Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Don Cherry and Swedish Goalies

One of the current goalie hotbeds is the country of Sweden. Six different Swedish netminders made their NHL debuts in either this season or last, to raise to 11 the total number of Swedes who have played in goal since the lockout. Henrik Lundqvist remains the nation's best, but this year Anders Lindback has emerged as a surprise in Nashville, Jonas Gustavsson has played well for a surprising Toronto squad, and Robin Lehner has started to make the case that he might be the future solution to Ottawa's goaltending woes. Despite all this Swedish success, the best may still be yet to come in the person of Jakob Markstrom, considered by many to be the top-rated goalie prospect in the world today.

It was not always the case, however, that the Tre Kronor produced top-level goalies. In fact, there were only a handful of Swedes who played net in the NHL in the 20th century. The entire list is as follows: Tommy Salo, Pelle Lindbergh, Tommy Soderstrom, Hardy Astrom, and Goran Hogosta.

Salo and Lindbergh are likely familiar to most hockey fans. Salo had a lengthy NHL career (526 games played), although he may unfortunately be remembered most for his gaffe against Belarus at the 2002 Olympics. Lindbergh won the 1985 Vezina Trophy, then had his career tragically cut short the following season when he died in a car crash at the age of 26.

The other three had much less memorable careers, although I suspect many Canadian hockey fans have at least a passing familiarity with the name of Hardy Astrom. Astrom played just three years in the NHL, but has achieved a level of infamy as a result of a few stories told by TV personality Don Cherry on CBC's Coach's Corner and on his personal Rock 'em Sock 'em videos.

The way Cherry tells it, Astrom was a bumbling goalie that couldn't stop soft lobs from center ice in practice. It's entirely possible that Astrom let in some stinkers, especially while getting bombarded behind the hapless Colorado Rockies defence. Still, does it make sense that a guy who represented Sweden in the 1976 Canada Cup and two other world championships and attracted enough attention to play pro hockey in North America at a time when Europeans were underrepresented in the NHL was laughably inept?

Sounds to me like this guy might just have been stigmatized by a bad goal or two at the wrong time, a la Tommy Salo. Let's see what the numbers say. Here are the results for all Colorado goalies from 1979-80 to 1980-81. Breaking it into Astrom vs. everyone else, we get the following:

Hardy Astrom: 3.76, .870
All other goalies: 4.20, .854

I'm starting to think Don Cherry may have been exaggerating just a little.

Astrom was pretty unlucky in the goal support department, because his winning percentage lagged most of his teammates. That might have led to a perception that he wasn't a "winner". Yet for all Cherry likes to rag on Astrom, the coach still gave him 49 games in net in 1979-80. Swede jokes may entertain Canadian TV audiences, but by what economists called revealed preference it is unlikely that Cherry really thought his Swedish goalie was truly that horrible, based on the coaching decisions he made with his job on the line.

The numbers suggest Astrom was likely a pretty average netminder, especially when you factor in how bad the Rockies were. I bet Cherry coached quite a few other goalies who were worse than Astrom during his tenure in the NHL, and it seems kind of unfair (but perhaps not surprising, given Cherry's general anti-European sentiment) that he seems to have picked out one Swedish guy all these years later to be the butt of his jokes.


reckoning said...

Astrom had one of the most memorable debuts in NHL history in 1978 with the NY Rangers. New York was in Montreal to play the Habs in a Saturday night game on HNIC. Montreal was riding a then-record 28 game unbeaten streak, and the Rangers (who were struggling) decided to give Astrom the start. A daunting challenge for a goalie's first NHL game, yet somehow Astrom and the Rangers ended up beating Montreal that night.

Ranger fans thought they had their savior, and in their next game in New York (against Atlanta) the fans gave him a standing ovation when he stepped on the ice. But he let in a few soft goals and by the end of the game the NY fans were booing him everytime he touched the puck. Such is the life of a goalie.

IIRC, ion Cherry's book he says that Astrom's flaw was that he would play well for a period, but then give up a really bad goal that would demoralize the team. I don't know how much of that is true (Colorado didn't get many appearances on HNIC back then), so it may be Cherry exaggerating things a bit.

Usually when Cherry mentions Astrom in interviews, he does point out that Hardy was a very nice guy.

nightfly said...

Part of the poor guy's problem was that his name lends itself to the memorable taunt, Hardy-Har-Harstrom... I can even remember that and Astrom retired when I was nine.

Doug Norris said...

Very good points about Astrom! Living in Denver, I've had the chance to check the local microfilm, and the game reports did not really suggest that Astrom was to blame on most nights.

I guess xenophobia sells (or it does/did for Cherry).

Anonymous said...

What kind of numbers would Astrom have if he had played on a good team? Was he another "diamond-in-the-rough" who never got a fair chance like Allan Bester?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

No, I don't think Astrom was really anything special, he probably would have been just average somewhere else. Still, being league average in the NHL is a significant achievement, so he definitely doesn't deserve to unfairly get made fun of by TV commentators with their "worst goalie ever" shtick.

Host PPH said...

I didn't know that we are getting at lot of Swedish players but at least. they are contributing at lot.

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