While coming up with a list of the top 10 best Swedish hockey players of all time was certainly easier than counting down the top 10 Canadian hockey players of all time, it still required some decision making. Though Swedish hockey players had made their way over to the NHL before, it wasn’t until Borje Salming arrived in the 1970s that we started to see Swedish hockey players arrive en masse in the NHL. Since that time there have been an ever increasing number of Swedish hockey stars crossing to match their talent against players from the best hockey nations in the best hockey league in the world. With each passing year more and more Swedish hockey players can be found among the NHL’s elite, and in 2008, superstar Swedish defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European player in the history of the NHL to captain his team to a Stanley Cup. Today stars like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist are among the best at their positions. With an Olympic gold in 2006 in Turin, and as one of the favorites to medal again at this year’s 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver the future looks bright for Swedish hockey. Let’s take a look at the pioneers of this great hockey nation. Here are my picks for the best Swedish hockey players ever:
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10 – Hakan Loob
This diminutive winger made Swedish hockey history when he became the first Swede to record 50 goals in a single season in the NHL, accomplishing the feat as a member of the Calgary Flames in the 1987-88 season. The following season he would rack up 85 points in 79 games, and help the Calgary Flames capture their first and only Stanley Cup. After reaching the pinnacle of professional hockey, he decided to call it a career, going back to his native Sweden to continue his professional hockey career at home. He racked up 429 points in 450 career NHL games, and an additional 501 points in 405 career Swedish Elite League games.
9 – Markus Naslund
Nazzy had a respectable 52 points in 66 games the year he was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Vancouver Canucks for Alex Stojanov, it what was one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. It took Naslund a few years to really hit his stride in Vancouver, but once he found his game and his confidence he quickly rose to superstar status, and for a few years was the most dominant player in the game, taking the Lester B. Pearson award in 2003 after a brilliant 104 point campaign. He is the Canucks’ all time leader in career goals and points, and is an easy choice for a spot on this list.
8 – Pelle Lindbergh
This acrobatic goalie was on his way to NHL superstardom when he was tragically killed in an automobile accident. He played only 3 full seasons with the Flyers, but in the 1984-85 campaign he racked up 40 wins, and captured the Vezina trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender, the first European goalie in league history to do so. One can only wonder what this great keeper would have accomplished had he been able to enjoy a full NHL career.
Number 7 on the list is public enemy number one in Toronto. Daniel Alfredsson, captain of the Ottawa Senators, has slowly improved year after year to become one of the best two way players in the game. In the 2006-07 campaign he put the team on his back, leading them all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. He has been a consistent scoring threat for the Senators, racking up 970 points in 984 career NHL games. His accomplishments aren’t just limited to the NHL though. He has played for the Swedish international team in 12 different tournaments, including the 2006 Olympics where he was an alternate captain on the Swedish team that captured the Olympic gold medal.
6 – Mats Naslund
Yes, there was another Naslund racking up points in the NHL long before Markus came along. Mats Naslund lit up opposing teams for 8 seasons as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, racking up huge point totals, despite his tiny 5’7″ 161 lb frame. He twice broke the 40 goal mark, including in the 1985-86 season when he had 110 points, and helped the club win the Stanley Cup that year. Like so many other Swedish born players who come to North America he decided to return to Sweden while still at the peak of his career. After 4 years back home he returned for one more brief crack at the NHL, signing with the Boston Bruins, but played only 34 games that year before calling it a career.
5 – Kent Nilsson
“The Magic Man” starts off the top half of the list of the top 10 Swedish hockey players of all time with a little style. This crafty Swede truly had magic hands and was one of the most dynamic offensive players the NHL has ever seen. He took a different route to the NHL than most Swedish born players. He joined the NHL’s rival league, the WHA, playing for the Winnipeg Jets for 2 seasons, scoring more than 100 points both years. When the WHA folded he was claimed by the Atlanta Flames, who later became the Calgary Flames. Nilsson lit it up for the Flames, twice getting over 100 points, including an incredible 131 point campaign that still stands as a team record to this day. Nilsson would later go on to stints with the North Stars and Oilers, capturing a Stanley Cup ring in 1987 before returning to Europe.
4 – Borje Salming
This imposing looking Swede was the first true Swedish NHL superstar, and is an icon in his home country. He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1973-74 season and quickly became one of the league’s most dominant offensive defensemen. He played for than 1,100 games during his NHL career, racking up 787 career points. His number 21 is one of a select few jerseys to be retired by this legendary franchise. People reading and wondering why this guy didn’t win any Norris trophies during his Hall of Fame career have to remember that a couple of guys named Orr and Robinson were playing at a pretty high level themselves at this time. Had Salming entered the league in a different era no doubt he would have earned his fair share of individual hardware.
3 – Mats Sundin
It was tough to put Sundin at number 3 on the list of the top 10 best Swedes. This hulking Swedish forward has been a consistently dominant player at both the NHL and International level. As a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs he was the longest serving European captain in NHL history, and though he was unable to lead them to Stanley Cup glory he is the Leaf’s all time leader in both goals and points, impressive achievements considering how long this franchise has been around. Though his brief stint in Vancouver may have tainted his legacy somewhat people should remember that in the prime of his career big Mats was one of the most dominant players in the game. In all Sundin amassed 1,349 points in the NHL before his retirement following the 2008-09 season, and captured an Olympic gold medal as part of the Swedish national team in the 2006 Olympics.
2 – Peter Forsberg
Before there was Alexander the Great there was Peter the Great, and this slick stickhandling Swede is among the most talented players the league has ever seen. Few players in NHL history could dominate with the puck down low like Foppa could when he was in his prime. Not only did he have incredible hands, but he didn’t shy away from the physical side of the game either, smashing opponents to the ice during fierce puck battles. Unfortunately, this physical style of play led to an injury plagued career, which has kept Forsberg from putting up even more incredible numbers. Still, his career stats aren’t anything to sneeze at. He has 885 points and is a whopping +242 in just 706 NHL games. He has been even better in the playoffs, pouring in 171 career playoff points, the most by a Swedish born palyer, in helping Colorado to 2 Stanley Cups. Though a chronic foot problem may have permanently derailed Forsberg’s NHL career, there is no question he is one of the best players of all time, of any nationality.
1 – Nicklas Lidstrom
There is only one logical choice for the number 1 spot on the list of the top 10 best Swedish hockey players of all time. Nicklas Lidstrom is a machine for the Detroit Red Wings, almost never making a mistake while quietly dominating at both ends of the ice. He has helped his Detroit Red Wings win 4 Stanley Cups over his time with the club, including 2008 when he became the first European captain to lead his team to the cup. He has won 6 Norris trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman. Only Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey have won more. He has potted 1,032 career points, the most by a Swedish born defenseman. He has a Conn Smythe, a World Championship gold medal, and an Olympic gold medal. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Nicklas Lidstrom is simply the greatest Swedish hockey player of all time.