The NHL and WHA began importing Sweden’s top players in the 1970s, beginning the internationalization of North American hockey. While many easily remember Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in the NHL and Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson in the WHA, not every remembers the first Swede to cross the Atlantic Ocean – Thommie Bergman.
The Detroit Red Wings signed the Munkfors-born defenseman in the summer of 1972 on the advice of scout Jack Patterson. Patterson was impressed with Bergman’s play at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Sweden finished just off of the podium in 4th place.
The Wings had to spend a reported $30,000 to Bergman’s old club, Vastra Frolunda, to secure his release, but it was worth it as he soon established himself as the top defenseman on a very poor Detroit team. In his first year he teamed with Ron Stackhouse regularly, scored 9 goals and 21 points and posted a respectable +6 rating. The 6’3″ 195lb defenseman he tried to embrace the more physical side of the game, dropping the gloves with none other than Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Bobby Clarke. It was this gusto that attracted Bergman to scout Patterson in the first place.
Life was quite different in the NHL than back home for Bergman and the following Swedes. For instance, Bergman worked at an ad agency as his day job back home. He was also a very studious fellow, earning a master’s degree in economics while also studying engineering. In Detroit though there was little time to embrace such pursuits as he spent so much time playing, practicing and travelling. He lamented the down time, saying watching television was a bad habit he was picking up.
The long schedule wore Bergman down, like it did for so many of the early European players. Injuries, particularly a troublesome knee he originally injured back in Sweden playing a game of pick-up basketball, and fatigue limited his effectiveness, and after a less than impressive season and a half following up his rookie year, he was traded to the WHA Winnipeg Jets.
Bergman enjoyed 4 solid seasons with the Jets, a franchise noted for embracing European players. In addition to Nilsson and Hedberg Bergman also counted the likes of Veli-Pekka Ketola, Willy Lindstrom, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Mats Lindh, Heikki Riihiranta and Curt Larsson as teammates, with Dan Labraaten and Markus Mattsson joining later on.
Late in the 1977-78 season Bergman was released by the Jets. He found his old team from Detroit interested in his services, despite a wonky knee.He would play parts of three more seasons with the Red Wings before going home to round out his career in Sweden. He would later get involved in management with the Gothenburg team and become the chief European scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Crazy Fact – Like a baseball player in that time era, Thommie Bergman played while chewing snuff. He said the chewing tobacco relaxed him without wearing down his cardiovascular conditioning like cigarettes would.
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