Patrik Sundstrom, Centre, 9th round, 175th overall, 1980 Draft
The Vancouver Canucks sure have a thing for drafting Swedish twins, don’t they? Granted, the first time they did it, they only drafted one-half of the duo and did not have to orchestrate the draft floor machinations required to obtain the second set of twins. Thankfully, this half of the pair proved to be the better half. He was a centre from Skelleftea, a ninth-round pick in 1980, and held the record for most points by a Canucks centre for nearly three decades. He was the centrepiece of one of the greatest trades in Canucks history. And his last name wasn’t Swedish for “punch me, or headlock me in a scrum.” It was Sundstrom, thank you very much. First name Patrik.
Mention the organization today, and IF Bjorkloven of the Swedish first division doesn’t exactly scream “hockey factory.” But back in the early 1980s, Bjorkloven was a member of the top tier of Swedish hockey – the Elite league – and a rather decent one, at that. They finished second overall during the 1979-80 regular season, and featured a roster of rather unheralded (and mostly Swedish) players. Unheralded, that is, save for the noteworthy presence of a couple of 17-year-old twins from Skelleftea – Patrik and Peter Sundstrom.
Neither of the twins played the full 36 game schedule that season. In fact, they didn’t even play that many games combined, with Patrik playing 26 and Peter playing only eight. Nevertheless, Patrik still managed 12 points in those games and the story of teenage Swedish twins playing in Sweden’s top division no doubt attracted the attention of some North American scouts. That summer, the Canucks selected Patrik Sundstrom in the 9th round, 175th overall. “Back then, to be honest, I didn’t even know that I got drafted because it wasn’t a big thing in Europe,” he would say years later.
Sundstrom quickly assumed a larger role with Bjokloven over the next couple of seasons, eventually becoming one of the top scorers on the team as well as in the entire Elitserien. Canuck GM Jake Milford tried unsuccessfully to woo Sundstrom to come to Vancouver after both the 1981 World Junior championship (where Sweden won the gold medal) and the senior’s men world championship later that spring. Sundstrom kept improving, however, and his obvious precociousness earned him a spot on Sweden’s entry at the 1981 Canada Cup, where he recorded two assists as the Swedes finished a disappointing fifth. After leading Bjorkloven to the Elitserien final in 1982, he finally signed a three-year deal with the Canucks that brought him to North America.
Expectations for the young centre were sky high. After a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 1982, the Canucks hoped Sundstrom would enhance their attack. Al Strachan, writing for The Globe and Mail in December of that year, compared the young, scrapping Canucks to the New York Islanders of the mid-1970s – a disciplined, well-coached team waiting for its chance to become a champion. “When the Islanders were able to draft Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, they became a great team because they now had a couple of superstars to augment an already powerful team,” he wrote. “In Patrik Sundstrom, the Canucks may have found their Trottier.”
Bryan Trottier he was not, but Sundstrom was still a talented and reliable point-producer for the Canucks, almost from the start. His 46 points as a rookie still stands as one of the top seasons by a Canuck freshman in franchise history. But it was his sophomore season when he truly established himself as an offensive leader on the Canucks. His 91 points – although 114 points (!) behind NHL leader Wayne Gretzky – set a new team record that would stand for another eight years. He set other records that year that still stand. Against Pittsburgh on February 29, 1984, Sundstrom scored 7 points – including six assists – both of which are still Canuck records. In fact, that Sundstrom is the only Canucks centre not named Henrik Sedin to ever cross the 90-point threshold. His linemate that season, Tony Tanti (with whom he would form a close friendship), would also set a new Canuck record for goals in a season with 45. Archie McDonald of the Vancouver Sun would describe them as “the two dullest and handsomest young bachelors in the NHL.”
Unfortunately for the Canucks, Sundstrom was never able to build off of that 91-point season. Plagued by accusations of inconsistency and “taking nights off,” he was still a useful player for the Canucks – averaging around 70 points over the next three years. However, his ultimate worth for the Canucks would be as the key piece in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on September 10, 1988 for goaltender Kirk McLean and winger Greg Adams (the Devils also received a fourth round pick and the option to swap second-round picks). His friend Tanti took the trade hard. “Besides rooming on the road, we were at each other’s places two or three times a week,” said Tanti at the time of the trade. “We played golf. When we were away Sunny’s (Sundstrom’s) wife, Karen, and my fiancé, Chris, would keep each other company. It’s like losing my best friend or brother or something. Actually, it’s going to be as hard on Chris as me.”
Sundstrom would continue to be a 70-point player for the Devils over the next three seasons. His greatest accomplishment with the Devils would be during the 1988 playoffs, when New Jersey would make an unprecedented run to the Wales Conference Finals. In Game 3 of the Patrick Division semi-finals against Washington, Sundstrom scored 8 points as the Devils won 10-4 (ah, the 80s!) – an NHL playoff record that has since been equaled by Mario Lemieux. After a couple more seasons in the Meadowlands, he retired in 1992.
Nowadays, Sundstrom works as a youth hockey coach in Umea, Sweden – the home of his old club, IF Bjorkloven – passing on his skill and experience to teens in the local school program. Although he never became the next Bryan Trottier for the Vancouver Canucks, he was named the 23rd best player in franchise history by The Province newspaper in October 2014. Not bad for a centre selected in the ninth round of the 1980 draft. Not bad at all.
With files from The Vancouver Sun, Province, The Globe and Mail, and Jeff Rud’s Canucks Legends (2006).