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Hockey past turns Wheelers' visit to Sweden into homecoming

Andy Wheeler has heard the stories that his dad, Tom Wheeler, was a pretty good hockey player in his day, but he may have had no idea of how good a player his father was until the two of them made a trip to Sweden a few weeks ago.

Andy Wheeler's success playing hockey at the University of Wisconsin is a textbook example of the importance of determination to a young athlete. After playing very well, but mainly in a support role, at Duluth East, Wheeler walked on at Wisconsin four years ago. It is not uncommon for a major college coach to tell an aspiring young prospect to spend a year as a red-shirt, practicing and working into the team's system, but without ever playing in order to preserve all four years of NCAA eligibility.

The rarity in this case is that Andy Wheeler asked coach Jeff Sauer if he could red-shirt. So he did, and he made the team as a fourth-line part-timer who worked his way into regular status as a freshman the next season, then became a more solid regular as a sophomore, and was a first-line standout for the Badgers last season. With his senior year to go, Andy Wheeler took a look ahead, and realized he would face an even more tedious task to convince a pro hockey team to allow him the same room to succeed.

So he consulted with his dad, back in Duluth, about the possibility of taking the same route his father had taken after high school and college, and perhaps going to Europe to play future hockey.

"Andy had expressed interest this past winter in possibly doing what I did," said Tom, an insurance agent in Duluth. "I actually played four years -- two in Sweden and two in Austria -- so I arranged for a trip to visit my old teammates and friends, and showed him around. I wish someone had done that for me, because the first several weeks are a big adjustment; if he chooses to go back, he should have a good orientation and know what to expect."

What neither Wheeler expected was the greeting Tom got in Sweden. But first they went to Salzburg, Austria, on the trip, which took from May 17 through the 29th. After touring that post card mountain country in the Alps for seven days, Tom and Andy journeyed on to Sweden, traveling to Tyringe, which is a city about 60 miles north of Malmo, and where Tom Wheeler played from 1969-71.

"Tyringe is the Green Bay of Swedish hockey, a small town with a big hockey tradition," said Wheeler.

Tom had arranged to meet old friends and former teammates and his old coach, Eje Johansson. Tyringe is also a small enough town, and Tom Wheeler played there back in Sweden's formative years as a budding world hockey country, so the word spread. Even though Tom has been back to Tyringe a few times in the past, the media reaction this time was a surprise to him.

Tom Wheeler was a good hockey player, and at that time and place, he was a player of major impact on the Swedish team, and his tenacious play often was aggressive enough that he became known for spending time in the penalty box. Such players may not be appreciated by opposing teams, especially in Sweden in the days when skating and stickhandling were prominent and bodychecks were rare. So the local newspaper made a major issue out of Tom Wheeler's return.

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"They did a three-page spread in the local paper," said Tom. "They thought it was noteworthy that I recalled fondly eating sausage on mashed potatoes with lingonberries, mustard and pickle relish, which was Swedish fast food from 30-plus years ago. They even shot photos showing us eating it, because it's still a Swedish fast-food staple."

The photographer also took the Wheelers to the town's arena, which has aged well since the days Tom Wheeler played there. "I actually scored the first goal in that building," said Wheeler. "And they also wanted a picture from where I spent much of my time -- in the penalty box."

"I played for Tyringe SOS (skating and skiing club) for two seasons from 1969-71," Wheeler said. "Eje Johansson was the coach and the community recreation leader. We played Division I hockey and got to play against some of the finest players/teams in Europe at that time -- Dynamo Moscow, Dynamo Berlin, Dynamo Weisswasser and Slovan Bratislava, with players like (NHL star) Vaclav Nedomansky, Dzurilla, Davidov, Maltsev ... in addition to the reigning stars in Sweden like Stisse Johansen and Lars-Erik Sjoberg."

Tom got connected with Johansson by showing some creativity and the tenacity that is sort of a family tradition.

"Eje had responded to some letters I had sent out using Wren Blair, Bob Ridder, Thayer Tutt and Jack Riley as references," he said. "I played very well there. I scored quite a few goals, including hat tricks against all those teams I mentioned, except Bratislava, when I got tossed out for fighting with Nedomansky.

"Johansson is very well regarded in European hockey circles. I arranged for him to come over here in 1978, and he helped at the UMD hockey camp and in 1981 spoke at the NCAA tourney here. He became good friends with Gus Hendrickson and Mike Sertich, and he sent his son, Lars, over here, and he played at East for the '81-82 season, where he lived with Don Holm's family. He was a teammate of Skeeter Moore, who played two years for Tyringe after graduating from UMD and then played seven more years in Sweden. Bill Oleksuk of UMD also played for Tyringe, and Dean Holm and John Slonim of Duluth played for Eje when he was coaching different teams.

"Numerous Duluth figure skating instructors, such as Melanie Goldish and Beth Martin, also spent time in Tyringe. And Eje's son Lars wound up marrying a figure skating instructor from the Twin Cites. Eje has been to at last six NCAA tourneys, and has scouted for Pittsburgh and Quebec."

If Andy Wheeler does eventually decide to go to Sweden to continue playing hockey, the trip with his dad provided convincing evidence that it would be a life experience, more than just a hockey opportunity.

"Tyringe was a wonderful community," Tom Wheeler said. "I learned to speak Swedish, coached their girls basketball team, helped teach English and gymnastics, etc. I have been back several times and have always been very well received."

Oh, and with that order of sausage, lingonberries and mashed potatoes -- easy on the mustard.

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