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I Got To Watch Henrik Lundqvist Play

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New York Rangers v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

When I was growing up my living room had a small triangle of wall between the stairs leading to the second floor and a piece of furniture. I would often use this wall as a goal, and donned in foam goalie pads, threw a rubber bouncy ball against the opposing furniture and pretend I was Mike Richter.

I would dive across the crease to make a flashy glove save. Split toe stops at the post were commonplace. Often the ball would bounce off one of the drawers at an awkward angle and I would have to thrash my blocker out and barley deflect the ball over the cage. I always won the Stanley Cup. Occasionally we would lose Game 6 on a very unlucky goal against, that was in no way my fault, but I always somehow managed to work the 55-save overtime Game 7 victory. If I had rings from those days I wouldn’t have enough fingers and toes to put them on.

Growing up watching the team with my dad; Richter was my favorite Ranger. My “boy” if you will. My dad’s was Brian Leetch, who I loved, but there was something about the goalie pads that always drew me in. I had a soft spot for the position, and parlayed my time in the living room into a position on the street with my friends growing up.

Above my bed was a picture of Richter making the save on Pavel Bure in the infamous penalty shot in 1994. Next to my bed was a worn-out copy of the 1994 championship VHS that I watched every day after school. I can recall Sam’s “five saves by Mike Richter!” with JD laughing next to him like I just saw it. I was at the game Richter got hurt for the final time. I had cards of his stuffed in my desk drawer. I was sure I would never love a Ranger more than Richter.

Then I met Henrik Lundqvist.

In a career full of memorable moments, special memories, jaw-dropping amazement, Lundqvist’s “signature” moment as a New York Ranger on the ice is likely “The Save” in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014. See the New York Rangers, tied in an enormous playoff game, momentum against them, defense set into panic mode, a sense of eternal dread. Sure the Rangers had exorcised their demons in the Bell Centre in games one and two of the series. Yes the Rangers had won Game 4 in dramatic fashion with a Martin St. Louis overtime game-winner. But the looming disappointment is a key ingredient in almost every Rangers’ meal. Why would this be any different?

The puck is lost in the neutral zone, Montreal breaks into the zone, Marc Staal loses the puck as he backpedals, a pass along the Royal Road deflects off of a sliding Dan Girardi, and the puck twirls through the air toward a yawning cage. Lundqvist — having moved across the crease to anticipate the shot off the pass — is now wildly out of position. The world stops spinning. I am in Madison Square Garden with over 18,000 people. Looking back on video later that night I will hear every single one of us take a deep breath; the sort of din that exists when something bad is about to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. I know the building was loud, but in that moment it was silent for me. It was one of the few times in my life a hockey game has boiled down to me and one other player on the ice. In my memory the Garden is quiet. My legs are tense. My heart is pounding in my ears. But it’s quiet.

Lundqvist sees the puck hurtling toward the net and does what I pretended to do on my living room floor as a child: He makes the fucking save. Only this time it’s real. This time it means something. I don’t know how he does it. Even watching the video, he seems to defy gravity, blocker hand snapping like a viper at the puck, body contorting into a twirl to allow him to deflect it just enough to push it away.

It is a masterpiece. Mosaics should be built for this save. Novels written of this moment. Children should hear tales of this save for years to come. And yet, it is one of a hundred for Lundqvist. One of a thousand.

The crowd reacts perfectly. An audible “ohhhhh” as they assume the inevitable has happened, followed by an almost stunned form of silence as they processed what they just saw, followed by one of the loudest ovations I have ever heard. A mixture of amazement, relief, awe. Few players produce that series of noise. Few players make you put your head in your hands, look at the stranger next to you, take a deep sigh, and shake your head.

You want to see magic? That is magic. You want to feel like a kid in your living room again? That is how you feel like a kid in your living room again. Are you not entertained? That is what Lundqvist is. That is what he did.

And he was ours.

The quilt of Lundqvist – the greatest player to ever suit up for the New York Rangers – is patched with moments and memories that will stretch miles. It lasted 15 years. I grew up with Henrik Lundqvist, a man who made perfection reachable and greatness normal. An entire generation of New York Rangers’ fans have grown up without knowing what goaltending looks like when one of the greatest goalies to ever walk the earth isn’t between the pipes.

That the organization is buying him out, and doing so without a Stanley Cup ring, is likely the biggest black mark on this Original Six franchise’s history. Lundqvist was so good, so transcendent, that it allowed the brass to continue to ignore bigger problems for over a decade and demand perfection. Often he provided it, but his bucket wasn’t big enough to haul the water off the sinking ship. Maybe they deserved better in 2014, but the organization did themselves no favors in the other 14 of his 15 years. The New York Rangers were handed a generational goaltender who provided day after day for 15 years and did little with him.

It’s unforgiveable. And yet, it is so very New York Rangers.

He was that good. Throw his lack of a Stanley Cup in New York in my face all you want. Mock him. Gloat. That’s fine. In a position where the gold standard is consistency, Lundqvist was the diamond. He won 30+ games in 11 of his first 12 seasons. The one season he didn’t was the lockout shortened year in 2012-2013 where he won 24 games in 43 starts. That’s a pace of over 40 wins. For 15 years he stood atop the mountain and watched as the league crowned false gods beneath him. Carey Price, Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo, Pekka Rinne all lived and died as “elite goalies” in the years Lundqvist ruled from the top. It’s a testament to how underappreciated Lundqvist was … including by some of his own fanbase.

There is a scene in The Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne has a surprise dinner with Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. They get into a discussion about Julius Caesar and how he rose to power, and Dent utters a line that has since lived on eternally: “You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The kids who grew up on Lundqvist? Who are adults now? Who remember the times of Mike Dunham, Dan Blackburn, Jason LaBarbera, Jamie McLennan, Jussi Markkanen, and Kevin Weekes? They knew what they had.

If you watched Lundqvist over these past years with appreciation, you will have memories that will last you a lifetime. The number of times you get someone like him, someone who transcends an Original Six franchise, someone who becomes the face of the team in New York, who doesn’t melt under the spotlight for decades is so few and far between you can likely count on one hand.

That Lundqvist slander was such a lightning rod to negative attention tells you all you need to know about what he was and what he represented. Those who did so deserve less than these two sentences in this story. Jaromir Jagr often gets credit for bringing light to the Rangers’ dark ages pre-lockout, but it’s easy to overlook a 24-year-old Henrik Lundqvist stealing the crease from a seasoned Weekes and establishing himself as the foundation of the team. It’s easy to overlook because he did it so damn well for so damn long. We got used to perfection. Flashes in the pan like Petr Prucha are remembered because of how violently they shine. It’s like seeing a shooting star. It’s memorable because it’s moving, you saw it, and then it’s gone. Lundqvist was the North Star. Bright and steady, ever burning. You don’t look for the North Star all that much when you look at the night sky. But sometimes you see it and remember how bright it is.

This buyout is disgusting. If truly the best business decision — and we can debate that — then so be it. If truly it was what Lundqvist wanted — and we can safely assume that — then so be it. But it’s a horrific end to a career that should have ended with a parade through the Canyon of Heroes. The failure is placed at his feet, but that is ignorant. Not winning a Stanley Cup doesn’t mean Lundqvist wasn’t good enough, it means the team wasn’t.

In elimination games there is not a goalie on the planet you want between the pipes. Even when the Rangers provided him with the lack of support they became known for.

Henrik Lundqvist’s number will assuredly be retired the moment he stops playing. Rightfully so. The number 30 should never be worn again by a New York Ranger. He’ll be raised to the rafters and will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He will go down as one of the greatest players at his position. He is the greatest Ranger to ever live, full stop.

Which brings us to the slightly awkward situation of next year, when Lundqvist isn’t a New York Ranger anymore. Hopefully that return to Madison Square Garden will happen with fans in the stands. He can have another ovation like that one from 2014. He, much like Adam Graves, will likely cause explosions of celebration whenever and wherever he returns to New York.

This also ignored all the charitable work he did. The Crown Collection. The endless, unsung work for the Garden of Dreams. The smiles. The dreams come true. The grace. I had the privilege of interviewing Lundqvist once, in a small smelly locker room during one of his endless summer camps. He was smaller than I expected, and the interview was rushed by the camp’s strict timeline; but for those 13 minutes I was in a room with my idol and he was as professional, courteous, and generous as you’ve likely heard. Like all the other norms he shattered, “don’t meet your idols” never applied to Lundqvist.

I hope you’ve appreciated him. I hope you don’t hold everyone who comes after him to his standard. There will, sadly, never be another Henrik Lundqvist. Because from now on Lundqvist is nothing but a memory in New York. Like smoke from a blown out flame, you can see it, but you can’t touch it. And the more you try to the harder it gets.

Later in The Dark Knight, Batman, Dent, and Commissioner Gordon meet on a roof to talk. At the end of the conversation Dent turns away for a second and when he looks back, Batman is gone. Confused, he turns to Gordon who shrugs with a smile and says, “he does that.” So too does Lundqvist, who is now out of Gotham.

In a decade or so, when I have more gray hair on my head, and my kids are old enough to understand hockey, they might get lucky enough to have Lundqvist appear at a game we’re at. Maybe they’ll see him in the record books. Maybe MSG will show a highlight. A friend will mention his name. Perhaps they’ll see his number hanging from the rafters.

They’ll turn to me and ask: “who is Henrik Lundqvist?”

I’ll get to smile and tell all about him. “I got to watch him play.”

Thank you for everything, Hank. Words aren’t enough.