By Ben Shpigel
Less than two hours before they were to play the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers could not find Henrik Lundqvist. They called his cellphone, but it had been turned off. They called his wife, Therese, who said he had left their Midtown apartment.
On game days, Lundqvist follows an elaborate set of rituals, refined over his years playing in the N.H.L. and in his native Sweden. He knows precisely when he must wake from his nap, when he must eat and when he must arrive at the rink. He listens to the same music, heavy on punk rock, as he tapes his sticks and stretches his limbs. He checks, then double-checks his equipment: his skates, his pads, his gloves. He sits in his stall. He does not talk.
For Lundqvist, to feel unprepared is to feel uncomfortable — and for a goalie, nothing is worse than feeling uncomfortable.
He entered the locker room as the pregame meeting was about to end. He walked in feeling calm and relaxed. Then he realized that he had miscalculated by an hour. He had only 45 minutes until warm-ups. He did not feel comfortable anymore.
Coach John Tortorella asked Lundqvist if he was ready. Lundqvist said he was. You better be, Tortorella told him.
Late in the first period, Lundqvist stuffed Scott Hartnell on a breakaway. He faced 29 shots in all. He stopped all of them as the Rangers won, 2-0.
On that day, Nov. 26, early in what has been his finest season, Lundqvist was ready. His family, friends and teammates say that he has, in fact, been preparing for this season since he was a boy, when, on the way to games, his father would ask him to visualize positive outcomes.
“He wants to be the best, so he’s the best,” the Rangers’ backup goalie Martin Biron said. “If all you have is one day, one game, one shot, he can do it.”
Entering Saturday night’s regular-season finale against the Washington Capitals, Lundqvist was a leading candidate to win the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top goaltender. He had posted a .931 save percentage, a 1.93 goals-against, a career-high 39 victories and 8 shutouts for the Rangers, who have earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994.
The Rangers crave more, as does Lundqvist, owner of Olympic gold but foiled thus far in his quest for Stanley Cup silver.
“He feels that he’s been here long enough,” center Brandon Dubinsky said. “I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but we haven’t accomplished anything here, and he wants to accomplish something here. That’s important to him. That drives him every day.”
That emptiness drove Lundqvist last summer, when he lost 13 pounds, skated more (with new, more efficient skates), trained harder. The outcome has been a span of brilliance appreciated in hockey circles but overshadowed locally by Eli Manning and the Super Bowl-winning Giants, Jeremy Lin and now Tim Tebow.
Surrounded by his best supporting cast in seven seasons with the Rangers, Lundqvist has found balance, enjoying personal fulfillment with his professional success. He married last August. He turned 30 in March. His first child is due this summer.
It all can get a man thinking, and Lundqvist is a man who thinks. When emphasizing a point, he uses not his voice but his entire face. His head tilts forward. His eyes widen to pools of blue.
“The first three years, it was a lot about proving to everybody else that I should be here, that I should play in this league,” Lundqvist said in an interview last month at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. “But now it’s about proving to myself. I want to be good. I want to play better.”
The former Rangers goalie Mike Richter said Lundqvist’s attitude reminded him of a sentiment expressed by Wayne Gretzky, who considered himself a far better player at 28 than he was at 23 because he was tougher and more mentally resilient.
“Your body diminishes over time, but goaltenders often get better as they get older,” said Richter, who led the Rangers to their 1994 title. “You know yourself better. You know how to respond. That’s the deal when the franchise is relying on you.”
If anything, the Rangers are guilty of depending on Lundqvist too much. In years past, he played so often — four straight seasons of at least 70 appearances, then 68 last season — that he was not as fresh during the playoffs. Though the Rangers have reached the playoffs every season except 2009-10 since Lundqvist arrived in 2005, they have not won a postseason series in four years.
“The clock is ticking,” said Lundqvist, who had played 61 games this season. “You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to get.”
Envisioning the Future
L-R, Henrik, Gabriella & Joel
Are (pronounced OAR-eh), a small town in northwestern Sweden, is a world-class ski resort in a hockey-crazed country. Mountains were readily accessible. Ice rinks were not. So the children of Peter Lundqvist and Eva Johansson — Gabriella, Henrik and his identical twin, Joel — improvised, shoveling the snow off the lake near their home to skate on it.
For competitive hockey, Henrik and Joel had to travel to Jarpen, about 30 minutes east. It was during one of those car rides that a 9-year-old Henrik started plotting his future. As Gabriella tells the story, their grandmother was driving the boys to practice when Henrik, suddenly serious, said: “No one’s going to find me if I’m staying here. I’m not going to get discovered here. I need to get out of this little place.”
Typical Henrik — always dreaming, striving, wanting more. He even competed in utero, jockeying for space with Joel. Henrik arrived first, on March 2, 1982, and Joel arrived 40 minutes later. It was, the family came to joke, the longest they ever spent apart.
Now he is called Hank, or the King, or King Henrik, or HEN-Reek, as go the rhythmic chants at the Garden. But growing up, he was so inseparable from his brother that he was Joelandhenrik. When Joel was 2, he had a severe coughing fit that necessitated a two-day hospital stay. Henrik was inconsolable, refusing to eat, Gabriella said.
“We were almost like the same person,” Joel said.
Both dabbled in tennis. Both starred in soccer, Joel as a forward and Henrik as a goalkeeper, same as in hockey. And both hated to lose. Family board games ended in tears or fights, if they ended at all. Once, Joel said, when the twins were 5, they lost in either soccer or street hockey (Joel couldn’t remember), and they reacted by running into the woods and hiding. Lundqvist’s competitive streak is so intense, his former teammate Brendan Shanahan said, “most psychiatrists would say he’s not healthy.” Imagine how Lundqvist felt his first two times playing goal in an organized hockey game. His team, Jarpens IF, lost, 12-2 and 18-0.
At the first practice with Jarpens IF, players were asked who wanted to play goal. Joel grabbed Henrik’s hand and raised it. At first, Lundqvist was drawn to the position by the armor: gloves, a mask and a set of heavy brown pads that he thought were pretty cool. It soon became an obsession. In sewing class, he knitted a pillow shaped like a goalie. He built a goal with pieces of old wood. He watched videos of his favorite Swedish goalie, Peter Lindmark, and two paragons of N.H.L. excellence, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, incorporating elements of Roy’s butterfly and Hasek’s unorthodox style.
Only later — after the family settled in Bastad in southern Sweden, and after the boys moved, at 16, to Gothenburg so they could play for junior-level squads of the Swedish Elite League team Vastra Frolunda — did Gabriella, older by three and a half years, come to realize why goaltending so appealed to Henrik.
“He was very good at just worrying about himself, and I don’t mean that in a selfish way,” Gabriella said. “All his focus is in the right place, not worrying about things you can’t control.”
For someone so attached to his brother, Lundqvist embraced the solitude of the position. He loved practicing breakaways. He enjoyed the pressure. He welcomed being the last bastion of defense, just him and the net. Changing lines was for defensemen and forwards, like Joel, who went on to play for three years in the N.H.L.
Goalies were always on the ice — the good ones, at least.
L-R, Joel, Henrik & Gabriella
A Sleeper Pick
The question is an obvious one, after 252 N.H.L. career victories, three All-Star selections and an Olympic gold medal: how was Lundqvist taken so late in the 2000 N.H.L. draft, in the seventh round with the 205th overall pick, the 22nd goalie chosen?
“As you get deeper into the draft, you’re basically looking for anyone with a heartbeat who can stand up and skate,” said Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney, who was the Rangers’ assistant general manager in 2000. “You’re never thinking, ‘Let’s wait until the seventh round to draft our franchise goaltender.’ You’re just throwing darts.”
Maloney posed what might be a better question: what would have happened that June day in Calgary, Alberta, had he looked right instead of left?
Every draft has its presumptive can’t-miss kids, the Sidney Crosbys and Alexander Ovechkins and Steven Stamkoses. Once the elite prospects are gone, teams lean on the wisdom and intuition of scouts who have traversed countries and continents searching for top talent. One shrewd late-round pick — a Pavel Datsyuk, a Luc Robitaille, a Henrik Zetterberg — can forever change a franchise.
“It’s not like the N.F.L. draft, where you’re dealing with college kids that are 22 years old, who are developed mentally and physically,” said Jim Nill, the assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted Datsyuk and Zetterberg in late rounds in successive years. “There are so many changes that take place over the years, so you’re sitting there trying to project. You’re wondering, for example, ‘Which Henrik Lundqvist is the Henrik Lundqvist we’re going to see at age 25?’ ”
The Henrik Lundqvist scouts observed at 18 had loads of natural ability, sharp reflexes and a strong work ethic augmented by his competitive spirit, but he lacked consistency. Martin Madden, then the Rangers’ chief scout, watched Lundqvist in two tournaments in early 2000 and came away unimpressed.
“I don’t want to say he was ordinary,” Madden said, “but he was just O.K.”
Christer Rockstrom, then the team’s head European scout, held a different perspective. Living in Sweden, Rockstrom saw Lundqvist play more regularly and rated him No. 1 on the Rangers’ list of eligible European goalies. Rockstrom pushed for the Rangers to draft Lundqvist in the middle rounds, but Madden overruled him, thinking it too early.
But in the sixth round or so, Maloney turned to his right, to Rockstrom. This was long after the Islanders had used the first overall pick to take goalie Rick DiPietro, who through Friday had 135 fewer wins and had played 177 fewer games than Lundqvist in his injury-plagued N.H.L. career. This was after Joel Lundqvist had gone to Dallas in the third round, and after the Rangers had selected a goalie, Brandon Snee from Union College, in the fifth. Maloney grabbed the list. Henrik Lundqvist was not highlighted, signifying that he was available.
“Is that your top goalie in Europe?” Maloney asked Rockstrom.
“Yeah,” Rockstrom said, “but Martin didn’t like him.”
Maloney leaned toward Madden, sitting at his left, and said: “We’re looking for a goalie. Why wouldn’t we take a flier on him?”
“Yeah, fine,” Madden said.
And with that, Lundqvist was a Ranger. About six months later, at the World Junior Championships in Russia, Lundqvist changed Madden’s mind. Leading Sweden to a fourth-place finish, Lundqvist had improved from head (poise) to toe (quickness), resembling in Madden’s estimation “a completely different goalie.”
The evolution continued in the summer of 2001, when for the first time, Lundqvist, then 19, worked with a personal goalie coach, Michael Lehner. Lehner was not a normal goalie coach. He had never played hockey. His background was in a full-contact style of karate called Kyokushin. But when his son, Robin, who now plays in the Ottawa Senators’ system, became interested in goaltending, Lehner devoted his life to teaching him.
Drawing on stances that he used in Kyokushin, Lehner applied his martial-arts training to building the perfect goalie, fundamentally sound and mentally unshakable. In Lundqvist, Lehner found a worthy test subject.
Lehner ripped up his backyard, installing concrete and a machine that shot puck after puck at Lundqvist. On-ice workouts featured Lehner’s yelling at him to compete for every puck, to cut down angles, to challenge shooters on breakaways.
Lehner’s tactics were physically grueling, but the sessions tested Lundqvist’s mind even more. Lehner frequently told him that he was not good enough, and that yielding one goal was one too many.
“Sometimes, I was a little bit mean to him,” Lehner said. “I wanted him to get upset with me and really show me that he was better than I said he was.”
Lundqvist appreciated Lehner’s urgency, how every instruction seemed appended by “or else.” He said he “really connected” with Lehner, who from 2001 to 2005 drove around Sweden to watch Lundqvist’s games. He would sit in the stands taking notes; afterward they would deconstruct Lundqvist’s performance.
Lehner said a turning point in Lundqvist’s development occurred during the fall of 2002, when Frolunda signed Fredrik Norrena, who started for the Finnish national team. On a bench in Frolunda’s practice arena, Lundqvist sulked. He did not want to be a backup. Lehner told Lundqvist he did not have to.
In practice, Lundqvist made sure to face one more puck than Norrena. Then, five. Then, 10. Then it was Lundqvist overtaking Norrena, guiding Frolunda to its first Elite League championship in 38 years and winning his first of three consecutive Honken Trophies, given to the Swedish goaltender of the year.
His third trophy came in 2004-5, when dozens of locked-out N.H.L. players flocked to European leagues. Lundqvist outclassed established goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff and Jose Theodore to lead the league in save percentage (.936) and goals against average (1.79). In the playoffs, he was even better, recording six shutouts in 14 games, allowing only 15 goals, as Frolunda captured another title.
“I’m thinking, ‘Can I make it in the N.H.L.?’ ” Lundqvist said. “And then all those guys from the N.H.L. come over and play against me. I had my best year, and I’m like, ‘I can do this.’ ”
The Rangers agreed, impressed with his handling of celebrity status in Sweden and his success for club and country. But even as Lundqvist projected confidence in training camp in 2005, outshining Al Montoya to win a backup job, doubt raged inside.
At times, reflecting on the good life he left behind in Sweden, he asked himself, “What have I done?” For a Swedish rookie goalie adjusting to more skillful opponents, increased traffic in front of the net and a smaller ice surface, the transition was at once invigorating and intimidating.
Even as Lundqvist thrived, capitalizing on an injury to the starter Kevin Weekes to win three of his first four starts, every game was an experiment of sorts.
Accustomed to roaming outside the crease, Lundqvist, at the request of his new goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, began playing a more conservative style, deeper in the net. The switch maximized Lundqvist’s quickness, one of his main assets, and enabled him to glide from post to post with an economy of movement. Allaire, regarded as one of the top goalie coaches in the N.H.L., teaches the virtues of patience, imploring his students to maintain their positioning — in the middle of the net, at an angle that defends optimum space — instead of moving forward to chase the puck.
“It was a very radical change in a very short amount of time,” Weekes said. “I’m honestly not sure how he was able to implement it so quickly.”
Do something enough times, Lundqvist said, and it feels natural. To hone his new approach, he would spend 30 minutes on the ice with Allaire before practice. Steve Valiquette, his backup for parts of four seasons, said Lundqvist would prepare for practices as if they were games.
“You could see the intensity in his eyes before we’d go on the ice,” Valiquette said.
Over time, Lundqvist’s intensity has never wavered, but his style has evolved. If an onrushing forward seems likely to fire a slap shot from the wing, Lundqvist will drift to the top of the crease. If in that same situation he senses a pass coming, he may move back a few inches so he can slide easily across the crease to prepare for a potential shot.
Valiquette said he had never seen or played with a goalie better than Lundqvist, in large part because Lundqvist always seems square to the shooter.
The former N.H.L. goaltender Darren Pang, an analyst for TSN and the St. Louis Blues, said: “It’s amazing watching Henrik, because when he does get beat, he gets beat by pretty darn good shots. Very seldom do pucks go through him, or does he end up overcommitting. It makes it very hard to get a breakdown on how to beat him.”
Compared with many other N.H.L. goalies, Lundqvist, at 6 feet 1 inch, is of average height. But because he favors a more upright position, he appears far larger to the shooter.
“You see him in street clothes, and you’re like, ‘This is the same guy?’ ” said Zetterberg, who was on the ice for Sweden for Lundqvist’s defining moment of the 2006 Olympics, an acrobatic stick save on Olli Jokinen that preserved a 3-2 victory against Finland in the gold medal game. “He stands up so tall that it’s tough to see any net behind him.”
Pucks do slip past Lundqvist. Even in practice, being scored on infuriates him. Just ask wing Mats Zuccarello, whose celebration one recent morning in Greenburgh was interrupted by a puck struck by Lundqvist smacking the glass behind him, missing his head by a few feet.
Former teammates tell stories of Lundqvist’s breaking golf clubs and trashing locker rooms after bad performances, but he said his swings in emotion were not so extreme anymore.
However comfortable he had been living in a city that nourishes his varied interests — fashion, music, philanthropy — Lundqvist said he was more at peace with himself than ever before. Hiring a business manager, Adam Campbell, reduced distractions and simplified his life off the ice, allowing Lundqvist to concentrate on being a Lamborghini-driving soon-to-be dad who also happens to be a virtuoso at stopping frozen disks of vulcanized rubber, sometimes with his head.
Unwinding after and between games has become easier for Lundqvist, who often plays one of his many guitars — usually acoustic, so as not to disturb the neighbors — to help him decompress. When time allows, he jams with his band, the Noise Upstairs, which includes John McEnroe and Jay Weinberg, son of Max Weinberg, the longtime drummer for the E Street Band. Shopping was a popular pastime when his friend Sean Avery played for the Rangers. Avery, who is a co-owner with Lundqvist of the Tribeca restaurant Tiny’s, said he picked out most of the shoes in Therese’s closet.
“I was wasting so much energy because I was so focused, if not 24-7, then almost,” said Lundqvist, who is in the fourth year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension. “Especially if you want to have a good run in the playoffs, you need to relax. You need to save your energy for what matters.”
Still, certain goals, certain games, stay with him like tattoos. He thinks about when, at 13, he gave up the winning goal in sudden-death overtime in the finals of a prestigious tournament. He thinks about a defeat in Philadelphia on the final day of the 2009-10 regular season, with both the Rangers and the Flyers needing a victory to reach the playoffs. Lundqvist made 46 saves across regulation and overtime, but the Rangers were eliminated when the Flyers won in the shootout, 2-1.
“That was one of the tougher losses of my career,” he said. “You work the whole year and then you lose the whole season.”
Rising to the Top
About a half-hour before they were to play the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia last Tuesday, the Rangers knew exactly where Henrik Lundqvist was: in goal, preparing for his 10th consecutive start.
His performance over the previous nine games — a 6-3 record, .910 save percentage, 2.20 goals against — hardly signified failure. But with the playoffs edging closer and the Rangers needing 1 point to secure the Eastern Conference title, Lundqvist yearned to regain top form.
“The thing with Hankie,” his backup Biron said, “when he puts his mind to do it, he can do anything.”
So, he did.
First, a wicked glove save from up close on Wayne Simmonds, who skated away shaking his head. Next, a contortionist’s delight: while falling backward, Lundqvist flicked his blocker to poke a fluttering puck over the crossbar.
The Flyers’ first goal caromed in off Marc Staal’s skate. The second was tapped in after Lundqvist landed on his right forearm while stopping a slap shot.
His arm throbbing so badly that he advised Biron to get ready, Lundqvist, barely able to grip his stick, made 13 more saves in the third period. The final two came one right after the other, as he kicked away a Hartnell wrister toward Simmonds, who batted the puck in midair — and into Lundqvist’s glove as the Rangers held on for a 5-3 victory.
“Pure reaction,” Lundqvist said, with a slight shrug. “Nothing more.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
This, after all, has been the Season of Hank, an affirmation and celebration of his place among New York’s sports royalty. In the quiet of the visitors’ locker room in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, after most of his teammates had scattered, Lundqvist reflected on the last seven months.
A season that began in Sweden, where he choked back tears during a ceremony before an exhibition game against Frolunda and Joel, the team’s captain. A season that reinforced how the Rangers reflected Lundqvist’s personality — determined, unflappable, ambitious. A season that showcased Lundqvist on the national stage at the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game and on HBO as the most indispensable player on the best team in the conference. A season that begins anew this week, in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“This,” Lundqvist said, “has been an amazing year.”
He knew it would be. In late August, soon after his wedding and shortly before training camp, he and Gabriella spoke over the phone. He told her what he was going to do this season.
“I’m going to be the best,” Lundqvist said.
Taken aback by his boldness, Gabriella asked him what he meant.
“I’m going to be the best,” Lundqvist said. “And that’s that.”