MoDo Hockey and the NHL Draft: A Proud Tradition Continues

By pbadmin

In English, the name Örnsköldsvik means “Eagle Shield’s Bay.” To hockey fans, it means something else; the home of MoDo Hockey’s now-legendary junior development program. To date, MoDo Hockey has had 28 of their players selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Among Swedish clubs, only Färjestad BK (29) has had more.

The MoDo draft legacy began in 1976, when the NHL draft did not draw nearly as much attention as it does today, especially not in Europe. While European players in the NHL were still relatively few in number, however, the trend was starting to grow by 1976. Following the success of Börje Salming (and to a lesser extent, Inge Hammarström), NHL teams had begun to look more seriously to Sweden as a talent source for the league. This was a radical departure from the days when even the weakest NHL teams gave no consideration to trying to sign top Swedish stars like Sven “Tumba” Johansson and Leif “Honken” Holmqvist. The NHL success of Salming and the strength of the Soviet hockey machine forced NHL teams to sit up and take notice. There were 5 Swedes chosen in the 1976 NHL draft, including Björn Johansson, who became the first European to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft. 1976 was also the year that MoDo had their first player chosen, when Thomas Gradin became the third pick (45th overall) of the Vancouver Canucks. Gradin went on to become a scoring star for Vancouver, making a lot of NHL teams kick themselves for having been beaten to the punch by the Canucks. Today, Gradin heads the Canucks European scouting department.

Another MoDo player who was an early Swedish star in North American pro hockey was right winger Anders Hedberg. Hedberg was never taken in the NHL draft. Instead, he joined the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA. Hedberg and his linemate Ulf Nilsson quickly became two of the biggest stars in the WHA. The two players were signed as free agents by the New York Rangers in 1978-79 and both made immediate impacts on the club. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Finals that season (although Nilsson was injured in the playoffs and Hedberg did not come on until the Finals). The success of Hedberg and Nilsson was another important step in the road to helping European players gain respect in the NHL. Hedberg proved himself to be a fine NHL player, although not quite as dominant as he had been in the WHA. After his playing career ended, he went on to a career in NHL scouting and management. Hedberg reached another milestone when he was named associate general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer; the first European to attain a position that high in an NHL front office.

1978-1979 was a very important year for MoDo as pertains to the NHL. Hedberg joined the Rangers and scored 30 goals. Gradin was a rookie for the Canucks and scored 20 regular season goals plus 4 more in just 3 playoff games. After the season ended, MoDo had another player taken in the 1979 NHL entry draft. Tomas Jonsson was chosen in the second round by the New York Islanders. After a solid 8 year NHL career, which included two Stanley Cups with the Islanders, Jonsson returned to Sweden and starred for Leksand IF and Tre Kronor.

Although MoDo had 3 more players chosen in the entry draft between 1980 and 1990 and prominent alumni such as Anders Kallur and Lars Molin were fine NHL players, the second “golden age” for MoDo players in the NHL did not truly begin until the day of the 1991 draft. The day began with controversy and confusion. The first overall pick of the 1991 draft, Eric Lindros, refused to put on a Quebec Nordiques jersey. He subsequently refused to negotiate a contract with the Nordiques and demanded to be traded to another team.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers had the sixth pick in the first round. Before the draft, MoDo center Peter Forsberg was rated as the 18th best prospect by the Central Scouting Bureau. Most experts expected him to be chosen late in the first round or perhaps even in the second round. Three people at the Flyers draft table had something else in mind. Flyers scouts Inge Hammarström and Bill Dineen urged general manager Russ Farwell to select Forsberg with the 6th overall selection. The rest of the Flyers scouts reportedly wanted defenseman Richard Matvichuk. The Forsberg contingent finally convinced Farwell to go with their man and the Flyers selected “Foppa” with their first round pick.

The immediate reaction was one of shock. Many thought that the Flyers had botched the pick and should have taken either Matvichuk or Patrick Poulin instead. The criticism of the selection was heavy in the Philadelphia media the next day. All that Farwell said in reply was that time would prove that the Flyers were right. Soon, Forsberg was considered the best player in the world outside the NHL. Within a year, nobody questioned the wisdom of the pick anymore. However Forsberg was not destined to join the first NHL team that believed in him. He was traded to Quebec as part of the deal that brought Eric Lindros to Philadelphia. Today, there is a never-ending debate raging as to whether Forsberg or Lindros is the better player.

Forsberg’s MoDo and WJC linemate, Markus Näslund, was also taken in the first round of the 1991 draft. At the time, many considered Näslund the superior prospect to Forsberg. Näslund went to the Flyers’ cross-state rivals as the Pittsburgh Penguins made him the 16th overall selection. Unfortunately, much of Näslund’s NHL early career was a disappointment and he gained the reputation as an underachiever. But a strange happened this season. Näslund the underachiever became Näslund the All-Star. His play was one of the team’s few bright spots for the Canucks in an otherwise awful season. As his self-confidence grew, so did his ice time and his goal total.

Forsberg and Näslund began a wave of MoDo draft selections in the 1990s. Mattias Timander and Magnus Wernblom were taken on consecutive picks late in the 1992 draft. Timander went at #207 to the Bruins. Wernblom went at #208 to the Los Angeles Kings. While Wernblom has never played a game in the NHL, he has become a valuable player for MoDo. There is a chance that he may yet draw some interest from an NHL team; some think he could play a similar role to the one Tomas Holmström plays in Detroit. Timander had a strong rookie year for the Bruins. Since then he has had more downs than ups in his career and has had trouble holding a roster spot in the NHL. However, he returned to the Bruins from the minor leagues to play well late in the 1998-99 season.

The 1993 NHL draft saw a bonanza of selections made from MoDo Hockey. Five players were taken, as NHL scouts were now regular visitors to watch the players developing in MoDo’s “plantskola” (“nursery,” in English). The most notable of the 1993 picks were Niklas Sundström and Anders Eriksson, both of whom were first selections. Sundström went 8th overall to the Rangers and Anders Eriksson was taken 22nd by Detroit . Today, Sundström is one of best young two-way forwards in hockey, although he had a down year in 1998-99 and was recently dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Eriksson became the fourth MoDo player (after Jonsson, Kallur and Forsberg) to play for a Stanley Cup champion. He became a regular starting defenseman during 1997-98 when the Red Wings won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Traded to the Blackhawks for Chris Chelios late this season, Eriksson is now one of the key players in Chicago’s rebuilding efforts. The other players chosen were defensemen Per Svartvadet (Dallas, #139) and fomer MoDo defensemen Hans Jonsson (Pittsburgh, #286) and Jonas Andersson-Junkka (Pittsburgh, #114). Andersson-Junkka played for HPK in the SM-Liiga this season. Jonsson recently signed a contract with the Penguins, although he is likely to at least start out with their new AHL affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes Barre.

Six more MoDo players were selected between 1993 and 1998, although none have made it to the NHL as of yet. They are: Per-Anton Lundström (Phoenix, 1996, #62) Samuel Påhlsson (Colorado, 1996, #176) , Anders Söderberg (Boston, 1996, #234), Niklas Nordgren (Carolina, 1997, #195), Mattias Karlin (Boston, 1997, #54), and Pär Styf (Philadelphia, 1997, #240). Several of these players, with Påhlsson arguably being the most notable, are still considered prospects. Styf, who signed with Timrå for the 1999-2000 season, is currently attending the Flyers annual summer prospect camp. Although he has outstanding raw skills, injuries and inconsistency have repeatedly held back Styf (formerly known as Pär Jönsson before changing his name).

That brings us to the 1999 draft. It seemed like every time you turned around on draft day, there was another MoDo-related name being mentioned in one context or another. Apart from the staggering seven MoDo players that were selected on draft day, there were names of MoDo alumni popping up in all sorts of prominent places as the early part of the draft unfolded. The biggest news, of course, centered around the Vancouver Canucks maneuvering to get themselves into the second and third positions in the draft in order to draft the much-ballyhooed twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin of MoDo Hockey. Someday, the twins may be put on a line with Näslund, forming an all-MoDo line. Vancouver’s European scouting director, Gradin, was an instrumental behind-the-scenes force in convincing General Manager Brian Burke to make the rather risky trade that would enable the Canucks to draft the Sedins together.

The New York Rangers then jumped into the fray by maneuvering to get the fourth overall pick of the draft in order to pick Pavel Brendl, a potential big time sniper. Going to Tampa Bay as part of the deal was MoDo alum Sundström.

Meanwhile, in all the jockeying of positioning atop the draft, The Chicago Blackhawks acquired defenseman Bryan McCabe from Vancouver. McCabe will now be added to an increasingly promising blueline nucleus, which includes ex-Oiler Boris Mironov and Ex-Red Wing Eriksson (incidentally, one of the TV announcers pulled a major brain cramp when he forgot that Chris Chelios is no longer a Chicago Blackhawk).

As the draft progressed, MoDo players Frantisek Kaberle, the brother of the Maple Leafs’ Tomas, went to the Kings in the 3rd round (#76 overall), Daniel Johansson was taken by the Kings in the 4th round (#125), Mattias Wennerberg was chosen by the Blackhawks in the 7th round (#194), Pierre Hedin went #239 overall in the 8th round to Toronto (where Hedberg heads the draft), and, finally, Petter Henning was a 9th round pick of the New York Rangers(#251). Additionally, well-regarded Mattias Weinhandl was a third round pick of the Islanders (#78). Weinhandl was with IF Troja/Ljunby in Division One hockey last season, but will join MoDo for the 1999-2000 season. MoDo defenseman Henrik Melinder, expected at midseason to be chosen at some point in the ’99 draft, was the team’s lone immediate draft hopeful who went unselected this year. On the other hand, Henning’s selection was something of a surprise.

The parade of MoDo selections will likely continue next year, kicking off with center Martin Samuelsson, a likely first or second overall pick in the 2000 draft. As hockey prepares for the 21st Century, there figure to be a slew of MoDo alumni playing in the NHL within the first few years of the new milenium.