TAMPA, Fla. — At first Victor Hedman’s parents weren’t sure he’d ever play defence. Even at age 10, he preferred strapping on the goalie pads and taking shots from his two older brothers.
Eventually, his father intervened.
“He wanted to stay in goal, but I told him ‘If you play out, I’ll get you a new helmet,”‘ Olle Hedman told Sportsnet. “‘Oh I’ll take a new helmet,’ he said.”
As the steadiest hand on a Tampa Bay Lightning team that is now one win away from the Stanley Cup final, he’s taken it about as far as any young boy’s imagination can stretch.
Of course, when you grow up in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden — the town of 25,000 that produced Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, among many others — big dreams have a way of turning into reality.
Hedman still remembers getting an invitation at age 16 to join those players on the “Icebreakers” charity hockey team.
“They called me and I was like ‘what?'” he said. “My ‘D’ partner was (former Kings captain) Mattias Norstrom. I hadn’t done anything yet. I hadn’t played for the pro team yet.”
Yes, Hedman had spent plenty of time around hockey royalty before the Lightning called his name with the second overall pick at the 2009 NHL draft. By then he was on a first-name basis with Hall of Famers.
“Modo had a big hockey school every summer that I went to and Peter was there, Markus was there, the Sedins were there,” said Hedman. “That was the highlight of the week when you got to meet them and get a photo with them and autographs.”
What is most notable about his journey to the NHL is how unstructured it was. Hedman split time between playing as a skater and a goalie for a couple years before his father’s helmet offer prompted him to settle on one position.
He was also an avid soccer player until age 14.
Even in a town with the hockey pedigree of Ornskoldsvik, all that drew Hedman to the sport was the simple joy it gave him. He would skate for hours on the small outdoor rink beside his house with very few distant thoughts of the NHL.
“I don’t think I knew the word pressure growing up,” said Hedman. “It was just all about looking up to (Forsberg, Naslund et al) and trying to have fun all the time. You know, I never had any pressure from home.
“My mom and dad never pushed me … (they said) ‘just follow your dreams and do whatever you want,’ pretty much.”
As is often the case, genetics played a role in his rise through the ranks. Victor hit a growth spurt that seemingly wouldn’t end and wound up six inches taller than his father and brothers Johan and Oscar, a defenceman who plays for Modo.
Initially, that posed some problems. His body couldn’t keep up with his mind.
“I was tall and skinny and had trouble with co-ordination,” said Hedman.
It forced him to focus on improving his skating, and he’s now arguably the most mobile 6-foot-6 defenceman in the NHL. In fact, there might not be another player on the planet with his blend of size, speed and instincts.
The Lightning dominate shot attempts when Hedman is playing and coach Jon Cooper has labelled him the engine that drives this young team.
“He’s one guy on the ice that could ice the puck and beat it out himself,” said Cooper. “He can lead the rush and be the first guy back. It’s just this explosiveness.
“It’s like shooting him out of a cannon.”
“He’s got the full package,” added defence partner Anton Stralman. “He’s got size, speed, the shot, physical game, tremendous passes. … He’s quite a beast out there.”
As far as he’s travelled, the 24-year-old hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Hedman is extremely proud of the hockey school he puts on for children each summer in Ornskoldsvik — “it sold out in two hours” — and says “I’ve never been so nervous in my life” than when he watched Modo play relegation games this spring.
His mother Elizabeth is a pre-school teacher while his father Olle continues to work at the big paper mill, which is the primary industry in town. They religiously watch every Lightning game on TV despite how the time difference mangles sleep patterns.
“It usually starts about 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Olle. “I go up to bed at half past 4 and sleep until 7.”
Hedman’s parents travelled to New York over the weekend to attend Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden. It had long been his mother’s dream to watch her son play the Rangers at the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena.”
Looking out towards the ice surface after a 2-0 victory that put Tampa on the verge of a trip to the Stanley Cup final, Olle Hedman chuckled Sunday night when asked the moment he knew his son would one day play in the NHL.
“After the draft,” he said. “Some people said he could be there before, but we didn’t take anything for granted. But he looks good now.”
Good thing Victor wanted that new helmet.