Have you ever felt like you didn’t deserve an athlete? I don’t mean that broader sense of appreciation or even awe you feel for certain players on your favorite teams; that’s real enough, but it’s also a dime a dozen. I truly mean the feeling that nothing you have done or could do makes you good enough as a fan to warrant getting to watch someone that steady or that talented or that enjoyable or that unimpeachable every night, and to watch knowing they’re yours. You were blessed, through no action of your own, with a reason to be excited for every game for most of the year for many years in a row. In a lifetime as a fan you will maybe get a small handful of these guys. Henrik Lundqvist was one of mine.
It’s past tense now, because Lundqvist announced his retirement today at the age of 39. The heart condition that didn’t allow the goaltender to play last year for the Capitals, after 15 fantastic seasons with the Rangers, is ultimately not responding well enough after open-heart surgery for him to give it another go. He’s in no mortal danger, but he can’t play hockey anymore. It’s a tragedy but his career is a triumph.
Lundqvist hangs up the pads as the sixth-winningest goalie in NHL history, putting up a record of 459-310-96 with a 2.43 GAA and a .918 save percentage. He was spectacular at times but more than that he was steady; he stayed healthy, he took on workhorse loads, and his slumps were short. The most memorable thing about him was how easy it was to forget about goaltending, if not ever take it for granted. The Rangers could and did forget about it, for more than a decade, skipping the existential netminder crises and focusing on trying to build a contender in front of him. For fans like me, that was liberating: We did not have to stress because Lundqvist was there, Lundqvist was on our team, Lundqvist was all ours. We could—not did, but could—win any game, because he was back there. Do you know how delightful it is to be able to feel that way, for so long? Most fanbases do not know.
When Lundqvist arrived in 2005, five years after being drafted as a seventh-rounder and following some seasoning in Sweden’s top league, the Rangers were a mess. They had spent nearly a decade in the hockey wilderness, being old and expensive but mainly bad. They had no identity. They had no spark. They had no relevance. In New York, that last one is the worst curse of all, I think—it’s easy for a team to get lost in the shuffle, and when people forget you exist, you effectively don’t. But Lundqvist changed things. Not immediately and not singlehandedly, but not far off from either. He muscled away the starting job and led the team to its first playoff appearance since the likes of Jeff Beukeboom and Wayne Gretzky roamed the Garden. In fact, the blueshirts would miss the postseason just three times in Lundqvist’s tenure, two of those at the tail end of his career.
He was also a star. He was impossibly handsome, and dated a literal Swedish princess. This stuff matters, especially for a local media that demands its sports also be a show. He was crowned with the nickname of King, and it never felt like a stretch.
There was no Cup. That will always be the knock on Lundqvist, or at least the appendix to his career. But that failure was never his. As Larry Brooks notes, Lundqvist played in eight Game 7s in New York, winning six and tallying a 1.11 GAA and .961 save percentage. He never let in more than two goals in any of those Game 7s, and in the Rangers’ four-year window of real contention in the first half of the last decade, he was 15-4 in elimination games. What more do you want? Sometimes a team can never quite put it all together, or sometimes they do and things still don’t shake out the right way. If Lundqvist retires without a ring, it’s not because he failed, but rather because he was failed.
It’s his one potential regret, and maybe not even that—his Olympic gold medal for Sweden in 2006 may well have meant more to him than a Cup could have. And he doesn’t sound like he regrets much anyway.
“Of course it is disappointing not to win the Cup,” Lundqvist told the Post, “but we had our chances and we had our window. I am grateful for my teammates and to have played for those teams. There was nothing like the feeling of those big wins at the Garden, those Game 7’s with everything on the line, the noise, and the way the building would explode after a victory. There was nothing like that feeling.”
As Lundqvist aged and declined, so did the roster around him. He never once complained that the team he often elevated could not now return the favor. He suited up and did his job, even when the numbers stopped being there, even when the front office decided to blow things up for a rebuild that everyone understood would not bear fruit until after Lundqvist had left. He ungrudgingly passed the torch to a new netminder, and when it was finally time for him to go, he bequeathed Rangers fans a talented new generation of players, and a new window for potential greatness. This is all his, in one way or another. He’s still rewarding fans’ faith, even though he’s already repaid us many times over. Nothing could balance that ledger now. That’s the promise of the lotto ticket that is fandom, I suppose: that a few times per lifetime someone like Henrik Lundqvist comes along.