Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, a rookie New York Rangers goalie let up a weird goal to the Atlanta Thrashers in front of a restless Madison Square Garden crowd. Rangers fans, at that point in October 2005, had been watching their team miss the playoffs for seven straight seasons, and they wasted little time letting the new guy know how they felt—actually, pretty great.
“Only two games here and they’re saying my name,” Henrik Lundqvist, then 23 years old and making just his third NHL appearance, said later that night. He was marveling at the supportive “Hen-RIK!” chants that had echoed around the Garden after his bid for a shutout got spoiled by an Ilya Kovalchuk goal. The vibe was a little bit like an in-arena version of New Yorkers holding the door for a sprinting straggler: it made someone’s day, hopefully earned people a small bit of good karma, and dispelled any myth of the locals being unwelcoming or indifferent. “I love this crowd already,” Lundqvist continued. Even in his most optimistic projections, though, I doubt he envisioned just how deeply reciprocal that feeling would become.
Those “Hen-RIK!” chants continued over the last 15 years as Lundqvist, looking like an athletic Minecraft figure in his equipment, squared up on pucks and head-butted shots and saved the asses of his teammates time and time again. His greatest hits go on and on: Days after Thanksgiving in 2005, he stopped 35 shots against the Washington Capitals and withstood a shootout that lasted 15 rounds. In 2006, he was in net for a Swedish national hockey team that won gold at the Olympics. He frequently made upward of 60, even 70 starts across his NHL seasons, and after those seven fallow years in which New York had failed to make the playoffs, the Blueshirts got there in all but one of the next dozen.
In 2011, Lundqvist embarked on a four-year postseason stretch in which he backstopped his team to two Eastern Conference finals and a Stanley Cup appearance while putting up a .953 save percentage in the Rangers’ 19 elimination games. Lundqvist stopped Daniel Briere’s penalty shot in the 2012 Winter Classic on a chilly Philly night; he put up back-to-back shutouts in games 6 and 7 of a 2013 playoff series against the Caps; he twirled against the Habs and blocked Thomas Vanek in 2014. In 2017, he became the fastest NHL goalie to reach 400 wins.
Off the ice, Lundqvist invested in TriBeCa restaurants and sometimes showed up at them to rock out on his guitar. (“Sweet Child of Mine,” always.) He taught hockey players it was OK to dress nicely. In net, he clenched his fists when the buzzer sounded after a win, his entire blocky form pulsating like it was in the midst of being struck by lightning. In the locker room, he was always reliably available—even making eye contact with reporters!—to discuss even the most brutal loss.
And there were brutal losses: like the 2010 shootout against the Flyers in which Claude Giroux eliminated New York from a playoff berth; or the overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup final, one that hurt not only because it turned a defeated Lundqvist into a lasting image, but because it was the first (and is still the last) time Lundqvist would be that close to a title. And then, last week, there was another loss for the New York Rangers: the bittersweet departure of Lundqvist himself.
“I want to be a Ranger for life,” a 31-year-old Lundqvist said in 2013 as he signed a seven-year, $59.5 million contract. But last week, when New York decided to buy out the final season of that deal, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone interested or involved. Between his $8.5 million annual cap hit, his no-movement clause, and the fact that the rebuilding Rangers have not just one, but two promising young goalie prospects rapidly rising to the top of the system, the writing had been on the wall for years. Still, that didn’t make the news any easier to read. Lundqvist defined an era, and so his goodbye means the end of it.
Whenever, if ever, the NHL begins a new season this winter, both Lundqvist and the Rangers—newly chipper in outlook, and fresh off selecting Alexis Lafrenière with the first pick in the NHL draft earlier this week—will be trying something totally new. For Lundqvist, that something will involve an unsettling new uniform. (I guess David Quinn was right: He is like Tom Brady!) Shortly after the NHL’s free agency period began on Friday, and a day after Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan hinted at interest in Lundqvist with a sly, shit-eating grin, the goaltender inked a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Capitals.
Once upon a time, Lundqvist was a thorn in Washington’s side, one of the big reasons Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin frequently made the sad short list of “best players without a Stanley Cup.” But in 2018, as the Rangers were (rightly!) realizing that they needed to shift their focus to rebuilding the team, the Capitals geared down and finally won their title. Now, they remain a top Eastern Conference contender, with not only the Great Eight but also a raw young goalie in 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov who certainly might benefit from Lundqvist’s proximity. The elder netminder may be taking on a nominal backup role, but he’s still among some of the best goalies in the league. And, of course, Lundqvist’s hope is that he might have a chance to win the Cup that evaded him in Manhattan.
When Lundqvist was drafted by the Rangers in the seventh round in 2000, the team was in the midst of a hellish pre-salary-cap cycle of outlandish spending, poaching other teams’ big-name players while never making any actual headway toward anything. Twenty-one goaltenders were drafted ahead of Lundqvist that year, the first of whom, Rick DiPietro, was the very top pick of that whole draft but went on to have a rather cursed career on Long Island. (Even right up until the moment that the Rangers took Lundqvist, the team’s scouts didn’t agree on whether he was, or would ever be, anything more than just OK.) In a 2008 Sports Illustrated article about the tri-state area’s top goaltender trio, Martin Brodeur evaluated his cross-river rival thusly: “The way he plays the game is not something I like too much … Lundqvist is weird.” It’s impossible to gaze into the future, which is why it’s so beautiful when something unseen comes into newly clear focus, as Lundqvist would go on to do for more than a decade.
When an era like Lundqvist’s in New York comes to an end, all you can do is stop and stare, until all that’s left is the afterglow. Even in just his third career game back in 2005, fans knew they were watching someone special, and they weren’t shy about saying so. In his column for the New York Post that night, longtime beat writer Larry Brooks mentioned the “Hen-RIK!” chants and wrote a descriptor of the rookie that would last a lifetime: “King Henrik of Sweden.”
All these years later, as Lundqvist crusades on toward new lands and revised borders and, maybe, the acquisition of some precious metal, the royal nickname still feels relevant. He may still be trying to win it all, but there’s no question that he has always ruled.