How Swede It Is!
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Without his goaltender mask, Johan Holmqvist hardly looks like the menacing type. By any standard, he is friendly and cordial, and with blonde hair and blue eyes, he could be the boy next door -- especially if you happen to live in Tolfta, Sweden.
But there's more to this young Swede than meets the eye. Depicted on the front of his mask is a menacing viking, a caricature of the infamous sea rover who conducted devastating raids on Europe centuries ago.
During the 2003 AHL playoffs, Holmqvist's conquests included four opponents, the Griffins among them, while leading his Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup championship.
Holmqvist, it became clear, was the ultimate Road Warrior.
His brilliance during the postseason was unmatched as the Aeros played 15 one-goal contests, including 10 games in the last two series against Grand Rapids and Hamilton.
On the way to posting a 15-8 record with a 2.00 goals against average in 23 playoff contests, Holmqvist set an AHL record by playing 1,498 minutes and 48 seconds in the playoffs. He became the first goaltender ever to win two Game Sevens on the road in the same AHL postseason.
Given his Scandinavian pedigree and his performance in the playoffs, the image of the victorious Viking is rather appropriate. During Houston's Calder Cup run, he protected his net like his ancestors did their spoils of war.
Who said plundering wasn't fun?
"We were so happy -- it was an unbelievable feeling," says Holmqvist, who recorded a shutout in the final contest. "I felt very good the whole finals, but I never expected that we would be that good in a Game Seven."
Holmqvist's transition from a good goalie to a pressure-packed playoff performer might not have happened had he not been traded first. He came to Houston and the Minnesota Wild organization in a deadline deal that sent defenseman Lawrence Nycholat to the New York Rangers organization.
At the time, it was an unpopular trade in the Aeros organization because Nycholat not only played exceptional defense, but he was also a popular player in the Houston dressing room.
But the trade became necessary after the Aeros' top two goaltenders, Dieter Kochan and Frederic Cloutier, were lost to Lyme disease and an injured wrist, respectively.
Aeros head coach Todd McLellan leaves no doubt to what Holmqvist meant to his team's title hopes. "When all was said and done, he allowed us to win a championship," McLellan says. "He was a very big part of our success."
Holmqvist played well almost from the first day he joined the Aeros from the AHL's Hartford, where he has spent the previous three years.
"I think it was a good thing for me to change organizations," Holmqvist says. "I think I needed a new start and I tried to take advantage of the chance that I got."
Even so, he admits that he was caught off-guard by the timing of the deal. "I was a little surprised," he says. "You don't walk around every day thinking you're going to get traded."
But Houston seemed to be a bona fide contender and Hartford was barely above the .500 mark, so Holmqvist realized it was a good move. "I called home to my wife because it was almost too good to be true," he says.
His regular season numbers with the Aeros were solid but unspectacular. He finished the year with an 8-5-3 record and a 2.88 GAA. The script was completely different in the playoffs.
"I think the storyline was just confidence," McLellan says. "He instilled a lot of confidence in our players and I think our players, in turn, instilled a lot of confidence in him."
In a way, his performance was not unexpected. He was enjoying his best season in Hartford before the trade and -- like the flowers in his homeland -- Holmqvist had always been a bit of a late-bloomer.
He didn't become a goaltender until the age of 9 or 10. He started skating when he was three years old, but he played defense until his age forced him into the net.
"There were seven or eight guys who played hockey on the street where I lived and I was always the youngest," Holmqvist says. "When you're the youngest guy, you don't have a choice. They make you play goal."
Holmqvist was good enough that his pals suggested that he try the position on the ice. "I found out that I really liked it," he recalls. "I thought it was fun to play the whole game. I liked being in the center of the action."
He grew up idolizing Pelle Lindbergh, the Philadelphia Flyers netminder who posted a record of 87-49-15 in five seasons from 1981-86.
"Unfortunately I didn't get to see him play much because he was over here and it was the middle of the night when the games were on TV (in Sweden). My dad recorded them for me sometimes, so I got to watch a few times."
Holmqvist also admired a couple of Swedish goaltenders, who became his de facto mentors since he actually didn't have a goaltending coach until he was 18 years old.
That's when he started working with a gentleman by the name of Anders Bergstrom. "I think I had good habits, but there were a lot of things that I had to learn," Holmqvist says. "I tried to find a way to play. I didn't know if I should use the butterfly or stand-up style. I tried to find something in between."
He was selected by the Rangers in the seventh round (175th overall) of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.
"It's funny because we worked to get all these things better and when I got over here, they tried to change everything. My first year, it was tough. It felt weird to start all over again."
Holmqvist worked with Sammy St. Laurent, a former NHL netminder who appeared in 34 games with New Jersey and Detroit in the late 1980s. "We worked on everything, from movement to stopping the puck," he says.
He felt he was improving year by year, but his progress was blocked in New York by veteran Mike Richter and promising youngster Dan Blackburn, the Rangers' No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft.
That he was wanted in Houston made Holmqvist very happy.
He still can't believe he earned the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the AHL playoff MVP. "I didn't even hear the announcement and didn't know what happened until the guys started grabbing me," he says. "It was a big honor for me, but I have to give credit to the whole team.
"The guys work so hard for me to see the play and if I can see the puck, it's my job to stop it."
Holmqvist was rewarded for his efforts with a new multiyear contract that will keep him in the Wild organization for the foreseeable future. "It feels good," he says. "I was very happy when Minnesota wanted to sign me."
He knows it won't be easy for the Aeros to repeat. "We have a very young team, so it may take a while for everyone to get on the same page," he says. "It's been a little up and down so far this season, but hopefully we're getting better.
"The more I play, the better I feel."
That could spell trouble for the rest of the AHL. Spread the news: Beware the Swede. The viking wants to come back for more.
The fact is, Holmqvist loves the postseason.
"I really like playoff hockey," he says. "Those are the type of games that I want to play. When you face the good teams, you know you have to play well and after the first round last year, my confidence was pretty good."
He'll never forget Game Two of the Calder Cup finals when Houston and Hamilton played five hours and 54 minutes before the Bulldogs escaped with a 2-1 victory in the fourth overtime.
Holmqvist was saddled with the loss despite finishing with 79 saves because Hamilton's Ty Conklin failed to stop only one of 84 shots. By all reports, it was a veritable goaltending clinic as the pair combined for 162 saves, including 105 game-saving stops in sudden-death overtime.
"There were only five guys on the ice the whole time the referee, the two linesmen and the two goaltenders, but they (the goalies) had to stay in it mentally and physically for the whole time," McLellan says.
"It was amazing," Holmqvist admits. "It seemed like no one was going to score. After six periods, it was like, 'wow, we've played two games now.' But I think I felt more fatigue after three period than I did after six."
Sometime between two of the overtimes, Holmqvist remembers eating pizza. "You had to eat something to get yourself through it," he says. "The only thing you can do in a game like that is try to stay fresh."
Holmqvist didn't mind all the action -- he made 20 saves in the second overtime alone. "I think most goalies like to see a lot of shots," he says. "Some games you only see 15 shots and those are the games that are the toughest to play."
He has appeared in more games each year since he came to North America to play and this season he played in 12 of the Aeros first 13 games. As far as he's concerned, the more action, the better.
"Everybody says the older you get, the better goaltender you'll be. I'm only 25 years old, so if it's true, I can still get a lot better."