Bill Meltzers Heros Of The Past

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Pelle Eklund #9

Article by Bill Meltzer

Pelle Eklund was one of the most gifted skaters and playmakers to play for the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers all-time leading point getter among European-born players, the elegant Eklund spent eight seasons in Philly. As popular as he was with the Spectrum crowd, his Philadelphia popularity paled in comparison to the hero status Pelle enjoyed back in Stockholm. Per-Erik "Pelle" Eklund is a rather unique player in Flyers lore. He did not fit the stereotype of a Flyers forward; rather, Eklund played more in the traditional Montreal Canadiens mode. Eklund was small, lightning fast, and finesse-oriented. After Bobby Clarke, Eklund may have been the best pure playmaker the Flyers have ever had. He is the Flyers all-time point leader among European-born players and ranks among the Flyers all-time top assist leaders (8th overall).

Eklund was born in Stockholm on March 22, 1963. Eklund was always an excellent all-around athlete. A fine soccer player, Per-Erik later took up tennis. His best sport, of course, was hockey. Like most young Swedish players, his ultimate goal was to wear the Tre Kronor (Three Crowns) of the Swedish national team and to win the World Championship and/or an Olympic medal. The possibility of an NHL career was a secondary consideration to him, even as Börje Salming, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Inge Hammarström were opening doors for Swedish players to come to North America.

Pelle worked his way up quickly through the ranks of Swedish hockey, making his Elitserien debut for AIK in 1981-82. He quickly became one of the better players on the team, showing brilliant puckhandling and playmaking ability. Eklund also possessed a soft finishing touch but strongly preferred passing the puck to shooting it; a trait that would mark Pelle's entire career. Eklund quickly became popular with the AIK fans. NHL scouts were also taking some notice. After his sophomore season with AIK, Eklund was selected in the 8th round of the 1983 draft by the Flyers braintrust of Bob McCammon and Keith Allen.

Eklund blossomed into stardom the following year, becoming a folk hero to the AIK fans and emerging as a strong NHL prospect. Eklund excelled at penalty killing as well as the powerplay. His line with Rolf Edberg and Peter Gradin was one of the best in Swedish hockey history. After enjoying a very strong regular season in 1983-84, Eklund went berserk in the playoffs, scoring 6 goals and adding 7 assists in 6 playoffs games as AIK rolled to the Swedish championship. Eklund also experienced success on an even bigger stage: the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He put up 8 points in 7 games and was a major force in helping Tre Kronor to the bronze medal. The following season, Eklund scored 16 goals and added 33 helpers in 35 games, placing second in the Swedish league scoring charts. Not surprisingly, Eklund won the 1984 Golden Puck award as the player of the year in Sweden.

By the end of Pelle's stay with AIK, Eklund enjoyed near godlike status among AIK loyalists, especially with their infamous fan club, dubbed "The Black Army" (AIK traditionally has worn black jerseys with a shield crest as the team's logo). Perhaps a word of explanation about the AIK organization and European fan clubs may be helpful to North American fans who are not familiar with either. AIK, which is an acronym for the Swedish for "Everyman's Athletic Association Club," was founded in 1891 and incorporated a professional hockey team for the first time in 1921. The AIK organization is comprised of various youth teams in both soccer and hockey; at the adult level are a pro soccer team and a pro hockey team. This sort of youth-to-adult development structure is common in many European sports programs.

Fan clubs in Europe are also a little different than those in the United States; at least for our pro sports teams. European hockey fan clubs are modeled on the style of soccer fan clubs. There are team fight songs that are sung all game long, special team cheers that are led by the fan club and a nearly fanatical sense of loyalty to the team by the fan club members. The hockey fan clubs in Europe tend to exhibit a considerably lesser degree of hooliganism than the soccer fan clubs. While incidents of rival fan clubs clashing with each other or the police are not unheard of, the hockey teams' clubs are more noted for singing for the home team and taunting the opposition and refs than they are for violence. For many years, the most notorious of all the Swedish fan clubs was AIK's Black Army. They were the loudest, and often the most obnoxious, of the fan clubs; worshipping the AIK players, while hurling vile invective at the opposition (especially hated rival Djurgården, which is also based in Stockholm). Unfortunately, the Black Army also had the reputation of being the club most likely to engage in intimidation tactics; for example, one of their songs geared at the opposing team and their fans had the charming refrain of "ni ska dö" (you will die). While it is merely a symbolic threat, Black Army members have been blamed for a handful of physical confrontations over the years. By 1985, Pelle Eklund was the Black Army's most beloved player. When the news broke in July of 1985 that Eklund had accepted a contract offer to join the Flyers, some of the more rabid Black Army members decided that something had to be done to stop it from happening. A demonstration was organized outside of the American embassy in Stockholm. Of course, all the Black Army's "Keep Eklund in Sweden" rally succeeded in doing was baffling some American embassy workers who had no idea who Pelle Eklund was.

Across the Atlantic ocean, the signing of Eklund barely caused a ripple of fan interest in Philadelphia, much less the hysteria it touched off for some Black Army members in Stockholm. The Flyers issued a brief four paragraph press release that got buried in the back of local sports section.

At Eklund's first training camp with the Flyers, the diminutive Swede made an immediate impression on his new teammates. Recalled Tim Kerr, "The first thing that impressed us was how Pelle skated, found the open man and made plays while skating, not gliding." Flyers coach Mike Keenan was not quite as impressed. Keenan loved Pelle's speed and his passing ability, especially on the powerplay, but he also viewed Eklund as being soft physically and far too hesitant to shoot the puck even when he had open shots. As a result, Keenan generally confined Eklund to 4th line and powerplay duty.

With the likes of Mark Howe, Tim Kerr, Brian Propp and Ilkka Sinisalo already assembled for the man advantage, the spectacular playmaking of Eklund made it all come together. The Flyers powerplay was nothing short of deadly with Howe at the point, Kerr in front of the net, and Eklund threading the needle. Despite his limited even strength playing time, Eklund racked up 51 assists and 66 points in 70 games during his rookie year. He assisted on no fewer than half of Kerr's 34 powerplay tallies that season. Said Dave Poulin, "From about our 50th game, Eklund was our top offensive centerman. He attracted so much attention that he freed his wingers. That's one reason why Tim was free for those powerplay goals."

After a while, Keenan realized that Eklund was good enough to play in all situations. Eklund had a decent sophomore season (41 assists, 55 points) and then exploded into his own in the 1987 postseason. Backstopped by outstanding rookie goalie Ron Hextall, the Flyers came even closer to winning the Cup in 1987 than they did with Lindbergh's 1985 team. This time, they stretched Edmonton to a full seven games in the Finals, despite playing with an injury depleted lineup. In the absence of Kerr, the forwards who picked up most of the slack were Eklund, Propp, and Rick Tocchet. It seemed that every time you looked up during the 1987 playoffs, Pelle was blowing by another defenseman to go in all alone. For a little while, at least, Eklund even lost his reticence about shooting the puck. Eklund was especially devastating during the Patrick Division Finals against Montreal. Pelle burned the Canadiens multiple times throughout the series. He even scored a hat trick in Game 4.

Before Game 6, the Flyers and Habs engaged in a wild pre-game brawl, instigated by little-used Flyers defenseman/enforcer Ed Hospodar after the Canadiens Claude Lemieux insisted upon performing his end-of-warmup ritual of shooting the puck into the opposing net. Eklund had no idea at first what was going on. "I never saw anything like that in Sweden," said Eklund a decade later. "I didn't know how to act. I'm not a fighter, anyway [Pelle only had one major penalty in his entire career and never topped 23 penalty minutes in a season]. I went looking for someone 'safe' and found (fellow small, pacifistic Swedish forward) Mats Näslund. We stayed out of the way. To be honest, we both thought it was all a bit stupid."

Once the game actually commenced, Pelle was back in his element. He tallied three points, helping the Flyers to down Montreal and win the Patrick Division title. Eklund's mastery continued into the Finals. In all, Pelle tallied 7 goals and a whopping 20 assists in the Flyers 26 games in the '87 playoffs.

Unfortunately for Eklund, his 1987 playoff run raised expectations for him to levels he was not always able to meet. Eklund remained first and foremost a playmaker. He loved the art of passing the puck and would only shoot if he was on a breakaway or staring at a gaping net. While his coaches and fans were thrilled with all the assists he racked up each year, they always craved more of his goals, which were often spectacular. Eklund made goalies look foolish when he got them one-on-one. Despite occasional frustrations with Eklund, Keenan came to have great confidence in the player. During the last season under Keenan (1987-88) and then during the Flyers coaching tenures of Paul Holmgren and Bill Dineen, Eklund came to see regular even-strength ice time at both center and left wing and even started to see time on the penalty killing units. Eklund was arguably the Flyers best overall forward in the lean years of the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Although Eklund only topped the 20 goal plateau once, he had 50 or more assists three times. In 1990-91, Eklund was selected as the winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy as the Flyers MVP.

Most of Eklund's Philadelphia memories were happy. But he went through some tough personal times around 1990 when he divorced from his first wife, Anette. After their divorce, Anette took their son, Daniel, home to Sweden. Eklund used breaks in the schedule as a chance to fly back to Stockholm to visit his son. In 1991, Pelle became engaged to his second wife, Liselott. They married the next year. They have two daughters, Nathalie and Caroline.

By the time the Flyers enjoyed their resurgence of the mid-1990s, Eklund was gone from the team. He struggled to recover from a broken foot and never could quite find his rhythm again. Pelle was limited to 51 largely unproductive games in 1991-92. The next season, he was slotted to play left wing on the first line with Mark Recchi and rookie center Eric Lindros. Before the season, the trio, plus Flyers Executive Vice President Bob Clarke, filmed a television advertisement for frozen pizza. The ad ran for most of the season, but the intended first line never came together. Eklund was injured in the preseason and missed the first 22 games of the season. Meanwhile, Brent Fedyk joined Lindros and Recchi (the line was dubbed "The Crazy Eights"). After finally returning to the lineup, Eklund enjoyed a mini-resurgence. Although the Flyers finished out of the playoffs and were sub-.500 on the season, Eklund managed 49 points in 55 games, including a career best +12 plus/minus rating.

The beginning of the end for Eklund in Philly came with the arrival of new coach Terry Simpson in 1993-94. Eklund struggled and Simpson scaled back his ice time. With the rapid emergence of rookie Mikael Renberg adding to the young nucleus of Lindros, Recchi, and Rod Brind'Amour, Pelle's days in Philly were numbered. After 48 games (in which he tallied just one goal and 16 assists), Eklund was traded by general manager Russ Farwell to the Dallas Stars. Donning the unfamiliar number 6, Pelle dressed for 5 regular season games for Dallas, scoring twice and adding an assist. He was quiet in 9 playoff games for the Stars.

After the 1993-94 season, Pelle dropped out of the consciousness of most North American fans. His career was not over, however. Pelle made a triumphant return to Swedish hockey in '94-95, joining Leksand IF (also known as Leksand Stars). Eklund opted for Leksand over AIK because Liselott is from the Dalarna district of Sweden and the family spent their offseasons in the area. In order to acquire the rights to Eklund, Leksand paid 1 million SEK (roughly $200,000 in US money) to AIK; huge money by Swedish hockey standards. Eklund proved that the investment was wise. He tallied 50 points in 34 games including 37 helpers.

A special moment for Pelle occurred when Leksand made their first trip to Stockholm to play AIK. Eklund, who was injured, was not dressed for the game. When the arena screen showed Eklund in the stands behind the Leksand bench, the AIK fans rose to their feet and applauded. The Black Army then serenaded him with a special song. They sang, "There's only one, only one, Per-Erik Eklund." Pelle, who was a little uncertain how the fans (especially the Black Army) would react to him, was greatly moved by the affection the Stockholm crowd showed him.

Although '94-'95 was his last truly dominant season, Eklund remained a fixture in the Leksand lineup for five years. He also continued to dress for Tre Kronor until 1996, eventually bringing his number of "landskamper" (national team games) to 70 games. During the 1995-96 season, Eklund scored his last hat trick but, unfortunately, the goals were expunged from the record book. Leksand dressed a suspended player in the game and, the next day, LIF's victory was forfeited, along with all of their goals.

After the 1996-97 season, Eklund was courted by a Japanese hockey team, the Kukudo Bunnies. They offered a lucrative salary; more than Eklund was making in Sweden and probably more than he was worth at that late stage of his playing days. For a time it appeared that Eklund was going to accept the offer but he ultimately decided to finish his career with Leksand. He played two more solid seasons for LIF, playing in both Elitserien and the fledgling (and now defunct) European Hockey League. Pelle retired at the end of the 1998-99 season.

Pelle and Liselott make their permanent home in Sweden but Pelle spends much of his time traveling. He now serves as a European scout for the Phoenix Coyotes. He attended the 2000 entry draft in Calgary with the rest of the Phoenix contingent.

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