While admiring Tomas Holmstrom of the Red Wings earlier this week, my mind reeled backward to Thommie Bergman, also a Wing from Sweden but from a much different era.
Holmstrom — a forward who usually crowds the crease to be effective — started the charge against Phoenix Wednesday night by passing from the rear and dashing up the ice.
“Mercy!’’ shouted the announcer on “Versus.’’ “What a beautiful goal!’’
It was. Wow. He may have understated it. Holmstrom was delightfully out of character. He is usually the one who offers himself as a punching bag to opposing defensemen as he screens opposing goalies to make everyone on his shift a little bit better. That Holmstrom has survived and thrived for 15 seasons is a slightly miraculous tribute to his durability and relentless effort.
Some guys who play his way have short careers; Holmstrom, 38, is one of the league’s senior citizens. He came along in the 1990s, the decade of hockey’s Great Enlightenment, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when European talent grew from a minority curiosity to a dominate factor on rosters of elegant teams like the Wings.
“This is no longer a domestic league,’’ Detroit’s Igor Larionov said a decade ago in a barbed compliment to the National Hockey League when the Wings were a Russian-flavored team.
The 1970s were a different era for Bergman —– who was no relation to Gary Bergman an established Wings’ defenseman from Canada who played in the years before him. Thommie Bergman was an early attempt by an NHL team to fit an established European professional into the North American style.
It didn’t work well, at least not at first. Bergman played in the dreary era of the 1970s, a lost decade at Olympia under the late ownership period of Bruce Norris.
Some critics — not all — used Bergman’s nationality as part of a general slur. “Chicken Swede,’’ was the phrase that moved like an odor in the air from Canada.
It was not easy for the domestic NHL, dominated by Canadian attitudes, to cope with the World Hockey Association, which hired more European athletes who brought soccer-like patterns and a more sophisticated mentality to the ice. Bergman eventually played with Winnipeg of the WHA before returning to the Wings.
That era seems so distant now while watching the exquisite Nicklas Lidstrom —– the Wings’ captain from Sweden who is bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame —– as he ages as gracefully as any superstar ever has in any sport.
He has five Swedish teammates, including the injured Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, who might be back after a week off for healing before round two. If healthy, this team could again go deep into spring.
In less than a quarter-century, as the Wings have become one of the most successful franchises in all of North American sports and they are a television delight on spring evenings. Since 1987, they have made their Final Four 10 times, their championship round six times and have won the Stanley Cup four times.
Taking into account the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, the Wings have had more than their share of success in the last 23 years and European players have been a major reason.
Like the Chrysler shown in that extraordinary Super Bowl commercial, the Wings are a shiny product, “imported from Detroit.’’ From Thommie Bergman to Tomas Holmstrom and all the rest, they’ve traveled a long road successfully.