Saturday, March 21, 2009

Remembering Hockey's Antichrist

I've been involved with the sport of hockey now for 23 years as both a player and a fan. My dad took me to my first game in 1986 - the Caps vs. the old Winnipeg Jets at the Capitol Centre. I've played against and with players of all sizes and skill levels from New Brunswick to Los Angeles. I've seen, in person, just about every great hockey player to come down the pike in that time - from Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier to Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr. And in that time, I cannot remember a player I have hated more than Ulf Samuelsson.

Hate is a very strong word. Often its thrown around in a cavalier way. We don't really hate, we just don't like some people. Hate is not just a really crappy song by the Plain White T's. Hate is the foundation for wars, holocausts and terrorism. Hate can be a scary thing, especially hating someone we've never met.

That being said, as a youngster I HATED Ulf Samuelsson. Hated him. Hated the guy so much, I practically hated the entire population of Sweden just on principle because Samuelsson was Swedish. To me, Samuelsson was the antichrist with a hockey stick. Just an incredibly loathsome player. You see, Samuelsson wasn't just some pest. Guys like Claude Lemieux, Esa Tikkanen, Scottie Upshall, Steve Ott and Sean Avery were/are pests. Annoying yes but never anything more than nuisances. Samuelsson on the other hand, was a menace. He was dirty. He tried to end careers. And then when he would have to answer the bell, he'd turtle. What is turtling? It's hockey parlance for a guy that ducks his head and won't fight. Looks something like this...

That wasn't all. He'd take dives. He'd feign getting hurt and lay there on the ice like someone just stabbed him. Then he'd be miraculously healed, get up and start the power play.

You will notice in the above photo the guy wanting to pummel Samuelsson. That would be Cam Neely, who was and is my favorite non-Caps player ever. By the 1991 playoffs, Neely was the premier power winger in the game. He was coming off back-to-back 50 goal seasons and was one of the game's good guys to boot. And yet his career was never the same after this run-in with Samuelsson in the '91 Wales Conference Finals.

But Neely wasn't the only player Samuelsson put out of hockey. There was Montreal's Pierre Mondou, a talented forward who scored 30 goals 3 times in 8 seasons. Mondou's career was ended by a Samuelsson high-stick to the eye.

All you really needed to know about Samuelsson was the title of a Sports Illustrated piece on him entitled "Mr. Dirty." That's exactly what he was.

The worst part of all this is that the Pittsburgh fans loved the guy. Oh did this infuriate me as a youngster. How could they cheer for this guy? Here was the biggest chickenshit cheapshot artist of all time and these people cheer him? I would have been embarrassed to have a guy like Samuelsson on my team. A guy who recklessly put people's careers in jeopardy, all the while wearing that big Robocop visor and refusing to answer for his crimes.

Soon enough though, the groundswell to get some payback on Samuelsson started not long after the Neely incident. People wonder why Don Cherry seems so xenophobic. Maybe he was born that way but guys like Samuelsson didn't help.

For me, any guy that hammered Samuelsson was good with me. Despite his infamy for his cheap shot hit on Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs, Dale Hunter will always be a hero for breaking Samuelsson's jaw in a fight. Alas, that clip is not on YouTube but I remember it like it was yesterday. Samuelsson started wacking Hunter in the back of the head in front of the net. Hunter turned around to face him and then Sameulsson punched him. They both dropped the mitts and then Hunter dropped Samuelsson with a straight right to the face. The Cap Centre went absolutely nuts at the sight of Ulfie crumpled on the ice. To add to the indignity of getting his ass kicked, the refs also gave Samuelsson the seldom called "fighting with a visor" penalty. Later that season, I attended Dale Hunter's 1,000th game celebration. They showed a montage of clips from Dale's career and what got the biggest pop? Not Hunter's famous Game 7 overtime goal against Philadelphia in 1988. It was the shot of Hunter KO'ing Ulf.

In 1995 Samuelsson was traded to the Rangers.

I am compelled to admit, my hatred for him subsided a bit. Maybe it was that he cooled the act or maybe it was that he wasn't on the Penguins anymore. Whatever the case, he seemed to stay out of trouble and play a much cleaner style. His most notable accomplishment with the Rangers was knocking out Wayne Gretzky's wife Janet with a pane of glass.

But it was with the Rangers that Samuelsson finally got the payback time I would have killed to see as a teenager. First, there was this hit from behind by Boston's Ken Belanger...

...and then the coup-de-grace, Tie Domi's sucker punch that knocked Samuelsson cold.

...that punch cost Domi 8 games and in the eyes of many, it was well worth it to see Ulfie get his comeuppance. You notice one thing about that clip: there aren't too many Rangers rushing to their teammate's defense. If it had been any other guy, a riot would have broken out with the whole Rangers bench trying to get at Domi. But they knew. Hockey players always know when a guy has something coming. And everybody on the ice knew Samuelsson had something like this coming.

Ulf retired in 2000, having bounced around between three teams in two years. The world of hockey did not miss him. For six years, he wasn't heard from and most assumed he went back to his pit in hell where Satan greeted him with a nice pat on the rear. But no, Samuelsson has reemerged as an assistant coach under Gretzky with the Phoenix Coyotes.

As a kid, I was often asked, "What would happen if Ulf ever became a Washington Capital?" I figure my response would be, fittingly, a line out of a bad movie, in this case "Major League 2." There's a part where Bob Uecker is talking about the character of Jack Parkman, who, in the movie, was a loathsome slugger with Chicago. At one point Ueck says, "It's funny how a new uniform can change your attitude about a guy" before closing his hand over the microphone and saying "He's still a dick." I feel the same way about Ulf Samuelsson.

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