The new coach of the Charlotte Checkers certainly seems like a nice guy – a Swedish fellow with four children and a quick smile.
But hockey-star-turned-coach Ulf Samuelsson has long had an alter ego – a dark side that came out on the ice for 17 years during a lengthy NHL career that ended in 2000.
A 1993 Sports Illustrated headline called Samuelsson “Mr. Dirty.” The New York Times Magazine proclaimed him “a thinking-man’s thug.” A Pittsburgh sportswriter named Dave Molinari wrote in the 1990s that Samuelsson was “the kind of guy who would elbow Mother Teresa if she strayed near his net. Then cross-check her when she tried to stand up. Maybe spear her behind the knee as she hobbled away.”
You know the “Mayhem” guy in the Allstate commercials? That was Samuelsson when he played. He caused accidents. Fans in Boston were once so incensed after Samuelsson, a defenseman, injured one of their star players that they hung banners that read “Kill Ulf.”
I asked Samuelsson recently if he thought that long-ago Sports Illustrated headline and story were accurate.
“Yeah, I would say there’s probably a little truth to that article,” he said. “I noticed in my career that if I would play three or four games in a more relaxed way, letting them off the hook – when I could hit a player hard I wouldn’t do it – the other team’s forwards would all of a sudden be a little more confident and make me look bad.
“So I found the way I could do my job was stay hard and stay aggressive – as far as the rules would let me. And sometimes a little bit over.”
Samuelsson, whose Checkers will play their home opener Friday night, is entrusted with the hearts and minds of impressionable young hockey players. He was hired to coach the Checkers by Ron Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes general manager who as a player teamed with Samuelsson on two Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh. The two are good friends, and Francis has handed the reins of the Hurricanes’ top minor-league team to Samuelsson.
Samuelsson, 52, said he has two goals this season: To prepare players properly for the call-up to the Hurricanes all of them seek, and to win.
“It’s very important for us to develop players,” he said, “but our goal is to make the playoffs this year.”
Samuelsson is a rarity at the higher levels of hockey: a European-born head coach. He has been an NHL assistant before, and he ultimately would like to return to the NHL as a head coach.
“But for now, I am very happy where I am,” he said.
Samuelsson and his wife have moved to Charlotte. Their four children, ages 16 to 25, are involved in hockey and pursuing their own dreams either on college, pro or developmental teams.
15 fights, 14 losses
Before Samuelsson entered the NHL, hockey players from Sweden were generally known as finesse guys. There was an old hockey joke about how a Swedish player could skate through a game with six eggs in his pocket and come out with all of them unbroken.
Samuelsson changed that. He was an enforcer.
“My first year in the NHL I had 15 fights and probably got beaten up 14 times,” he said. “I came from overseas, and no one expected a Swede to come out and play hard.”
He played hard, all right – so hard that he was unpopular with everyone but his own teammates. In a story once told in The New York Times, another hockey enforcer named Tie Domi shed a glove and decked Samuelsson with a fist to the mouth, knocking him cold while the game was still in progress. The action was seemingly unprovoked.
When asked about what sort of action the NHL should take against Domi, one of his teammates replied: “For hitting Ulf? A bonus.” (Domi was actually suspended eight games).
Samuelsson, who ranks 26th all-time in most NHL penalty minutes, was an expert at getting under other players’ skin.
“The rules were different then,” he said. “You could play more physical – there was a lot more clutching and grabbing. Holding, grabbing, hitting people when the referees weren’t looking – a lot of stuff that you got away with, and it was effective. I was kind of a pest out there. But I did really enjoy the challenge of playing against top players. I got pumped up when I could play a game against (Wayne) Gretzky or a (Mario) Lemieux.”
All hockey enforcers get beaten up at some point. Samuelsson said he lost count of the number of concussions he sustained, although he believes it was more than three and less than a dozen.
“They should study me when I get older,” he said, speaking of medical researchers. “Concussions were treated so differently then. If you could see one finger instead of two, you were back on the ice.”
Working for NHL call
Samuelsson said he wants his first Checkers team to stick up for itself, but he would not advocate any of his players leading the league in penalty minutes.
“A lot of my penalties were stupid ones,” he said.
The Checkers will play an on-ice style that closely mirrors the Hurricanes, making the transition easier when players shuttle back and forth between Raleigh and Charlotte.
As for Samuelsson himself, he seemed quite mild-mannered and businesslike during the practice I watched for a couple of hours this week. He is trying to instill mental toughness into the Checkers, but not by himself (the team has several assistants and also a team psychologist to help things out).
Samuelsson is no longer “Mr. Dirty,” though. Now he is Mr. Determined. He wants to improve these players enough so that both they – and their coach – eventually get called up to the NHL for good.