Mats Sundin broke a barrier to become the first European drafted No. 1 overall. The game changed forever that day.
By Uffe Bodin
The year 1989 was one of great historical significance. In Europe, the Iron Curtain that had been dividing the eastern world from the more modern west since World War II was crumbling; the Berlin Wall, the most obvious symbol of ideological differences, was torn apart in November of that year; and within the Soviet Union, the Communist regime was slowly losing its power. The Cold War wasn’t nearly as chilly anymore.
Even in the NHL, to quote German hard rock band Scorpions’ hit single that tried to capture the spirit of the time, you could sense a “wind of change.” At the 1989 draft at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., 41 Europeans were chosen and for the first time one of them was picked first overall. A tall, blond Swede with braces was called to the podium by Quebec Nordiques chief scout Pierre Gauthier. The native of Bromma, outside of Stockholm, went by the name of Mats Sundin.
“He was the best talent available,” Gauthier said after selecting Sundin. “We think this guy’s got the exceptional hands and great talent. It gives us a chance to have a very good hockey player down the line.”
Gauthier was right. When Sundin pulled the ill-fitted Nordiques’ cap on his head at the draft, he started a long journey. It went on to make him the most prolific Swedish scorer in the game’s history and eventually led him to the Hall of Fame thanks to 1,349 points in 1,346 career games that spanned more than 18 seasons with Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver.
Joining Sundin during his draft weekend was agent and former Winnipeg Jets forward Bengt Lundholm and Sundin’s dad, Tommy.
“I remember Tommy and I sat in the stands and watched the whole thing unfold in amazement,” Lundholm says. “It was such a big, well-oiled machine. As we sat there, we could sense something big was happening.”
No one in the Swedish delegation grasped just how big of a deal the draft was until they became part of it. It was an eye-opening experience.
“In Sweden, the NHL draft was almost unheard of,” Lundholm says. “The hype that exists today had not been invented. I had played a few seasons in the league myself, but I barely knew (the draft) existed or what it meant.
“Mats might have been one of the first Swedes to ever attend a draft. Although the fuss might have been overwhelming at first, he handled it really well. He was very mature for his age and seemed to take it all in stride.”
If there was ever a controversy surrounding the decision to draft a European first overall, Lundholm didn’t see it.
“Maybe there were some comments, but the bottom line is it was a pretty easy decision,” he says. “Mats was the best player available and we knew coming to Minneapolis he would be selected either first or second overall. It was a slam dunk.”
Although there had been successful, Stanley Cup-winning Europeans in the NHL long before Sundin entered the scene, the Nordiques’ decision to pick a Swede first overall was the start of a European revolution.
In the 25 years that have passed since the Sundin draft, the number of Europeans in the league has increased significantly. According to quanthockey.com, only nine percent of NHL players were of European descent in 1989. Today, it’s 23 percent. And before the Kontinental League came to fruition in Russia, the number was close to 30 percent.
“If you look at the players that got drafted in ’89, there were a lot of Russians and Czechs, players that couldn’t even play in the NHL because of the Iron Curtain,” Lundholm said. “I think NHL clubs came to the realization the level of talent in Europe was very high and they could find some really good players.”
In that sense, the 1989 draft was special. Some of the most successful Europeans to ever play the game in North America were drafted that year. The Detroit Red Wings built the foundation of their future success by selecting Nicklas Lidstrom 53rd overall, Sergei Fedorov 74th and Vladimir Konstantinov 221st, while the Vancouver Canucks managed to snatch Pavel Bure, one of the most dynamic goal scorers in history, 113th. The stigma that was once placed on European players in the NHL was, if not vanishing, no longer a stumbling block.
“It was probably a bigger thing for the Russians and the Czechs,” Lundholm says. “Swedes were already pretty much accepted in the NHL. But Mats opened a door by showing people over there that the Swedish model worked. His manners on and off the ice have paved way to the great reputation Swedish hockey has today.”
DRAFT PREVIEW 1989’s take on Sundin
Leading up to the 1989 draft, most scouts were torn between Mats Sundin and Kamloops 56-goal left winger Dave Chyzowski for first overall pick. A few scouts we talked to even had North Dakota defenseman Jason Herter ranked first overall. He was No. 1 on Central Scouting’s list.
Chyzowski had a howitzer of a shot that “can literally scare goalies,” one scout said. Herter had poise.
Fortunately, THN Draft Preview went with Sundin first overall. “He has the potential to be a franchise player,” one scout said. “Sundin is big, strong, physical, a great skater. If he were playing in North America, there’d be as much hype about him as there was Pierre Turgeon.”
A deterrent from taking Sundin was his one year of military duty remaining as well as two years remaining on his playing contract with Djurgarden. It’s rare in any era for a team to wait two full years for a prospect drafted first overall. “The question a team like Quebec or the Islanders have to ask is, ‘Do you take a player that high who is maybe at least two years, and maybe more, from coming to the NHL?’ If you have no prejudices and draft on what you’ve seen, he has to be No. 1.”
Quebec only had to wait one year for Sundin and he went on to a Hall of Fame career, scoring 564 goals and 1,349 points in 1,346 games over 18 seasons for three teams.
Chyzowski went second overall and scored just 15 goals in 126 NHL games before flaming out. Herter played just one NHL game.
This article originally appeared in THN’s annual Draft Preview edition.