The first time Henrik Zetterberg set foot in Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings were in the playoffs. Against Colorado. He was a new draftee; he wore a suit, and he felt like an idiot.
“Who wears a suit at a hockey game?” he recalls thinking.
Afterward, he and Niklas Kronwall, another Detroit pick, were ushered into the locker room to meet the team. They felt awkward, like forced guests at someone else’s party. Luckily, the game had been won, and the players were pretty friendly.
So he and Kronwall came back the next game. And this time Detroit lost. And the locker room “was like a funeral; even guys’ families were upset.”
At that moment, wearing dress shoes and a sports coat, Zetterberg got a taste of what the NHL playoffs are all about – how you put your heart on the line every night. Tonight, he gets the ultimate firsthand exposure: He plays in the Stanley Cup finals. Like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, it’s his first time. Like Crosby, he is being counted on to lead.
But here’s a news flash for the national media:
Crosby may be “the new face of the NHL.”
But Zetterberg could be.
This is a kid who is rock-star good-looking, has a high-profile girlfriend, mad skills, a humble demeanor and a knack for finding the puck as if he and it were separated at birth. His numbers are at superstar levels. He makes everyone around him better. He’s fast, dynamic, tough on defense, has an almost cosmic connection with linemate Pavel Datsyuk and, finally – and here’s the part that few people know – the guy is damn close to eloquent.
Oh, you’d never think it catching a sound bite after a game, his long hair soaking with sweat, his uniform sopping on his 5-foot-11 frame. At those moments, the guy they call “Hank” seems to only want to escape. So he may toss off a quick and accented cliché-“We had our chances, we took advantage”- and you may leave dismissing Zetterberg as another Swedish athlete in a mode that stretches from Bjorn Borg to Nicklas Lidstrom: all talent, no quote.
More famous in Sweden Sitting alone at a quiet table this week, Zetterberg shows how illuminating he can be when he wants to be. When asked about comparisons between him and Steve Yzerman, he says, “It’s a good story for them to sell to the media,” and when asked if he’d make the comparison himself, he says, “Steve was captain here for 19 years. I got a few trips around the world before I reach his status.” When asked about the pressure of being the young star among older superstars, he says, “You take it with a pinch of salt.”
Well, understand that Zetterberg, 27, is no stranger to media, interviews, or outside curiosity. In his home country, he’s Andre Agassi-meets-John Mayer – famous for what he plays as well as whom he dates. Zetterberg and his girlfriend of two years, Emma Andersson – a Swedish model and TV celebrity – are photographed constantly, whether they like it or not. Dinners are regularly interrupted. Stories get written, with or without their help.
When they return to America, they actually revel in the relative anonymity. “We like being normal people,” he says. It would be akin to David Beckham and Posh Spice living here – if they ever stopped trying to tell everyone how famous they were.
“I don’t go out and try and get attention,” Zetterberg says. “I have been handling the media in Sweden since I was 17. I know it’s a big part of sports now. You have to stand up if you win or you lose. But attention? I don’t need that. I don’t mind it, but I don’t need it.”
This is a guy who left home when he was 14 to live with other teenage players, who vaguely remembers watching his first NHL finals game with a friend on TV (Ray Bourque winning a ring with Colorado), a guy who says he first knew Dallas Drake, his current teammate, because “I had him in my Nintendo hockey game when I was a kid.”
He thought, until his teens, that he would be a soccer player. He certainly never dreamed of fame in the NHL.
And yet he’s likely to get a ton of it this next week – and if the Wings win the Cup, for a lot longer than that. For one thing, this kid is that good. For another, the Detroit front office is banking on it. Whenever you talk marketing with Red Wings people, they gush about Zetterberg.
And they wonder why he isn’t already a household heartthrob.
Playing with hockey royalty Part of that is because he joined the Wings when you had to get in line to be a Hall of Famer. His first team (2002-03) had Yzerman, Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov, Dominik Hasek.
“It was a sick team,” he says – and he means that in the most Generation Y way.
Meanwhile, Zetterberg kind of sneaked up on people. At the time, nobody thought a lot about this skinny, relatively small guy from Sweden. He was a seventh-round pick. Legend has it that he was not in the Wings’ plans, that their scout was in Europe looking at another player and happened to spot this skinny kid who moved well and made some nice moves with the puck.
“Did you know the scout was there?” I ask Zetterberg.
“Oh yeah, we knew.”
“Did you think he was there for you?”
He laughs. “No way.”
That’s not false modesty. Zetterberg didn’t even know when the NHL draft was. The day it took place, he was on a vacation in Cyprus with four of his buddies. They were camping out in a hotel room, going to the beach. Zetterberg got a call from his parents. Guess what? Detroit had drafted him.
“My friends and I had a little celebration that night,” he recalls, smiling. “And I had to pay for all of them.”
Still, a seventh-rounder is not an instant headline. It took him several years to even get over to the States. That first night at the Joe, watching the Wings play the Avalanche, he remembers thinking, “It was fast – so, so fast – and I was like, Am I gonna play this type of hockey next year? I better get home and work out a little bit.’
His Russian buddy Well, obviously, that “little bit” paid off. Zetterberg has blossomed with every passing year, and he keeps climbing new heights. His first season, he was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year; he had 44 points in 79 games. This past season, with 92 points in 75 games, he is a candidate for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward in the NHL. His pairing with Datsyuk, also a Selke finalist, is already one of those feels-like-legendary things. When you watch them skate, with almost telepathic passing, you are pretty sure you’re watching the opening minutes of a long career highlight reel.
“We are from different worlds,” Zetterberg admits of his Russian pal. “But it all started our first training camp. Back then we didn’t have that many young players on the team. I was the youngest and he was the next youngest, and he took me under his wing. We kind of followed each other on the ice and continued off the ice.”
Today, the two players – who live, Zetterberg says, “about five minutes from each other” in the suburbs – often carpool to the games together. Zetterberg swears that Datsyuk is comically funny, with a dry, fun-poking sense of humor – in English. This will come as a shock to fans who haven’t been able to hear a complete sentence from Datsyuk since he got here.
“I would say I understand him pretty well,” Zetterberg says, laughing conspiratorially when it’s suggested that Datsyuk only speaks English as well as he wants to. “We have good conversations, let’s put it that way.
“I think it’s a little easier if it’s just me and him or guys on the team. It’s pretty intimidating to talk to the media sometimes, because if you say something wrong it could be all over the news.
Words of wisdom Yet for a guy who knows how to be cautious in an interview, Zetterberg can be surprisingly candid. When I ask how he thinks he will feel if he wins the Stanley Cup this year, he avoids the standard “dream come true” stuff and instead evokes a previous feeling of ennui.
“When we won the Olympics”- in 2006, playing for Sweden -“the feeling was kind of like, Is this it?’ That game was so mentally tough, that when it was over, you won, and then it was like”- he exhales -“you were so empty. You were empty. You were happy, but at the same time, I thought it would be more.
“On the other hand, when I first got here we had that great team, and we lost in the first round. The next year we lost in the second round. That feeling you have after the last game of the year when you’re not on the winning side, it’s like, My god.’ It’s so mentally tough.
“So I don’t know what the feeling would be like to win a Cup. But I know I don’t want to have the feeling you have when you lose. It’s the worst.”
Nothing cliché about that, is there?
And there is nothing cliché about this player. He is a major talent, and, even better, a growing talent, with a level of smarts and insight that rarely gets exposed. The team loves him. Management loves him. Fans love him. It seems a cinch that he will one day take over the captain’s reigns when Lidstrom retires. And you could see Zetterberg having a decade or more as the face of the Wings.
But if the league is smart, it won’t stop there. Zetterberg may not want to be the face of the NHL. He may not want to be more famous here than he is in Sweden.
But if Detroit wins the Stanley Cup, and if Zetterberg plays the way he’s capable, well, it may be like that night when he wore a suit to a hockey game. He may not have a choice.
“You have to stand up if you win or you lose. But attention?
I don’t need that. I don’t mind it, but I don’t need it.”Henrik Zetterberg, below, on life as a hockey superstar – and a celebrity in Sweden
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.
How Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby compare:
HANK SID Age 27 20 Vitals 5-11, 195 5-11, 200 Born Njurunda, Sweden ColeHarbour, N. Scotia Drafted 1999,7th round
(No. 210) 2005,1st round (No. 1)
Years ……. 5 3 Olympic Games ’02, ’06 None
Games 75 53 Goals 43 24 Points 92 72 Pts/G 1.23 1.36
Games 355 213 Goals 152 99 Points 332 294 Pts/G 0.94 1.38