Hearing that Henrik Lundqvist was retiring from hockey wasn’t surprising, but the reason he decided not to try to come back after open heart surgery in January was sad: He may still need more surgery on his heart at the age of 39.
His numbers are remarkable: 459 regular season victories; 64 shutouts and 61 playoff wins, including six in a row in Game 7s (Washington Capitals fans can attest to that). He won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and year after year was one of hockey’s best goalies. He also led Sweden to the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics.
The only hole on his résumé is a Stanley Cup. He took the Rangers to the finals in 2014 before they lost to the Los Angeles Kings, but he never got to hoist the Cup. That he played his entire career with a franchise that has won one Stanley Cup since 1940 should give him somewhat of a pass on that one failure.
But as is often the case with truly iconic athletes, Lundqvist’s life is about far more than numbers. Longtime New York Post hockey columnist Larry Brooks labeled him “The King” early in his rookie year, and it stuck — not just because of his ability to keep pucks out of the net but because of his style, his personality and, yes, his looks.
Lundqvist was both patient and articulate when dealing with the media and with fans. He was voted one of People magazine’s 100 most beautiful people, in 2006, belying the image most hockey fans have of goalies.
He was the face of the Rangers and the face of hockey in New York throughout his career. It wasn’t that the New York Islanders or the New Jersey Devils lacked stars, it’s just a fact that the Rangers are and always have been the New York hockey team, much the same way the Knicks will always be the New York basketball team even if the Brooklyn Nets start five future Hall of Famers.
Like any hockey fan, I have dozens of memories of Lundqvist, but the most vivid one isn’t from a game he won or even one in which he was clearly the best player on the ice — of which there were many.
It’s from a playoff game in May 2013 in what was then Verizon Center. The Capitals had won Game 1 of the series, and Game 2 was intense, a rousing battle between the two goalies: Lundqvist and the Caps’ Braden Holtby.
No one scored for 60 minutes, and the game went into overtime. Seven minutes in, the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh took a foolish penalty, and one minute later, the Caps’ Mike Green finally beat Lundqvist — who had stopped 37 shots. The Rangers had managed 24 shots against Holtby.
Now down 2-0, the Rangers bristled with anger and frustration in the small visitors’ locker room. Lundqvist sat in a corner and calmly answered questions, refusing to pin blame on anybody but himself even though he was the only reason the Caps hadn’t won in regulation.
The way it works in the postseason, the media comes at the key players in waves: first TV cameras; then writers who cover a team regularly and then others, often scrambling from one locker room to the other.
I was one of the latecomers, having gone to the Caps’ locker room first. Just as I got close enough to hear Lundqvist, a PR guy said: “Okay, fellas, that’s it. Henrik’s done.”
I was about to plead for another minute when Lundqvist looked at the guy and said, “I’m fine.”
When I thanked him for his patience, he smiled and said: “Part of the job. Not a problem.”
I still remember something he said that day: “What’s that saying? It’s not over till the fat lady sings? In hockey, it’s not over until they form the handshake lines.”
Nine days later, when the handshake lines formed, the Rangers had won the series, 4-3. The only one of the last five games the Caps won was another overtime victory — this one 2-1 in Game 5. Lundqvist didn’t give up a goal in the last two games, winning 1-0 in Game 6 and 5-0 in Verizon Center in Game 7 when he again made 37 stops.
Age and injuries slowed Lundqvist his last two seasons with the Rangers, and the team began looking at younger goalies to take his place. The Rangers made the postseason in 11 of Lundqvist’s first 12 seasons. As his age began to show and he began to be eased out, that stopped. The Rangers’ only postseason appearance since 2017 came in the 2020 qualifiers round brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, in which they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. In the seven seasons before Lundquist’s arrival, the Rangers didn’t once make the postseason.
His arrival changed the team. So did his departure. When the Rangers bought out his contract in the summer of 2020, the Caps very smartly stepped in and offered him a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Holtby had left through free agency, and the team was going to depend on two young goalies.
Lundqvist might have turned out to be a major steal. He could have played 25 to 30 games and, just as important, been a mentor to the Caps’ youthful goalies. He was always a leader in the Rangers’ locker room — something rare for goalies because their job is so different from the skaters.
Lundqvist would have been an important locker room voice and might have had a few more playoff gems still left in him. As it turned out, the Caps lost to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs in five games, the key moment coming in double overtime in Game 3 of a 1-1 series when one of the young goalies, Ilya Samsonov, misplayed a puck behind the net, leading to Craig Smith’s game-winning and series-turning goal.
Whether Lundqvist could have helped is nothing but speculation because he never suited up for the Caps after announcing in December that he needed an aortic valve replacement. It looked as if five hours of surgery had fixed the problem, but Lundqvist announced Friday that he probably will need another procedure.
As someone who has been through open heart surgery, I can tell you that it’s scary as hell. Lundqvist is an athlete and he’s still a young man, so the odds should be in his favor. I know I wish him the best. My guess is all hockey fans — even those whose teams he victimized — do, too. To most of us, he’s still The King.