Swede Ulf Sterner - the first European in the NHL
January 27, 1965 - New York
Ulf Sterner made his international debut at the 1960 Olympics at age 18, and for the next four years was a dominating centre in international competition. He was part of the team that won an historic gold at the 1962 World Championship in Colorado Springs, and a year later led the team to a silver medal. At the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Sterner led all scorers with eleven points in seven games.
A smooth skater, seamless passer, and scorer with enormous offensive talent, he was pursued by the New York Rangers in April 1963 to try the NHL. In those days for a European to make the NHL, was like putting a man on the moon. The center from the Swedish top club Frolunda in Gothenburg was interested, and he came to New York in October ’63 to attend training camp. At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had two Swedes of their own in camp, goalie Kjell Svensson and forward Carl-Goran Oberg. Toronto coach Punch Imlach assigned the two to the minors, but they refused to go. It was the NHL or nothing, so they returned to Sweden. Sterner, meanwhile, signed a five-game tryout with the Rangers, but because this was an Olympic season he worried about these games affecting his amateur status for 1964 in Innsbruck and declined to play for the Rangers that year.
The next year, Sterner came to camp more determined than ever to play in the NHL. He made a great impression at training camp and displayed excellent skill during several exhibition games with the Rangers, and he agreed to start the season with the St. Paul Rangers of the Central League. In two months, Sterner had adjusted, made tremendous strides, and was promoted to the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL. Again, he used his skills to his advantage, centring the team’s top line also featuring Ken Schinkel and Ray Brunel. The only criticism levied against Sterner was his unwillingness to play physically, but as he rightly pointed out, international hockey forbade body checking in the offensive zone, so a 60-minute game with heavy hitting all over the ice was something he simply wasn’t trained for.
Regardless, Sterner played well in Baltimore, and early in the new year he was called up to the Rangers to play in the NHL. He made his NHL debut on January 27, 1965, against the Boston Bruins, becoming the first European-trained player to take part in an NHL game. But Sterner stayed only four games without registering a point before being returned to the minors. The Bruins had played physically against him, and he refused to play a similar style. He was equally reluctant to instigate physical play. After another month in the minors, it was clear to Sterner he wasn’t going to get another chance at Madison Square Garden. He made up his mind to come home at season’s end, but during his career in the AHL he posted very fine statistics—18 goals and 44 points in 52 games.
Sterner continued to play in the Swedish league and internationally for another decade, earning a reputation as one of the finest players of his era. In 1969, the same year as Sterner was named Best Forward at the World Championships, the IIHF adopted the North American rule to allow checking all over the ice, and just four years later Borje Salming made it to the NHL and stayed for 17 years. He, too, was bullied in his first season, but having been trained with full body contact all over the ice made it easier for him to adjust. Nonetheless, Sterner made history in 1965 as the first European-trained player to make it to the NHL, albeit for four games.
About the Top 100 Stories
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.