Interview with Calle Johansson, former Washington Capitals Defenseman

Foto: Jonas Löfvendahl

Earlier this week, Swedish media outlet published an extensive interview with former Capitals’ great Calle Johansson. The interview, conducted by Ronnie Ronnkqvist, was part of their Old School Hockey series. In the interview, Johansson looks back on his career, from his earliest days in youth hockey through the end of his playing career. The following are a few excerpts of the interview translated by NoVa Caps. (You can access the entire article here.)

Calle Johansson played in 1109 games during his 17-year NHL career, between 1987 and 2004, which was nearly as many games as Börje Salming, the great Swedish defenseman from an earlier era.

In international competition, Johansson won two Gold Medals in the IIHF World Championships (1991 and 1992) and was part of a championship team with the Björklöven club during the 1986-87 season.

A Start In Sweden

Johansson started his playing career at Kungsbacka in the 1981-82 season.  Right from the start, Johansson became a defenseman, since his team, KBA, already had several forwards who were good at scoring goals.

After playing two seasons in KBA-67’s A-team, Calle Johansson, at age 16, switched to the Västra Frölunda team for the 1983-84 season, which was then in the Swedish Elite league.  There were some people who didn’t agree with that move and told him, “It is better to play hockey in Division 2 than to sit on the bench in Frölunda and not get to play at all.”

CJ: I was not intimidated on the ice for these guys, but there was an incredible respect in the dressing room. These were very good guys who took care of me. Very humble and really good guys who made me feel good. No one was trying to put me down in any way.

Prior to the 1986-87 season, Björklöven replaced their head coach with Hans Lindberg.  Björklöven ended up winning the championship. In the opinion of Johansson, Lindberg “was absolutely wonderful as a coach and as a human being”.

CJ:  It’s pretty easy for me to explain why I liked him. During the games, we only talked hockey, but when we got off the ice, we could talk about anything. We could talk about family, girls, the pub or whatever it was. It wasn’t hockey all the time. You could be normal around him, which made everyone relaxed in a good way.

The season before we had Tommy Sandlin. A great man in every way, but he was 100 percent focused on hockey, from when he got up in the morning until he went to bed. So, it was every day. That was the difference.

Shuffle Off to Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres drafted Johansson in 1985 with the 14th pick overall, but he did not report there until after Björklöven’s 1986-87 championship.  Johansson recalls his main memories of the draft.

CJ:  The first thing in Björklöven was that the whole team would go to Corfu. The draft was held while we were there. We sat at an outdoor restaurant in the middle of the night [due to time zone difference]. He [Ulf Dahlen] was drafted in the first round as a seventh player and was so happy that he jumped up on the roof of the outdoor restaurant. It was a perforated fucking plastic roof. Of course, he was perhaps a little flabby.

He rolled right through the roof. This was right after New York [Rangers] had called him. Now I do not remember how they reached him on the phone, but it took an hour. Then Björn Wagnsson, who was the agent for both of us, called and announced that Buffalo drafted me up with pick number 14.

Johansson then talked of going to Buffalo to enter the NHL.

CJ: My wife and I went over to Buffalo that summer when I signed a contract. There, I met the owners, the coaches, the trainers and so on. There was a press conference and I didn’t understand why. Now, I realize that it’s because I was a first round pick, so they want to make a big deal of it.

It was fantastic weather, but I remember people saying to me, “Don’t be so happy about this because it will be cold in winter when the season gets going.”

Johansson’s first coach in the NHL was Ted Sator.

CJ: Ted is a good person. He was married to a Swedish woman. Sure, he was nice to me in a good way then. To be honest, he was not a great coach. At that time, Ted had a hot temper, made many strange decisions and loved punishment. It does not work on adults too often.

Traded To Washington

During his second season in Buffalo, at the trade deadline, Johansson was traded to the Washington Capitals, the team he would play for 15 seasons.

CJ: The first season in Buffalo went really well for me. Then, I had trained with Björklöven in the summer, went over, and was in top shape.

The second season I thought I was very good. Everyone patted me on the back and said how good I was. At the same time, it wasn’t fun to work out in the summer by myself and I procrastinated with workouts.

I was out of shape and did not get off to a good start when I came to Buffalo the second year. I was so out of shape that I am ashamed to admit it even today. It was embarrassing and I didn’t really have stamina. Because I didn’t have as much speed, I was hard checked by Rich Tocchet and Peter Zezel in the third game against Philadelphia. I got a ligament injury in the thumb. I was gone for eight weeks.

When Calle Johansson returned from injury, his timing was off.

CJ: I was never able to catch up that season. I was really bad. Buffalo must have been sorry. At that time, two of their goaltenders, Tom Barrasso and Darren Puppa, were injured. Washington had too many goalkeepers at the same time, so Buffalo wanted Clint Malarchuk.

I knew Bengt-Åke [Gustafsson] a little from the national team. When we had played against each other, we always cooked dinner together. He had already asked me earlier in the season, “Would you like to play in Washington?” And I would reply in the affirmative.

I figured Bengt may have had a hand in me coming to Washington. They loved him there and it was obvious that their team management and owners listened to him.

RR: Were you happy with the trade or what was your first reaction?

CJ: It was mixed emotions. I was very happy that it was Washington. However, I was pissed at being traded.

RR: Why?

CJ: For me, it felt like Buffalo no longer wanted me since I hadn’t been good enough. Now it might not be the way to think, but then I thought in my negative brain.

But, once there, I discovered that I had come to a better place both legally and as a city.

RR: How quickly did you fit in with the team and how did you experience Washington as a hockey city?

CJ: I fit in very quickly. We lived out in Maryland and not in town. It’s like the coast here with lots of boating, small streets that people love to stroll around, many restaurants, bars … It wasn’t hard to get into that and I love that town and surrounding Washington. Everything was and is absolutely superb there.

At that time, the hockey interest wasn’t so great. The arenas were usually full for the games, but it was no more than that. People on the street did not recognize us hockey players. At that time, basketball and American football were the biggest sports interests.

In the 1997-98 season, Calle Johansson experienced the highlight of his NHL career, as the Washington Capitals went to the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit.

CJ: Of course, it was the biggest highlight. I wish I had been able to play a Stanley Cup final again. One should do it twice to know how to take in all the impressions, feelings and focus properly.

It was absolutely superb to play in the Final, but it was a shame that we were up against such a good team. Although the individual game results were fairly even, Detroit was significantly better than us. That is nothing to be ashamed of.

I think we did okay, which you can’t say when we lost, but considering how good Detroit was, it was clearly fair.

RR: Aside from the Stanley Cup Finals, what is your best hockey memory of your time in Washington?

CJ: I don’t know if I have any special memories. I am very grateful that my wife, my children and I got to stay there all the time.

My wife made friends, not only in hockey but also around. It is precisely because of this that we were allowed to stay and grow roots here which I think was the best.

RR: Does Washington as a city still mean a lot to you and your family?

CJ: Yes, I think so. After all, we lived in Washington for 15 years and then two years while I was an assistant coach there. We have lots of friends left there and with whom we keep in touch.

The kids love Washington. The first thing they do every morning is to see how the Washington Capitals are doing. They are almost more interested in hockey than I am. Now, there are three girls who are all equally hockey-crazy.

Everything was not always positive for Calle Johansson during his time in Washington.

CJ: The toughest part was probably when I broke my shoulder in November 2001. I missed the rest of that season and played only eleven games. All of the muscle brackets went off in the right shoulder. Then came a coach, Bruce Cassidy, a good guy but it was his first job as an NHL coach.

I didn’t like him, but my relationship was tough because he somehow felt since I was the oldest guy on the team, I should not get to do what I want. He would push me there all the time. Besides, he was only two years older than me.

There was also the Olympics that season where Sweden lost to Belarus. But it did not matter that I eventually missed that tournament anyhow.

The 2002-03 season was his last one as a player with Washington. He began the 2003-04 season as a scout for Washington but ended it as a player with Toronto.  After that season, he retired for good.

Toronto Calling

CJ: (Laughter) When I signed my last contract with Washington, which was for three years, we decided that I would only play those years. My wife wanted to move home, which I also wanted. If we do not move home now, it will be more difficult (for the kids) when they start high school and deal with everything associated with it.

We tried to go home. Washington wanted me to continue with them. But look at the team we had then. Many of the players on the team were getting old or were gone so there weren’t many good players left. It was catastrophic for a few years. At age 36, I did not want to live through a rebuild.

I thought I would rather pass the torch to some younger guys.  So, I would be a scout. George McPhee, Washington’s General Manager, then called, “If you don’t want to play for us, then you should play for Toronto because they pay well”.  I told him, “I’ve quit.”  George then said, “You should at least listen to them.”  I finally said, “Okay, give Toronto my number.”

CJ: I had no agent then but had canceled any that I had. This was in October. Then they [Toronto] called and asked if I am interested. “Yes, I’m interested.”  Toronto replied, “Good, then we’ll hear from you.”

I had assumed they would call in a day or two. But time passed. November, December and then Christmas came and went. At that time, I assumed they wouldn’t call at all. During this time, I skated with players I had played with before coming to America; i.e. a group that played once a week.

Then on Vasalopp Sunday [first Sunday in March], I get a call from the Toronto Maple Leafs, “Can you come now?” I said, “Are you kidding … it’s March now and we talked in October.” Toronto said I would get very well paid for the time left in the season. I finally said, “Give me 14 days and I’ll come.” They said, “You will come tomorrow.”

So, this was on a Sunday. I then went over on Monday, did the medical exam and played twelve games.

International Competition

Johansson then talked about his international competition. He admits that he would not have competed in the IIHF World Championships in 1991 if Conny Evensson, the Head Coach for the Swedish team had not asked him to play.  Johansson admitted to preferring the time to recover after a full NHL season. But the Swedish team won the Gold Medal that year. His teammates included Mats Sundin, Bengt Gustafsson, Thomas Rundqvist, Kjelle Samuelsson, and Nicklas Lidstrom.

He was part of the IIHF World Championship team in 1992 which won Gold that year in Prague and included Peter Forsberg, who he compared to a Kamikaze pilot. The 1991 team was a much more experienced team in international competition.

He was also part of the Tre Kroner team at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.  The Swedes were expected to do well but Finland knocked them out in the quarterfinals.  He had more positive experiences when Sweden competed for the Canada Cup in 1991 and the IIHF World Championships in 1996, even though Sweden was not the ultimate winner.  He met hockey great Borje Salming, who was near the end of his illustrious career and was also with a young Nicklas Lidstrom at the former.

Return to Washington

After finishing his playing career, Johansson got the chance to become assistant coach under Adam Oates in Washington, which came as a surprise.

CJ:  I was surprised when he called. Oates and I played six seasons together. We were friends, but we never hung out together off the ice.  He was single and did not hang out with those who had children.

I have always admired him and thought that he is one of the world’s best hockey players of all time. He is incredibly skilled at everything. Unfortunately, not many people in Sweden know him.

When he called me, I had to ask, “Is it really you?”  We hadn’t talked to each other much since we stopped playing. Oates said, “I want you to be my assistant because I know you think hockey the same way I do.”

Since he was a player I had admired for so many years, it was not difficult to say yes. We had been home for a while and my wife was eager to move back [to Washington]. Our oldest daughter had already moved back and worked for the organization that owned the hockey team, basketball team and arena in Washington. One of our other daughters came along while the third wanted to stay because it was her last year of high school here in Sweden. She moved over the following year.

RR: How did it work to coach with your old teammate?

CJ: Anyway. Adam is a perfectionist and control freak, but he let me handle the defensemen. Every time he would say something to the defensemen, he would ask me, “can I say this”. He showed me incredible respect and we are still in touch.

Return to Sweden

Today Calle Johansson lives in Onsala, just outside Kungsbacka.

CJ:  I am happy with my life and live with my wife, Karin. We were together before I joined the NHL. She has to be the best woman in the world because she stuck with me. I also have three daughters, Rebecca, Susanna and Madeleine. Two live in Stockholm and one in Falun. The one in Falun met someone she loves in Dalarna and lives there. My daughters are allowed to live where they can be happy.

Otherwise, I am up in Sälen a lot during the winter because I like the activities there. We have a small cabin up there and I like winter and snow.”

The full interview can be found here.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
Original hockeysverige Article in Swedish
Capitals Alumni of the Week: Calle Johansson
NHL Com Capitals: Calle Johansson Biography
Wash Post: Johansson Back with Both Feet
Wash Post: Caps Name Johansson Assistant Coach
Wash Post: Assistant Coach Johansson Leaving Caps for Personal Reasons

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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