Looking at a young player, it can be difficult to predict, or tell, who the true winners will be. They’re competitors, sure, but a lot of people compete without winning. There’s something special about the players who always seem to be able to win.
Naturally, they’re easy to spot after the fact - just look at their records - but none as easy as Mats Näslund, the former Tre Kronor and Montreal Canadiens star, who turns 50 on Saturday.
Thirty years ago, he was a promising small kid playing for Sweden at the World Championship. The year before, in 1978, he had made the World Junior Championship All-Star Team. He was already playing in the Swedish Elitserien, had been the leading goal scorer at the European Junior Championship, so predicting a bright future for the diminutive forward - a fact that must always be mentioned in an article about Näslund, 170 centimetres tall - wasn’t exactly difficult.
But to go from that to being a founding member of the Triple Gold Club - together with Tomas Jonsson and Håkan Loob thanks to the Swedish victory at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 - having won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1986, and the World Championship in 1991, is a leap. He’s won three Swedish Championships, and he’s accumulated a long list of personal prizes and awards, among them the Lady Byng Trophy in 1988.
He’s still the latest Montreal Canadien to break the 100-point mark in the NHL. Näslund recorded 110 points in 1985-86.
All winners will also credit a part of their success to luck. Being in the right place at the right time, having the right teammates, playing for the right coach.
However, Näslund has even recorded wins as a harness racing driver, horse racing, that is, the last one as late as a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s always fun to win (a horse race), but it doesn’t happen that often because I only drive 3-4 races a year,” Näslund told Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s biggest morning paper.
And yes, truth be told, it had been years since his last win. But still.
Näslund never had more than 19 penalty minutes in a season, which makes him the poster boy for a true winner. The kind that plays for the team and does his best, within the rules.
Maybe it’s the attention to detail that he must have learned as a carpenter that made him the ultimate winner. Näslund still works as a carpenter, part-time, back in Sweden. That’s when he’s not taking care of the horses, or working as the team manager of Tre Kronor.
“I worked as a carpenter for four years before hockey took over. I’ve always liked to do something with my hands,” he says.
But hockey took over in the 1970s, and like Michael Corleone couldn’t leave the Mob in Godfather, Näslund was pulled back into hockey. Not that Mats had anything against it.
“When Bengt-Åke Gustafsson called me about the team manager’s position, I said yes right away. I’m also an assistant coach, and help out on the ice. That part is most fun for me, I probably wouldn’t have taken it without that part,” he says.
But “Bengan” knew exactly what he was getting in Mats. After all, they’ve known each other for 35 years, since their first junior national team camp.
In 2006, Näslund was behind the bench when Sweden celebrated the Olympic gold in Turin, and then, a few months later, the World Championship gold in Riga.
Winners are funny. Not in a comic sense, but in the “there’s something funny about him, but I can’t put my finger on it” kind of way. Maybe it’s a habit. Winning, that is.
“When I grew up, the NHL hardly existed in my world and winning the Stanley Cup was something nobody even mentioned,” Mats told IIHF’s Ice Times in December 2001.
“To make the national team was the big goal and the players I idolized were Russians: Maltsev, Kharlamov, and those guys. Even when I was drafted by Montreal in 1979, it took a couple of days before anyone told me about it, and even than I really did not know what being drafted really meant.”
One of the people Mats Näslund inspired in his turn while playing in the NHL was a certain diminutive forward called Martin St-Louis. Watching Näslund play with the big boys, he decided that he, too, could do that. So he donned a sweater with the number 26, Näslund’s number, and got to work.
“He gave me hope,” St. Louis said about Näslund.
In 2004, St-Louis was an Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, and a Stanley Cup champion. When it was time to choose the person to present the Hart Trophy to him, there was only one choice. Mats Näslund did it via satellite from Sweden.
Today, Näslund, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Saturday, lists St. Louis as his favourite player.
A class act.