Henrik Lundqvist: The Artist Is Present

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Presumably, it is good to be Henrik Lundqvist. He’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was long-profiled by the Times. He’s a handsome guy. He’s been photographed in Vogue. He plays guitar in a band with John McEnroe, which is maybe a good thing for him. People call him “King.” He’s big into philanthropy. And he owns a restaurant in Tribeca. All so very damn “New York,” all pretty good.

He’s also got an Olympic gold medal. His team’s the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Also he’s probably the best goalie in the NHL. Outside of a missed-chord-induced McEnroe tirade or the risk of being targeted in a misguided attempted-regicide, it all seems pretty swell.

(Important note from the SI story: Lundqvist listens to Blink 182 before games. Carry on.)

Sports Illustrated compared Lundqvist to Walt Frazier and Joe Namath in the way “he has both embraced and invigorated his adopted hometown,” but Lundqvist isn’t sporting modern-day fur equivalents or closing down no-sneaker clubs. He’s doing the sort of things that guys who can afford to own places called “Tiny’s” and “The Bar Upstairs” or sit courtside at Knicks games—and distract Justin Bieber as he gets booed for, um, being Justin Bieber—do. That is, Henrik Lundqvist is a really great goalie who lives and does things in Manhattan. That’s a boring way to put it, but dude’s a goalie in the NHL, after all.

It’s tough for a relative hockey n00b (let alone hockey dope) to appreciate never-ending, puck-blocking consistency, which is exactly what makes Lundqvist so good. It’s simple to watch Tim Thomas sprawling around or Martin Brodeur unhinging his spine in the service of a great save. That’s obvious, amazing, bewildering, etc., but also not what makes a great goalie. Those saves only happen so often. It’s often more about just being there, in front of the goal, and not giving up a second shot. In some ways, the less you have to be diving off your skates, the better you are. This is the kind of goalie Lundqvist is, and his brilliant mildness has been particularly blinding of late, which is of course when it matters the most.

It's not new, though. Lundqvist was third in the league this season with a .930 save percentage, meaning only seven percent of the shots taken by the best hockey players in the world make it into the goal when Henrik Lundvist is padded-up in front of it. Not many people have a 93-percent success rate with anything other than blinking or making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (whole wheat bread, peanut butter on both sides, jelly in the middle), and that's even a stretch. But the top 39 goalies have save percentages of at least .900. That’s not taking anything away from Lundqvist—the margins between “best” and “backup” are infinitesimally tiny—but it suggests that a lot of being a hockey goalie, the more important and more difficult part of it, is just being there, because saving a puck is something that happens pretty much all the time.

Lundqvist’s childhood goalie coach trained him in a method loosely based off of a full-contact-type karate called “Kyokushin” (meaning “the society of the ultimate truth,” which, what the hell?). Dolph Lundgren, Vladimir Putin (duh), and Georges St-Pierre are three of its more noted practicioners. Kicks to the head are allowed, but not hand strikes. Kyokushin’s influences stretch far enough that a video game called Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball can be cited as an example.

How this has any relation to Lundqvist is maybe hard to see, but he also saved 39 shots last night to shut out the Ottawa Senators to clinch a vital road win for the Rangers. However a Japanese martial art translates to a Swedish man blocking pucks is anybody’s guess, but it clearly does. Once in the NHL, another coach moved Lundqvist back in the crease, accelerating him toward an even more conservative style that makes it way easier to cover from post to post. Add that all up and you have a fully-evolved, purposely-boring-as-hell, puck-stopping machine.

Lundqvist is the idea of the goalie distilled to only the most necessary parts. Today, that also happens to include antique-American restaurants in Tribeca and co-guitaring with volatile tennis legends. Mostly, though, it's about presence.

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Kicks to the head are allowed, but not hand strikes. Kyokushin’s influences stretch far enough that a video game called Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball can be cited as an example.freefollower.net