TURIN, Italy, Feb. 25 — Hockey's one-man cover band hits the big stage Sunday, finally with his own material
No longer does Henrik Lundqvist have to perform anyone else's lyrics. Sweden always wanted him to be the reincarnation of a legend who died young. New York wanted him to be the replacement for an icon who left quietly. Even fans of Lundqvist's music appreciated most that he could imitate others, usually Lars Winnerback, a Swedish rocker whom the masses found comfortable.
Lundqvist honored all requests. He reminded his fellow Swedes of Pelle Lindbergh, the celebrated Flyers goalie who died in a car crash at 26 in 1985. He reminded New Yorkers of Mike Richter, the Rangers goalie who retired three years ago. Lundqvist even formed a band in his spare time that blasted Winnerback's greatest hits.
Lundqvist, the guy on bass guitar, is now playing lead for the Swedish Olympic hockey team. In six frenetic months, he has become the Rangers' starting goalie, steered them to first place in the Atlantic Division, and made himself a candidate for the N.H.L.'s rookie of the year award. With a victory over Finland on Sunday, he will also be an Olympic gold medalist, the kind of player who needs to impersonate no one, because everybody is trying to impersonate him.
"It's been amazing," he said. "All my dreams are coming true at once. But looking back, I think the key to this was going to New York and getting a really good start."
Lundqvist's first purchases in Manhattan were a guitar and a harmonica. When he reported to the Rangers' training camp in September, a former seventh-round draft choice scraping for a roster spot, he was just trying to win a backup job. The Rangers already had their starting goalie, Kevin Weekes. They also had a goalie prospect, Al Montoya, who was drafted in the first round and paid almost $1 million.
But Lundqvist found that public sentiment shifts as quickly in New York as it does in Stockholm. Montoya was sent to the minor leagues. Weekes was booed at Madison Square Garden. And out skated this 23-year-old with a shaggy haircut and an unkempt beard. He looked as if he had been club-hopping all night.
"In some ways," said Kenny Jonsson, a Swedish defenseman and former Islanders captain, "Henrik can look more like he is 33 than 23."
The notion of a rock-star goalie must have appealed to Manhattan. The crowds started chanting Lundqvist's name before they could have possibly learned how to spell it. If Jaromir Jagr was the Rangers' veteran superstar, leading the offensive surge, Lundqvist was the rookie stopper, anchoring the other end.
His unlikely ascent in New York was mimicked back home. Lundqvist became the Rangers' starting goalie because Weekes was inconsistent. He became Sweden's Olympic goalie because Tommy Salo was disgraced. The last time many fans paid attention to Swedish hockey was at the Salt Lake Games in 2002, when Salo allowed the softest goal conceivable, a shot from center ice by Vladimir Kopat of Belarus.
The next morning, the headlines in Sweden screamed, "Darkest Day in Swedish Sports History." Lundqvist, a sunburst wherever he goes, quickly emerged as Salo's obvious heir, starring for Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League. When Lundqvist was not deflecting shots, he was strumming chords for his band, Box Play, along with three Frolunda teammates. Lundqvist's twin brother, Joel, was on the drums.
"I know it's a surprise to a lot of people what he's done," Olli Jokinen of Finland said. "But everyone knew the past couple years that he was the best goalie in Europe."
Lundqvist allows his teammates to take chances because they believe he will wipe away most of their mistakes. Just as the Rangers like to push the puck and rush the net, the Swedes encourage their defensemen to take an aggressive approach. If they commit a turnover and the opposing team has a breakaway as a result, Lundqvist can square his body, drop into his stance and make everything O.K.
"When you know you have a good goalie, you have more confidence in the way you play defensively," said Christian Backman, a Swedish defenseman. "You can give up certain shots that you know he can save."
Stardom has come quickly to Lundqvist, which may be why he appears so untouched by it. He still looks as though he lost his razor and cannot afford a decent haircut. He laments that Box Play is on hiatus during hockey season, but he anticipates a raucous reunion in the summer. "It's a lot of fun," he said, "even though we're not really that good."
Lundqvist does like to make clear, though, that his group is fundamentally different from Abba, the Swedish pop band whose bubble-gum sound follows the hockey team wherever it goes. During Sweden's semifinal victory over the Czech Republic on Thursday, the stereo system at Palasport Olimpico blared a song by Abba, just as the Swedes were getting ready to celebrate.
Apparently, Olympic organizers did not have any Winnerback, and no cover bands were available.
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