Inside the NHL
But almost none figured a man touted to eventually rejoin the NHL’s coaching ranks would fail to last another week beyond his local introduction at last Tuesday’s “Science of Scouting’’ event at Seattle Center. Alas, that’s the case as Samuelsson, 55, on Monday returned to his native Sweden to coach his former Leksands IF professional team in a late-season push to avoid relegation to a lower division.
Samuelsson could eventually rejoin NHL Seattle; and general manager Ron Francis isn’t yet filling his onetime teammate and roommate’s role. Samuelsson admitted last week that scouting was merely keeping him close to the NHL so he can resume a coaching career there that’s reshaped his image for a new generation’s players away from a once-feared, reviled hitter with multiple casualties in his wake.
When meeting Samuelsson, his playing legend so precedes him you expect a 10-foot-tall monster. Instead, during an engaging interview before the Seattle Center event, the humorous, 6-foot-1 father-of-four displayed a disarming, self-deprecating manner his friends insist was always there and gets shown to his players.
“In the room and with friends I’ve always been the same,’’ Samuelsson said. “I’ve always had a lot of friends. I made friends with the Mario Lemieuxs and the Gretzkys. I made friends with the third- and fourth-line guys and with the Zamboni drivers. I’ve always been able to get along well with people.’’
And bench bosses who relate to players are increasingly in demand in an NHL recently gripped by coaching abuse scandals.
Samuelsson coached Modo in Sweden, then was a New York Rangers assistant and head coach of Carolina’s American Hockey League affiliate under GM Francis. Samuelsson joined Chicago as an assistant and won a Stanley Cup before last year’s purge of most of Joel Quenneville’s staff.
“I know how it feels to be a player in a good environment,’’ Samuelsson said. “And I know as a coach how to create a good environment and be honest and good with players.’’
That includes sharing truths about his career when those players discover YouTube footage of Samuelsson’s alter ego infamy. After debuting with Hartford in 1984, Samuelsson quickly made enemies for abusing opponents in front of his team’s net and taking out several with open-ice hits.
“What I did on the ice, that was something that I developed to stay effective,’’ Samuelsson said. “Under those circumstances and those rules, I carved out a pretty nice career for myself with what I had in my toolbox.’’
Samuelsson erased the NHL’s “soft’’ perception of Swedish players — amassing 2,453 penalty minutes over 16 seasons with Hartford, the Rangers, Detroit, Philadelphia and in Pittsburgh, where he captured two Stanley Cups alongside Francis.
“Trust me, I’d have rather had the skills like Ronnie (Francis) or some of these other superstars, but I wasn’t blessed with that talent,’’ he said. “I had to work a little harder and take on a little more pain. Dish out a little more pain.’’
He’d once idolized Hall of Fame defenders like countryman Borje Salming, and also Ray Bourque – “A guy that played for Boston, of all places,’’ Samuelsson said, chuckling.
Boston became the epicenter of Samuelsson hatred during the 1991 conference finals when his knee-on-knee hit hobbled beloved Bruins forward Cam Neely, now that team’s president. Neely was never the same and Bruins fans sported “Kill Ulf’’ signs whenever Samuelsson’s teams visited Boston, while he and roommate Francis hid in their hotel under assumed names.
Hockey Night in Canada pundit Don Cherry took up the anti-Samuelsson cause, proclaiming on-air: “His day is coming, folks’’ and inviting players to “be a hero’’ by seeking retribution. Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi eventually did, cold-cocking Samuelsson with a 1995 sucker punch that knocked him unconscious — earning Domi a long suspension and league-wide admiration.
“I brought it all upon me,’’ Samuelsson said of his marked-man status. “I deserved everything I got.’’
But he insists he’d never deliberately injured anybody.
“Obviously, I’ve done some things that stepped over the line,’’ he said. “But for me to be effective in the game, I had to come hard every time.’’
Samuelsson credits NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for cleaning up hockey and preaches locker room messages of accountability and discipline. Today’s players, he added, are “too smart’’ to be bullied into compliance and quickly tune out coaches that try.
“If I sit with any player, all they want is to please me, please themselves and get better,’’ he said. “It may take a while to level with a player and gain respect. But eventually, if they see someone work hard, look at their game and come with suggestions … you have a communication level opened.’’
Samuelsson isn’t “walking anything back’’ but wants his career viewed through his era’s violent lens. He’s never apologized for the Neely hit – adding they were barreling toward each other full-speed and it could have been him absorbing the worst.
“If it happened today would I call him up? Of course I would,’’ Samuelsson said. “Of course I would probably go and visit him in the hospital. But that just wasn’t something you did back then.’’
In retirement, though, he’s had positive interactions with Domi – their sons, Philip Samuelsson and Max Domi, were Arizona Coyotes teammates – and holds no grudges for his punch. It’s similar to amicable reunions with ex-foes as a coach, scout and player — lifting his shirt collar to reveal a scar from a devastating Eric Lindros hit during the 1991 Canada Cup tournament that separated his shoulder.
“I joined the Flyers and we had lunch the next day,’’ Samuelsson said.
Now, Samuelsson the coach will get to know the Leksands team, which includes his former Coyotes defenseman son. And perhaps earn another NHL chance to distance the player he was from the kinder, gentler man he says he’s always been.