June 17, 1989 — Bloomington, USA
If the signing of Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom can be seen as the start of European participation in the NHL, then the drafting of Mats Sundin first overall in 1989 can be seen as the pinnacle of that participation, the clearest sign yet that Europeans were not just sporadic contributors to the world’s premiere league but now important members of it.
And, in choosing Sundin, the Quebec Nordiques not only made history for being the first team to draft a European first overall, it made a truly excellent decision. Sundin has gone on to do what remarkably few first overall picks have accomplished—play like a hall of famer. Indeed, for every superstar like Mario Lemieux (1984) or Dale Hawerchuk (1981), there have been many players like Doug Wickenheiser (1980), Joe Murphy (1986), and Brian Lawton (1983) who failed terribly to live up to the hype of the top selection.
Sundin has not only surpassed the 500-goal and 1,000-point marks with the Nordiques and, principally, the Toronto Maple Leafs during his lengthy NHL career, his international success is almost without equal. He scored perhaps the greatest goal in IIHF history at the 1991 World Championships to give Sweden a gold medal, and he has won several medals since. Sundin won gold again in 1992, bronze in 1994 and 2001, and silver in 2003 before bringing his superb career to an even greater climax in 2006, captaining Tre Kronor to gold at the Olympics in Turin.
Salming was considered the pioneer, the European who, by surviving the rigours of the NHL in all its various forms, inspired other Europeans to dream of the NHL and Stanley Cup and proved Europeans could play in the NHL. Sundin, too, by establishing himself as one of the best players in the league and maintaining a high standard for so long, gave scouts and general managers around the league the courage to draft other Europeans first overall without fear. And, yes, for every Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) there has been the occasional disappointment (Roman Hamrlik in 1992), but today teams think nothing of using a top selection to draft a European, thanks at least in part to the success of Sweden’s number 13, Mats Sundin.
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.