The most-hated man in the NHL wears his enemies' scorn like a badge of honor. "You don't make friends on the ice," says the Pittsburgh Penguins' Ulf Samuelsson with a menacing grin. "It's not a social gathering. Some pretty vicious stuff goes on out there."
Samuelsson should know. He's in the middle of much of it. With most of his face protected by a plastic visor, Samuelsson emerges from the gray area between what is legal and what is despicable to zero in on his next victim. Without thinking twice, hockey's toughest Swede will gouge an eye, cross-check a neck, spear a midsection, deal a low blow or bang his knee into the fleshy part of someone's thigh. "I do whatever it takes," says Samuelsson. "Whatever it takes to stop the other guy. Whatever it takes to win."
His tactics are not pretty, but they are effective. Since Samuelsson, a 6'1", 195-pound defenseman, was traded to Pittsburgh from Hartford two years ago, he has earned a pair of Stanley Cup rings along with the enmity of most of his peers. "If they had a poll of players, he'd win as the dirtiest player in the league," said forward Bernie Nicholls, then of the Edmonton Oilers, after he was ejected from a preseason game last fall for getting into a stick-fencing contest with Samuelsson. "Nobody else is close. I hate the guy."
"I really don't care," said Samuelsson when told Nicholls's sentiments. "That's my job. If I can make a highly skilled player like that want to whack me instead of concentrating on getting a good shot, that's half the battle. Obviously I got under his skin pretty good."
"His job is to hurt people," said Minnesota North Star center Mike Modano during the 1991 Stanley Cup finals. "He goes for the knees a lot. He takes runs at you, and really all he's trying to do is hurt you and knock you out of the game."
A few examples. During the 1984-85 season, while he was playing for the Whalers, Samuelsson apparently flicked his stick into the eye of Montreal Canadien forward Pierre Mondou, causing permanent damage that brought Mondou's career to a premature end. Samuelsson said that it was an accident and that he wasn't sure whether his stick or someone else's struck Mondou. In 1991 Samuelsson's hits caused knee injuries to Minnesota's Brian Bellows and Montreal's Brian Skrudland. His most infamous run-in came during the Wales Conference finals that year when he collided with Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins. The resulting thigh and knee trauma has kept Neely, one of the league's best players, out of action for nearly two seasons.
Samuelsson, 28, swears he doesn't go out of his way to incapacitate anyone. "I'm not going to say I'm a clean player," he says, "because I'm not. But I don't think I've ever intentionally tried to hurt someone—unless I got hurt myself. Then I like to get even."
As his defenders—mainly his teammates and Penguin coach Scotty Bowman—like to point out, Samuelsson has taken plenty of cheap shots without complaint. And no matter how badly he's battered, he keeps right on attacking the opposition. After having elbow surgery last season, he was supposed to miss two to three weeks. He missed four games.
"He's a throwback to the old-time defensemen," says Bowman. "He stays back, he's not afraid to take a check, and he's not afraid to give a check. He's always there; he never backs off. He asks no quarter, and he gives no quarter."
Others aren't as appreciative of Samuelsson's style. "I've always hated Ulf, and I still do," says Mike Milbury, the Bruins' coach at the time of Neely's injury and now the team's assistant general manager. "Jerk that he is, he's always wearing that smirky grin that makes you want to punch him in the face. Then you do it, he takes it, and you're the one in the penalty box for two minutes feeling like a fool. He's not often called for retaliation, and that, probably more than any other thing, is why people can't stomach the sound of his name."
When Samuelsson was with Hartford, Neely went after him on several occasions. The fights were always one-sided, with Neely throwing most of the punches, but Samuelsson, beaten but unbowed, stubbornly refused to modify his style. "Here's a guy who's not afraid to crosscheck you, use his stick or whatever," Neely says. "When you play the way he does, you've got to be willing and able to back yourself up."
Samuelsson just shrugs. "I know a lot of guys in the league can beat the——out of me," he says. "But I'm not going to change my attitude. The day I change my attitude is the day I go back to Sweden and play in the noncontact league."
Provided, of course, the Swedes would take him back. A native of Fagersta, a steel town in the center of the country, Samuelsson refused to play the passive European style. So did Los Angeles King forward Tomas Sandstrom, a transplanted Finn who also grew up in Fagersta. When they were kids playing on opposite sides, Sandstrom would smack Samuelsson with his stick, and Samuelsson would stop at nothing to clear Sandstrom away from the front of the net. Their battles were a preview of the style each would carry into the NHL.
At 17, Samuelsson joined a Swedish League team in Leksand. No one knew what to make of him. "Ulfie was something new," says Gunnar Nordstrom, a reporter for the Stockholm-based Expressen, the country's largest daily newspaper. "There was no one like him. All the other defensemen were softies."
"I saw him rough up a lot of players," says Sandstrom, who played for the same team. "Everyone kept saying that he was going to get killed if he played like that when he went to the NHL."
Samuelsson made the jump to the Whalers in 1984, when he was 20, and quickly proved he was a survivor. "He's got a junkyard-dog mentality, he's tougher than nails, and he's got a terrifically high threshold of pain," says Bill Clement, a member of the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies who now does television commentary on Flyer games and for ESPN. "He would have fit right in with the Flyers of the '70s, beside guys like Eddie Van Impe and Moose Dupont. He's crude, but Dick Butkus was crude, and he's in the pro football Hall of Fame. To me, Samuelsson is like a linebacker on skates."
Indeed, linebackers like the way Samuelsson plays. Jack Lambert, the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers' old Steel Curtain, was spotted one night on his way into the Civic Arena for a Penguin game. "Who's your favorite player, Jack?" someone asked. "Ulf!" Lambert growled, before he melted into the crowd.
"They really appreciate a good defensive player in this town," says Samuelsson.
In fact, he is as popular at home as he is reviled on the road. At times he has had his own rooting section in a corner of one of the Civic Arena's balconies. The fans' call to arms, displayed on a banner, was CRY ULF! Last spring it was countered by a sign hung in Boston Garden during the playoffs: KILL ULF! The Penguins were concerned enough about his safety that they had a heavily muscled bodyguard accompany Samuelsson for the entire trip to Boston, which ended with Pittsburgh sweeping the series. Nothing untoward happened other than the constant chants of "Samuelsson sucks!" from the stands.
Rick Tocchet was no fan of Samuelsson's, until he was traded to the Penguins by the Flyers last season. "No, I didn't like him," says Tocchet, a forward with a seemingly permanent four-stitch cut across the bridge of his nose. "In fact, like most people who don't know him, I hated him. But now he's probably one of my best friends on the team. I'd do anything for the guy."
"I never liked playing against him, either," says Pittsburgh forward Kevin Stevens. "He hits you head-on, and every time you turn around, he's right in your face. You love him when he's on your team, and you hate him when he's not. He can make you cringe, even when he's playing with you. He just plays with such reckless abandon."
No kidding. Early in his career, in a game against the Quebec Nordiques, the Stastny brothers, Peter, Marian and Anton, were on a breakaway toward an open net with Samuelsson in hot pursuit. Samuelsson threw his stick and both gloves in a futile attempt to deflect the puck before Anton finally scored. "If the rink was any longer," joked Emile (the Cat) Francis, Hartford's general manager at the time, "Ulfie would have been down to his jock."
A few years later, furious after he was ejected from a game in Toronto, Samuelsson picked up a mop and bashed a hole in the grill of a Zamboni. The Maple Leafs sent him a repair bill for $300. He paid it.
"Let's put it this way: He has a zest for life," says center Ron Francis, who, along with defenseman Grant Jennings, was traded with Samuelsson from Hartford to Pittsburgh for center John Cullen, defenseman Zarley Zalapski and right wing Jeff Parker in what turned out to be a steal for the Penguins. "I've been playing with him nine-plus years, and I still shake my head at the things he does. He's as crazy as ever."
And he's at the peak of his irritating game. At week's end the Penguins had scored 30 more goals when Samuelsson was on the ice than they had allowed. "Number one, I don't like him," says Oiler coach Ted Green. "Number two, I'd love to have him on my club."
Believe it or not, when he's off duty Samuelsson acts like an intelligent, caring human being. He lives in Roslyn Farms, Pa., halfway between the Civic Arena and the airport, with his Swedish wife, Jeanette, and their 19-month-old son, Philip. You might expect him to carry brass knuckles and blackjacks in the backseat of his cream-colored Lexus. Instead, like any proud family man, he totes a baby seat.
In last year's Stanley Cup finals, in which Samuelsson frustrated Chicago Blackhawk star Jeremy Roenick with a classic clutch-and-grab performance, Samuelsson dedicated his play to his father, Bo, who had died of kidney failure earlier that season. Again stepping out of his on-ice character, Samuelsson now serves on the board of directors of his local kidney foundation. Of course, that could mean he's learning how to eviscerate unsuspecting opponents without the benefit of anesthesia. You never know.