STOCKHOLM – Whatever the Jönsson parents did with Jörgen and Kenny, they seem to have brought them up to be exemplary athletes and men, who listen to their hearts and follow them, whatever that may mean. Funny how the perfect team players turned out to be such strong individuals outside the rink.
Jörgen, the elder of the brothers, returned to Sweden after just one season in the NHL because it was best for the family.
And Kenny, while he did spend a decade in North America, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders, came back home during the NHL’s latest lockout in 2004 and stayed.
Well, he played that season with Rögle Ängelholm in the Swedish second division, while Joe Thornton went to Davos, and Mats Sundin on an All-Star tour, but that wasn’t such a big deal. Some players even took the entire year off, so playing in the second division could have been just a nice way to stay in shape and stay close to home.
But when the NHLers returned to North America, Kenny stayed.
And the Legend of Kenny was born.
Despite being the best defenceman at the 1994 World Juniors, despite being a first-round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite being the captain of the New York Islanders, despite making the NHL All-Rookie team in 1995, and having played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1999, he still topped all the lists for most underrated players in the NHL.
The Islanders made the playoffs just three times, and Jönsson recorded just 19 career postseason games. Just before embarking to the NHL, he won a World Championship bronze medal with Sweden in Milan, and an Olympic gold in Lillehammer, together with his big brother, Jörgen.
But between 1994 and the lockout, Kenny Jönsson was simply an underappreciated NHL player on a bad team, with 686 games and 267 points to his credit.
In the last five years, Jönsson went from being underrated to finally getting his due.
After 11 games with Rögle in 2004-05, he played a full season 2005-06. And what a season. Team Sweden won the Olympic gold medal in Turin and then the historic World Championship in Riga, Latvia, to make it the first time ever, one nation had won both titles in the same year.
For the Jönsson Bros, the Turin Olympic gold was their second.
Kenny was elected the Best Defenceman in the Turin tournament, and voted to the All-Star Team in Riga. He was, at 32, on top of the world, while playing second-division hockey in his hometown in Sweden. That’s when he became just Kenny for the whole country.
But the more than a thousand games in Sweden, the NHL, and the national team left a mark on the tall defenceman. First, a number of concussions, then chronic problems with his back made him miss a number of games over the years, in addition to the usual injuries: broken hands and knee injuries. During the 2009 World Championship, Jönsson told the media about his special fakir carpet he used to keep his back in shape.
But hockey is so deep in Jönsson’s bones, even the DNA, that he can miss a game or two, and return to the lineup as if nothing happened. He can take off a year, he can play five seasons in Swedish second division, and come to the World Championship and get voted to the All-Star Team, like he did in 2009.
But not anymore.
“I just don’t feel the pull anymore. This is when I should kick off my off-season training and I just don’t feel like running and riding a bike. You just can’t do it without the right motivation,” Jönsson told Swedish Aftonbladet.
“I’ve been at home and thought about things, talked with my family, and I came to this conclusion. It feels right. I called my parents to tell them that I was going to retire. That’s when the decision became definite.”
Kenny’s next project: to start a car wash.
“My father’s been in the business for 30 years but he lost his job recently. He always wanted to run his own car wash and now we’ll start one for four cars right here in Ängelholm,” he says.
Four years ago, on a warm late summer night, my phone rang. It was Kenny, returning my call. I was writing a story about his decision to not return to the NHL after the lockout.
“I’m sure I will miss the NHL,” he said. “But then again, I would miss it anyway, even if I had moved back here five years later. Now was a good time. Over the years, my family has made a lot of sacrifices for my career, and now we’re taking it back. We get to spend a lot more time together, and the children get to go through the Swedish school system.”
And that was all that there was to it.
Now he says that he won’t get involved with Rögle – his alma mater that got promoted to the Elitserien in 2008 – next season, in any capacity.
“Not right now. I’ll leave hockey now. I’m not excited about hockey, but that might change in the future,” he says.
And that’s all there is to it now. He’ll be back – when he feels like it.
FOOTNOTE: Vancouver Canucks forward Mats Sundin confirmed his announcement to not participate in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games at his home arena in Vancouver. “There won’t be Olympics for me in Vancouver next year, I’m done with Tre Kronor,” Sundin was quoted in Swedish Expressen on Sunday. “It was the perfect end of a long career with Tre Kronor. It’s time for a new generation to take over.” The 38-year-old had already announced after winning the 2006 Olympics in Turin that the gold-medal game was his last for the Swedish national team. He also said that he would decide about his future in the NHL in the upcoming weeks.