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Kronwall is Detroit's new hit king

by Larry Wigge

If they weren't already on notice, you can bet that the Pittsburgh Penguins will now be very aware of Niklas Kronwall's whereabouts on the ice at all times during the remainder of the Stanley Cup Final after the Detroit Red Wings' heavyweight hitman dished out a few big blows during Game 1.

It's the hits, man.

We're not talking about The Temptations, Diana Ross or any of those great Motown sounds. The sounds that have Hockeytown talking now come from an undersized heavyweight hitman on the Detroit Red Wings' defense who grew up listening to ABBA.

The hits keep coming for Niklas Kronwall, a 6-foot, 189-pound, 27-year-old defenseman who slams his body through opponents.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, Kronwall was credited with three hits, including big-time pops on Sidney Crosby and Ryan Malone. It seemed like he had plenty more over the course of the Red Wings' 4-0 win, a game in which he was a plus-3 in 23:50 minutes of ice time.

And in the Western Conference Finals, who will forget the highlight-reel collision with Dallas' Antti Miettinen midway through the second period of Game 1 of the Western Conference Final?

"I knew I was missing a lot of fun last year," Kronwall said, referring to last season, when he was sidelined March 30 with a fractured sacrum -- a bone in his back near the tailbone -- following a hit by Dallas' Joel Lundqvist. "I'm watching the games, leaning into a hit I might have been able to make. Only I couldn't make the kind of impact I wanted so far away from the action."

Kronwall's body English clearly is that of a player who has passion for the game and a willingness to win.

No one outside the Red Wings' dressing room really knows how much the team missed Kronwall in last year's Western Conference Finals against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.

"He plays great -- not only defensively, blocking shots -- but offensively he makes great passes and good plays," goaltender Chris Osgood said. "He's a threat for us back there both physically and skill-wise, a lot like Vladdy (former Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov) was. He makes a big hit and sends a message, makes the other team think about where he is."

A quiet assassin? You bet. But there's so much more that fascinates about Kronwall. And it's not that he's enjoying his longest injury-free stretch since coming into the League as the 29th overall pick in the 2000 Entry Draft, or the fact that this smallish hitman led more high-profiled Detroit defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski in playoff points, with a League-best for blueliners of 12 through 16 playoff games, compared to 10 each for Rafalski and Lidstrom.


For starters, how about the fact that his name is misspelled almost all publications (Kronvall) because there was a mistake on his visa when he came to North America for the first time in 2003? Or how about the fact that he was overlooked for Sweden's entry to the 2006 Olympics until Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund was sidelined with an injury -- and then scoring a goal in Sweden's gold-medal victory? (And he only was on the ice because Christian Backman had just finished a long shift and was gassed.) How about all of the injuries? One occurred 13 games into his NHL career when he caught his skate in a rut on the choppy ice surface in the pre-game warmups in Los Angeles. Then there was the Lundqvist collision. This season, he suffered a knee injury in training camp and missed the first three months of the season.

A hitter who breaks his own bones maybe more than opponents? Has he ever considered changing his style?

Not a chance.

"I know I can't change my style because of some freak injuries," Kronwall said. "Did anyone ever ask Scott Stevens to change his style?"

The gold medal is Kronwall's greatest memory, although he's leaving space in his trophy room for a Stanley Cup ring. It should come as no surprise Lidstrom was the player he watched when he was growing up in Stockholm and playing for Djurgarden. It should be pointed out, however, that he also was fascinated by some of the old Don Cherry rock 'em, sock 'em videos, especially when he saw Stevens laying someone out.

"I still love to go back and watch the videos of Scott Stevens and guys like that," Kronwall said with a big smile. "My eyes still light up when I see a guy kind of coasting into an open area just asking to be hit. To me, that's one of the best parts of the game.

“I know I'm not the biggest guy in the world. I have never thought that hitting is about size. It's all about timing. Opposing players' size has never limited me on the ice."

There's something to one of those big hits that sparks the entire bench.

"His timing is unbelievable," said veteran forward Dallas Drake, generally regarded as pound-for-pound one of the hardest body-checkers in the game. "You'd probably laugh if I said there's an art to it, but there is. You have to catch a guy, big or small, at just the right time or you can hurt yourself."

"He kind of sneaks up on you," said forward Johan Franzen. "Maybe he has that ability because he can turn so quickly because his feet are so small."

Small feet, big heart.

"He's kind of like a predator," coach Mike Babcock said.

One thing about Kronwall that's different from his Swedish teammates -- Kronwall was a first-round pick, while Lidstrom and Franzen were third-rounders, Henrik Zetterberg was a seventh-rounder, Tomas Holmstrom was a 10th-rounder and Mikael Samuelsson came to the Red Wings as a free agent. But Kronwall almost fits the same successful late-round skill-set player from Sweden that the others did.

"Back in 1999 when I was supposed to be drafted, my agents told me to hold off a year, that NHL teams would not be interested in a 165-pound defenseman, and if I was picked at all it would be in the seventh or eighth round," he recalled. "I worked with a personal trainer and the next year I was 189 and I was a first-round pick by the team I wanted to play for all along."

Change was in the air in the NHL not long after he arrived in the NHL in 2003. Quickness and skill were in, especially after the lockout -- a season in which Kronwall was selected the best defenseman in the American Hockey League while playing for Detroit's Grand Rapids affiliate.

This season he came into his own, posting career-highs in goals (seven) and assists (28), and he was fifth among all NHL defensemen with a plus-25.

That's all nice, but Kronwall still says, "Sometimes I think getting a big hit is better than getting a goal."

We realize every person looks at life a little differently. Every person has certain skills and loves to show them off. But a big hit over a big goal?

I told you there's something fascinating about this Niklas Kronwall -- this hitman, this player who can check everything in sight but his name can't be checked properly in the record books, this player who always seems to be in the right place at the right time this spring.
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