Sweden’s elders at World Cup know time is short
When Henrik Lundqvist carried a Swedish flag around the ice at the 2006 Turin Olympics with a gold medal dangling from his neck, he was a fresh-faced kid days shy of his 24th birthday.
A seventh-round pick in 2000, Lundqvist was in his first season in the NHL with the New York Rangers and still relatively unknown outside Sweden. In his first major international event, he led Sweden to victory in the final Olympics for Hall of Famer Mats Sundin.
Ten years later, Lundqvist and twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the only players from that team playing for Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey. Lundqvist is 34 and the Sedins are 35. They’re three victories away from winning another best-on-best tournament in what might be their last chance.
“We’re getting to the age right now where you don’t know how many more tournaments you can play,” said Daniel Sedin, a teammate with his brother on the Vancouver Canucks since 2000. “It’s exciting that way. It might be our last one.”
Sweden faces Team Europe in the second semifinal Sunday afternoon in Toronto, with the winner facing Canada in the three-game final.
The Swedes will be without forward Mikael Backlund because of a concussion. Finland’s Sami Lepisto hit Backlund high and was assessed a minor penalty for roughing in the preliminary round.
The Calgary Flames decided they wanted Backlund to leave the World Cup of Hockey to be evaluated by their doctors.
“Obviously, they’re making that decision because it’s best for the player himself, for Mikael to get back on track and rehab with their support,” Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said. “We support the decision.”
Lundqvist and the Sedins are proud members of Sweden’s golden generation, which began with Sundin and Peter Forsberg and continued with Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg. They’re now the old guys who young stars Erik Karlsson, Filip Forsberg and Victor Hedman want to win for, especially because the Stanley Cup has evaded Tre Kronor’s three oldest players.
Winger Carl Hagelin, a teammate of Lundqvist’s in New York from 2011-2015, said older players mentioned at meetings over the summer that their time was running out.
“The window is pretty small,” Hagelin said. “You have to make sure you embrace this opportunity and bring it all.”
Sweden lost to Canada in the final at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, winding up with the silver medal despite injuries to Henrik Sedin, Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
“I think that’s pretty remarkable,” Daniel Sedin said. “I think that’s Swedish hockey for you.”
Lundqvist has won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and got to the Cup final with the Rangers in 2014, but he’s at his best in Sweden’s iconic blue and yellow. “The King” made 25 saves to beat Finland in the 2006 final, had a .927 save percentage in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a .943 in Sochi and a .953 so far at the World Cup.
“When we won the Olympics, he was an up-and-coming goaltender just trying to establish himself in the NHL,” Lidstrom said. “Looking at him today he’s one of the best in the world. He’s won a Vezina, he’s won the Olympics with us. He’s really established himself as a world-class goaltender.”
Lundqvist’s beard is far grayer than it was 10 years ago when he went from a fascination to one of the most celebrated hockey players in the world. His charisma, Hollywood good looks and GQ fashion sense have made him as much of a celebrity as an elite goalie.
He’s 10 years older in many ways.
“My life is very different,” said Lundqvist, who has been married since 2011 and has two young daughters. “That was my first year in the NHL with so many new things happening for me. I adjusted to that life a little bit more, but the hunger for the game and to compete is, I think, the same.
“I’ve really enjoyed so many things about playing in New York and playing for the national team, too. You learn a lot from doing that, by being surrounded by great players.”
Lundqvist is the greatest of Sweden’s great players even now. The Sedins hold significant roles, bigger than in 2006 when they were complementary pieces.
“We’ve been in the league a long time now,” said Henrik Sedin, Sweden’s captain. “Back then we were all the youngest guys on the team. You had guys on the team that you looked up to when you started playing in Sweden. It’s different to be the oldest guys, for sure.”
Perhaps old, but not ready to write off making an impact. Lundqvist occasionally has moments when he reflects on the best decade in Swedish hockey history. But he didn’t want to do that with his mind focused on winning one more time.
“If you look back at the past 10 years, we had some really good results and some that we wish could be done better,” Lundqvist said. “Overall it’s been a good stretch, I think, for Sweden. Hopefully, we can top it here.”