Monday, July 4, 2011

Heroes of '86: Trailblazer

It is approximately 5825 kilometres from Montreal to Höllviken, Sweden. The multicultural Canadian city and the small, Swedish beachside town have little in common, save that they've both been home to hockey hero Mats Naslund.

For fans of the '80s Habs, it's hard to believe Naslund left Sweden for Canada nearly thirty years ago. He arrived at the Montreal Canadiens' training camp in the fall of 1982, three years after becoming the first European player drafted by the Habs. He went in the second round, 37th overall. Unlike future teammate, Guy Carbonneau who was chosen seven picks later, Naslund wasn't exactly comfortable with the news he'd be going to Montreal.

"Well, there was not too many players from Europe drafted at that time, so I guess, first of all, you wanted to get drafted by a team that had other Swedish players like the Islanders," he recalls with amusement. "I was the first Swedish guy and the first European to get drafted by Montreal, so that was kind of a big thing. The language was another big thing. Learning the French language, I never did. I had enough with English the first couple of years. Sometimes I felt a little stupid, but otherwise I could understand everybody."

By the time Naslund made his way from Sweden to Montreal he had a wife and baby. The adjustment to a new country, language and hockey league was huge, but made a lot easier by the intervention of the Canadiens captain.

"Bob Gainey, the captain, took care of me from the start. I owe him a lot for helping me adapt to North America," he acknowledges. "He took care of me and he took care of my family when they got there. First, when I got to training camp, I stayed at his house with his family. Then, when I made the team, he looked at ads in the papers for an apartment, and he helped me with that, and getting a car. He pretty much took care of me the first year. I don't think he was assigned by the team. He would have done that anyway, even if he wasn't the captain. He's just that kind of guy."

Naslund says he learned something about how to behave off the ice from Gainey's actions. He thinks successful teams must have guys like Gainey, and years later, when he became the architect of national teams in his own country, he remembered the lessons his old Habs captain taught.

"You need role models on the team. The coaches can only do so much, but I think the most important thing is to have teammates to take care of you and show you how to do it," he says.

Of course, nobody talks about Mats Naslund without mentioning the most noticable thing about him. He wasn't called "Le Petit Viking" for nothing. At a generous 5'7" and 160lbs, it was a rare interview in which he wasn't asked about his size. The smaller players today, like Martin St.Louis and Brian Gionta, patiently answer questions about their lack of height while insisting their skills speak for themselves. Naslund was fiercely proud of being a player who succeeded within the body he was given. In that sense, he's become a role model.

"I was a pioneer for smaller players," he states. "I'm very proud when I hear Martin St.Louis tell the media I was his idol. Of course I'm proud of what I did."

What he did was merely become the highest-scoring Canadiens forward since Guy Lafleur. His 110-point season in 1985-86 hasn't been matched in the quarter century since. He led the team in scoring en route to the '86 Cup and posted five assists in the 1988 All-Star game while playing on a line with Mario Lemieux. He was a member of the 1983 All-Rookie team and won the Lady Byng trophy in 1988. He's still 12th all-time in scoring for the Canadiens. In accomplishing what he did, he proved a little guy can be a star at the highest levels of hockey, if he's only given a chance. He says the best advice he's got for small players isn't actually for them. It's for their coaches.

"They should be patient and give those guys a fair chance when they're fourteen or fifteen," he attests. "Don't put them aside because of the bigger guys. I think that's the toughest time for young players in hockey. If you make it through junior hockey, you're all set."

Naslund was never an overly sentimental guy. He played his heart out and his devotion to his team was unquestioned, but the perils of making a living by strength of arm and sharpness of eye were never far from his mind. After eight years with the Canadiens, he weighed his options and chose to leave Montreal.

"The main reason was that I played half the amount of games for the same money. I felt if I had played eight years and didn't get serious injuries, I should be able to play another four or five years in Europe for the same amount of money. So that's why I left," he says, matter-of-factly.

He's just as matter-of-fact, if a little sheepish, when asked about his brief return to the NHL in a hated Bruins sweater four years later.

"For the money," he laughs. "I had respect for the teammates there, like Ray Bourque and Cam Neely and those players. But playing in Montreal, Boston was never the favourite team. I don't really have a good comment on that one."

The NHL return lasted half a season, then Naslund hung up the skates for good. He went home to his little seaside Swedish town, and, with detours to manage Sweden's national hockey team and coach a bit, he's planted deep roots there. He spends his days doing all the things he couldn't do when he followed his sport halfway around the world.

"I'm working part time as a carpenter building houses. I did that before I came to Montreal. I work with a friend, and there are only four of us, so it's a small company. So basically, that's what I'm doing half the time," he says, audible satisfaction in his voice. "In the other time, I work with horses. I'm a trotting fan. I play a little bit of golf. I basically have a very good life."

He makes time in his good life to catch a Habs game or two ("If they're lucky enough to have a game on Sunday afternoon I watch, but I don't sit up in the middle of the night watching.") Twenty-one years after leaving Montreal, he still counts himself a Canadiens fan, and his greatest hockey memory, in a career of many, is of riding down St.Catherine's St. on a spring day in 1986.

"The parade we had in Montreal, with a million or more people, that's the thing I remember most from my eight years in Montreal. I don't think you would get that anywhere else. Winning the Cup if you play in Minnesota or Tampa is good. Winning it in Canada is unbelievable."

Watching these days, Naslund says he sees differences in the game since he last played. The crackdown on holding and hooking penalties makes him think he'd probably have done pretty well if the rules in his day had been so kind to offensive players. The physical condition of the players, he says, is the biggest overall change. As for the shootout? He's not a fan.

"I think it's good for the fans, so I think we have to respect it for the fans' sake," he muses. "I don't like it. It's not really fair. At my early years, I would have been very good at it. But in the end, I wouldn't have had the guts to score a lot of goals on the penalty shots. With age you get more nervous. When you're young, you don't really care."

Watching...and about the only connection Naslund has to the game these days. He's living the life he wants, and, for now, hockey is part of his past.

"I'm not involved in hockey right now, and I don't know if I want to be involved again or if I want to stay outside," he says honestly. "We will see next year. I appreciate being home this spring. I've been gone the last five years in April and May. You have to make that decision sometime. I think there are other things in life than hockey."

Mats Naslund has found he enjoys many other things in life as he and his wife Eva happily await the arrival of grandchildren. He's settled in another world from the one he inhabited as a Montreal Canadien. Still, 5825 kilometres away from his home in Höllviken, a city of hockey fans will always remember him for the way he played the game we love.


moeman said...

What a fantastic read. Merci J.T.

Jay in PA said...

Thanks for continuing to write about hockey during the long, slow summer. Maybe it's me, but over the past several months, your posts have gone up a notch and moved you from being one of the premier bloggers on the Habs to a position head-and-shoulders above both the other bloggers and a lot of hockey journalists as well. The fact that no one has yet offered you big bucks to do this professionally simply amazes me.

Patccmoi said...

How is this just a blog post and not an article in a big newspaper is beyond me.

Thanks a lot for the read.