The very first Norwegian player in NHL history was the late Bjørn Skaare. Originally from the Norway capital of Oslo, Skaare was blessed with plenty of natural talent. In an era when there was still the (highly) wrongful stereotype that Scandinavian players simply were not tough enough to play in the league, Skaare had the skill to make his way over to Canada.
He would join the Ottawa 67’s for the 1977-78 OMJHL season (the precursor to today’s OHL). Playing a little more than half the season’s games, Skaare was better than a point-per-game player for the 67’s. He tallied 12 goals and 30 assists for 42 points in 38 games.
The Detroit Red Wings promptly drafted Skaare in the fourth round with the 62nd pick of the 1978 NHL Entry Draft. This made him the first Norwegian to be drafted into the league.
He would make his NHL debut on Nov. 29, 1978 when Detroit played the Colorado Rockies on the road at the McNichols Sports Arena. Though he would register a shot on goal in the 2-2 tie, Skaare’s game would end early after Rockies behemoth defenseman Barry Beck checked him hard into the boards, injuring the rookie Norwegian in the process.
This would be Skaare’s one and only NHL game. No matter that fact, he will always be the first player from his country to play in the NHL.
Since that fateful game, seven other Norwegian’s have suited up in the league. Two of them are presently NHLers, and with the success they are generating it is likely that more of their fellow countrymen follow in their footsteps.
We have considered each player closely, and have done our best to rank them in terms of their relevance and capability. THW now presents for you the Top-5 Norwegians in NHL History:
#5 Andreas Martinsen
Like a few other players who made it to our list, Andreas Martinsen was not drafted by an NHL team. But hard work and determination often have a way of paying off.
A native of Bærum, Norway, Martinsen is a very sizable forward at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. After spending a number of seasons in his country’s GET-ligaen – the premier Norwegian ice hockey league – in which he generated both offense and large amounts of penalty minutes, Martinsen secured a role as a checking-line forward with Düsseldorfer EG in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
He would have a breakout season with DEG in 2014-15 when he scored 18 goals and 23 assists for 41 points in 50 games, all the while racking up 99 penalty minutes. Martinsen would also help DEG reach the semi-final that same season. His unique blend of physicality, size and scoring caught the attention of the Colorado Avalanche.
On May 15, 2015, Martinsen signed a one-year, two-way entry-level contract to joins the Avs. While he would start the 2015-16 season with their AHL affiliate the San Antonio Rampage, Colorado ultimately called him up to add toughness to their roster. Martinsen debuted in the NHL on Nov. 9, 2015 in a 4-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. He would finish his rookie NHL season with four goals, seven assists, and 47 penalty minutes in 55 games.
Shortly thereafter, Martinsen played his fullest NHL season in 2016-17. Once more appearing in 55 games for Colorado, he ended up being traded to the Montreal Canadiens at the Mar. 1 trade deadline in exchange for Sven Andrighetto. Martinsen would end the season having compiled three goals, four assists, and 32 penalty minutes in 64 games between the two squads.
Near the start of the 2017-18 season, he was traded once again – this time being shipped from the Canadiens to the Chicago Blackhawks. Following two straight seasons in the Chicago organization spent primarily with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, Martinsen signed with the Anaheim Ducks on Jul. 5 2019 on a one-year, two-way contract.
His determination and effort by becoming an undrafted NHLer, and seemingly out of nowhere, are what get Martinsen onto our list.
#4 Patrick Thoresen
What can be a bit hard to swallow when it comes to Patrick Thoresen’s case is that he has been having a superb professional career ever since he left the NHL. He is a two-time winner of the KHL’s Gagarin Cup – once with Salavat Yulaev Ufa and once with SKA Saint Petersburg. Additionally, Thoresen is a two-time KHL All-Star, a Media All-Star in Switzerland for Lugano, and a Norwegian Player of the Year.
All of which was accomplished after his final NHL season of 2007-08.
There is likely something in genetics, as Thoresen’s father Petter played in five Winter Olympics for the Norwegian Men’s National Team. After initially playing in his homeland, the younger Thoresen jumped to the QMJHL where he played for Moncton Wildcats (2001-02) and Baie-Comeau Drakkar (2002-03). While with Drakkar, he scored 33 goals and 108 points in 71 games. Thoresen’s 75 assists were the most in the QMJHL, and he won the league’s Most Sportsmanlike Player award that season too.
Quite surprising to say that from here Thoresen went undrafted.
Ultimately he signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers, and earned a spot on the 2006-07 roster after an impressive training camp. Thoresen scored four goals and 12 assists in 68 games.
2007-08 would see him play 29 games in the AHL with the Oilers’ affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Thoresen would get into Edmonton’s lineup for 17 games, scoring a goal and an assist. Not able to remain with the parent club, he ended up being claimed off of waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 22, 2008.
Thoresen would help the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup semi-finals, playing in 14 playoff games and earning a pair of assists. He became the first Norwegian in NHL history to play in a postseason game. Thoresen returned to Europe the next season, and has been having a very successful career ever since.
#3 Ole-Kristian Tollefsen
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen blew away any preconceived notion that Norwegian’s weren’t tough. He was a solidly built defenseman at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but also possessed a mean streak. Tollefsen hit hard and hit often, and would not hesitate to scrap either.
He played two seasons as a teenager in Norway for Lillehammer beginning in 2000. There he skated alongside men twice his age. The 16-year-old Tollefsen must have caught the eyes of Columbus Blue Jackets’ scouts, as they would eventually draft him in the third round of the 2002 NHL Draft.
Tollefsen was 18 years old at that point, and then came over to learn the North American game by playing Canadian junior hockey. He ended up playing two seasons with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Tollefsen made his professional debut during 2004-05 for Columbus’ AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. He racked up 115 penalty minutes in 64 games. He would up those numbers during 2005-06, when he reached 155 PIMs in 55 games, while also making his NHL debut on Nov. 23, 2005 against the Nashville Predators. He would play five games for the Blue Jackets that season.
From this point forward Tollefsen became a permanent NHL blueliner, beginning with the 2006-07 season. He played 70 games for Columbus his rookie campaign, and scored a pair of goals and three assists. More importantly to his role with the team, Tollefsen compiled 123 PIMs.
While not gifted offensively, he was easily the Blue Jackets’ most punishing player and one of the hardest hitting players in the league. For teams that faced Columbus, Tollefsen was the guy that opposing players needed to watch out for.
That being said, it was his fearless style of play that brought about injuries. Players who play the way Tollefsen did, unfortunately, do not typically have long careers. In his remaining three NHL seasons after 2006-07 – two with Columbus and one with Philadelphia – he played 51, 19 and 18 games respectively.
After the 2009-10 season with the Flyers, he finished out his professional career in Sweden. Tollefsen earns the number-three spot on our list for his tenacity and hard-hitting play.
#2 Espen Knutsen
Espen Knutsen was the very first Norwegian to score a goal in the NHL, but there is more than just that to place him at number-two on our list. Though his career in the league lasted only parts of five seasons, he proved to be an above-average playmaker and one of the first fan favorites for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Knutsen was originally drafted by the Hartford Whalers in the 10th-round of the 1990 NHL Draft. Despite being selected by an NHL club, he opted to remain in Europe where he played for Vålerenga in his native Norway and for Djurgårdens IF in Sweden.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim would acquire Knutsen’s rights from the Whalers on Oct. 1, 1996 in exchange for winger Kevin Brown. The flashy Norwegian would finally make his NHL debut the following season on Oct. 3, 1997 when the Mighty Ducks faced the Vancouver Canucks. Knutsen would score his first NHL goal seven days later when Anaheim faced the Ottawa Senators. Becoming the first Norwegian to score an NHL goal is a mark in the hockey annals that is forever his.
After an otherwise disappointing first season in North America (Knutsen scored three goals in just 19 games in 1997-98 as a Duck), he opted to return to Sweden once more.
NHL expansion would give Knutsen a second chance, and he certainly capitalized on it. With the birth of Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets for the 2000-01 season, the latter of the two would acquire the Norwegian’s rights from the Mighty Ducks on May 25, 2000. The Blue Jackets then had themselves a beautiful combination of Knutsen as the playmaker, and wingers Geoff Sanderson and Steve Heinze being the ones who potted home the goals.
In Columbus’ inaugural season, Knutsen led the team with 42 assists in just 66 games, and finished behind Sanderson in scoring with 53 points. He followed that up with 11 goals and 31 assists for 42 points in 77 games during 2001-02 – a performance that saw him named to the World Team (as an injury replacement) at the 2002 All-Star Game. Knutsen is the first – and thus far, only – Norwegian to play in an NHL All-Star Game.
Injuries heavily maligned him for both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 Blue Jackets’ seasons, and he would eventually finish his professional career back in Europe. Still, in 207 regular season games Knutsen scored 30 goals, 81 assists and 111 points. His 42 assists in a season are second-most among Norwegians.
#1 Mats Zuccarello
It should be no real surprise that Mats Zuccarello is at the top of our list. He has played more games and scored more goals, assists and points than any other player from his country. Momentarily ignore the fact that he is Norwegian, and Zuccarello is one of the better offensive talents in the NHL today, period.
Having gone undrafted, the diminutive winger initially garnered notice after two productive seasons for MODO Hockey in the SHL (Sweden’s Svenska hockeyligan). Zuccarello scored better than a point per game pace in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 SHL seasons.
On May 26, 2010 he signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent on a two-year, entry-level contract. Zuccarello would not have the smoothest transition to the NHL, and was up and down from the AHL and the parent club “Blueshirts” during those first two seasons.
After a brief stay with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the lockout shortened 2012-13 NHL season, he returned back to the Rangers on Mar. 28, 2013. Since that time he has remained as a mainstay in the league, and a darn talented one at that.
In the 2013-14 season, Zuccarello became the first Norwegian to play in the Stanley Cup Final. Beginning with that same season, he has scored double digits in goals for six consecutive campaigns. Zuccarello set current career highs in 2015-16 for goals (26) and points (61) in 81 games for the Rangers. He would set his career high for assists in the very next season when accumulated 44 of them in 80 games.
Zuccarello’s production will not stop here either. Following a trade to the Dallas in 2018-19 which saw him play all of two games with the Stars before injury, he signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Minnesota Wild on July 1, 2019. Even in the pair of games that Zuccarello played in the Lone Star State, he still generated a goal and two assists.
Playing at least five more seasons in the NHL should see him likely eclipse the 200-goal mark and the 500-point plateau rather easily. Through Zuccarello’s first nine NHL seasons between the Rangers and Stars combined, he has compiled 114 goals, 241 assists and 355 points in 511 regular season games.
General Manager of the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL). Hockey history writer “The Hockey Writers”. Credentialed media for the NHL Combine and 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, USA. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Lifelong hockey fan for over 40 years. Proponent of the women’s game.