He’s shifty. He’s skilled. He’s swift. He’s solid and accountable at both ends of the rink.
And, oh yes, Henrik Zetterberg is very, very smart.
We’ve seen the Detroit Red Wings’ star center dazzle with his stickwork and speed. We’ve marveled at his ability to do so many things at a fast pace, always on the move.
From a distance, the 27-year-old native of Njurunda, Sweden, is magic. But there’s much, much more to the abracadabra act we see from Zetterberg on the ice. And there’s also more than the disheveled blond 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.
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Desperately seeking Stanley
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are young and they like life in the fast lane. Speed. Excitement. A challenge on the ice.
"I think we both like to see the challenge of competition at a fast pace," Zetterberg said. "You should see how big Pavel's eyes get when the action gets fierce. Mine probably do, too. Clearly, we both see a lot of the same things on the ice and wonder how we can translate that into making something happen out there."
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 a pickup game against a European NHL star. The next season he was named player of the year in the 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 dad and coach of the hockey team back home in Njurunda, and his mom, Ulla, who is an office supervisor, the dream of seeing their son play in the NHL was second to playing for the Swedish National Team and Olympic Team. When asked what his best moments in hockey are so far, Zetterberg quickly picked his first Olympic appearance at Salt Lake City in 2002 and the 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."
-- Larry Wigge
"He does everything Crosby or Lecavalier does on offense, but there’s no one in the game that is that good offensively and defensively. No one."
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 said. "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 matter-of-factly. "Would you be afraid of me?"
Not that he would knock my block off, but beat my butt in an athletic competition? You bet.
Everyone always goes back to the long wait on draft day in 1999 before the Red Wings finally selected Zetterberg, in the seventh round, No. 210 overall, in the Entry Draft. And look at him now, with 27 goals and challenging for the top spot in the NHL’s scoring race – which would, by the way, be the first scoring title for a Red Wings player in 45 years, or since Gordie Howe did it in 1963.
"He can pass and he can shoot at an elite level. That’s what makes him so difficult to stop, because you don’t know what he’s going to do," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "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 is Zetterberg's consistency, strength and work ethic.
"You’re never going to outwork Hank, that’s for sure," Red 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 that 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 hands and arms and stick-checks.
"I was 5-11, but I was only about 165 pounds when I was drafted," Zetterberg laughed.
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."
"I remember thinking that Zetterberg was too skinny, too frail to take the pounding he'd receive in the NHL," said former Calgary Flames General Manager Craig Button. "You have to give the Wings credit for is sticking to their guns and drafting for skill and talent up and down the draft."
"He wasn't even on our list," former Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke told me.
Zetterberg is as quiet and unflappable in an interview as he is on the ice. He laughs at the “too small” comments. Sort of giving scouts and skeptics the same look that Legace talked about.
"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."
That keep-away attitude was not selfish. It was selfless.
When he was 13 he chose hockey over soccer and added Sweden’s Mats Sundin to his idol, Wayne Gretzky, as players he most often 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 of Zetterberg earlier that season, when Andersson took Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill to a tournament in northern Finland.
"Hakan was trying to show me another player," Nill laughed when I asked him 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.