Who was the first European trained player to play in the National Hockey League?
Many of you probably said Borje Salming. While he was the first to stick and to star in the National Hockey League, another Swede had played in 5 NHL games nearly a decade earlier. His name was Ulf Sterner.
Ulf Sterner was this super kid out of Sweden. Described as "a smooth skater, seamless passer and scorer with enormous offensive talent," he debuted internationally at the 1960 Olympics at the age of 18. He would lead Sweden to the 1962 World Championship gold medal and the 1963 World Championship silver medal. At the 1964 Olympic games in Innsbruck Sterner would lead all scorers with eleven points in seven games.
One report suggests Sterner accepted a New York Rangers training camp invite as early as 1963. He supposedly played well enough to earn a 5-game tryout contract to play in NHL games that season. Because it was an Olympic season he was worried about altering his amateur status. He ended up going home to Sweden and did not play for the Rangers that year.
NHL Interested In Euros Since 1930s
If Sterner was at the Rangers camp in '63, he was not the only Swede there. Similar stories was written for Folke "Totte" Bengtsson, Sören Blomgren and Jan-Erik Sjöberg. Meanwhile Kjell Svensson and Carl-Goran Oberg attended Toronto's camp.
Of course all of these Swedish players were outdone by Sven "Tumba" Johansson, who attended Boston Bruins camp in 1957. According to European hockey expert Patrick Houda, the Bruins were also interested in Czech stars Jaroslav Drobny and Vladimir Zabrodsky in 1949, while 1930s stars Josef Malecek (Czech), Richard 'Bibi' Torriani (Switzerland) and Gustav Jaenecke (Germany) were sought after.
It is not clear how many other European players may have attended NHL training camps prior to Borje Salming's arrival. Houda suggests in 1968 the Detroit Red Wings invited four players directly from overseas. Those players were Swedish star Leif Henriksson and three Yugoslavian imports - Ivo Jan, Ciril Klinar, and Victor Ravnik.
Sterner Stars In North America
Sterner definitely was with the Rangers for training camp in 1964 and was said to have wowed spectators in several exhibition games. The Rangers signed him to a contract under the agreement that he would start the year learning the rougher, North American game with the Ranger's Central League farm team in St. Paul. After 12 goals in 16 games he was bumped up to the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL. Centering the top line with Ken Schinkel and Ray Bruenl on the wings. He impressed with 18 goals and 44 points in 52 contests, but was heavily criticized for his lack of physical play. In those days, international rules prohibited any body checking in the offensive zone, which left Sterner completely unprepared for the North American game. Still happy with his skill game, the Rangers called up Sterner late in January, 1965. He would play in 4 NHL contests before returning to the minors.
Unwilling to play the physical game necessary to stick in the NHL, Sterner returned to Sweden, secure in the knowledge that talent wise he was every bit as good as most Canadian players. He continued to play in Sweden and for the Swedish national team for another decade.