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Islander of the Day: Tommy Söderström

At least he wasn’t Ron Hextall.

Tommy Soderstrom

The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.

As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.

I’ve never had less confidence in an Islanders goalie than I did in Tommy Söderström.

Maybe I gave the guy a raw deal. The teams he played on in the mid-1990’s were among the very worst this franchise has ever seen. Neither he nor his creasemates including fellow Swedish Tommy (Salo) had a lick of help when it came to keeping pucks out of the net. And the less said about their future general manager and sometime coach, Mike Milbury, the better.

The best thing I can say about Söderström’s time with the Islanders was that he rid us of Ron Hextall, a much better goalie who never should have left Philadelphia and was never going to be accepted by a fanbase that had come to not only hate the guy but absolutely loathe his very being thanks to years of hard fought divisional battles and a complete playoff no-show in a demoralizing sweep by the Rangers. Söderström wasn’t good, but at least he wasn’t Ron Hextall.

Söderström had been very good for Djurgardens in his native Stockholm in his early 20’s, when he led them to an SEL championship in 1991, and then with the Flyers in his first season in the NHL. After capturing people’s attention by leading Sweden to a gold medal at the 1992 World Championships, he went 20-16-6 for a not-very-good Flyers team in 1992-93. The next season, he underwent a fifth surgery on his heart due to a condition called Wolff-Parkinson’s-White syndrome, and went just 6-18-4 for Philly.

In September of 1994, Söderström was dealt to the Islanders for Hextall and a pick by GM Don Maloney, who admitted that his fans were never going to forgive Hextall for being Hextall. The plan was to make Jamie McLennan the full time starter, but Söderström ended up playing more games in the lockout-shortened season. Neither he nor McLennan won even 10 games that season, so it wasn’t exactly a banner time for anyone.

His friends in Sweden called him, “Psycho.” Okay, then.

In 1995-96, Söderström started a career-high 51 games and won just 11 of them, a ratio that, in the immortal words of Stan Fischler, defied credulity. A record of 11-22-6 in 51 games only scratches the surface of how truly awful that Islanders team was. Ziggy Palffy somehow scored 43 goals and Travis Green had 70 points, but it wasn’t even downhill after. It was all just straight off a cliff.

And Söderström might have been the poster child for them. With his oversized jersey, stick with no tape, JOFA birdcage helmet with enormous plastic neck protector hanging off of it, and a wild, unorthodox playing style, he was something other than a joy to watch. He looked like Tony Stark after he emerges from that desert cave in that scrap metal Iron Man suit to incinerate those Ten Rings terrorists with a pair of homemade wrist-mounted flamethrowers (also known as the Mark I Armor to us nerds).

At least he got some wisecracks in that Robert Downey, Jr. would be proud of.

That epically bad season would be just about it in the NHL for ol’ Psycho. Söderström would play just 10 seconds in an Islander uniform in October of 1996. He spent the rest of that season with Utah of the IHL, then he returned to Sweden and his original pro team, Djurgardens IF Stockholm the next year. Turns out, his final act was his most successful. He helped make Djurgardens one of the SEL’s best clubs, leading them to a loss in the league finals in 1998, then backing up starter Mikael Tellqvist for a championship run in 2000.

After that, he retired at the age of 30. Söderström told The Hockey News in 2015 that his “passion for the game was dead”. He apparently got into stock market trading in his post-playing days. I hope that he was more successful at that than he was in the NHL.

Seriously, though, I’m glad he finished his career with some good seasons. I’ve spent 20-odd years disparaging this guy, but seeing him go out with a championship makes me happy for him. Almost happy enough to make up for all of those nervous times watching him play for the Islanders. But probably not.

And at least he wasn’t Ron fucking Hextall.