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.