NEWS
10/01/2011 06:17 EDT | Updated 12/01/2011 05:12 EST

Sven Tumba, hockey and soccer star for Sweden and later a golf pioneer, has died at 80

STOCKHOLM - Swedish sports legend Sven Tumba, who was named the country's best-ever hockey player and later became a golf pioneer in his native Sweden and the former Soviet Union, has died. He was 80.

The Swedish Ice Hockey Association announced on its website Saturday that Tumba died overnight at a hospital in Stockholm after an illness.

"Swedish ice hockey has lost one of its biggest players through time," the association's chairman Christer Englund said. "With his ice hockey knowledge and with his enthusiasm he made ice hockey popular and attracted more people to our sport."

A three-sport star, Tumba also represented Sweden in soccer and golf. In the early 1950s he played for the national soccer side and became a Swedish champion while playing with Djurgarden in 1959.

Starting in 1951, Tumba also played hockey for Djurgarden and won eight Swedish championships and three goalscoring titles. He represented Sweden at 14 World Championships and four Winter Olympics, and was named best forward at the 1957 and 1962 worlds, and top goalscorer at the 1964 Winter Olympics when Sweden's amateurs finished second behind the Soviet Union's state professionals.

In 1997 he was inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame and in 1999 he was named Sweden's best-ever player, beating out prominent players such as former NHL MVP Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin, both Olympic champions.

In 1957, he helped Sweden win the World Championship title ahead of the Soviet Union before an outdoor crowd of more than 50,000 at Lenin Stadium.

The organizers did not have the Swedish national anthem ready for the post-game ceremony, so the Swedish players instead sang Sweden's most famous schnapps song that was broadcast over the PA system.

"Hockey was my whole life, that's what my heart was in," he told Swedish Radio in an interview this summer.

According to the association, Tumba in 1958 became one of the first European players to attend an NHL training camp, but never signed a contract with the Boston Bruins and returned to Sweden.

After retiring from hockey, Tumba turned his attention to playing golf, though he also took on course design and became an ambassador for the game. In the early 1960s he took his first swing on Sweden's oldest golf course on Lidingo island outside Stockholm, putting his ball on the green before two-putting for par on the first hole. He was hooked on the game thereafter.

"Golf is not a sport, it's a disease," he told Swedish media after discovering his newfound love for the sport.

As a golf pro, he founded the Scandinavian Enterprise Open, now the Nordea Masters and one of the best attended European Tour events.

Tumba designed several courses in Sweden and the first in the Soviet Union, located a 10-minute drive from Red Square in Moscow.

"I started thinking seriously about it after taking the Soviet hockey players to my indoor driving range in Stockholm in the late 1960s", Tumba said in an interview with The Associated Press in Moscow a year before the course opened in 1989.

Mike Tyson and Pele were among those attending a crowded ceremony when the driving range opened.

During the Swedish Golf Federation's centennial in 2004, Tumba received an award as the most influential individual in Swedish golf ahead of Annika Sorenstam among others.

"They laughed at me in the 1960s when I predicted that golf would become one of the most popular sports in Sweden," Tumba told the AP in the late 1980s. "But I was right. Anyone can play golf in Sweden, not only the wealthy."

Swedish golfer Robert Karlsson told the AP at the back of the 18th green at St. Andrews at the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland on Saturday that Tumba leaves a great sports legacy behind him.

"He will be up there with the best of all the Swedish sports people. He definitely has a legendary status," he said. "He was a fantastic person and helped our sport a lot. He will be greatly missed. He was such an inspirational person, full of energy, with huge vision and dreams. He achieved a lot of them."

During his final years, Tumba devoted much of his time to the Sven Tumba Education Fund, a global project using sport to help children develop in interest in reading and writing, teamwork, sharing and self respect. In 2006, the fund was endorsed by soccer's world governing body FIFA and its president Sepp Blatter.

Tumba was born Sven Johansson, one of the most common family names in Sweden. In 1965 he changed his family name to Tumba — after a small town south of Stockholm where he was born.

During most of his retired life, Tumba lived with his wife Mona in West Palm Beach, Fla., visiting Sweden only in the summer.

Tumba is survived by his wife and four sons — Tommie, Johan, Stefan and Daniel.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.