Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pia Grengman (Sterner)

The mustachioed man embracing this married couple is Tommy Topel. He is the Swedish Hockey League's sports director. As you can see, he is quite excited by the presence of his guests, with good reason.

The other man in this picture is Ulf Sterner, a legend of Swedish hockey. In 1965 he became the first Swedish player to play in the NHL. He was a national team legend with Tre Kroner in the 1960s.

Also in the picture is Sterner's wife, Pia, who as kid idolized the great Sterner. Thirteen years younger than he, Pia, too, is a legend of Swedish hockey, amongst other sports, while still known by her maiden name - Pia Grengman.

I first learned of Pia Grengman back in about 2003 while researching for my first book, The World Cup of Hockey. I was researching the 1976 Canada Cup, and found an obscure clip as to why Canada opted not to hire Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero as head coach - because he apparently was insisting one of his assistant coaches would be a female coach from Sweden.

The article, which I stumbled upon completely by accident, came from a Smithers, BC newspaper archive. I had scoured through several national and even international newspapers and never saw mention of that before. Fortunately for me, my co-author for the book was Patrick Houda, a Stockholm based researcher who is, if I may say so, the top European hockey researcher today.

Houda could not confirm the story's accuracy, but he suspected the lady in question was named Pia Grengman. She was a world champion weight lifter and tug-of-war competitor, and had a black belt in karate. She also participated with males in football (soccer), bandy and handball, pioneering women's inclusion in these sports along the way.

She also had a long career in hockey, although any hint of a playing career is quite sketchy. Here's what I was able to find via Google, thanks to translation services:

Girls playing hockey was almost unheard of in Sweden back in the 1960s, and girls playing with boys was strictly prohibited. But Pia pioneered the movement in Sweden, playing with men in what was then considered to be Division II and III clubs in the Gothenburg area, includings Chalmers and Göteborgs IK. What I am not certain is whether she was considered to be a professional player at this time.

Around the age of 20, Pia realized she was just to small to play hockey with men, and refocussed her love of the game to coaching, studying the philosophies of Shero and Anatoli Tarasov. She even moved to Moscow for six months to be tutored by Tarasov himself. He invited her after she wrote the Soviet coaching legend. His influence worked, as she coached various male and female teams of various ages in Sweden and Germany, as well as a men's team, Fredrikshavn, in Denmark, in the 1970s.

Pretty amazing stuff that very few people know about. Even in Sweden it is not well known. She is far better known as Mrs. Ulf Sterner.

Now in her 50s, hockey remains close to her heart, although she has a new sporting love - equestrian sports, notably trot. Her and Ulf live on a farm near Deje, Sweden, where they raise horses named after hockey players. One horse, which somehow broke Ulf's nose, was named Alexander Ragulin.

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