by gerry eskenazi
Photography by Chiun-kai shih
It’s easy to imagine the man wearing the slim-tailored European suit walking into Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game as someone who might have just stepped off a catwalk in Milan, but the fashionable Henrik Lundqvist has a much greater claim to fame: He’s the most honored goaltender in the history of the New York Rangers.
Although Lundqvist didn’t set foot, or skates, in the Big Apple until 2005—arriving from Sweden—he immediately had an impact, generating victories and shutouts at an unprecedented rate. While he was still a rookie, fans dubbed him “King Henrik,” the nickname quickly placing him in New York’s pantheon of athlete heroes, like Joe (“Broadway Joe”) Namath, Walt (“Clyde”) Frazier, and Derek (“the Captain”) Jeter.
Nor did it take Lundqvist long to make his mark statistically, quickly becoming the Rangers’ all-time leader in shutouts (50) and victories (309). With at least 30 victories in every one of his first seven seasons (a league record), he was also named the Rangers’ MVP seven years in a row. But his 2006 Olympic gold medal and 2012 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie could have been predicted years earlier: From 2003 to 2005, Lundqvist was named Sweden’s best goaltender.
Despite his accomplishments, Lundqvist still talks about the thrill of playing at Madison Square Garden, where Rangers fans don’t let up from the opening whistle and where they have placed on the goalie’s ample shoulders their dream of a Stanley Cup after a 20-year drought.
Although he still returns to his native Sweden, Lundqvist, wife Therese, and young daughter Charlise make their home in Midtown West. Music is an off-ice passion, as is the foundation he established to grant wishes to children with serious illnesses. And yes, he concedes that he still has more to accomplish in New York when he reflects on that shattering double-overtime loss to the Kings last season that left the Rangers again without a Stanley Cup, although just barely. That photograph of Lundqvist, a man earning north of $8 million a year, face down on the ice, shows how much he cares, that for him it’s not just about the money and trophies but about bringing a title to his adopted city.
Once upon a time, Rangers coach Emile Francis was afraid of having his players stay in Manhattan with all its distractions, so he moved them to Long Island. That changed in the ’70s, when the coach wanted his players to be part of the New York scene. What is it like now?
HENRIK LUNDQVIST: I came here in 2005, and I remember the coaching staff and people working on the team, telling the young guys to stay outside the city and close to the practice rink. That wasn’t something you wanted to challenge. So my first year, I stayed in White Plains. After a couple of years, they realized that to play the game, you have to be happy with your offline situation and enjoy a life away from hockey. I think that helps you play better and to come to the rink more energized. Most guys live in the city, and they love it. I think that’s one big reason why players want to come here. Obviously, the Rangers are a great organization and have a great fan base, but it’s also the opportunity to live in a very special city.
How did you become interested in hockey?
HL: I grew up watching my national team. When I was older, I started to watch the NHL [on television]. But it all started with the national team. It’s a proud feeling when you play for your country, but now being with the Rangers gives me a similar feeling.
Is the story of how you became a goalie true? That when you first started playing hockey, the coach was looking for someone to be goaltender and your brother raised your hand?
HL: That is true. I have a twin brother, Joel. Growing up, we did everything together and always played on the same team. He knew I liked goaltending and the equipment, so when the coaches asked, he knew exactly what I wanted to do.
That photograph of you sprawled on the ice after the second overtime goal that decided the Stanley Cup is very poignant. When you see that picture, do you have an emotional reaction to how you felt in that moment?
HL: Yes. Someone showed me the clip this summer and it was painful to watch. You start thinking about all the work you put into getting to that moment. Playing hockey, especially in the playoffs, is a roller coaster of emotions. You go from high to low and low to high extremely fast. You’re on edge for a few months and you put in so much work. You’re that close, so it’s hard. When everything is over and you come up short, that’s such an empty feeling.
All the good things you and the team had accomplished seemed to evaporate.
HL: When you get some distance, you reflect on the amazing things [that happened] over the season and in the playoffs. There were many great moments that I can appreciate today and can learn from as well. You can’t just look at the last few seconds of the last game.
Fans in cities that haven’t won a championship, or haven’t won one recently, don’t realize how difficult it is to win. Many teams have gone decades more than the Rangers without winning anything. I guess that’s why championships are something players particularly savor, because they know how hard it is to get there.
HL: Exactly. When we played the final game, it was difficult to remember the first round, it was that long ago. But fans also go through the same pain and joy. That’s what makes it so special when you have success and you can share it with the fans and your teammates.
What did you do after the season ended?
HL: For two or three weeks, you don’t want to do much. I went back to Sweden to spend time with friends and family. You don’t skate or work out, and you slowly build up. I usually start skating in August.
Compare the pressures of playing for the Stanley Cup to the Olympics.
HL: The mind-set is pretty much the same. You know you don’t have much room for error and you have to really be focused. The big difference is you can only play in the Olympics every four years. The Stanley Cup takes eight or nine months to get there. The similarity is that you don’t know how many chances you’ll get [to play in either], so I try to go in with the mind-set that I want to leave everything out there. At the same time, you don’t want to overthink it. If you tell yourself, It’s going to be another four years until I get a chance at this, you might put too much pressure on yourself. A lot of time it’s the mind-set that determines how you’re going to feel and how you’re going to play. You just have to manage your expectations and the pressure that other people put on you and that you put on yourself.
How do you view the role of luck in hockey?
HL: Hockey is such a fast game. Sometimes you have luck and sometimes you don’t. When you play really well, you feel like you’re making good decisions; it seems like the puck is bouncing your way. Other times, when you’re struggling, it feels like the puck is hitting the poles and things are going against you. Sometimes it’s just mental. I always talk about making good decisions, and that will help you create that extra luck you may need. Especially when you play against good teams, the difference between winning and losing is so small.
How is the team prepping and psyching itself this year?
HL: I’m excited about this season. The core group is still here and they’ve changed a few players, so it will be exciting to see what they can do for us. The key is to move on and not think about last season. You have to start over. You need to focus on October and get a good start because there’s so much work before you even get to the playoffs.
What do you feel have been your greatest achievements in hockey?
HL: Winning the championships in Sweden was huge because I was young and it meant a lot to the organization. Making it to the NHL. Winning the Olympics was a childhood dream. The Vezina Trophy. Breaking the wins record [by a Rangers goalie] was a highlight in my career for sure. It’s hard to pick just one.
Recently you told Larry King that it’s tougher to come to New York when you’re a big name, as opposed to when you’re a rookie, coming in on a trade, or being drafted. Is that because of fans’ expectations, or is there something else at work in New York?
HL: Speaking from my own experience, I do think it’s easier to come in as a rookie, because there’s less pressure. New York is a special place to be an athlete. When you do well, I don’t think there’s a better place to play—it’s so exciting and rewarding. But when you struggle, it can definitely be a challenge.
New York’s a great place to be a winner but a bad place to be a loser?
HL: People go hard, and they want to see winners.
Do you have any lucky music you listen to prior to a game?
HL: I’ve been listening to the same playlist for about 10, 11 years. Right before it’s time to get dressed, I play punk rock, something high-tempo for the energy and the adrenaline.
You were on the Vanity Fair best-dressed list this year. What are your go-to labels these days?
HL: I’ve been wearing a lot of Swedish stuff. It’s almost like when you leave your country, you love it even more; you’re proud of everything that comes out of it. There’s a brand called Tiger of Sweden I’ve been wearing. I really love Ralph Lauren, Stefan-F or John Varvatos for a little more rock ’n’ roll style. On off-days, I’m a jeans, leather jacket, and boots type of guy. For me it’s not so much about the brand, but about a good fit. I’m not someone who needs the most expensive brand.
When you arrive for a game, do you have to be seen in a suit?
HL: Going to a game, we have to wear a suit and tie. When we travel, we have to wear a suit, no tie. So five days out of the week we’re in a suit. Some guys hate it. Within the first minute of boarding the plane, they’ll take the suit off and put on sweatpants because they can’t stand the feel of a suit.
Can you go about Manhattan unrecognized?
HL: [Laughs] Coming from Sweden, where it was a little intense, I feel I can blend in here pretty well. But there’s a difference between now and five years ago, that’s for sure.
Do you hang out with other sports figures in New York?
HL: I enjoy playing music with [John] McEnroe. I went to a tennis charity event last night and we played tennis against Novak Djokovic and Edward Norton, and that was a lot of fun.
Where do you like to go in the city?
HL: My wife, daughter, and I sometimes go to Central Park. We live in Hell’s Kitchen, but I like different places all over the city. It all depends on the weather and my mood and what I want to do that day. That’s why I love New York: You can find something that fits any mood.
Has your daughter been on skates yet?
HL: We had her on the ice at the Garden this year when they had a little ceremony for me for breaking the wins record. To have my entire family there—my mom and dad flew over—that was really cool.
Tell us a little bit about the charities you’re involved with and how you decide which ones to support?
HL: When I first came to New York, I was impressed seeing all the money and time people put into charity work. I’ve decided to start my own foundation to try to do a little bit more here and reach out to people back home in Sweden. When it comes to picking organizations, we’re taking it step by step, but I think my focus will be on health and education, mostly for kids. Ronald McDonald House is an organization I really care about. There’s also Food Bank for New York City and other local organizations I’m going to support. I started working for Garden of Dreams [a charity associated with Madison Square Garden that creates once-in-a-lifetime experiences for children in need] and have been their spokesperson for a number of years. It definitely gives you a perspective on what you have and what you’ve been given.