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Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson have lasting mark in Gothenburg

Plenty of rooting interest in Rangers-Senators series in Swedish city thanks to New York goalie, Ottawa captain

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

O'Leary's Avenyn in Gothenburg, Sweden, was jammed with hockey fans Saturday night, many rooting for the New York Rangers but others cheering for the Ottawa Senators, who won 6-5 in the second overtime of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round.

It was hockey night in Sweden's second largest city and two of the city's favorite sons, its two biggest star athletes, were on the big screen, playing against each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

As big as we may think Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Senators captain Erik Karlsson are in North America, especially in their respective cities, in many ways that pales in comparison to how they are viewed in Gothenburg.

 

[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Senators series coverage]

 

Lundqvist and Karlsson each played for Gothenburg's Swedish Hockey League team, the Frolunda Indians. Neither was born in Gothenburg, but they both adopted it as their home Swedish city. Lundqvist still lives there in the offseason.

And a 3 p.m. ET start time for Game 2 meant a 9 p.m. local start time in Gothenburg. Perfect.

"There is undoubtedly a bigger interest in Gothenburg when two such major [stars] are playing against each other," said Daniel Johansson, a 25-year-old bartender at O'Leary's who also covers the Rangers, his favorite team, and the NHL Draft for SvenkaFans.com. "They are not only [stars] in their home cities New York and Ottawa, but are also something like ambassadors for Gothenburg and its hockey."

This isn't the first time Lundqvist and Karlsson have played in the playoffs. The first time was in 2012, when the Rangers defeated the Senators in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. That series also featured former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who used to be the most popular player from Gothenburg and is still revered in his hometown.

However, in the past five years with the growth of social media and the streaming technology that allows fans in Sweden to see every NHL game, the matchup has taken on a renewed interest and a bigger audience in Sweden, especially in Gothenburg.

Video: NYR@OTT, Gm1: Karlsson nets tough shot for lead

"Within the hockey family and all the hockey fans it sure has a buzz," said Niklas Andersson, a Gothenburg native and former NHL player turned scout for the Los Angeles Kings. "I would say it is different here in Gothenburg for sure. Not as much in the rest of the country maybe, but around here the people from here, who follow Frolunda, it's definitely a bigger thing now than a regular playoff series. They always keep up with those guys, but when they play against each other it's a little bit extra for sure."

Lundqvist is the bigger star. In fact, Senators forward Viktor Stalberg, who is also from Gothenburg, said Lundqvist is the second biggest sports star in all of Sweden behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a soccer player for Manchester United. 

"He is without a doubt one of the most loved athletes in Sweden and every time he comes home to Gothenburg he can barely walk down the street without being stopped by every other person who wants to shake 'The King's' hand," Johansson said. "Henrik is pretty much immortal here."

Lundqvist is technically from Are, a northwestern ski resort city near the Norwegian border, approximately a 10-hour drive from Gothenburg. He moved to Gothenburg as a teenager and grew up in as a goalie playing for Frolunda.

Lundqvist helped Frolunda win the SHL championship in 2003 and 2005. He returns to Gothenburg every summer and is one of the biggest donors to Drottning Silvias Barnsjukhus, the local children's hospital, and the Ronald McDonald House.

Video: NYR@OTT, Gm2: Lundqvist sprawls to rob Stalberg in OT

"If he would come [to Gothenburg] with the Stanley Cup, it would almost be as if Frolunda won the Swedish championship," said Johan Rylander, a columnist and hockey writer for the Goteborgs-Posten, the city's largest daily newspaper. "Almost."

Karlsson is from Landsbro, a small town southeast of Gothenburg, about a three-hour drive. He didn't play in Gothenburg for long and, unlike Lundqvist, he never won a championship with Frolunda. He also doesn't spend as much time there in the offseason.

It doesn't take away from his status as one of the city's finest athletes.

"Gothenburg is a hockey crazy city and when people speak of Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson, they do so with a certain pride in their voice," Johansson said.

People like Ronnie Sundin, for example.

Sundin is a former Frolunda star who played with Lundqvist and Karlsson before they each came into the NHL. Lundqvist, in fact, was thrilled to hear his name when told Sundin, who now works as a bathroom tiler, was interviewed for this story.

"The guys I know, the guys who play hockey, they are definitely interested," said Sundin, who also won the Olympic gold medal with Lundqvist in 2006. "All the players who know Lundqvist and Karlsson, they are definitely very interested. I definitely follow those guys. They are great guys."

Andersson, who also played with Karlsson and Lundqvist at different times with Frolunda, said he can tell their popularity in Gothenburg by the reaction they get from the kids.

"They are the big guns," Andersson said. "Hankie, when he first came up, everyone wanted to be a goalie."

Game 3 of the Lundqvist vs. Karlsson best-of-7 series on Tuesday won't start until 1 a.m. local time in Gothenburg. O'Leary's will be closed, but laptops, iPads and televisions will be on across the city.

"In a Swedish hockey player popularity contest, Henrik is most [certainly] No. 1 and Erik probably No. 2," Rylander said. "With these two in absolute peak shape, there's going to be a lot of Gothenburg residents missing their beauty sleep the upcoming weeks."

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