The NHL’s First European Player
By George Grimm
From its inception, the National Hockey League had been populated by mostly Canadian players, with a few Americans sprinkled in here and there for good measure. But that all changed on Jan. 27, 1965 when Ulf Sterner of the New York Rangers became the first European trained player to take the ice for an NHL team.
Sterner was born on Feb. 11, 1941 in Deje, Varmland, Sweden. He joined Sweden’s national team when he was 17 years old and made his Olympic debut in 1960 in Squaw Valley. Sweden failed to earn a medal but Sterner won the Golden Puck Award as Sweden’s Player of the Year. He scored a goal in a 5-3 Gold Medal win over Canada in the 1962 Ice Hockey World Championships. The next year he scored a hat trick in a 4-1 win over Canada.
The Rangers became interested in the 6-foot-2, 187-pound center in 1963 and invited him to training camp. Sterner came to camp and signed a five-game tryout contract but declined to play that season to preserve his amateur status for the 1964 Olympics where he led all scorers with six goals and five assists as Sweden ultimately earned a Silver medal.
Sterner reported to the Rangers training camp in 1964 and was assigned to St. Paul of the CHL to become acclimated to the North American game. Ulf did very well in St. Paul scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in only 16 games before being promoted first to Baltimore of the AHL and then to the Rangers.
He made his NHL debut in a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins. Sterner played well and had a goal disallowed due to an offside call. But he was the target of physical abuse by opposing players who tried to intimidate him. After four games Sterner was sent back to Baltimore where he recorded 18 goals and 26 assists in 52 games and helped the Clippers make the AHL playoffs. He returned to Sweden after the season, where he continued to star in International Competition as well as Swedish leagues until his retirement following the 1977-78 season.
It’s not that Sterner didn’t have the talent to play in the NHL, it was clear that he had better than average skills. It was more the fact that he was raised in Sweden where offensive zone checking was prohibited and he just wasn’t used to the North American style game.
Former Ranger Ulf Nilsson played on a line with Sterner in the 1973 World Championships in Moscow. “Sterner was one of the best forwards that ever came out of Sweden,” Ulf told me a few months ago. “I talked to Fred Shero about him and he said that Ulf was one of the most talented players that he had ever seen.”
“He was sort of unusual because he was a big guy for those days and pretty good on his skates for a player of that size. In those days the big guys didn’t really move that fast.”
Sterner is credited with originating the “stick, skate, stick” move which Nilsson explained to me. “As most Swedish hockey players, he grew up playing soccer in the summer time so he was actually pretty good handling the puck with his skates too. It was a move where he would pretend to pass the puck back but pass it to his skate and kick it up again.
“It must have been really hard to be on your own in a new country with a new style of play”, Nilsson said when I asked him why he thought Sterner didn’t try a return to North America as a player. “I think it was the loneliness. I think it was easier for Anders (Hedberg) and me coming to Winnipeg as teammates.”
Today, Sterner and his wife Pia live on a small farm near Carlstadt, Sweden.
Although he only had a brief four-game stint with the Rangers, Sterner was a trail blazer and today the NHL is a veritable League of Nations with players from practically every hockey-playing country. And each one of those players owes a debt of gratitude to Ulf Sterner.