Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Alexander Steen was enjoying his first trip to New York last month, browsing the couture monument that is Saks. He was hardly surprised when he bumped into an old teammate at the famous Fifth Avenue store, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
"He likes shopping and finding new stuff," says Steen, who became friends with Lundqvist when they were teammates for four years in their native Sweden. "He's always wearing the latest stuff."
At 6-1 and sporting a physique that's neither overly slender or too muscle-bound, Lundqvist's passion for fashion suits him well. When he takes off his goalie mask, he reveals a flowing, straight mop of dark brown hair that drops over his forehead and into eyes a shade lighter than the blue of his nation's flag. Capped off with a bit of planned-looking stubble, Lundqvist can wear a tuxedo for a charity event or jeans and a casual shirt after practice and make it seem like he just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
Actually, he has. Lundqvist has already been featured in fashion spreads in FHM and Gotham magazines, posing with a few teammates. Next shoot, he'll be able to show off the ultimate accessory - the Olympic gold medal he picked up a week ago in Turin.
"He likes to look good, likes to have his Euro fashion," says fellow Rangers rookie Dominic Moore, who was part of the Gotham spread. "He loves being in New York City. It's an amazing place where there's always something to do. He's all about making the most out of the experience."
So far, Lundqvist has been able to have his New York experience in relative peace and quiet - he's rarely recognized in Manhattan. Back home, though, such anonymity is a thing of the past - especially after winning Olympic gold.
"He's very big in Sweden," says Bertil Karlefors, a correspondent for Stockholm's TV4. "Here, you get baseball, basketball, nothing, nothing, nothing and then hockey.
"If you go out with (Daniel) Alfredsson in Ottawa or Sundin in Toronto, you'll get the best table and everyone coming up for autographs. Not here."
That's fine with Lundqvist, who lives in White Plains to be close to the Rangers' practice rink in Greenburgh, but spends a lot of his free time in the city.
"I like it down in SoHo," says Lundqvist, who celebrated his 24th birthday on Thursday. "It's peaceful, more relaxed...In Sweden, it felt like someone was watching all the time. Here, nobody knows who you are, so it's nice."
Lundqvist, who also strums a guitar in his spare time and plays in his own garage band, may want to treasure that anonymity while he's still got it, because even though he craves privacy, he is sure to become a media darling if the Rangers make a significant playoff run.
Even if the Blueshirts falter, Lundqvist has already become a fan favorite at the Garden, where he's greeted by a standing ovation when starting lineups are introduced and the faithful chant "Hen-REEK! Hen-REEK!" after every big save.
"It's always nice hearing your name," Lundqvist says. "It's been great the whole year since I got here, to get the fans on your side and the way they support you, I don't get stressed. As long as you're winning, they're going to be happy, so that's what I'm going to try to do."
So far in his first season in North America, Lundqvist has done it. Entering Friday night's games, his .927 save percentage was the best in the league and his 2.09 goals against average was tied for second.
"He's been tremendous all year," says Moore, one of Lundqvist's closest friends on the Rangers. "He's a very competitive guy, very competitive goalie. He's become more and more confident as we've gone along, and a confident goalie is tough to beat."
Before the Olympics gave Lundqvist even more reason to be confident in his skills, fellow Swede Mikael Tellqvist of the Maple Leafs noted that the last Swedish goalie to win the Vezina Trophy was the late Pelle Lindbergh in 1985, and "hopefully (Lundqvist will) win it in the future."
The future may be now. Lundqvist is on the cover of this week's edition of The Hockey News, with a headline reading, "Calder? Vezina? Hart?" Indeed, Lundqvist is emerging as a legitimate candidate for the NHL's rookie of the year, top goaltender and MVP awards.
"I knew he was going to make the NHL," says Alfredsson, who was teammates with Lundqvist last season in the Swedish Elite League during the lockout. "I didn't know he was going to take the No. 1 role so quickly. It's been impressive."
Last year's lockout was a boon for Lundqvist's confidence. With several NHL players playing in the Swedish league, he got a taste of what it was like to go against the world's best. Not only that, he starred - posting a 1.79 goals against average and .936 save percentage in the regular season, followed by superhuman marks of 1.06 and .962 in the playoffs to help Vastra Frolunda HC Goteborg win the championship.
"He's always been a big goalie, covers a lot of the net and really intimidates shooters when they're coming at him because of his size, and his quickness," Steen says. "When he goes down, he's real fast to get right back on his feet. All around, he's probably the best goalie I've seen. Playing with him and seeing him as a person, you kind of knew that when he came over, he was going to be big here, too."
Throw an Olympic gold medal into the mix, and it's hard to dismiss Lundqvist's early success in the NHL as a fluke.
"I think that what's happening now is that this side of the pond is starting to realize exactly how good this young fellow is," Rangers coach Tom Renney says. "Certainly in Europe and those of us who have had experience over there sort of saw this coming - not to this degree, I'm not going to take credit for that. But certainly people are starting to realize this guy's for real."
Lundqvist's superb play has made a difficult situation a little easier to handle for Kevin Weekes, an eight-year NHL veteran who entered the season as the Rangers' starting goalie before Lundqvist played his way into stardom. If Weekes is going to play less, at least he knows that it's because Lundqvist is having a season to remember.
"For him, it's obviously great, especially being in his first year and playing as much as he has and playing so well, it's been outstanding," Weekes says. "For me, it's been an adjustment, and a little challenging, but I've learned to adapt and it's served our team well, and just about every game, we've given the guys a chance to win, be it he or myself. We have good chemistry and work well together, and have an outstanding goalie coach in Benoit Allaire, and the other coaches have really helped the situation."
Weekes, who helped the Carolina Hurricanes reach the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, has also been able to bond with Lundqvist on matters of style.
"I have a little bit more classic, Italian, African-American fashion, while Henrik is certainly a bit more trendy and European," Weekes says. "But he understands clothes well and is a sharp dresser. The guys on the team kind of tease us a bit, but it's a common interest that he and I share and have some discussions about, so it's cool."
Lundqvist says he doesn't have a favorite designer, although he is looking forward to a brand called Tiger of Sweden bringing its wares to the American market.
"Everything in Europe is more tight, everything here is more comfort," Lundqvist says. "In Europe, it's more tight and fits your body better. Everything, shirts, suits. I like to feel my clothes, feel a suit. I tried a really nice suit over here - they said it was really nice - but I couldn't feel it. It was so loose."
While he enjoys the feel of a suit, Lundqvist's typical look includes jeans and a skinny tie, a throwback look that he says has been big in Sweden for a couple of years and is growing in the U.S.
"It's a little bit '60s, a little bit of a Beatles look," Lundqvist says.
Lundqvist knows that dressing like a Beatle is about as close as he can come to music stardom, even if Steen, the Maple Leafs' Swedish rookie, says that his friend is "pretty good with the guitar."
"I don't know if people think we're good or something," Lundqvist says of Boxplay, the band he plays in with his twin brother, Joel. "We just have fun. We don't record any songs. We just play."
The band plays covers of music from Swedish rock to Green Day, but they'll have to wait for summer to jam again. Joel, a third-round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2000, remains in Sweden as a center for Frolunda. This is the first season that Henrik and Joel have not been teammates.
"You miss your family," says Henrik, who was picked in the seventh round in 2000, then spent five seasons honing his skills at home before deciding to try his hand at the NHL. "Mom, Dad, sister, brother, friends, of course. It's going to be nice to go back in the summer and hang out."
Lundqvist laughs when he talks about Boxplay, and stops just short of burying his head in his hands, almost embarrassed to talk about a musical endeavor that he thinks of as nothing more than a hobby.
When it comes to his job, though, Lundqvist is supremely confident. He's a different person on game days, believing that he plays better when he's angry.
"At the rink, he's very intense, works hard, prepares and tries to get better," says Alfredsson, the Ottawa star. "Off the ice, he's more flamboyant. He's a funny guy, likes the attention. He's a happy guy, likes to joke around and be one of the guys."
While Lundqvist likes to blend in off the ice, he's been a trendsetter on it: at the Garden, winning is once again in fashion.
Picture: JT Miller with the Broadway Hat
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