Cherry picking

There seems to be at least two Hardy Åstroms. There’s the clog-wearing Swedish chef who can’t catch a beach ball, introduced to the world and kept alive by Don Cherry who’s been using Hardy material for decades.

Have you heard the one about Hardy when Cherry he pulled his goalie in the final minutes of a game to try to get a goal with six skaters on the ice. Åstrom, the backup, saw the starting goalie racing towards the bench so he grabbed his equipment, hopped the boards and raced to the crease, the story goes, to make a goalie change on the fly.

“Funny,” says Åstrom, “but not true.”

And then there’s the Hardy that played in the first Canada Cup in 1976, represented Sweden in two World Championships, was one of the first European goaltenders in the NHL, and who played for Cherry in Colorado for a year.

Before Cherry was fired.

"Was that a puck?"
Åstrom wasn’t amused by Don Cherry’s stories back in Colorado, and he’s not laughing now, either.

All in all, Åstrom played 83 games in the NHL, and his most memorable ones may have come right at the beginning of his NHL career. After the Canada Cup in 1976 where he played four games, and the World Championship in Vienna in 1977, he got an offer from the New York Rangers – his boyhood dream team.

“Playing in the NHL had always been my dream and by then, quite a few Swedes had already entered the league. Of course, there were only 16 teams so it wasn’t easy,” he says.

“The Rangers had always been my favorite team so when I got that offer, I jumped at it. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play in the Madison Square Garden, wearing the Rangers sweater,” he adds.

And the dream came true, and he couldn’t have got a better start.

“I remember my first game with the Rangers. I was called up from New Haven, the farm team, in February to play against the Montreal Canadiens at the old Forum. That was in 1978, right at the middle of the Canadiens dynasty. At the other end stood Ken Dryden – and we beat them 6-3,” he says.

“I still have the puck from that game,” he adds.

After his home debut against the Chicago Blackhawks, a loss, and the fierce MSG crowd demanding the removal of the rookie, Åstrom’s bubble was burst.

“I wasn’t too cocky then,” he says, chuckling.

After a stint in New Haven, Åstrom was called back up again before the playoffs, and he was told to get ready for the second round when the Rangers would meet the Canadiens again.

They never did.

“And then the season was over. I didn’t think that I had got a real chance to show what I could do, so I decided to return home to Sweden.”

But first, he played in the World Championships again.

Oh, by the way, have you heard the one where Åstrom tried to remove himself form the game after four goals but Don Cherry sent him back in to finish the job he started? Yeah.
Not true, either.

“I’ve never left the net voluntarily. I tried to do it once in Sweden but then the coach sent me back. And having learned my lesson then, I wouldn’t leave the net even if I had let in 30 goals,” Åstrom says.

By 1979, the Rangers had traded Åstrom to Colorado Rockies.

“I was with the Rockies the whole first season, and played 49 games. Well, if Cherry thought I was so bad, why did he play me in all those games that season,” he asks.

Only Don Cherry knows. Maybe because – as Cherry likes to say – Åstrom couldn’t catch even a beach ball.

“Actually, I said that. We played against Minnesota and I was lousy. Minnesota was a tough arena for me, but that time I was really bad. So, after the game I told the reporters that I had been so bad that I wouldn’t have caught a beach ball. Cherry, as the colorful personality that he is, then made it look like he had said that,” Åstrom says.

“He’s a real character, no doubt about that. He will definitely get his own chapter if I ever write my memoirs,” he says, laughing.

There is one story that Åstrom likes to tell, too. About the time when Cherry stormed into the dressing room during the first intermission and gave Don Saleski a tirade.

“The problem was that he hadn’t played one shift in the game, and Lanny McDonald told that to Cherry who slammed the door and left the room,” Åstrom says.

After one more trade, to Calgary, and another season in the minors, Åstrom decided to return to Sweden again, for good. He played another five years, won a Swedish championship with Södertälje, and then hung up his Harrison mask for good.

“At first, with the Rangers, I had a Jacques Plante mask that was painted blue. The masks were obviously more simple back then, and I never really liked big motifs on them,” he says.

“In Colorado, I switched to a Harrison model, with a blue, yellow and red stripes, and the team logo painted on it. That one I still have,” he says.

Åstrom looks back at his career with fond memories.

“I got to experience a lot of the fun stuff: the first Canada Cup, Börje Salming’s long standing ovation in Toronto, the NHL, the Swedish championship. I made great friends, too. I never thought I was worse than the other goalies in the NHL. But maybe not better, either,” he says.

It’s been twenty years since Åstrom left North America, and he hasn’t been back since.

But the legend lives on.

It just sort of beach balled.

Originally published in The Hockey News Greatest Masks of All Time in 2008.

25 reasons why Bob Dylan hasn’t gotten back to the Swedish Academy

“Days after being awarded the literature prize, Bob Dylan has yet to get in touch with the Swedish Academy, or indicate whether he will attend the celebrations.”
– The Guardian, Oct 17, 2016

Swedes! Who do they think they are, thinking that a guy will roll out of bed in the middle of the night just to pick up the phone. Or that he’ll return the call right after he wakes up. Or the next day. It’s not like the world revolves around the Nobel Prize, you know. Here are 25 things that could have kept Bob Dylan from getting back to the Swedish Academy.


King of Sweden

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Psyched about words

“OK, pick a word,” Mika said as soon as I sat down.

I was a little out of breath because I had run all the way from the bus terminal in the middle of town to our school, and had made it to our psychology class just in time. I dropped my blue backpack on the floor, and sat down in the first row, next to him.

“Any word,” he added, like a magician, ready to amaze his crowd.

So I did.


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And don’t call me Shirley

Just as there are times when the Phantom leaves his jungle home and travels as an ordinary man there are times when this freelance writer dresses up for work. Instead of just jumping into a pair of jeans and pulling on a Back to the Future T-shirt, I may wear a shirt. With buttons and everything.

Last Friday was such a day. And when I left the house to pick up the kids from school – it was Friday, after all – I noticed my black dress shoes pushed to the side of our shoe rack and I picked them up. They looked good, really good, considering I had them polished in Las Vegas ten years ago.

I put them on.

There’s something about shoes like that that make me want to tap dance, and vow that one day, I’ll learn a few nice tap dance steps.

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From Sollentuna with love

Buses in the Stockholm county are red, except the ones that are blue. They’re so special that people refer to them as “blue buses”, instead of using their line numbers. In Sollentuna, an affluent suburb a 35-minute bike ride from downtown Stockholm only the 179 going to Vällingby is blue, the rest of them are red, including the 520.

mAbout 35 years ago, a fair-haired boy got off 520 at the Sollentunavallen stop. He crossed the street, and from the top of the hill, he could see the view over the 17th century mansion and the Baltic sea bay, a running track, and most importantly, the outdoor hockey rink.

It was his big brother who had got him into hockey to begin with, and the kid turned out to be so good that when he was seven, the instructors at the hockey school considered him too good to play with the other kids, and directed him to the youngest junior team in town. The others were two years older but he either didn’t notice it or didn’t care.

The track field got a bandy and skating rink next to it, and they built a new outdoor rink next to the old one. A new indoor arena was built but by then the fair-haired boy was already an international star and the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

His name was Mats Sundin.


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88 miles per hour

Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine arranged a visit to the Swedish state alcohol monopoly’s lab. She was a member of their language task force that aimed to come up just the perfect words to describe the wines on the shelves, to make sure the way the words matched the taste of the wines so that the nakedly elegant wine truly was that and that people intuitively understood what that meant.

We weren’t there to taste wines, we were there to see how difficult it was to put things like taste into words, but the thing I remember the best was our cinnamon test. Each one of us got a little cinnamon, maybe a half a tablespoon, while we held our noses, waited a while and then, at the instructor’s signal, let go of our noses.

I’m sure you know, or can guess, what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway.


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Hjalmarsson hooked on winning

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Six years ago, almost to the day, the tiny village of Russnäs (population 90) in Sweden was bustling. Right at the intersection off the main road that leads to the big road that takes you to the highway, under the sign that welcomes visitors to the village, there was a big photo of Niklas Hjalmarsson in his Chicago Blackhawks jersey, with a message to the young man.

“Congratulations, Stanley Cup champion” it said in Swedish. Next to it, there was a tin-foil replica of the Cup.

The then-23-year-old defenseman had spent most of his two previous seasons in the AHL but had taken a permanent spot in the Blackhawks’ lineup that season. He addressed the villagers (and thousands of other fans) next to the playground where he had played as a kid, standing next to bales of hay and the Stanley Cup, his voice hoarse from a fun night with his family and friends.


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