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Zetterberg has grown into an NHL superstar

Thursday, 05.22.2008 / 10:00 AM / 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Once a lightly heralded seventh-round draft pick, the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg has unexpectedly developed into an NHL superstar. Henrik Zetterberg highlights
For six weeks, when he was 17, Henrik Zetterberg was wondering about his hockey future. He had a part-time job cleaning lanes at a bowling alley at home in Njurunda, Sweden.

Strikes and spares definitely were in his plans, even if there was no sign of stardom when the Detroit Red Wings selected him two years later — in the seventh round, 210th overall, in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.

Zetterberg was a small, wiry player with deceptive speed who was uninhibited along the boards. He always seemed to have the puck, which is what caught the attention of Wings Assistant GM Jim Nill.

"He was a skinny little kid when I saw him," Nill said. "I really liked his instincts."

Fast forward to this year's Stanley Cup Final and you are struck by these thing: Zetterberg is shifty. He's skilled. He's swift. He's solid and accountable at both ends of the rink. And he's very, very smart.

He's tied for the League lead with 21 playoff points and has scored a goal in eight of his last 10 games.

Zetterberg has dazzled opponents with his stickwork and speed, making fans marvel at his ability to do so many things at a fast pace. From a distance, the 27-year-old is magic. But there's much more Zetterberg's abracadabra act on the ice. And there's also more than the disheveled brown hair and unshaven look of a surfer.

"When he stepped on the ice for the first time in the NHL, he was already one of the more skilled players in the League," said St. Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace, who played behind Zetterberg for the first time in 2002-03 and had to face his many head-shaking moves in practice for three years before joining the Blues. "No offense to Sidney Crosby or Vinny Lecavalier or anyone else, but there is no better player in the NHL now than Hank."

Legace was asked if he wanted me to use "arguably" in that quote, but he said it wasn't needed. Then he added one more thing to Zetterberg's attributes — the intangible look of a Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.

"It's the fire in Hank's eyes and the passion in his belly," Legace continued. "I've seen bigger players try to take liberties with him and he'll just stand there face-to-face and give the other guy the look."

"I don't consider myself scary," Zetterberg said. "Would you be afraid of me?"

Even after Zetterberg was named rookie of the year while playing for Timra IK in the Swedish Elite League in 2001, he still saw the skills and size of NHL players only on TV and occasionally in pickup games against European NHL stars. The next season he was named player of the year in the Swedish Elite League. By the time the 2002 Olympics rolled around, Zetterberg had filled out and got his first real taste of what life would be like at the next level.

"I remember going on the ice for the first time to take a faceoff at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and when I looked up, there was Eric Lindros standing across from me," Zetterberg said. "I must have been giving him five inches and about 40 pounds in that matchup. That opened my eyes. It gave me something to work on before I played my first game in the NHL the next season. I knew I had to get bigger and stronger."

Thirty pounds stronger since draft day, Zetterberg now is a legitimate MVP candidate.

"Henrik, he's a complete player," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "He's got great hands, great instincts, he's great in traffic and he really sees the ice well. Over the years I've seen a lot of great players who don't work hard enough to be better. I always tell our scouts, 'Tell me when a smaller guy shows you he can do it and when a bigger guy shows you he can't.' It's clear Henrik always plays bigger than his size."

For Goran Zetterberg, Henrik's father and coach of the hockey team in Njurunda, and his mom, Ulla, who is an office supervisor, the dream of seeing their son play in the NHL was second to seeing him play for the Swedish national team. When asked about his best moments in hockey, Zetterberg quickly picked his first Olympic appearance at Salt Lake City in 2002 and Sweden's gold-medal victory at Torino, Italy, in 2006 as Nos. 1 and 1A.

"But," Zetterberg added, "I just missed the Red Wings' Stanley Cup run in 2002. I think I could find a place right there at the top with the Olympics for a chance to lift the Stanley Cup in victory."

He's four wins away from getting that chance.

"He can pass and he can shoot at an elite level,” Red Wings captain and fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom said. “That's what makes him so difficult to stop, because you don't know what he's going to do. Seeing that kind of skill coming at you again and again makes defenders back off and creates openings for his teammates."

When watching Zetterberg, you quickly notice the hands, the quick feet, the ability to create while at top speed, the instincts. But what stands out most are Zetterberg's consistency, strength and work ethic.

"You're never going to outwork Hank, that's for sure," Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

"There isn't a stronger player on his skates than Zetterberg," said Blues coach Andy Murray. "No one knocks him off his feet, and no forward has the kind of stamina that he has. He could still thrive playing two-minute shifts and playing the kind of 28- to 30-minute games defensemen like Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom play."

The irony is Zetterberg fell through the cracks in 1999 because he was deemed too slight and fragile for life in the NHL at a time when bigger was better and teams were able to trap and obstruct smaller players who weren't equipped to fight through the holding and grabbing.

"I was 5-11, but I was only about 165 pounds when I was drafted," Zetterberg said.

No muscles? That's right.

"I was a small kid," he said. "But I wasn't the last kid chosen in a pickup game. I had skills and I really worked at making them better and better. I remember as a kid I always tried to not get hit and to hold onto the puck until I spotted an open teammate."

"It's the fire in Hank's eyes and the passion in his belly.  I've seen bigger players try to take liberties with him and he'll just stand there face-to-face and give the other guy the look. "

-- Blues goaltender Manny Legace on former teammate Henrik Zetterberg

He wasn't even thinking about the draft in June 1999, when he slipped all the way to the seventh round.

"I was on vacation with my parents on the island of Cyprus," Zetterberg said. "I knew the Red Wings were interested and that I wouldn't be picked early. When my dad picked up the phone and told me it was (Red Wings European scout) Hakan Andersson, the vacation that was pretty good already turned great."

When he was 13 he chose hockey over soccer and added Sweden's Mats Sundin to his idol, Wayne Gretzky, as players he tried to emulate. When this late bloomer turned 18, he was chosen to play for Sweden's National Team. Truth be told, the Red Wings weren't sure about Zetterberg earlier that season, when Andersson took Nill to a tournament in northern Finland.

"Hakan was trying to show me another player," Nill said when asked about his first reaction to seeing Zetterberg. "But there was this little Zetterberg guy who always seemed to have the puck."

Still does. And he does so much more as well.

When asked if he ever could approach Gretzky, Sundin or Detroit legend Steve Yzerman, Zetterberg was quick to react, saying, "You have to win to become a star ... and I haven't won yet."

The operative word is "yet."

 

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