Sport

Henrik Lundqvist was truly ‘The King’ in every way for Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist was truly ‘The King’ in every way for Rangers

It isn’t the numbers and it isn’t the number 30 that will be raised to the pinwheel ceiling of the Garden when the time becomes right.

It is the aura, it is the personality, it is the grace and it is the professionalism, competitiveness and, yes, the humanity of Henrik Lundqvist he bequeaths to New York forever now that his days in a Rangers uniform have come to an end.

That is what makes this so heart-wrenching.

“I know we are all facing some challenges as a city so let’s do what New Yorkers do best, come together and get back to where we want to be!” Lundqvist, not quite sticking to sports, said as part of a five-part farewell tweet posted to his account Wednesday. “Be kind, be respectful and supportive of others.”

That is what Lundqvist, the Swede who made himself at home on Broadway, leaves behind. That is who Lundqvist is.

He’s not Derek Jeter. He’s not Eli Manning. He’s not Willis Reed. He’s not Tom Seaver. He doesn’t have the ring(s). But if you want to talk about this particular Core Four, Lundqvist was something else that not one of them was and he carried a burden shared by none of the above.

He was the face of the franchise for the final 14 years of his 15-year career here, the singular name above the title on the marquee and essentially required to be the best player on the ice just about any and every night in order for his team to win. That’s what he was.

Eventually, it took a toll. The amount of work he needed to do on a consistent basis, and certainly over the last five years while often operating behind a defensive structure that seemed to traffic in chaos, wore him down. So did the Cup receding into the background of the rearview mirror. The game became faster, Lundqvist became slower. Or, perhaps more accurately, the King became 35, then 36, then 37, and now 38.

And Rangerstown was no longer a country for old men.

The Rangers were 15-4 in playoff elimination games from 2012-15. That almost seems like a typographical error. It isn’t. Lundqvist allowed one goal or no goals in 11 of those 19 games. The Rangers came from 3-1 down against the Penguins in 2014 and 3-1 down against the Capitals in 2015 and Lundqvist allowed a sum of eight goals in those six potential elimination games.

He was as hard on his teammates as he was on himself and perhaps not every player appreciated that all the time. He was as hard on his teammates, come to think of it, as John Tortorella was on him.

Tortorella treated Lundqvist with tough love. The Swede was better for it. A lot of it was even necessary, but probably not the lecture after a poor outing that coincidentally came on a day the King’s picture with Justin Bieber taken at the Knicks game the previous night showed up on Page Six. I believe the coach prohibited the King from attending Knicks games for the rest of that season.

There was that stretch of seasons when Tortorella gloried in the number of high shots directed at Lundqvist during practice. He thought it toughened up the goaltender. I thought it was absurd. And so, after the second or third time he’d been struck by a high one, I advised Lundqvist to simply leave the net next time, the way Billy Smith often did when he was with the Islanders. I presumed it was a private conversation.

But the next night, in the midst of answering a question in a pregame press briefing, the coach matter of factly let it drop that, “One of our writers even told Hank to stop playing … didn’t think I knew that, did you?”

Who, me?

“You told him?” I asked Lundqvist after the match.

“I shouldn’t have?”

He was laughing.

I wasn’t.

Fifteen years. We talked and we talked and we talked. We talked at morning skates, we talked after games, we talked after practices. I have written thousands and thousands of words about him, more than any other athlete I have ever covered. I don’t know if there has ever been a more gracious star of that magnitude.

Lundqvist came to camp in 2005. After his third NHL game, a 5-1 victory over the Thrashers at the Garden on Oct. 15, I anointed him The King. There was just something about him. “He is King Henrik of Sweden, that’s who he is,” I wrote.

Years later, after the title had become inextricably linked with his identity, Lundqvist wanted to know why I’d bestowed that name upon him. There had, at some point, been a Swedish monarch named Henrik, though he apparently did not rule the land. He knew that.

“It’s because of my name, that’s the reason, right?” he wanted to know. “If my name was Sam, you wouldn’t have called me King Sam, would you?”

Well, yes, I would have.

But he was not Sam.

He was (and is) Henrik Lundqvist.

The King.

One of the best of all time.

And I am going to miss him terribly.

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