Attention NHL: Be on the lookout for Tomas Sandstrom. He’s 6 feet 2, 200 pounds, born in Finland, grew up in Sweden, lives in Los Angeles. Likes to dress in silver and black. Is armed and dangerous. Carries a stick that may have sharp objects attached to the end of it. If you’re looking for him at an arena, he will be the one foaming at the mouth, a maniacal grin across his face. Pretty harsh?
Unquestionably, but that’s the exaggerated image Sandstrom has projected in some league cities.
Not at all. Certainly not this season when a different Tomas Sandstrom has evolved.
Sandstrom, now in his seventh season in the league, had built up a reputation as a terror on ice. The above description would fit the picture many had of him.
Earlier this season, a Winnipeg paper labeled him, “Public Enemy No. 1,” and said he was “more hated than Saddam Hussein.”
Sandstrom’s teammate on the Kings, Kelly Hrudey, acknowledged that he had hated Sandstrom as much as anybody in the league when they played on opposite sides.
Players complained about his constant harassment--a stick in the ribs as they skated by, a push here, a shove there.
It’s certainly not figure skating out there, but some thought that Sandstrom went overboard and they responded, the best evidence being the number of blows Sandstrom has received in return.
And what does he think when he sees himself called a public enemy in a headline?
“You can’t look at it,” Sandstrom said. “I just try to ignore it. I don’t pay attention to that. I’m just a player who goes out there and works, night in and night out. That’s all I can do. And if I have to take a penalty to make the play, I’ll do it. Because that’s what you have to do.”
In street clothes conducting an interview, Sandstrom certainly doesn’t seem like the fire-breathing demon described by some.
He looks more like a grown-up choir boy--blond hair, blue eyes, an easy smile, a shy manner and a soft voice.
Yet the numbers are there. In 1988-89, his last full season with the New York Rangers, Sandstrom had 148 penalty minutes.
Halfway through last season, he and Tony Granato were traded to the Kings for Bernie Nicholls. Sandstrom played a combined total of 76 games for the two teams and had 128 penalty minutes.
Part of the problem, he said, was the Patrick Division.
“A lot of that comes from when I was with the Rangers and we would play the Flyers,” he said of the hate talk. “We had a few dirty games. We always had big battles with them and that’s what I think it comes from.”
Even after arriving in L.A., Sandstrom always seemed to be in the middle of the action away from the puck.
In last year’s record-setting brawl with the Edmonton Oilers, Sandstrom was the only player seriously hurt. A punch by Glenn Anderson shattered a bone around an eye.
Earlier in the season, Sandstrom had been hit by the stick of Laurie Boschman of the New Jersey Devils.
“It happens,” Sandstrom said with a characteristic shrug. “When the game is over, it’s over. That’s the way I look at it. I figure I’ve never been suspended or anything. It’s too bad it happens to me once in a while, but I just try to stay out of it.”
This season, he has. There’s a new Sandstrom on the ice.
True, he still has 76 penalty minutes, with a third of the season remaining. But he’s not getting into as many confrontations, not staying around to battle as long after the play is dead, not inviting the recriminations he did in the past.
Part of it, he says, has to do with the division he is in.
“It’s more skating,” he said. “More of a speed game.”
“It’s maybe a little easier to stay out of trouble here,” he said.
Another big factor, however, in Sandstrom’s reform is the line he is on. Skating with Wayne Gretzky and Granato, he has become part of one of the most dominating lines in hockey, accounting for about half of the Kings’ goals and a third of their points.
Although was sidelined for 11 games because of a back injury, Sandstrom has 29 goals and 57 points. And while he was out with that injury, the Kings had their biggest slump of the season, going 2-7-2.
Who needs a guy like that in the penalty box?
“He’s being a little smarter,” Granato said. “We both have to be aware of the fact we have a chance to be on the ice with Wayne. If you’re out there, you’re going to get bigger production. We still have our battles, but it won’t help the team if we get hurt.”
To a point.
"(Sandstrom) still sticks his nose into it,” Granato said. “If you’re not into it physically, it seems you don’t play as well.”
Coach Tom Webster has talked to Sandstrom about his style.
“What I don’t want to see is so many confrontations after the whistle,” Webster said. “He’s still going to have his scrums, but he has to learn to skate away sometimes.
“He’s such a competitor and I don’t ever want to take that away.”
In Sandstrom, Gretzky has found the wing to replace Jari Kurri, the man he teamed with so effectively in Edmonton.
“He has an intensity for the game,” Gretzky said of Sandstrom. “He has speed and he has a heavy shot. People think it’s not hard, but it’s heavy. We rely on him so much, we need him to be on the ice to contribute.”
Gretzky thinks his own game has helped Sandstrom lower his profile.
“He sees how other teams try to get me off my game,” Gretzky said. “I don’t let it worry me if they get aggressive with me. He’s handling it the same way.”
No argument from Sandstrom.
“I’ve never had so much fun playing hockey,” he said. “Gretzky is even better than I thought he was. To get to know how good he is, you have to play with him. Sometimes, he sees you, even though he doesn’t move his head. I don’t know how, but he just sees you and gets you the puck.
“So I’m just trying to stay out of it and clean up my game. It doesn’t do any good if I’m in the penalty box.”
Hrudey, though, doesn’t want to see Sandstrom change too much.
“I know it’s important to have him on the ice,” Hrudey said. “But you don’t want to take away his feistiness.”
But what about Hrudey’s previous assessment of Sandstrom?
“When the guy is on your team, he’s feisty,” Hrudey said. “When he’s on the other team, he’s a dirty, rotten bleep.”