By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast
I remember the first time I had heard his name. It was Pat Burns’ first season as the coach of the Boston Bruins in 1997. I was (and still am) an Alberta boy, but in those days, the Bruins were rarely broadcast in Western Canada. I got my Bruins news through television sports highlights and AP articles in my local morning newspaper.
Despite coaching the loathed Habs, Burns was always a coach who had my respect. I loved his devotion to team defense and his insistence on buy-in and effort from every player on his roster. It was pre-season hockey, and I hadn’t seen the score from the previous night’s contest. I don’t remember the score or who the opponent was, but I remember a quote from coach Burns, or rather, I remember my memory of the quote (it won’t be verbatim). “Axelsson was one of the only players on the ice tonight who actually belong in the NHL.”
I had no idea who Axelsson was. I was hardly the draft-watcher I am now, so to me at the time; he was just another NHL hopeless in the futile mess of Bruins prospects that sported the likes of Elias Abrahamsson and Evgeny Shaldybin. From that point on, however, I knew I would be paying attention to the young Swede and promptly created him in NHL 96 for my Sega Genesis.
From there, Axelsson would become a staple on the cult hero line to the left of Tim (the Toolman) Taylor and Rob DiMaio. They got only a couple of years together but were well-loved among myself and Bruins’ faithful for their incredible shut-down ability and sneaky, timely offense. All eyes that season was on rookies Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov taken first and eighth overall respectively in the draft that summer, but with Jumbo Joe hardly seeing the ice, it was the newly acquired Jason Allison’s breakout season that most will remember. But for me, it was this third line that stood out during the precious few games I got to watch.
It wasn’t until the 2000-2001 season that I would get a real opportunity to appreciate Axelsson’s play. In my first apartment, I made it a priority to invest in the NHL Centre Ice package, and for the first time, I was able to watch every Bruins game in a season. The previous year had ended on a historic low note, with the Bruins failing to make the playoffs and legendary Bruin Raymond Bourque having been dealt at the deadline. I didn’t care. I was able to watch my Bruins, and that’s all that mattered to me.
Brian Rolston, who was acquired in the Bourque trade from that Avalanche, was paired with Axelsson on the Bruins’ top PK unit, and they were magic together. PJ absolutely picked apart opposing teams in the neutral zone and frustrated breakouts and powerplay setups with a kind of sixth sense that I’d never seen from an NHL forward and likely never will again. He would dart in and out of passing lanes, deceiving opponents’ transition games, making life hell for the attack. His work on the penalty kill would help set up Rolston for a whopping nine shorthanded goals in ’01-02, contributing to Rolston’s first 30 goal season.
It wasn’t just that sneaky ability in open ice that impressed me about #11. It was his relentless effort every single shift, every single game. Wikipedia has his nickname listed as “Potatoes,” which I assume attributed to his unwavering effort level, but I never knew him as such. The message board I frequented called him “Gumby.” Skinny and bendable, Axelsson was always able to make that chip to get the puck out of the zone, regardless of who was there to lay down the body in return and how hard that hit was. Not only did he possess marvelous hockey sense, and it wasn’t just his motor – Axelsson played with a reckless fearlessness that so many Bruins fans covet in their players.
I always thought that PJ Axelsson embodied the intent of the Frank J. Selke Trophy. “To the forward who best excels at the defensive aspects of the game.” It seems to always go to two-way forwards who still put up a lot of points. NHL stars who get recognition regardless. The award should never be about points, and even though Axelsson put up his fair share of them (103 goals and 287 points over eleven seasons), he would never be seriously considered for the Selke.
After finishing out his career for Frolunda HC of the SEL, Axelsson is now back in Boston, where he belongs, as the club’s Co-ordinator of European Scouting. He was instrumental in the drafting of Fabian Lysell this summer, a prospect who is already at the top of the Bruins’ list and who looks to embody many of the same fearless characteristics Axelsson displayed as a player, but with a significant difference in offensive flair. It’s an attribute this team can’t have enough of.