if not staid, National Hockey League and the upstart WHA was fully engaged when the WHA, looking to make a splash, did so in 1972 by singing Chicago Black Hawks star Bobby Hull for $1 million to play for the Winnipeg Jets, an astronomical amount in those days.
For the 1974-75 season, the WHA added two more clubs, while the NHL felt compelled to expand with two additional teams of their own in an attempt to occupy markets deemed strategically attractive to the WHA. The net result was professional hockey in North America expanding from a mere 12 teams in 1969-70 to 32 in a mere five years, a more than 250% increase, creating the need for roughly 400 more players!
While many, many career minor leaguers got opportunities to get off the buses and fly on the airplanes of the major leagues, others were more daring and creative in their methods of stocking their rosters, such as looking to American colleges for players.
As the expansion of both leagues continued, teams now began to look beyond the borders of North America for really the first time. There had been the odd cases of players born in Europe who migrated to Canada in their youth, and even some Europeans who had brief stays in the NHL, Europeans were generally regarded as inferior players who were not tough enough to survive in the NHL.
That stereotype began to fade in 1973 with the arrival in Toronto of left wing Inge Hammarstrom and even more so defenseman Borje Salming, who would go on to play 17 seasons in the NHL. Hammarstrom would play in six NHL seasons and score a high of 24 goals and 43 points, but did not set the world on fire.
With Europe becoming a new source for talent, the idea was embraced by the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA, who signed both Nilsson and fellow Swede Anders Hedberg for the 1974-75 season. Teamed with star Bobby Hull, their impact was immediate and the result was simply the most dynamic line in the history of the WHA.
The trio would light up scoreboards all over the league, with each player reaching 100 points. Hull would finish second in WHA scoring with an electrifying 142 points, which included a league leading 77 goals, while Nilsson would finish fourth (26 G, 94 A, 120 P) while Hedberg was seventh with 100 points, ahead of the likes of established veterans Gordie Howe and defending scoring champion Mike Walton.
For the 1975-76 season, Hull, Nilsson and Hedberg would finish an identical 2nd, 4th and 7th with Nilsson raising his goal total up to 38. Once in the post season, the Jets were an unstoppable force, sweeping the Edmonton Oilers before taking down the Calgary Cowboys 4 games to 1 before crushing the Houston Aeros in a four game sweep, giving the Jets the Avco World Trophy thanks to a 12-1 playoff record, as the line combined for 32 goals and 65 points in 13 games with Nilsson begin named as the Playoff MVP .
A rare shot of Nilsson without Hedberg
Nilsson was again chosen as a member of the Swedish National Team, this time for the inaugural Canada Cup in the fall of 1976, scoring 2 points in 5 games.
Hull would miss extended time in 1976-77 with an injury, but Nilsson and Hedberg would not be derailed, as they would finish second and third in scoring, with Hedberg leading Nilsson 131 to 124. Hull would return in time for the playoffs, and the Jets would advance all the way to the finals, but fall short in a seventh game in their attempt to defend their championship.
It was Nilsson's turn to lead the trio in scoring for 1977-78 when he set a career high with 126 points, thanks to a league leading 89 assists and he, Hedberg and Hull finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in league scoring. By then the WHA was shrinking in size, and the Jets only required two playoff rounds to knock out the Birmingham Bulls 4 games to 1 before sweeping the New England Whalers in 4 straight games to once again become the champions of the WHA.
With their contracts having expired and the WHA on the ropes, down to just seven teams from 14 three seasons earlier, Hedberg and Nilsson signed with the New York Rangers of the considerably more stable NHL for the 1978-79 season.
Nilsson would never reach the scoring heights he achieved with Winnipeg, as he was hit with a series of injuries, particularly one caused by a hit from the New York Islanders Denis Povtin, which became the source of the "Potvin sucks!" chants which continue in Manhattan to this day.
Nilsson was limited him to no more than 59 games during his four seasons with the Rangers, but when healthy, he did average more than a point per game in his first two seasons, scoring 66 points in 59 games in 1978-79 and 58 points in the 50 games he played in 1979-80.
He also was a member of the NHL All-Star Team in the 1979 Challenge Cup against the Soviet National Team, played in the Rangers home of Madison Square Garden in place of the traditional NHL All-Star Game.
His offense began to decline in 1980-81 with 39 points in 51 game, but he had a fine postseason, scoring 8 goals and 16 points in 14 games.
While his obligations to the Jets and Rangers during the spring playoff season prevented him from ever taking part in the World Championships after coming to play in North America, Nilsson was able to get one final chance to play for Sweden in the 1981 Canada Cup, held in the fall prior to the start of the NHL season, where he scored 3 points in 4 games in his final international appearance.
That would unfortunately be the final highlight of his career, as the subsequent 1981-82 season consisted of just a pair of games with the Springfield Indians of the AHL due to his injury situation and his 1982-93 season saw his career wind down with 3 games with the CHL's Tulsa Oilers and a final 10 games with the Rangers, which showed one final flash of his abilities with 6 points.
Nilsson would finish his career in North America with a combined 470 games played, 197 goals and 456 assists for 655 points, most of which came during his electrifying and unforgettable run in Winnipeg, which paved the way for the large influx of Europeans to follow.
Todays featured jersey is a 1981 Sweden National Team Ulf Nilsson jersey as worn during the 1981 Canada Cup tournament during the time period where Sweden temporarily lost it's way and stopped using the timeless "The Kronor" (Three Crowns) cresting in favor of a graphic which looked far too much like a paid sponsorship logo.
The rest of the jersey is pure Sweden however, with it's home "white" yellow color and blue trim. The somewhat busy numbers on the back are typical of the period, with the numbers being not only three color (blue, yellow, blue), but then given a three dimensional effect as well!
In today's video section, Nilsson scores for the Jets against the Houston Aeros in the WHA, much to the disgust of the Aeros goaltender John Grahame! Funny how he was upset about a player in the crease, when he was out between the faceoff dots!
Here is Nilsson being hit by Potvin, an injury which would be the beginning of the end of his career.