He grew up in the small town of Grums in the Värmland region where he learned to play hockey as a little kid. His childhood idol was his cousin and ex-NHL’er Dan Labraaten as well as his older brother Malte Steen who played in the Swedish elite league for many years. They inspired Thomas to become a hockey player.
Thomas played for Grums IK in the Swedish 2nd division until 1976. In his last season there he had 9 points (5+4) in 21 games. He then debuted in the Swedish Elite league as a 16-year old for Leksand. Thomas made such a good impression that he was selected to represent Sweden in the 1977 European Junior Championships. He did very well there as he collected 6 points (3+3) in 7 games and guided Sweden to a Gold medal. Thomas also played in the 1979 and 1980 World Junior Championship tournaments, making the All-Star team in 1979. All in all Thomas played 18 games and collected 18 points (10+8).
Winnipeg Jets liked what they saw and drafted Thomas 103rd overall in 1979. At that time nobody could imagine that this young kid would one day become the franchise All-time leader in seasons (14) , games (950) and assists (553). This quiet, humble and well liked Swede played in the shadow of many of his fellow countrymen but was one of the most useful players around. In 1990-91 the players in the NHL voted for him as the most underrated player in the league.
The season before he came to the NHL he won the “Player of the year” award (1980-81) in Sweden as he led his team Farjestad BK in scoring and to the league title. He also finished second overall in league scoring. That same season Thomas represented Sweden in the 1981 World Championships and Canada Cup.
Thomas played hard every game and never backed down from any confrontations. Former Jets GM John Ferguson only had positive things to say about Thomas.
“Thomas Steen is the toughest and bravest of all the Swedes in the NHL. I’ve seen Thomas involved in more physical confrontations than most of the Canadian players in the league. He looks like a choirboy, but he can play as tough as anyone in the league.”
Rick Bowness who coached Winnipeg said:
“You need players of Steen’s caliber to be successful in the NHL. He is our most useful player.”
Thomas strength was that he didn’t have a real weakness. He played with a great deal of determination, he had great leadership qualities which landed him the captaincy between 1989-91, he was a great passer, a fine two-way player, he had good anticipation and vision, was a fine face-off man, nice stickhandler… and the list goes on…
He wasn’t the flashy type of player but he was the heart and soul for the Jets for most of his 14 seasons with the team. No one wore the Jets uniform with more pride and dignity than Thomas Steen.
When it was announced at a press conference that Winnipeg was moving to Phoenix he cried openly.
“I was crushed by the news, he said later on.”
During his 14 year NHL career Thomas hit the 80 point plateau twice (84 and 88 points), 70 points once (72), 60 points four times (65, 64, 66 and 67) and 50 points four times (59, 50, 54 and 51). His best effort point wise came in 1988-89 when he collected 27 goals and 61 assists.
Even in Sweden Thomas wasn’t a household name. The primary reason was that he left for the NHL when he was only 21. But after his outstanding effort in the 1984 Canada Cup when he led his team to the finals, he got the recognition he deserved even from his folks back home. Thomas had prior to the 1984 Canada Cup only scored two goals in 21 games for the Swedish senior national team. He however exploded in the Canada Cup, as he went on to score a tournament high 7 goals in 8 games, scoring on 46.7 % of his shots.
“It was great to succeed in such a fine and prestigious tournament like the Canada Cup,” Thomas said. “It was something of a personal revenge for me since I never had much success previously on the national team.”
Thomas played on a line together with Hakan Loob and Kent Nilsson, both playing for Calgary Flames. They clicked together immediately and displayed some great hockey in the tournament.
Kent Nilsson had nothing but praise for his line mate.
“Thomas was incredible. As a center on our line he really worked hard. He was just a phenomenal guy to play with.”
Thomas heroics in the Swedish uniform wasn’t over. In the 1986 World Championships he was the tournaments leading scorer with 8 goals in 8 games as Sweden won the Silver. Thomas other appearances in the Swedish uniform came in the 1989 World Championships and 1991 Canada Cup.
The only thing Thomas regretted in his career was that his Winnipeg Jets never got past the second round while he was there.
“Personally I had a lot of success in Winnipeg. I only wish that the team could have done better in the playoffs.”
On May 6, 1995 Thomas Steen’s jersey # 25 was retired. He became only the second Jet after Bobby Hull to receive this honour and he became the first European trained player to have his number retired.
A great honour for the symphatic Swede. “It’s a great honour and I’m proud of it,” he said.
When Thomas announced that he had played his last game for Winnipeg he was given maybe the finest honour of them all. The children’s hospital in Winnipeg got the name “Thomas Steen children’s emergency” Thomas had donated large sums of money to the hospital for many years and also had a personal tragedy earlier on when his two month old son passed away.
The Steen family kept a house in Winnipeg as Thomas went on to play another three seasons in Germany for the Frankfurt Lions and Eisbären Berlin. He collected 55 points (23+32) in 117 games before finally hanging em’ up in 1998. During that time he also fulfilled a dream to skate along his talented son Alexander Steen during an exhibition game.
As the new millennium approached Thomas was still running his appreciated hockey school in Orsa, Sweden, together with his brother Malte every summer.
The words in the 1995-96 Winnipeg Jets Media Guide sums up Thomas perfectly.
“Steen was a consummate professional who embodied everything good about the Jets organization; loyalty, commitment to excellence, hard work, dedication and pride. He played with enthusiasm and a burning desire to win at all costs. He was an exceptional player who represented the club both on and off the ice with class and distinction.”
– Special thanks to Pat Houda