It’s easy to lose track of the world championships in the spring. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are always front of mind, at least in North America. Thus, many missed a great feel-good story that played out back in May when the Swedes knocked off Canada 2-1 in a shootout in the final, the 10th time the Tre Kronor took gold in the IIHF’s showcase event.
William Nylander, coming off his rookie season with the Leafs, was named the tournament’s most valuable player, yet you could have built a strong case for Henrik Lundqvist. The goalie joined the team mid-tournament after the elimination of his Rangers from the NHL playoffs, and he went undefeated and practically untouched the rest of the way. In the last two games of the preliminary stage and the three games in the knockout round, Lundqvist posted a 1.31 goals against average and .946 save percentage. Commentators in the Swedish media made a case for putting the goalie’s likeness on a postage stamp, just as the government had for Peter Forsberg after the 1994 Olympic victory.
But neither the 20-year-old forward nor the 35-year-old goaltender skated out to accept the tournament’s trophy on behalf of the team. Instead, it was a role player who, if you were piecing the puzzle together, might have had a case of his own for MVP honors: the Swedish captain, Joel Lundqvist, Henrik’s twin brother.
OK, the younger Lundqvist (by 40 minutes) picked up only four more points than did his brother back in the cage, but that didn’t matter: Joel’s presence was an added draw for his twin. “I know how Henrik felt,” Joel says after practice with his Swedish Hockey League team, Frolunda HC, in November. “He was very disappointed by the Rangers’ loss to Ottawa [in the Eastern Conference semi-final]. I was on the phone to him the next day. I told him, ‘Just so you know, we have a great group of guys here in Germany. We have a good chance.’ I didn’t want to put any pressure on him. I hoped he’d come. I knew that if he thought he had the energy in his body he’d come. And I know for him — like me, like other players here — it’s an honour to play for your country.”
The draw for Henrik Lundqvist was more than that, though — the tournament was a chance to play with Joel for the first time in 12 years. “We had always played together growing up, but a few years ago I thought, ‘You know, we will probably never play together again,’” Joel says. “And then this came along, very fast. I mean, just the week before the tournament, I didn’t even know that I was on the team — they hadn’t set the roster. When they called, I thought it was just to say that I made the team, and they told me I was captain. I went from here…”
Joel holds a hand at waist level.
He moves his hand up to eye level.
“And then when Henrik told me that he was coming, I went like this.”
Joel raises his hand as high as it will go.
“It was incredible — a great experience, something you cannot plan on.”
Unexpected twists have been a recurring theme in the career of Joel Lundqvist. Like many who play only briefly in the NHL, he had a couple of bad breaks at the worst possible times. Like many, the curtain fell fast for him. Other men who’ve lived that experience don’t conceal their bitterness about the unfairness of it all; some try unconvincingly to cover it up. But Joel Lundqvist’s story is the farthest thing from hard-luck — not as he tells it and not as you read it sitting across from him. In fact, if he had become a star in the NHL, it would be hard to imagine him any more content.
Henrik Lundqvist is a guaranteed Hockey Hall of Famer, a possible candidate for first-ballot election. On publication, he has 421 career wins and you have to think he’s just about a lock to make it into the top five in all-time victories. It goes beyond longevity, of course. He won a Vezina Trophy, a First All-Star Team berth and another on the Second All-Star Team. In the post-season, he had a string of five consecutive Game 7 wins. He was a rock for the Swedish team that won gold at the 2006 Olympics.
And beyond that, there’s persona: Lundqvist has been the rare NHL player with an outsized prominence beyond the arena. “King Henrik” is an overstatement to be sure, but the handle fits on more than a few counts. For a generation, he has been the biggest star in the NHL’s largest market. He’s a businessman in Manhattan. He lands on best-dressed lists. He even made People’s “Most Beautiful” list. He has earned recognition for philanthropic and humanitarian causes.
You have to go well down his bio until you hit the footnote that Henrik Lundqvist has a twin brother.
Look for the full TV feature on Joel and Henrik Lundqvist during Hockey Night in Canada on December 23.
“Really, until we were teenagers, maybe even 20, Henrik and I were one person,” Joel says. “We did all the same things. We moved around together. We had the same friends.”
And yet, the Lundqvist twins now stand in sharp contrast. We’re not talking about Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who seem to have moved through their lives symmetrically and probably should share a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday — or at least neighbouring places on the wall. Until they had gold medals draped upon them at the world championships, the Lundqvists had gone very separate ways as adults. “He is a goalie,” Joel says. “They’re different.”
It sounds like a one-liner, and not an original one, and yet there’s more truth in it than you’d suspect. Growing up in Are, a village of 800, the Lundqvists were one person, as Joel says, but when they started to diverge, hockey was the catalyst.
At first it was positional. Back when they were in grade school, the two were at a practice when a coach asked for a volunteer to play goal. Henrik didn’t raise his hand, at least not voluntarily. Instead, as a prank, Joel raised Henrik’s hand for him. “I didn’t want to play goal — that’s for sure,” Joel says. “But I think the position makes you different. There is all that pressure. It doesn’t stop. That was something that Henrik liked — or he got to like. He enjoyed that pressure. He was different in that way. I was the brother who would do that [prank] on the other guy.”
As teenagers, Joel seemed like the more serious NHL prospect. In their draft year, Joel was a third-round pick of the Dallas Stars while the Rangers didn’t call Henrik’s name for another four rounds. And yet Joel’s stint in the NHL was relatively brief. “NHL careers have a lot to do with circumstances, situations and always some luck,” Joel says. “I was really happy when I went to Dallas. I had some good times and there were good people. But in my third year I was playing for a contract and I had my first really bad injury, a crack in my shoulder blade. I hoped to make the world championship team but I got injured again. It was a really bad season to have in a contract year. Playing in the NHL was the main goal at first but I didn’t really get any good offers. Teams wanted me to sign a two-way.”
A lot, if not most, of the players in Joel Lundqvist’s shoes would have bet on themselves and doubled down, trying to play their way back up in their organizations, trying to attract attention from other organizations. Maybe Henrik would have done that. Joel chose not to. “I didn’t really want to go to the AHL,” he says. “I had my wife and I was starting a family. And I had an offer from Frolunda. There’s something special about playing in the NHL but there’s also something special about playing for the team that you grew up with, the team that helped you grow and develop as a player. That’s something very few players get to do. I loved the Frolunda organization, Gothenburg, the place where I live.”
Joel was also tugged emotionally back to his family. His father Peter had undergone brain surgery in 2007 and it changed his life utterly. “My father has paralysis in the face and he has bad balance,” Joel says. “A lot of things changed after that surgery, so I think it was important to be close to my mother and father. His brother lives in Stockholm, 500 kilometres away. Henrik is in New York most of the year. My older sister lives in Sacramento. So, to be able to see my parents, to let them have a chance to see our kids grow up, that’s not something you can buy with money. There have been times that maybe I could have made more money going to the KHL or another league. Maybe that would be good for me but not for my wife, my kids and my parents. It’s not only about you.”
Joel Lundqvist and his family live on the island of Hono in the Ockero Municipality, a community of 10,000 by his estimate on a chain of islands just west of Gothenburg connected by bridges and ferries. “It’s not like Henrik living in Manhattan, that’s for sure,” Joel says. “It’s everything we want. School for my older daughter and son who are nine and six. Sports for them. She is in athletics, a good high jumper and sprinter. He’s playing hockey — I don’t know if I want him to play goal or not. We’ll see. We have an infant. There’s lots of support and friends. We’re not on the water but we’re just a walk from it. It’s a great quality of life. I actually like taking the ferry for 15 or 20 minutes each way every day. Before a game I can catch up on things, read, send my emails, just look after things. After a game, it gives me a chance to come down a bit.”
It’s tempting to presume that Joel Lundqvist blinked, that he pulled the chute, that he took an easy way out, that he lacked the fire his brother possesses. It’s enough to make him bristle. He says they possess “the same level of competitiveness.”
It’s hard enough to be a professional hockey player, but imagine being the twin of the guy they want to put on a stamp. In one breath, Joel will say that there was another path he could have followed; in the next, that it’s not a thought he can revisit. He makes it plain that questioning his career decisions in that way effectively disparages the game in the Swedish league — he drives home the point that he didn’t take an easy way out. “It’s a tough league and it’s a lot of work to be able to compete,” Joel says. “I have to work harder and spend more time on my game than ever before. I have two years left on my contract and even after that I want to keep playing. I get asked about managing or coaching but to play in this league you have to focus on the next game, not seasons ahead.”
Beyond the next game, but not beyond the winter, is another Swedish national team, the one heading to South Korea for the Olympics in February. Henrik Lundqvist would have been a lock to be in goal for Sweden if the NHL had not passed up the opportunity to showcase its talent in the tournament. Now Joel is in much the same position as he was prior to the world championships last spring. The roster is weeks away from being set and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be on it — a rib injury that kept him on the sidelines in November didn’t help his cause. He’d be looking at a third- or fourth-line role once again and it’s hard to know if the team staff will side with experience like his over fresh legs, like Lias Andersson, a 19-year-old Frolunda teammate who’ll be playing at the world under-20s.
“I’ve never had a chance to play in the Olympics and it was a goal for me before the season to make this team,” Joel says. “Still it’s a little strange if it happens this way. You just expect the best to be there in the Olympics — a little different than the worlds — and the best are playing in the NHL. Henrik, of course he would be there if the NHL is going. But whoever makes it has to play for their country and forget about all the other stuff. They can’t think about playing in the shadow of those who aren’t there.”
Compared to the others, Joel Lundqvist would only have to make the subtlest shift in mindset, given that his entire career has been eclipsed from afar by Henrik, who, in fairness, would cast a shadow on all but a very few players in the game.
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