For one night in February, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's value to the Rangers' fans came down to dollars instead of wins. "One thousand. Do I hear two?" Standing on a stage at Gotham Hall the All-Star, clad in a tuxedo, held up his signed jersey for 500 prospective bidders as the price kept going up. "O.K., three. Now we have four." An auctioned item from Lundqvist had brought in the greatest haul for three years running at the team's annual casino night, a swank affair that raises money for the team's Garden of Dreams Foundation. "It's now five. And we're up to six." This season, with a career-high 39 wins, Lundqvist has also lifted New York to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. "Do I hear eight?" Behind their dashing 30-year-old goalie, the Rangers have a real shot at winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1994. "Sold! For ninety-five hundred!"
This is an article from the April 16, 2012 issue
Lundqvist was money all season, a contender for both the Vezina and Hart trophies who ranked among the top five in save percentage (.930), goals-against (1.97) and shutouts (eight). He was at his best in Philadelphia on April 3, when he turned back 37 shots to complete a six-game season sweep of the division-rival Flyers and clinch the East with a 5--3 victory—seizing home-ice advantage in what will be a wide-open playoffs (page 40). His best save came on a point shot from Marc-André Bourdon early in the second period that deflected off Philly's Scott Hartnell, hit Lundqvist's leg pad and popped over his right shoulder, seemingly headed for an empty net before he lunged backward and knocked it over the crossbar with his blocker. "We wouldn't be where we are today," says New York winger Ryan Callahan, "without the best goalie in the league."
While Lundqvist has become the toast of the town—a sought-after guest at the most exclusive affairs—on Oct. 13, 2005, he was a nervous 23-year-old rookie from a microscopic Swedish village when he made his Madison Square Garden debut. "It's different on that ice in front of those people," he says. "My mind was racing." He flashed back to his first game at the Garden in 2001, watching from the stands a year after New York drafted him in the seventh round, 205th overall. The Rangers were then in the throes of a prolonged sleepwalk, when they went seven seasons without a playoff game, and the Garden ice was a spittoon for fans' vitriol. "Booing, booing, booing," he laughs. "Four years later, it's me out there for the first time. I really wanted their approval. You shouldn't worry if people like you, but I really did. I still do."
Lundqvist outdueled Martin Brodeur—then the best goalie in the game—and beat the Devils 4--1 that night, only New York's fourth win in 42 matches against New Jersey. After the game, Lundqvist received a nice ovation from the crowd when he was announced as the game's first star. But it wasn't until his second game at the Garden, two days later against the Thrashers, when the affection between goalie and city became palpable. Late during a brilliant night in the net, Lundqvist gave up an unlucky, bad-angle goal after it bounced off a teammate's skate. A 4--0 Rangers lead was now 4--1. The crowd stood, but instead of booing, it chanted, in a Gotham-inflected serenade, "Hen-REEK! Hen-REEK!" He was thrown. "That's not for me, is it?" he asked himself. "I just got here." Ten minutes after New York's 5--1 win, he again circled the ice as the game's first star, clapped for the crowd's generosity and tossed his stick into the stands. In a morass of mediocrity, here was brio, moxie and star power. Imagine what might happen if the organization ever put a team around him?
Sure, other clubs in other cities have ridden their goalies' coattails all the way to a Cup, but rarely are those coattails as well-tailored; Lundqvist's sense of style is as refined as his game. In New York's carnivorous sporting press, he is known as The King, a blue-eyed wunderkind from a Scandinavian hamlet of 800 people embraced by a metropolis of eight million. Whether jamming with his band, chilling in his TriBeCa restaurant, posing for a spread in Vogue or just walking his dog in Central Park, he has both embraced and invigorated his adopted hometown in the same way that Joe Namath, Walt Frazier and Reggie Jackson did. "New York fits him," says Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, a fellow Swede. "He wears it well, like his suits. The culture, the food, the fashion. About the people he tells only good stories. He could not play anywhere else.... If he wins [the Cup], just give him the key."
Henrik and Joel Lundqvist, twin brothers and mutual antagonists, began skating together in a flooded sandbox near their home in the tiny ski village of √Öre (pronounced OAR-eh), 220 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Their father, Peter, was a ski instructor who later became a tourism office manager. Their mother, Eva Johansson, was a physical therapist, and their older sister, Gabriella, was a standout tennis player. Besides skiing, √Öre was known for its clean air, making it a haven for people who suffer from asthma. The town's only toy store was a few shelves in the back of a flower shop, and the elementary school combined students from two grades in order to fill classes. The movie theater was a school gym the size of a badminton court. Winter darkness arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon. "[Henrik and I] started with hockey because we had to play a team sport," Joel recalls. "We won and lost together, and when we lost we ran screaming into the woods. If we skied or played tennis, one could be better than the other, so we just couldn't. It would have been war." Board games among the Lundqvist siblings were often aborted when the first one out began tossing dice across the room.
It was at hockey practice one day when the boys were eight that Henrik stared wistfully at a pair of large pads, but he didn't speak up when the coach asked for goaltending volunteers. "I was always a shy kid," he says. "The spotlight was not for me. I hated when we had to stand in front of the class and talk." So Joel raised Henrik's hand. "I knew he wanted to wear those pads because he liked the look," Joel says. Even then Henrik was accessorizing.
Henrik debuted with the G√∂teborg-based Frolunda Indians as an 18-year-old, the same year he played on Sweden's world junior team. He wasn't the first Lundqvist to cross the Atlantic to the U.S. Gabriella, three years older, played tennis for Sacramento State from 2001 to '02 and now works near Sacramento as a financial adviser. Two generations earlier Henrik's grandfather Hilmar Lundqvist was captain of a cruise ship that sailed between New York and G√∂teborg. On one of the voyages Hilmar's wife, Ingrid, Sweden's first female ski instructor, gave birth to a son, Tomas (Henrik's uncle), not far from Manhattan.
Henrik's rookie season should have been 2004--05, but the lockout kept him home. Ten NHL goalies spent that year playing in the Swedish Elite League and Lundqvist bested them all, leading Frolunda to a title while allowing just 15 goals in 14 playoff games.
In the middle of his first NHL campaign, Lundqvist traveled to Turin to restore Swedish hockey's self-esteem. In 2002, Sweden had lost in the Olympic quarterfinals to Belarus, an international paperweight, when a shot from center ice bounced into the net off goalie Tommy Salo's face mask in the closing minutes. A headline in one Swedish paper read: CRIMES AGAINST THE STATE. But against Finland in the final at the 2006 Games, to date the biggest moment of his career, Lundqvist made 25 saves, including a spread-eagle stop against Olli Jokinen with 30 seconds to play and his team ahead 3--2 to preserve Sweden's gold medal. Jokinen was so sure he had scored that he raised his stick in premature celebration. Lundqvist had saved a country but was still coming to terms with a city.
The assimilation to life in New York wasn't easy for Lundqvist. As the Rangers requested of all their young players, he lived outside the city, in White Plains, N.Y., during his rookie season with his future wife, Therese. "It was really isolating," says Lundqvist, whose first purchases in New York were a guitar and a harmonica. "A few times I asked myself if I had really made the right choice to come over."
Once he moved to Manhattan in the summer of '06, Lundqvist reveled in the city's varied cultural menu of shows, movies, restaurants and side streets. "I can't see him as, say, a Calgary Flame," says Rangers center Mike Rupp. "It just wouldn't look right." Lundqvist and Therese, who is expecting the couple's first child this summer, live in Manhattan 10 months a year. His accent is unmistakably Nordic, but his vibe is less Malm√∂ than SoHo. "I'm more comfortable being recognized here than in Sweden," he says, "because the same people who say hi today know they will see somebody more interesting than me tomorrow. I just love the passion here. Every day you see people who are striving for something that's important to them." Two and a half years ago, when contractors remodeling the Lundqvists' Hell's Kitchen apartment dragged their work into training camp, a neighbor in the building offered the couple a spare bedroom for a few days. They wound up staying until the stalled project finally finished two months later. "Those are my neighbors," Lundqvist says. "That's my New York."
Earlier this winter, Lundqvist noticed a parrot among the pigeons perched on his balcony. "He looked cold, so we took him inside, sat him on our shoulders and let him sleep in the guest room," Lundqvist says. "The next day this woman downstairs was crying about her missing parrot she'd had for 13 years, and Therese gave her the good news."
Lundqvist has modeled for photo spreads in Vogue, made an apple dessert on The Martha Stewart Show and made a cameo appearance on Letterman to help with the Top Ten list. ("Who can concentrate on hockey when Jennifer Aniston still hasn't found love?") He is part owner of a cozy and cool restaurant in TriBeCa called Tiny's & the Bar Upstairs. In 2006, PEOPLE named him one of its 100 Most Beautiful People, though his twin missed the list. "Probably 101," Henrik says. Last year, the Garden crowd began razzing teen idol Justin Bieber when his face appeared on the JumboTron while he was sitting courtside at a Knicks game. The jeering ceased, however, when the camera panned to Lundqvist in the next seat. At a benefit concert this year, Lundqvist played guitar alongside John McEnroe in a band called The Noise Upstairs. The event raised more than $48,000 for the Garden of Dreams, which Lundqvist vigorously supports.
Once he had established himself on the ice, Lundqvist resolved to serve his new community and latched onto the Garden of Dreams, the brainchild of the MSG brass. In 2009 he became its chief spokesman. Lundqvist has hosted skate parties after Rangers practices in Tarrytown, N.Y., munched popcorn at Radio City Music Hall with a group he took to the Christmas show, sat in fire trucks with children of 9/11 victims, hosted museum tours and dealt blackjack at casino night. He sold his mask from January's Winter Classic for $35,000 and launched an apparel line for the foundation. His efforts this season have raised more than $100,000.
He traces his sense of duty back to 2002--03, his third season with Frolunda. Lundqvist had visited a 10-year-old boy afflicted with terminal cancer in a G√∂teborg hospital. He remembers the boy, who passed away later the same week, struggling to brighten up for his visit. A few days later Lundqvist received a letter from the boy's mother telling him that he had at least allowed her son to die happy, which was the most they could have asked. "It kind of changed me," he says. "We have this great life, and so fast it can change. It's not that I didn't know that before, but you just appreciate every moment."
Lundqvist has flipped the fortunes of Brodeur, the alltime wins leader, who has never sought the celebrity his résumé warranted. Brodeur once told SI he thought Lundqvist's style was "weird," and even his compliments are sometimes freighted with sarcasm. After Lundqvist shut out the Devils on Feb. 27, Brodeur remarked, "It's a nice matchup to play against the top goalie in the league. He's a guy who's put on a pedestal for a reason." Brodeur has cause for envy. Before Lundqvist arrived, Brodeur once played 23 straight games without a loss against New York. Today, Lundqvist has the best mark against Brodeur (23-6-5) of any netminder.
Lundqvist is a butterfly goaltender who sets up far back in his crease and relies on his own technique more than his knowledge of shooters' tendencies. To goalies who like to scramble and sprawl—like Brodeur—butterfly practitioners who minimize their movements are seen as blockers, preferring to let pucks hit them rather than proactively make a save. It's an unfair assessment.
Lundqvist's record in shootouts, an apt barometer of goaltending skill, is a robust 41--27. His .763 save percentage in 262 shootout attempts is the highest ever among goalies who have faced at least 125 shots. Lundqvist's penchant for turning back penalty shots led to his save of the season, a pad stop on Flyers winger Danny Briere with 19.6 seconds left in the Winter Classic. During the game, microphones from HBO, which was recording the players for 24/7, caught Philly sniper Claude Giroux pleading, "Henrik, let me score one tonight. Just one."
His reflexes and his post-to-post coverage are excellent. His wide, knock-kneed stance, almost an upside-down V, makes him look bigger than his 6'1" frame even as he crouches, and because he interprets plays so efficiently, he rarely overcompensates for a deke or lateral pass. "I've always stood really low," Lundqvist says. "Now if the play isn't right in front of me, I try to be more upright." Even in recent weeks, he's adjusted his stance to help him make saves from more stable positions instead of in motion.
His deep position in the crease makes him tough to beat on wraparounds and helps him to spot playmakers such as Sidney Crosby, who like to feed swooping wingers from behind the net. Lundqvist has also worked this year on keeping his glove up to prevent high shortside shots from sneaking through. He doesn't care for obstacles in front of his face—whether opponents' sticks or his own equipment—so he'll sometimes bonk softer shots away with his head, like a soccer player, rather than use his blocker. Coaches would prefer Lundqvist take some heat off his defensemen by corralling more of the pucks that wind around the boards, but he is a notoriously poor puckhandler. He puts it more succinctly: "I suck." He prefers discretion to, say, the mad adventures of Patrick Roy.
He is the only goalie in NHL history with at least 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons. But last spring, after backup Martin Biron went down with a broken collarbone, Lundqvist made 26 starts to end the season and looked fatigued in a five-game, first-round loss to the Capitals. Lundqvist had averaged 70.6 games the previous five seasons and often entered the playoffs tired. Rangers coach John Tortorella reduced his workload to 62 this year.
Lundqvist has often struggled to find the elusive nexus of concentration and relaxation. "He's so competitive," says New York forward Brandon Dubinsky. "If I score on him in practice, it feels like winning the Stanley Cup." In Lundqvist's first NHL playoff series, against the Devils in 2006, he was having trouble tracking pucks, especially when he moved laterally. Doctors found he was suffering migraines and blurred vision from grinding his teeth. "I tried everything: contacts, relaxing my jaw muscles," he says. "I thought it was my heart or my brain at first." To deal with his problems, he began taking medication, which he dropped this season. His pregame routine, from the way he tapes his stick to his choice in music—the punk-pop band Blink 182—is nonnegotiable. Even Tortorella leaves him alone. Despite his intense pregame focus, Lundqvist sometimes catches himself daydreaming on the ice. "Between whistles I'll think about my wife, or maybe my parents coming into town," he says. "I lose my thought and my mind will go where I don't expect it."
Since former captain Mark Messier's first departure, in 1997, the Rangers have often been an amalgam of undersized, overhyped parts. Before the playoff series last season, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was asked if there was anything about the Rangers that concerned him. Boudreau simply said, "Their goalie." Asked if there was anything else, he repeated, "Their goalie." New York then undid itself with silly mistakes. In the first game Capitals forward Jason Arnott picked off defenseman Marc Staal's clearing pass and set up the overtime winner. In a double-overtime loss in Game 4, Lundqvist tried to smother a loose puck only to have Rangers forward Marian Gaborik wrest it from him. The puck landed on the stick of Washington winger Jason Chimera, who scored the winner.
This year's Rangers, who face the Senators in the first round, are more reliable, ornery and resourceful, ranking fourth in the NHL in blocked shots and leading the league in fights and hits. Lundqvist thrives behind a disruptive defense that moves pucks quickly and clutters opposing passing lanes with active sticks. With stunning maturity, New York's blue line corps—all 11 who have played this year are under 30—has flourished even after lengthy concussion injuries to Staal and Michael Sauer.
To spark the sputtering offense last month, Tortorella moved speedy Carl Hagelin onto the wing alongside Brad Richards, a veteran center with a high hockey IQ, and Gaborik, the Rangers' leading scorer. The top line produced 39 points over the final 14 games. Tortorella's move of center Derek Stepan to the point has given life to a once dormant power play, though it still finished 23rd in the league. (New York doesn't have the Penguins' scoring depth, but neither does anyone else.) Workaholic captain Ryan Callahan sells himself out going after loose pucks. "Our biggest strength," Lundqvist says, "is in the locker room, the way we play for one another."
That belief helped the Rangers win 51 games, their highest total since they won the Presidents' Trophy in 1994, and then the Cup. The pictures of the victory parade that hang along the walls at the team's training facility steal Lundqvist's easily distracted mind each day at practice. City Hall, confetti and a million New Yorkers. "To do that in New York, wow, I can't even...." He pauses, as if searching for the right words. "Sorry," he says, "I was just thinking about it."