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.

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