Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ulf Samuelsson gets coaching shot with Swedish team Modo

Thursday, May 5, 2011

When the Swedish team Modo selected Phoenix Coyotes assistant Ulf Samuelsson to be the team's head coach Monday, it hired a man who appreciates that no majestic structure is built without someone first pouring a concrete foundation.

  • Phoenix Coyotes assistant Ulf Samuelsson got to spend time running the bench in the 2009 preseason before Dave Tippett was hired.

    By Rick Scuteri, AP

    Phoenix Coyotes assistant Ulf Samuelsson got to spend time running the bench in the 2009 preseason before Dave Tippett was hired.

By Rick Scuteri, AP

Phoenix Coyotes assistant Ulf Samuelsson got to spend time running the bench in the 2009 preseason before Dave Tippett was hired.

And no one mixed cement quite the way Samuelsson did during his 16-year NHL playing career.

"For all of the spectacular talent that the Penguins had (in the early 1990s) without the element that (Samuelsson) brought, the team doesn't win," said Penguins vice president Tom McMillan, who was a reporter covering the team when it won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992.

The hockey community probably didn't view Samuelsson as coaching material in those days, but maybe it should have.

"He was one of those leaders who didn't wear the 'C'" McMillan said.

Samuelsson didn't need a letter on his sweater to inspire those around him. That's just the man he was.

"The guys who aren't supremely talented observe the most, and what this shows is that he observed even more than we thought he did," McMillan said. "From his time in Pittsburgh, he understands what it takes (to be a champion). We had great players. But it wasn't just (Mario) Lemieux, (Ron) Francis and (Jaromir) Jagr. It was the other guys who were the fabric of the team. He may understand more than most why that is important."

Samuelsson was a paradox when he played, a mean, ruthless, sometimes dirty defenseman who was the most genial man in the dressing room. Reporters always stopped at Samuelsson's cubicle first because he was always be friendly, and often would have something interesting, or comical, to say.

He was a villain in most NHL cities, particularly in Boston, where his knee-to-knee hit on Cam Neely in 1991 caused an injury that ultimately ended Neely's career prematurely.

During the prime of his career, Samuelsson's penalty minute total was 200-plus, or pushing toward that number. Opponents can testify that he earned every one of his penalty minutes.

"He always struck me as a football player in a hockey player's uniform," said NBC broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick.

Samuelsson was usually entertaining, such as the time when he was driving toward the net with the puck, and it got deflected up into his gloves. By the time he could pull it out, he had lost his true scoring chance, so he just threw it into the net.

"There was a breakaway toward an empty net against his team in Quebec, and I knew Ulf threw every piece of equipment he had at him, but the guy scored anyway," Emrick recalled. "He was a real character."

But he was loved by his hometown fans, and by his teammates.

"In Pittsburgh, he was kind of a superstar kind of guy," McMillan said. "But he was really a role player and he understood that."

It was always difficult to reconcile the idea that such a ruthless competitor could be the same guy who could be so polite and entertaining in the dressing room.

This is a player who broke down in tears when the International Ice Hockey Federation ruled in the midst of the 1998 Olympics that Samuelsson had to be booted off the Swedish team because he had received U.S. citizenship.

Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle is a Boston hockey guy, meaning he arrived with a preconceived notion of what Samuelsson is about because of the Neely situation.

"You wouldn't expect that I would have so much respect for him," Yandle said. "But he is just a great guy, who has a lot of fun and has a lot knowledge of the game. He is a great guy to have behind the bench."

Before coach Dave Tippett was hired, Samuelsson spent some time as acting coach during training camp.

"It was like he was meant for the job," Yandle said. "He did a great job getting us ready for the season, and we made the playoffs that year. That was a big turnaround for our team. and I think he had a lot to do with that."

Even in his coaching role, Samuelsson still likes to have fun, although Yandle says you have to earn your right to joke around with him.

"He's really funny," Yandle said. "But you have to work your way into those situations. You can come to the rink and joke around with him, but he's also one of the most intense guys I've ever met."

Samuelsson is taking over a Modo team that has been struggling to stay vibrant in recent years. It was barely able to stay in the top division this season. But Peter Forsberg has accepted the role as general manager Markus Naslund's assistant, and there is a sense that this team can turn around.

"After five years as a NHL assistant coach, Ulf is ready to run his own team and Modo is a good opportunity for him," Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. "If all goes well in Sweden, there's little doubt that he will return to the NHL as a head coach."

Although Samuelsson is proud of his Swedish heritage, his life has been in America for a long time. His son, Phillip, just signed with the Penguins and he has another son in the U.S. development program.

Said Yandle: "He will be a NHL coach, and it will probably be pretty soon."


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