There was a moment, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Lightning and the Rangers, when it seemed that Henrik Lundqvist had become a moving, breathing wall. With 7:45 remaining in the first period, a deflected shot fluttered toward the net over Lundqvist’s left shoulder. He swiveled his head, trying to locate the puck, but his eyes scanned only empty air. And yet, despite not seeing, his gloved left hand somehow knew to slash upward, to reach behind him, and to knock the puck just over the top of the net.
In the second period, Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison, so wide open that it’s fair to believe he was lonely, caught a pass with his stick and flicked it with finality toward the far top corner of the net from point-blank range. Lundqvist’s glove flashed upward. Garrison glided by, frozen like Lundqvist hadn’t been, staring at the spot where his puck should have hit the back of the net. Going into the third period it was 0-0, Lundqvist having denied everything but an act of god. Then, two minutes into the third, a mundane backhand shot slipped between Lundqvist’s legs and slid into the back of the net. It felt wrong, like the error that ruins a perfect game. The Lightning scored again, with eight minutes remaining. Henrik kicked the puck with his skate in disgust. The Rangers, who had the best regular season record in the NHL, were out.
The goalie position in the NHL is a hybrid gymnast and ballet dancer, on skates, in a fat suit made of padding, who uses every inch of his body plus a large catching glove and a wide hockey stick to refuse the best-skating, most fantastic goal scorers in the world. Lundqvist is considered by most to be the best in the league. The 33-year-old Swede began playing hockey professionally at the age of 18; by the time he was 23 he’d been awarded the Best Goaltender and Best Player trophies and voted MVP by his fellow Swedish league players.
In his rookie season with the Rangers in 2006, he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s best goaltender. Since then, he’s only heightened his spellbinding style of aggressive, consistent play, making finalist for the Vezina again in 2007 and 2008 and finally winning it in 2012. He is the only NHL goaltender in history to win 30 or more games in his first seven seasons. Before that loss against the Lightning, he was a perfect six for six in playoff Game 7s — the deciding game of a series, where the winner goes on and the loser goes home. In all but one of his 10 seasons with the Rangers, his team has made the playoffs. He’s also been voted one of the 100 most beautiful in the world by People magazine, plays in a rock band, appears in Tag Heuer ads, and runs his own philanthropy organization promoting child and familial health.
With the Rangers, he’s never won a Stanley Cup. And between this season’s loss to the Lightning and last season’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the finals, it’s clear that being stymied hurts like hell. When someone asks about how hard those loses were, he keeps up his smile, nods in sad agreement — without bitterness — and speaks plainly and politely about how the team (“we”) played flat when it mattered. He offers no excuses, like you’d expect from a top player, a team leader.
When Lundqvist speaks, you catch yourself leaning in slightly. He’s quiet, his voice stays even and measured, and he smiles at all the right times, genuinely. He goes out of his way to introduce himself if he hasn’t been introduced yet. It is hard to square his power on the ice — billowing out of the goal crease to face down oncoming monsters, glove flashing like a blade to swallow their slap shots — with such an even-keeled man. But talk to him, even for 20 or 30 minutes, and you begin to get the picture: Henrik Lundqvist practices his very own version of ice-cold zen.
Q. You guys had a tough loss this year against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals, and a very tough loss last year in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Kings. How do you deal with that loss and make sure you continue to move in a positive direction as a goalie?
A. It felt like we had all the pieces, so it was also very disappointing this year when we came up short. And you just try to learn from it. I’m still kind of analyzing what went wrong, and we’ll spend a couple weeks to just think about it, and see what you can learn from it.
Q. Individual games, and even individual plays, you have to be really mentally on top of things — you have to come back immediately from being scored on. How do you do that? What’s your mindset?
A. Preparation for me is very important, especially when I play under a lot of pressure. In the playoffs, I try to think of every detail that I can do as good as I can. Preparation is key. For me to stay in the right moment, mentally be in the right place — because things will happen, good things and bad things, and you try to react the right way — which is not overreacting, and trying to stay level.
Q. Are there times when you do have to overreact, though? I love hockey because that’s the way it is — if a player from the other team gets too close to you after a play, for example, your defensemen will beat them up.
A. Hockey is a game of emotion, so you can’t play just flat — you need to control your emotions. Sometimes things will happen. It’s harder to control them, in the playoffs especially, because you’re under more pressure. I think that’s the toughest part for a goalie. Because technically, you work hard out there, but the mental aspect is really where it’s gonna decide if you do well or not.
Q. How do you train for that?
A. Experience, and you just learn about yourself. Preparation for me hasn’t changed through the years, but I think there are small things that I can do better — it’s just the way I react in those situations and try to learn from it. But you just need to play. Because then you’re in different situations, and you learn how to keep your focus. But it’s not easy. Sometimes, when things go well it’s not very hard because you don’t overthink it. It’s when things start to go against you maybe a little bit that you really get tested.
Q.But what’s your secret in the clutch moments? Do you have a magic formula you take before game sevens?
A. Well, no. I wish I had one — if I had, we wouldn’t have lost. Just, like I said, preparation is key. I try to be very consistent, in the playoffs, not to change anything. What can I say? Especially in games like these, when everything’s on the line, you can’t afford any mistakes. And you’re aware of that.
Q. I can imagine your relationship with your teammates is a little bit different than, say, one a forward and a defenseman might have.
A. I’m a pretty quiet guy, especially on game day, so I don’t like to talk a lot. And they know that. So after the games I might be more relaxed and, you know, talk to them more. But obviously when you practice and when you play there are things that happen that you need to communicate so that you’re on the same page. But if you look around the room, I’m one of the guys that — well, I stay quiet. A lot. [Laughs.] I’m focused on the things I need to do. But there are moments that I talk more.
Q. What do you love about playing goalie?
A. There are a lot of things. Being able to just focus on your own game. As a player, you need to be aware of more things that are going on on the ice — as a goalie, there are less things to keep track of, but you can’t afford any mistakes. It’s kind of hard to explain, but honestly having to deal with the pressure, and the mental aspect of it, for the most part, is fun. It’s interesting to see how you react to different situations. But there can also be times when you think, “I wish I was sitting on the bench, and had less pressure.”
Q.Take a shift off?
A. Yeah, take a shift off. It’s just very different, being a goalie versus being someone like a forward. But in the end, we do it together, and that’s kinda what’s cool about it.
Q. You had the headbutt save, which was really cool. And it got me thinking about how much creativity plays into the goalie position. It seems a good part of it is improvisation.
A. More so in the past. Now I think you practice a lot and you have different movements that you do. I still try to react a lot, maybe not make the same move all the time, but I think the younger generation is more technical. They react to shots the same way. I didn’t grow up being taught that kind of style. It was something I had to learn when I was seventeen, eighteen. Before that, it was more like what you said — whatever you felt, you did. But now there’s more of a gameplan in goal.
Q. Are you able to watch games that you’re not involved in? How about these finals?
A. The regular season and the playoffs, I do watch some hockey. But right now it’s hard to watch the final, because you want to be there. It bothers me to sit there, watch it, and feel like, we should have been there. But normally I love watching hockey. I’m a big hockey fan.
Q.I didn’t get into it until college, when a buddy who knew what he was talking about got me into it, and he was a Rangers fan, so that’s what I became.
A. It’s never too late! [Laughs.]
Q. Now I’m trying to convert my girlfriend. She’s a Flyers fan.
A. Oh. Let’s not talk about that.
Q. You make no secrets that you love being in New York. What in particular do you like about this place?
A. In New York, it’s the variety of things you can do — things, entertainment, people. Whatever you’re looking for, you will find it. There’s always the thing that you need to just learn how to deal with — traffic and intensity in the city can get to be a little much sometimes. But you travel and you go away, and then it seems like every time you come back you feel the energy. But the variety, that’s the main reason why I like the city.
Q. Any specific places you really like to eat and drink?
A. It all depends on what mood I’m in. That’s the thing: If you love Italian food, you have so many different spots, you can’t just pick one. There are so many. I really like to explore the city. I have a lot of friends who live downtown and they never cross 14th Street. Any time you say, let’s go out for dinner, you always stay in their neighborhood, you know? They don’t think the Upper East Side exists. I’m trying not to be locked into one area.
You’re obviously very stylish. How did that begin? How did you find a love of style?
A. Well I think it started when I started making my own money. At sixteen, we moved away from my parents, me and my brother. And you start buying your own clothes, because you know you have your own money. But at first I made so many mistakes, I tried so hard to find my look. And it changed a lot over the years. But I would say around 23, 24, I started to feel like, Okay, this is me, but to get there I had to make a lot of mistakes.
Q. Playing in MSG, what’s that like?
A. It’s a very unique place, and I’m guessing almost every player that walks in there, opponent or Ranger, can feel that too. The history, and the place itself. You’re right in the middle of everything, and you go in there to play hockey, and it’s just exciting to, when you do well, to feel that excitement when you do well. But also, when you don’t do well, it can be a tough place. And also, I think everyone is aware of that. If you work really hard and really leave everything out there, then they really appreciate you.
But I remember my first game there, as a fan — I was drafted, I was 18, and I came there to watch a game, and the team got booed off the ice. So I got a little scared, like, “Is this where I’m gonna play one day?” And five years later they signed me. That’s something that makes me excited. To know that nothing is handed to you, or earned, for free. You have to go out there and work for it.
Q. I’ve seen some of the post-game interviews, I know how hard they can be on you guys.
A. You get used to it.
Q.What are you looking forward to in next year’s season?
A. Just to come back, and do it all again, one more step. That final step. We’re there. We’re close as a team. And there’s no secrets. Next year we’re going for the Cup. That’s the goal, and that’s what I’m here to work for, and the entire team and organization, we all feel like we’re close.
Why He Reps Tag Heuer
“Even their slogan [‘Don’t Crack Under Pressure‘] fits so well with what I do. Pressure, that’s pretty much my job, to deal with that, and not to crack under pressure. It felt like a good fit. And also the different projects they do with different athletes was something that attracted me. And the history of the brand. It’s very respectable, a great brand. I’m happy to be a part of that.”