Henrik Lundqvist's legacy in New York, Sweden and the NHL record book

ByEmily Kaplan ESPN logo
Friday, August 27, 2021

As the 2000 NHL draft entered its late stages, the energy had fizzled out of the New York Rangers' war room.

"Back then, the drafts were nine rounds, and by the sixth or seventh, you're just looking for a player that someone semi-likes," explained then-assistant general manager Don Maloney. "You're just trying to stay awake more than anything else."

The Rangers had already drafted a goalie, American-born Brandon Snee, in the fifth round. "But we didn't have anyone in our system we were really high on," Maloney said. "So by the seventh round, we said, 'We really should think about another goalie here.'"

Sitting to Maloney's right was Martin Madden, the head of amateur scouting. On Maloney's left was Christer Rockstrom, the team's head European scout. Maloney glanced over at Rockstrom's notebook, and noticed a bunch of names crossed out except for one at the top: Henrik Lundqvist's.

"Christer," Maloney whispered. "Is that your top goaltender in Europe that hasn't been selected?"

"Yes," Rockstrom responded. "But Martin saw him and didn't like him, so don't bring his name up."

Maloney was incredulous.

"It was so illogical -- Christer has a great track record, why wouldn't we take this Lundqvist guy?" Maloney said.

So Maloney brought his concerns to Madden. "In Martin's defense -- and why I think Henrik fell in that draft -- Henrik wasn't very good in the last tournament that all the scouts see," Maloney said. "But Martin basically said, 'Fine, we'll take him.' Christer looked at me and was like, 'I can't believe it. Don -- why are you trying to get me in trouble with my boss?'"

And so goes the story of how the New York Rangers snagged one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history with the 205th overall pick -- after 21 other goaltenders had been selected.

"To Martin's credit, he went back [to Sweden] the following fall after we drafted Henrik," Maloney said. "He called me right away after the tournament and said: 'Don, I think we have a goalie here.'"

A worldwide legacy

Lundqvist, 39, announced his retirement last week after learning that inflammation in his heart would prevent a comeback. For his entire 15-year career, Lundqvist was the face of the Rangers, and one of the most popular athletes in New York City.

Though Lundqvist transcended hockey -- he's been named one of People magazine's Most Beautiful People, landed on GQ's Most Stylish Men list and once played "Sweet Child O' Mine" on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" -- he'll also be remembered as one of the best goalies to never win a Stanley Cup. Only Roberto Luongo has posted more wins (489 to Lundqvist's 459) without hoisting Lord Stanley.

It was a dominant run for Lundqvist in New York. The Rangers missed the playoffs for the seven seasons before Lundqvist arrived and were stuck in a rut in throwing money at big-name, past-their-prime free agents. They missed the playoffs just once in Lundqvist's first 12 seasons, with a marketable homegrown star around whom to build.

Lundqvist's run on Broadway coincided with $1 billion in renovations to Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers overtaking the Toronto Maple Leafs on Forbes' list of most valuable franchises, ending a 14-year drought.

From 2005-06 to 2019-20, Lundqvist posted more shutouts (64) than any other goaltender, while his 61 playoff wins and 10 playoff shutouts rank second, to Marc-Andre Fleury. Lundqvist sits atop the Rangers' goaltending wins list, with 459, which is 158 more than second-place Mike Richter.

Lundqvist, a five-time All Star and three-time Vezina Trophy finalist (including a win in 2012) was loyal to a fault, and quickly identified as a New Yorker. When the Rangers bought out the final year of his contract in 2020, he chose his next team based on two criteria: Could he win a Stanley Cup there? And was it close to New York?

The goalie signed a one-year contract with the Washington Capitalsbut never played for them, as doctors recommended open-heart surgery.

Lundqvist pushed hard for an NHL comeback. He was close. Aaron Voros, his former teammate and good friend, shot pucks for Lundqvist over the last six months at skating sessions at a private rink in Alpine, New Jersey. According to Voros, they ran the skates like a typical NHL skills session, with Voros shooting 1,000 pucks per day.

"He was looking good, he was looking really good," Voros said. "But his heart, to no fault of his own, is letting him down."

Lundqvist retires as an icon, not only in New York. His impact is perhaps even greater in his native Sweden, where Lundqvist is known as much as being "the shampoo guy" as "the hockey guy," thanks to his near-ubiquitous Head & Shoulders campaign. His impact in the Swedish hockey community skyrocketed after he led his country to Olympic gold in 2006.

"I have a goalie school in the north of Sweden, and I work with hundreds of goalies," said Erik Granqvist, a former goalie and Swedish TV analyst. "And everyone -- every girl and every boy that I met -- have had Henrik Lundqvist as their role model. In Sweden, Nicklas Lidstrom has been the role model for all the defensemen, and Peter Forsberg for the forwards, and now it's Henrik Lundqvist for the goalies. He's unbelievably popular. Every step he takes is news in the newspapers. The interest in Sweden for the NHL increased significantly because of Henrik Lundqvist "

One of those who cites Lundqvist as their idol is Jesper Wallstedt, the No. 20 pick of the 2021 draft -- the highest-drafted Swedish goalie ever. Wallstedt grew up going to Lundqvist's goalie camps. When I asked Wallstedt before the draft if he remembered any advice Lundqvist gave to him, he said: "To be honest, not really. I was just starstruck."

Different is good

After the 2004-05 lockout, the Rangers were interested in bringing Lundqvist over to North America. "But we were not bringing Henrik over, in my mind, to be the starting goaltender for the New York Rangers," Maloney said. "We had a more typical development path in mind, with him playing in the AHL for a period of time."

Lundqvist showed up with other ideas. And by then, his reputation was already starting to grow.

Kevin Weekes, now an ESPN analyst, had just signed with the Rangers as a free agent. "I had heard from friends of mine playing in Europe of how awesome this guy is, like 'he's unbelievable, he's so good, you have to see him,'" Weekes said. "Jose Theodore was over there playing, he's obviously had an amazing career, 2002 league MVP, and people were saying Henrik was better than him."

Lundqvist showed up to training camp, and right away Weekes sensed something special.

"He looked different. He dressed differently, he had that punk rocker Rod Stewart haircut, slim-fitting suits with a skinny tie, that retro look off the ice," Weekes said. "But on the ice, he was really different too. His stance was different. The way his feet were positioned was different. He just looked radically different from anyone I had ever seen play."

Weekes had come off a career year in 2003-04, but didn't play during the lockout season of 2004-05 as part of a faction of players worried they might be blackballed by NHL owners. "I remember calling home, talking to my dad: 'This guy is good. Really good.' Even if I played the year before, and even if I had played at that level prior to the stoppage, there was no stopping the tsunami or the force that just was."

Said Maloney: "He showed up at that first training camp just relentless. He worked on everything. All great goaltenders have that great internal drive to them. With Henrik's makeup, and personality, and the tutelage of [longtime Rangers goalie coach] Benoit Allaire who helped him adjust his game and get him a little more in control, it was a match made in heaven for many years."

In Lundqvist's early years in New York, he was surrounded by veterans: Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Steve Rucchin, Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka.

"We had a real eclectic mix," Weekes said. "Even though Jagr scored like 120-something points for us one year and is one of the best players to ever play, and Shanny is a Hall of Famer, Henrik was our best player."

The crowd at Madison Square Garden, and the tabloids in New York, all fell in love with Lundqvist, anointing him "The King." But Lundqvist's staying power at the top is often attributed to his class. He showed up for every hospital and community visit. He never bragged, even as high-end designers like Dior began sending suits for him to the practice facility. In the locker room, he'd acknowledge his teammates for a blocked shot or important faceoff.

And he backed it all up with his work ethic; if a player got called up from the AHL, Lundqvist was on the ice with him after practice, taking shots for an extra 40 minutes.

"Even though he's super intense getting after it from time to time, slamming his stick or things like that, that year and over time he realized, 'I need everyone around me. As great as I am, I need everyone around me too,'" Weekes said. "And that just speaks to his class factor. Because some guys don't figure that out."

Said Granqvist: "He was a superstar, playing the most difficult positions in pro sports, and he handled it with class -- even after super tough losses, like to the Los Angeles Kings in the Final in 2014. As we talk about ending the stigma of mental health, Henrik Lundqvist has really been open about being stressed before games. But he says it's OK, because there are ways to handle it and embrace it. And now, during this process with the heart surgery, and accepting it, he also has a mental coach that supported him. You have this extremely successful and beautiful man, but he says: 'I can't do it alone. I need help and support sometimes, because it can be very lonely to be there at the top.'"

What comes next?

Last week, Lundqvist invited Granqvist to Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg, Sweden -- the same rink where Lundqvist watched his first professional hockey game as a kid.

Granqvist was told he would be given a one-hour exclusive interview with Lundqvist to talk about the upcoming season, and perhaps the goalie's last push to win the Stanley Cup. "He made so many unbelievable saves in his career," Granqvist said. "But the deke he made on all of the media here was so great."

Turns out, Lundqvist invited all of the media outlets in Sweden, both newspaper and broadcasts. "Everyone came and thought they were going to have a one-hour exclusive by themselves," Granqvist. "But then he just came in and said, 'I have a new chapter in my life. I'm retiring.' It was like 'whoa, what's happening.'"

All of the questions Granqvist prepared were now irrelevant. Everyone was told they would now have five to 10 minutes to talk to Lundqvist.

"But that five to 10 minutes became nearly 20 minutes for everyone," Granqvist. "It was just so beautiful because it was just another example of him being a class act. He was so present, and so open about sharing deep thoughts about this tough year it has been. He talked about how he started to find gratitude again, for all the experiences. And also that he found a happy place inside himself.

"Of course he would like to stop on his own terms, but now the heart and doctor says it's not possible. It took a couple weeks, but he accepted this fact. He's always been this guy that puts so much time in his preparation, and plays with full passion. He controls what he can control, and in announcing his retirement, he was able to do his way, so he could be really present and attentive."

Lundqvist plans on moving back to New York next week; his daughters are enrolled in school there and he wants to raise his children in the city. It feels fitting, because Lundqvist always identified as a New Yorker.

When Voros joined the Rangers in 2008, there were only two players who lived in Manhattan over the summers: Lundqvist and Sean Avery.

As Voros joined their group, he and Lundqvist bonded over their love of foreign sports cars and good Italian food. They also subscribed to the same belief system: They lived in the best city in the world. New York City was for going out. The road is for staying in.

Lundqvist always had interests outside of hockey, including guitar, and has dabbled in some investments, including co-owning a New York restaurant with Voros. As for what comes next, post-retirement? According to his friends, Lundqvist is still figuring it out.

"I'm excited to see what he does next," Voros said. "He literally could do anything he wanted right now. Anything. The world is his oyster."