NHL Lockout: Henrik Lundqvist's Big Break Came During 2004-05 Work Stoppage

With a lockout now official, reality is starting to set in among all NHL fans. The talk that surrounded a possible lockout throughout the summer certainly doesn't make the official announcement any easier to swallow, with the cancellation of games likely to soon follow.

There is undoubtedly anger and bitterness among the Rangers fans, who now face the very real possibility of not seeing their favorite players return to the Garden ice in the immediate future. However, when there is a crisis, there is an opportunity, and for all players who aren't in the NHL, there is an opportunity to be noticed.

Just ask Henrik Lundqvist, who used the 2004-05 work stoppage as his opportunity to convince the Rangers that he was ready for the NHL.

The Rangers drafted Lundqvist in the 7th round of the 2000 NHL Draft. As a late round draft pick, the odds of Lundqvist making the NHL were slim, and he decided to return to his hometown team in Sweden, the Frolunda Indians.

But even though Lundqvist put up solid numbers in three full seasons with Frolunda's big club between 2001-02 and 2003-04, as well as leading Frolunda to their first championship in 38 years, the Rangers weren't convinced that he was ready to play in New York. This was evident when the Rangers drafted two goalies in the first round in the years after they selected Lundqvist: Dan Blackburn in 2001, and Al Montoya in 2004.

However, when the work stoppage occurred in the fall of 2004, many NHL players decided to play the season out in the Swedish Elite League, including many members of Sweden's 2006 Gold Medal-winning team. The Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg led the SEL in points, and Mike Knuble and Mattias Weinhandl tied for the league lead in goals. Miikka Kiprusoff was of the best goalies in the SEL, and the Senators' Daniel Alfredsson finished out the season with Lundqvist's Frolunda squad.

Yet with all of the NHL players in Sweden that season, it was Lundqvist who stood head and shoulders above the rest. "Henke", as he is known in Sweden, led Frolunda to the league's best record, as he posted a 30-6-3-2 record, a 1.79 goals against average, a .936 save percentage, and six shutouts in 44 games. Lundqvist won the Honken Trophy for the 3rd year in a row as the league's top goalie, and won the Guldpucken and Guldhjälmen, the equivalent of the NHL's Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award respectively.

In the playoffs, Henrik's play only get better. Lundqvist led Frolunda to their second championship in three years by going 12-2 in 14 playoff games, while recording a 1.05 goals against average and a .961 save percentage.

On MSG's profile series show about Lundqvist, which first aired in 2007, Henrik talked about the how the 2004-05 season impacted his career going forward. "I didn't really feel I had to do more in Sweden," Lundqvist said. "I felt I was ready for the next step, both as a person and as a player."

The Rangers shared the same feeling as their goaltender. "He was the MVP of the league in Sweden, and I think at that point the Rangers thought ‘we might be on to something here,'" radio analyst Dave Maloney said.

The Blueshirts' director of player personnel in European at the time, Christer Rockstrom, echoed Maloney's comments. "(After the season ended) we thought that we got to sign him and get him over here, it's time for him to move. He is ready now."

Lundqvist signed an entry-level contract in July of 2005, and made the Rangers' opening night roster as the backup to Kevin Weekes. Soon, it was Lundqvist who would take over the starting role, and ‘The King' hasn't looked back.

Lundqvist's story is apropos for the Rangers fan because it's an incentive to still follow hockey this season, even if it isn't NHL or Rangers hockey. Whether or not an unknown Rangers prospect will dominate another league this season remains to be seen. But, wouldn't you like to say that you saw the next Rangers star before he became to Broadway?