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With 2 more feet, Holmstrom can go miles

by Larry Wigge
Tomas Holmstrom backed away from me when I asked him about his fast start this season -- backed away to show me something new that he's trying on the ice.

"That's 2 feet," Holmstrom said with a playful smile. "No more disallowed goals."

Holmstrom stopped himself in mid-sentence after referring to 2 disallowed goals in 4 games -- one in the Western Conference Finals against Dallas because his rear end was in the goal crease and interfered with goaltender Marty Turco. The other in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh on a goal by Nicklas Lidstrom that was waved off when officials determined Holmstrom's stick interfered with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"You know the referees are watching me," Holmstrom said. "I know they're always watching. Pretty much every power play they say, 'Watch out for the crease, Tomas.' But maybe I'll get more of those calls that cost us goals in the playoffs if I move back 2 feet, where there is less doubt about interfering with the goalies. And ..."

"I get teased a lot by the guys that you could add up all 24 goals I scored in the regular season and playoffs and the distance they traveled might not get us to center ice. This season I might fool them and show them I'm a good shooter."

Moving just 2 feet outside of the goal crease isn't the magic formula that big goal-scorers like Phil Esposito, Brett Hull and others used when they talked about backing up into the deep slot looking for a better shot. But it's something Holmstrom feels could help him go from 29, 30 and 20 goals the last 3 seasons (he had 20 goals last season even though he missed 29 games because of injuries) to maybe 40 this season. And he might be right.

Holmstrom scored his sixth goal in 6 games in St. Louis on Oct. 22, giving him a 4-game goal-scoring streak. The goal against Blues goaltender Manny Legace came on a neat one-timer off a goal-mouth pass by Marian Hossa that Holmstrom slammed into the net from 4 feet out. Still, his first 5 goals included 3 tip-ins and 2 rebound shots.

The way Holmstrom plays may be considered X-rated by most of the teams he faces, but he's come a long way from simply being a distraction or a space eater in front of the net. He has a definite impact in today's NHL, where defensemen are not permitted to wrap up or put their arms around an opposing forward anymore. The 6-foot, 203-pounder is the same kind of a slam-dunk artist in front of the net the way Wilt Chamberlain was around the paint during his Hall of Fame basketball career.

And now ... Holmstrom a shooter? There's that smile again ... along with a mischievous look as he says, "If I had to do it over again, I'd be more like Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) or Hank (Henrik Zetterberg). You know: speed, skills ... and a $5- or $6-million contract like they have. Yeah. That would be good, right?"

Yeah, right. Still, it's worth a couple million to listen to Holmstrom talk about how he's grown in the game, and of being that guy who directs traffic for his team in front of the net, while at the same time clogging traffic in front of the opposition goalie.

"What's amazing is how good Tomas has gotten at screening the goal and creating offense from so close-in, but I've seen him work hard at it after practice -- tipping pucks and jumping on rebounds," said Legace, who played for years in Detroit and worked on those tip drills with Holmstrom in practice. "He's made his job into an art form."

"If I had to do it over again, I'd be more like Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) or Hank (Henrik Zetterberg). You know: speed, skills ... and a $5- or $6-million contract like they have. Yeah. That would be good, right?"
-- Tomas Holmstrom

"You see him on TV and don't realize how strong he is in front of the net. He's a definite weapon," Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

What's even more interesting about any doubting Tomases out there is that Holmstrom came to training camp in September not knowing if he would be able to play when the season started. He was recovering from offseason hernia surgery and was hampered by knee and groin injuries throughout camp.

"It's exciting for Tommy because, for a while there, his knee was bugging him so bad you wondered what was going to happen," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "He seems to be feeling real good. He's playing well."

The happy-go-lucky Swede started skating when he was about 3.

"My dad built a hockey rink for us across the street," Holmstrom said.

I asked Tomas about obstacles he faced to get to this level.

"It was always the same thing," he said of being Detroit's tenth-round pick (No. 257) in the 1994 Entry Draft. "The scouts always said I couldn't skate well enough."

When asked how that could happen when his dad, Henrik, who knows something about ice since he works for the Pitea Sports Arena, Tomas laughed and said, "That's amazing, isn't it?"

Because of that perceived lack of skill, Holmstrom had to earn his spot on the team the old-fashioned way: He earned it in front of the net since he was 14, playing against boys 2 years older and a lot faster than him.

"Do I ever get to the point where I want to fight back?" he said. "Oh yeah. Every game. I think about planting a two-hander across the mouth of someone on the other team, but then I quickly remember what got me to the NHL.

"Goalies today are too good. Shots without any traffic in front of them are routine saves for them. I learned long ago that my skills are limited. But if I can make a pest of myself by blocking the sight lines of a goalie or maybe even gently bump him -- anything to distract him -- well, then, I've done my job."

Shot, tip and goal.

"I was always the smallest kid, but this was my way to get in the game," he laughed. "Get a bloody nose and get right back up and smile at one of the bigger and older guys who knocked me down. Sounds crazy, but that's what got me here."

Hit him once and Holmstrom will just dig in a little deeper into that spot in front of the net.

"While most kids grow up wanting to be faster, I knew I was slow and small," Holmstrom said. "I worked to get bigger by lifting weights. But I'm still slow."

Knowing his limitations and just working harder on his strengths has made Holmstrom so valuable.

"When he came to the NHL, his skating was rough ... and he needed a lot of work to improve his skills," former Red Wings coach and executive Scotty Bowman once said. "But I'd say he's made himself into a pretty valuable role player. Coaches never stop telling their players to go to the net. Get the puck to the net. Make a pest of yourself in front of the net.

"With Tomas Holmstrom, I didn't have to say it more than once."

Former Red Wings coach Dave Lewis once made this comparison: "Homer (Holmstrom) is not unlike one of those big, strong running backs in the NFL. They pound and pound away at a defense for three quarters, and by that time the defense is worn out and big plays start to happen."

"He's definitely not like your typical Swedish player," Lidstrom said of his countryman. "He's not fast and skillful like a Henrik Zetterberg. Or big with good hands like Mikael Samuelsson. Or ... "

At that point, Lidstrom paused and just shook his head, saying, "Hey, he's Homer. He's one of a kind."

And he’s not just a role player, either. He's a productive, first-line player -- one you really miss when he's not in the lineup.

Clearly, you won't discourage Holmstrom from doing his best in front of the net, even if referees are watching him so closely.

When Holmstrom puts on his equipment, it looks more like the ritual of a gladiator from years of yore, or maybe an NFL linebacker. Everything is very carefully put on in order.

The hockey pants have been reinforced in the back from the seat on up and include about 8 inches of padding for more protection. There's also protection in the back of the shin pads -- made of strong plastics or Kevlar. He wears extra padding almost everywhere -- behind his knees and over his calves and ankles.

Holmstrom reacts with a "somebody's-got-to-do-it" approach, while calling it a skill ... which it has become for him.
"The most difficult part is to make a good screen. It's really important to be in sync with your point man -- and fortunately I've been playing so long with Nick Lidstrom, I pretty much know what is going to happen ahead of time."
-- Tomas Holmstrom
"The most difficult part is to make a good screen," he said. "It's really important to be in sync with your point man -- and fortunately I've been playing so long with Nick Lidstrom, I pretty much know what is going to happen ahead of time."

And don't think for a moment Holmstrom isn't better at his trade than he was a few years ago, when defensemen could hook and hold crease-crashers.

"Before I'd have fight through 3 crosschecks before I could get to the net," he said. "Now it's totally different. I'm not going to say it's easy, but it's different."

"Homer goes to war, he competes," Babcock said. "Talk about a warrior going in front of the net all the time. He gets his nose bloody. He gets beaten up, but he just keeps on going out there. That's a tough job. But you can't wear out Homer."

And now Tomas Holmstrom is creating another 2 feet to work with. Just think how much more dangerous he could become.
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