LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings held their annual Tip-A-King fundraiser on January 7, and former Kings winger Tomas Sandstrom, who the team honored prior to their game against the Minnesota Wild hours earlier, had a booth to himself where he could greet fans. But he spent most of the evening with his wife, Helena, and that’s about it.
Kings broadcasters Bob Miller and Nick Nickson visited with him, as did the few Kings alumni who were present. But fans visiting his booth for autographs and photos were very, very few and even farther between.
“It’s been too long,” I said to him. “Almost 24 years since the 1993 Stanley Cup run.”
“Yeah, time flies,” he said.
“Not enough older Kings fans are here,” I replied. “The majority of the current ones apparently have no idea who you are.”
Indeed, it seems plainly evident that a lot of fans don’t know, or have forgotten about Sandstrom, a player who could do it all and left it all on the ice while playing in the tremendous shadow of The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, and to a lesser degree, Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor.
Sandstrom, now 52 years old, played four seasons for the Kings from 1989-90 to 1993-94. He was acquired by the Kings on January 20, 1990, along with right wing Tony Granato, from the New York Rangers, in exchange for center Bernie Nicholls, a deal that was widely criticized, locally by Kings fans, and in much of the hockey world, given Nicholls’ prowess with the Kings.
“The Kings made a deal—they traded Bernie Nicholls, who was coming off a 70-goal, 150-point season, to the Rangers,” said former Kings right wing and general manager Dave Taylor. “That was right at the All-Star break, I believe, and the two players we got back were Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato.”
“That really turned out to be a good deal, as hard as it was to give up Bernie Nicholls, who was probably a number one or a number two center,” added Taylor. “But we got two, top six forwards back, and we added speed to our lineup. We also added some grit and a lot of a tenacity.”
“That ended up being a real good trade for us. Tomas ended up playing a lot with Gretz, and Tony Granato—I remember when we went to the Finals, Tony, Mike Donnelly and Corey Millen were an outstanding line for us. Not very big, but a lot of speed, a lot of quickness. They generated a lot of our offense, so that trade really balanced our top two lines.”
Sandstrom, who now lives in Malmo, Sweden where he is a firefighter and runs a construction company, recalled the day the trade went down.
“I talked to Tony, and we both said that we hope we don’t get to play with Gretzky right away,” he said. “It would be nice to play with him, but I want to start with someone else.”
“[Then-Kings head coach] Tom Webster—I had him as a coach in New York,” he added. “He called me later that night, and he told me that I was going to play with Gretzky. But Gretzky was really nice and all the stars they had here were great hockey players, but they were really nice human beings, too.”
Gretzky quickly put the new guys at ease.
“He told us, ‘I know you guys are nervous, but just play your game and I’ll adjust to you guys,’” Sandstrom recalled. “That felt good.”
Sandstrom went on to play 235 regular season games with the Kings, scoring 117 goals and contributing 137 assists for 254 points with 320 penalty minutes, ranking 25th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list.
Sandstrom’s best year in the National Hockey League was the 1990-91 season, when he scored 45 goals and added 44 assists for 89 points in 68 regular season games with the Kings.
In 50 playoff games with the Kings, Sandstrom is ranked ninth on their all-time scoring list, with 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points with 53 penalty minutes.
In 983 career NHL regular season games with the Rangers, Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Sandstrom scored 392 goals and added 462 assists for 856 points with 1,193 penalty minutes. In 139 NHL playoff games, he scored 32 goals and contributed 49 assists for 81 points with 183 penalty minutes.
When asked about his fondest memories of his time with the Kings, the first thing he mentioned was Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Final against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a 5-4 win that earned the Kings their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I think it’s all about Gretzky,” he reminisced. “It was weird, the whole day. He was so focused on that game, and he carried us through it. He had three goals and an assist and just played unbelievably. It was a tough series, too.”
By the way, Sandstrom was no slouch in that game, scoring a goal and adding an assist.
Earlier that season, Sandstrom suffered a broken forearm after being slashed by Maple Leafs star forward Doug Gilmour during a 6-4 Kings win on November 21, 1992.
“I remember his broken arm, a little bit,” said Kings retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers, who worked 2,632 consecutive games with the Kings over 34 seasons starting in 1972. “He came back and played. He was shooting the puck great [after suffering the injury] a little bit before the full eight or ten-week [recovery period].”
“Maybe the normal guy would’ve stayed out longer, but he just wanted to play,” added Demers.
To illustrate, Sandstrom pushed hard to return from the injury early.
“After Tomas Sandstrom broke his arm, we had him [working out] on the bike for several weeks,” Demers recalled. “Not skating. We didn’t want to take a chance on him falling. Then we had him skating on his own. I’d be in the locker room—we only had one trainer, at the time. He’d be out, before practice, skating on his own, and a couple of days in a row, I went out there to check on him and there he is, shooting pucks. So I told him that he can’t do that—it was too much pressure on his arm.”
“The next time he skated, I told him ‘no pucks,’” Demers added. “But he went out there with some pucks and started shooting again, so I went to the bench and cut his stick blade off and gave it back to him.”
“All that is not being mean, or anything. That was just to protect him from himself. We wanted him to get his skating legs for his conditioning, but that’s all he was supposed to do.”
Having to cut his stick blade off illustrates Sandstrom’s burning desire to play the game, not to mention his dedication and determination.
“As far as his injuries were concerned, he just wanted to play,” said Demers. “He was one of those guys who you had to protect from himself. There was always pressure—peer pressure and pressure from the coaches—to have a player back in the lineup. He would just go out and play.”
An earlier injury also shines the spotlight on Sandstrom’s desire to just go out there and play.
In Game 2 of the Smythe Division Finals against the Edmonton Oilers on April 20, 1991, Oilers defenseman Craig Muni hit Sandstrom, who suffered a fractured leg.
Despite that, Sandstrom returned to the lineup a little less than one week later.
“That was a hockey play,” Sandstrom said about an hour after he was honored by the Kings on January 7. “You want to play. I had a fracture, but it wasn’t a big fracture. It was sore, but the doctors told me, ‘you can play on it,’ and they gave me braces and stuff. Pete Demers helped me out, too. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to play.”
“It worked out well,” Sandstrom added. “The toughest part was when they told me [about the injury]. Then, it got into my brain, and I knew there was something wrong with my leg. That was the tough part to get over.”
Everyone in the Kings dressing room was in awe that he returned so quickly.
“That year in the playoffs, he did have a fracture in his leg, and I don’t think he missed any time,” said Taylor. “He was right back in the lineup and he played hard for us.”
“If you had twenty guys on your team like Tomas Sandstrom, I [would’ve been] out of work,” said Demers. “He was one of those guys who you had to protect from himself because he wanted to play so bad—you had to make sure he was OK.”
“You had to watch these guys,” added Demers. “They didn’t make it to the NHL by slacking off. That’s in their heart. Thousands of kids play hockey but only a handful make it to the NHL and for a lot of them, it’s not just natural skill. You have to work your butt off. Tomas was one of those character guys. He’s also such an unassuming guy. He is such a down-to-Earth guy. But what I remember most about him is that he was super-low maintenance. He just wanted to play and he was very, very high character. If you were going to be in a fox hole, he was the guy you wanted to have next to you.”
One reason that players like Gilmour and Muni targeted Sandstrom was that, at the time, European players were stereotypically viewed with great disdain.
“There weren’t tons of European guys when Sandstrom came in,” Demers noted. “He was telling me there was a little bit of a move throughout the league—they didn’t want the European guys. When they first came in, they were viewed as soft, but Tomas was far from that.”
“He just seemed to rub opponents the wrong way,” said Taylor. “They all tried to take a run at him, but he played through a lot of that stuff. He was a very effective player for us.”
“It seemed like everybody, when they saw it was him, they took an extra whack at him, whether it was with a stick or a punch, or something like that,” added Taylor. “I think he also played for awhile with a broken jaw. He played through injuries and he played both ways. He backchecked as hard as he went to the opposing net.”
As noted earlier, Sandstrom is, arguably, one of the most underrated players in Kings history, having played in the shadow of Gretzky, Robitaille and Taylor, despite his ability to do it all.
“He certainly wasn’t underrated in the room,” Taylor noted. “I think everybody who played with him appreciated how hard he played. There were Europeans, and there was a stereotype that they weren’t hard players, or they weren’t physical or aggressive. But that wasn’t the case with Tomas. He played hard and gritty. He played a rugged game, so he was always involved in the physical side of it. He was big and strong, so he gave out as much punishment as he took.”
While he was in Los Angeles to be honored by the Kings, Sandstrom said that even though almost 24 years have passed, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final still hurts.
“I still wake up at night, thinking about what happened in 1993,” he noted. “We were so close, and it hurts. That’s why it was so good for the Kings, and for the fans here, that they could go on and win it, even though it took them  more years. They went through some struggles here with Bruce McNall and the other owners. But now they’ve finally got everything together—Luc and [Rob Blake] are involved—it’s good to see.”
When asked about the way he played the game compared to the game today, Sandstrom said that if he was still able to play, he could probably play with the current Kings.
“[Darryl Sutter is] a good coach, and he likes players who work hard,” he said. “I would probably fit in there. That was my style, the only way I could play—work hard and do the things that I was good at. I was a lucky guy, too. I got to play with a lot of good players who helped me out.”
“I got to play with Gretz, and the year Gretz was hurt, I got to play with Luc and Jari [Kurri],” he added. “To play with guys like that, it makes your job a lot easier.”
“I didn’t mention it [in his remarks before the game], but I’ve been so lucky. All these guys who have their numbers retired [with the Kings], I got to play with all of them, except Rogie Vachon; [Sandstrom played with Marcel Dionne with the Rangers]. They were hockey players, but they were better human beings. They’re fantastic people. I was just lucky to be around them.”
LEAD PHOTO: Former Los Angeles Kings left wing Tomas Sandstrom. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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