As soon as Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton began the sentence in making Victor Hedman the second pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft last June, a broad smile washed across the 6-foot-6, Swedish defenseman’s face.
The feeling was mutual in Tampa.
The Lightning had themselves a big, mobile 230-pound defenseman with a high upside. They had a cornerstone player for the future who had already played against men with MoDo in the Swedish Elite League and wanted to play in the NHL immediately.
Since Hedman pulled the Lightning jersey over his shoulders on stage at the draft and stepped on the ice at the prospects camp in July a few weeks later, he has not only met expectations, he has gone well beyond.
“As good as these young guys have been coming into the league lately, you’re always a little skeptical of an 18-year old,” Lightning center Jeff Halpern said. “But he hasn’t just stepped in, he’s stepped in and contributed in games and has been someone we can rely on.
“Off the ice, he just does everything that he’s supposed to. I don’t know who taught him what to do. He waits on the bus for the veterans to get off first, waits for the veterans to get on the plane and get their meals. He stays quiet and just blends in. He looks like he wants to learn, he’s humble and he understands he’s got to put his time in. It’s amazing he’s been able to do that from day one. He’s a professional at 18.”
Hedman did not come to town for prospects camp and buy or rent a home right away. He said he wanted to make the team first.
Throughout prospects camp, Hedman admits he was a bit tentative. He was learning what was expected. When training camp arrived, he felt more comfortable and relished the challenge. Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund had his countryman Hedman over for dinner a few times before camp. They didn’t talk about hockey much. There will be plenty of time for that.
“He’s a young guy, a long way from home,” Ohlund said. “But he’s a very easygoing, relaxed guy. He’s going to be fine.”
Hedman has shown that with the fans, always ready to sign an autograph or shake a hand. During prospects camp, Lightning defenseman Ty Wishart cut into Hedman’s long autograph line to get one for himself.
When the story comes up in conversation, he laughs.
But to Hedman, this is not extra time that he is giving. This is a piece of his job.
“You do whatever it takes to bring fans to the game,” Hedman said. “That’s just part of it. Spending time with fans is important. We want to have a packed building to play in front of. That’s the least I can do for the fans.”
The amount of support he has gotten from the community has made him feel at home.
“I didn’t expect so much,” Hedman said. “Even though I’m from a hockey town back home [Ornskoldsvik], it’s not the same thing as over here. The fans are very excited. They all have smiles on their faces. It’s a great feeling to play in front of them. I’m overwhelmed by the warm welcome I’ve had.”
Hedman made an impression in training camp right away.
On the second day, Hedman was asked to play in two straight scrimmages and never looked winded. He also went after prospect Richard Panik to make sure a questionable hit was repaid.
“I didn’t know if [Hedman] had an edge or not,” Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. “That was a little Chris Pronger there. That’s a nice little element.”
Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier had not yet seen Hedman play.
“At 6-6, you would think he’s not very coordinated,” Lecavalier said. “But he skates like he is 5-11. He’s so mobile, so fast, and he has that reach that not a lot of players have. He’s the real deal.
“He’s been so respectful to all the guys. He’s down to earth and humble. Everybody enjoys having him around.”
Tocchet used Hedman for 27 minutes, 15 seconds in his first preseason game, almost five minutes more than any skater on the ice against Dallas. In five preseason games, he had two assists and was a plus-3.
Hedman is a left shot but, unlike some defensemen, he is comfortable playing on either side and Tocchet won’t hesitate to move him around when needed.
“He’s one guy who can do the multi-task, which is nice,” Tocchet said. “He welcomes it. I don’t think he bats an eye. Wherever the minutes are going to be, he’ll go.”
The next test is performing on the big stage in the regular season, starting in Atlanta Saturday night.
Hedman said he has learned a lot and there are plenty of lessons to come, playing against bigger, stronger and better players than he ever has before. He has listened to all the advice and he is as ready as an 18-year old could be.
“I’m excited,” Hedman said. “I’m really looking forward to it. The players have been a big influence for me, learning how everything works both on and off the ice. It’s been a big adjustment and this team has made it smooth for me.
“There’s always pressure. But I’m here to help my team win games and I’ll do whatever it takes."