henrik lundqvist immortalization

Tonight, at MSG, Henrik Lundqvist’s number 30 will be raised to the rafters.  Since the Rangers’ decision to buy-out the last year of Henrik’s contract in 2020, it has been my intention to write a tribute piece to one of this generation’s greatest goaltenders.  I tried right after the buy-out.  I tried right after he signed with the Capitals.  I tried when he announced he would miss last season following open heart surgery.  I tried when he formally announced his retirement.  To no avail. I’m actually going to do it now.

Lundqvist was the first Rangers goalie that I watched from the first day of his career to the very end.  I consider myself privileged to have watched a career like that in real time.  I have struggled, in the truest sense of the word, to write something, anything, that could possibly do justice to the impact that Henrik’s career had on me, personally, on the New York Rangers organization and the goaltending position, overall.  To grapple with that kind of legacy, on and off the ice, is daunting at best, and impossible at worst.

There are far too many angles of Henrik the person, the goaltender, the ambassador, the philanthropist and the icon to possibly communicate the necessary scope without writing a biography.  Sports journalism is just not set up for it.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Henrik Lundqvist is the greatest goaltender to ever play for the Rangers organization.  He is one of the greatest goaltenders to play the game, period.

His career accomplishments alone could fill an entire piece like this.  He was an Olympic Gold (and Silver) Medalist, a Vezina Trophy winner (and 5-time nominee), a 5-time All-Star, a 9-time team MVP, World Championship Gold Medalist and a nominee for the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy.  Hell, he even won two medals for international inline hockey. He holds no less than 15 different New York Rangers and NHL records. However, that only illuminates a fraction of what made Henrik great.

This is where focus becomes a problem.  What is the most impressive thing about Henrik’s career? Was it the fact that he was a goaltending pioneer that will have a lasting impact on the position? Was it the fact that he inspired a whole new generation of Rangers fans and helped usher back an age of tremendous success for the organization? Was it his philanthropic work with the Garden of Dreams Foundation, his goaltending camp in Sweden or a number of other selfless initiatives he undertook during his career?  I could spend thousands of words on any of those topics.

I think maybe that’s the point, at the end of the day.  He was the rare athlete that could be considered great for countless reasons, and that is why he has connected with so many people, both in and out of hockey.  He was the heir to Derek Jeter’s throne as the most beloved sports figure in the biggest sports market in the world.  He wore that crown effortlessly.

With that endless landscape of meaningful impacts and influences, a writer can only really focus on what is important to them, personally.  As a goaltender, I watched Henrik arrive on North American shores and revolutionize the position in countless different ways.  His style, his equipment, his movements and his philosophy forever changed how we play and evaluate the position.  He was a pioneer in the vein of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek.  While present or future goaltenders may rack up more counting stats or accolades, very few will ever make the impact on the evolution of the position that Lundqvist did.

The challenge of Henrik’s style to the status quo often went unnoticed, as his impact and performance pushed through previous expectations and understandings with frictionless ease.  Change is difficult in general, but especially in hockey.  The melding of the hybrid and butterfly styles was already underway when Hank arrived, but he was able to push these techniques into the mainstream incredibly quickly and seamlessly.  He became the new norm almost instantly.

This was especially impressive given the fact that no goalie coach in their right mind would ever instruct young players to try to emulate Lundqvist.  He was a unicorn.  His stance was too wide, his depth was too deep and good luck trying to teach how to head the puck away.  Hank became more of a symbol of the future of the position than something tangible to aspire to.

It’s difficult with historically great athletes to really process and appreciate their careers as they unfold.  Time provides a necessary distance and context that allows you to fully understand what you have witnessed and how it weaves into the vast tapestry of the game’s history.  It was always a little easier with Hank.  The things he did on the ice and represented in the community were so obviously different than what had come before.  We may not have known exactly how it would end up, but we knew we were watching something special.

That’s what I selfishly hope tonight lives up to.  I hope the emotional impact of seeing Henrik Lundqvist, whose career has meant so much to so many people, immortalized amongst the all-time greats of the franchise can be a cathartic summation for millions of fans.  You want to feel like this is the culmination of all of his accomplishments and an opportunity for a fan base that didn’t always appreciate him the way he deserved, to show him how much his career in New York has meant.

I can’t tell you how many words I’ve written over the past ten years about Henrik Lundqvist.  Some of them, I’m incredibly proud of.  Some of them were not my finest work.  I’d imagine Hank would ultimately feel the same about his career.  What they were though, was an aggregate of my time watching, analyzing and appreciating what his career meant to me.

Where this piece falls on that spectrum ultimately doesn’t matter.  There is nothing I could write in a thousand words that would come close to actually conveying the gravity of the impact Henrik has had.  For a while, this really bothered me.  I pride myself on my ability to use the English language to communicate, and the fact that I was so wholly unable to describe my appreciation for Hank was maddening, at times.

Now, though, I know that like the old timers in the blue seats that still wear Giacomin jerseys and the older millennials in the Richter sweaters, for the remainder of my time, I know I will always see Lundqvist jerseys in the MSG stands.  No one else will ever wear a Rangers number 30, and that speaks far greater volumes than I ever could.

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