For some Americans a favorite sport this Christmas is throwing a dart at a likeness of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For some Canadians, notably players in the National Hockey League, similar pleasure is derived from jabbing a stick into a Swede.
Judging by the Washington Capitals' recent games, pursuit of such a pastime is unlikely to provoke criticism from the league's referees. In fact, foul play against the speedy Swedes is so common even they accept it as a fact of life in the NHL.
"There is much dirty stuff," said Washington rookie Bengt Gustafsson. "I guess they think if they hit me one time, I won't come back the next time. "You have to accept it. That's the way they play here."
Washington Coach Gary Green, himself a Canadian, does not accept it, but he does not foresee any sudden change in attitude, by either players or officials.
"Take a look at Gussy's forearms and shoulders and you'll see where he's been hit constantly by sticks,: Green said. "That's how too many Canadian players have geared themselves, because of the embarrassment the Swedes have caused them. They can't catch them, so they lay the lumber on them.
"I don't like that stick business. There is too much chance of a serious eye injury. Our game is to take the body, but with the shoulder, not the stick. The shoulder is most efficient, because after you take the body your stick is on the ice and you can move the puck. If your stick is up here (pointing to his neck), you can't take the puck.
"The stickwork has been noticeable, especially in the Vancouver game. I'm sure there will be more of it. I'm sure it won't change. The refs don't seem to be very sympathetic."
In the first period Friday, Vancouver's Dennis Kearns swung his stick at Gustafsson, a violation that was obvious to most of the Capital Centre crowd, but referee Denis Morel ignored it.
In the third period, Gustafsson threw a good shoulder check at Chris Oddleifson, who responded with an elbow that drew a roar from the crowd. It occurred in front of Morel, yet he skated away without a call.
Saturday on Long Island, the Capitals' Rolf Edberg was in front of the Islanders' net when former Capital Gord Lane first speared him with his stick, then threw a punch. Referee Alf Lejeune made no penalty call and it was Capital Paul Mulvey who skated in to calm things down.
Green has placed Mulvey on left wing alongside Edberg and Gustafsson for just that reason. Earlier, there were attempts to ice an all-Scandinavian line with either Antero Lehtonen or Leif Svensson at left wing, but protection became more important than skill.
Actually, Mulvey is not sure the Swedes need any bodyguards. He is impressed by their courage.
"Rolf's gutsy, the way he gets in front of that net, and Gus hands out some pretty good checks," Mulvey said. "I wasn't told anything directly about helping them out that way, but I always worry about my linemates and, if I see something, I'll make sure something's done about it.
"It might give them more confidence with a guy my size out there. I think the guys on the other team know that if my guys are getting it, I'll be in there."
Edberg admits that cheap shots have occured, with Lane's spearing the most vivid memory, but he is more concerned with the constant hooking and interference that reduce his skating ability.
There is a lot of interference, more this year than last," Edberg said. "I must be in very good shape to avoid it. You have to have strong legs, because it is the same every game. All the defensemen in the whole league seem to be strong guys and it is easy for them to hold you out of the play."
Gustafsson is so adept at faking oppposing players that Green was forced to suggest that he adjust his play, For one thing, the defenders were whacking him with their sticks as he went by. For another, they were so embarrassed they sought revenge by assault the next time around.
"Vancouver was completely out to get Gussy and we had some discussion with Gussy about not trying to beat so many guys," Green said. "We told him to beat one and pass off. If he'd tried to do it all himself against Vancouver, he would have been exhausted."
Gustafsson was pleasantly surprised not to be troubled much by the "dirty stuff" in early games, but a few of his whirlwind moves sent his reputation soaring. It will be interesting Wednesday in Toronto to see how the Maple Leafs' Greg Hotham treats him, for instance.In the teams' first meeting, Gustafsson faked Hotham broke his stick on the crossbar.
"Of course I expect the dirty stuff," Gustafsson said. "Maybe they didn't know me before. For five or six games, it wasn't bad. Now it's all the same."
In fact, an alleged "suckering" of one of the Rangers' Swedes triggered a 10-minute melee following Sunday night's game against Boston in which Bruin palyers climbed into the stands and fought with Madison Square Garden fans. Four spectators were arrested.
Afterward, a Garden official placed the blame for the incident on the referee.
It seems to be the same for other clubs' Swedes, too. Ranger Coach Fred Shero who guides the tricky moves of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, launched a tirade at referee Bryan Lewis after a recent game against Philadelphia.
"I don't see why a Swede has to get murdered before they finally call a two-minute penalty for holding," Shero said. "They play the game cleanly and work so hard that it's a crime to hold them back because they weren't born in North America.
"Does it make the NHL look bad if they do well? Do they want to make sure there aren't too many foreigners up near the top of the scoring list? Last year we sent game films of them getting mugged, over and over, to the league office, but nothing happened."
As memory serves, however, Shero was not complaining about Lewis the night before the Flyers' game. On that occasion, the Rangers played Washington and on the same shift Barry Beck hauled down Gustafsson and Ron Greschener grabbed Edberg. In neither case was a penalty called, although the violations were blatant.
Apparently, the color of the uniform is sometimes able to color the view of a mugging.