Tommy Soderstrom came to North America with unrealistic expectations and retired with his love for the game all but extinguished.
By Ty Dilello When you think of Tommy Soderstrom, the first thing you remember is the big Jofa helmet and cage he wore. This was a goaltender who never put tape on the blade of his stick and was known to keep his whole body inside his net when the play was away from him. The seemingly quirky Swedish netminder, though, felt he was incredibly normal. Former teammate Kevin Dineen once said, “He’s the most relaxed goalie I’ve ever seen. Nothing rattles him.” So maybe the quirk about this goalie was that he was normal, which is abnormal for a goalie.
Soderstrom started hockey at age eight on the outdoor rinks in his hometown of Stockholm. “I loved playing in net right from the start,” he said. “It was always cold, and I remember when I stopped the puck, my hand would hurt badly from the cold.” Soderstrom was 20 when the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him 214th overall in 1990. He followed that up with a terrific season with Djurgarden of the Swedish League, as well as superb performances at the 1991 Canada Cup and the 1992 World Championship, where he won gold and shut out the Soviets.
“At the Canada Cup in Toronto,” Soderstrom said, “we played Canada in the semifinal, and I took a Steve Larmer slapshot in the face that broke my mask and I was bleeding. But I kept playing even though we lost 4-0. I heard NHL scouts started to take notice.”
Those tournaments made Soderstrom’s name known around the hockey world, and the 5-foot-9 goalie made his NHL debut in 1992-93 with the Flyers. He was touted as the next Pelle Lindbergh. At the beginning of his rookie season, Soderstrom developed heart problems. He was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a potentially life-threatening illness caused by an extra muscle bridge, which causes the heart’s electrical system to bypass a crucial filtering mechanism. “I had to have five heart operations,” Soderstrom said. “Thankfully my heart problems are gone now.” Soderstrom was stellar in net when healthy that season and won 20 of 44 games. The next season he regressed, winning just six of 34 games and getting demoted to Hershey of the AHL. In the 1994 off-season, he was traded to the New York Islanders for Ron Hextall. He spent parts of three seasons with the Isles. On a Mike Milbury-coached team that won just 22 of 82 games in 1995-96, Soderstrom was half the two-Tommy tandem with fellow Swede Tommy Salo. Soderstrom then returned to Sweden to play the final three years of his career with Djurgarden. He left hockey after 1999-00 at 30, ending on a high note by winning the Swedish title. “I kind of regret that I retired at 30, but my passion was dead, so it was an easy decision,” he said. Soderstrom had a 45-69-19 record in 156 NHL career games. Teammates called him ‘Tommy the Gambler’ because he loved games of chance and claimed he had a system to beat the roulette wheel. The system, he said, involves spending five to 10 hours a day at the roulette wheels, betting only on even/odd or red/black. His system held up after 70,000 spins at a German casino during one off-season. These days, Soderstrom, 45, is a day trader on the Swedish stock market and has invested his money well into hedge funds. So, in other words, you can still call him Tommy the Gambler. Soderstrom might have failed to become the next Pelle Lindbergh, but he did manage to make a name for himself.
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.