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Life lessons pave Holmstrom's career

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Tomas Holmstrom has played in 1,000 games and scored 122 of his 240 career goals on the Wings' power play over 14-plus seasons. (Photo by Dave Sandford)
DETROIT – Henrik Holmstrom warned his oldest son if he broke another hockey stick out of frustration that the 14-year-old would walk home.

The lesson was extreme – if not dangerous – but the young Tomas Holmstrom learned something that cold and snowy day as he hoofed two-miles home from the local rink in Piteå, Sweden.

“I remember breaking my stick over the post,” Tomas Holmstrom said. “My dad took my skates and helmet and gloves and gave me my regular gloves, a toque and shoes and I walked home with the equipment. He passed me by and the snow was (falling), and I told myself, ‘OK, I’m not going to play no more.’ ”

Holmstrom’s frivolous threat – essentially giving up on what has become a magical NHL career before it started – lasted less than 24-hours.

“The next day when everything cooled down, sure I wanted to play some more,” he said. “Sticks cost a lot; you can’t go around breaking them. My mom and dad weren’t rich, and I think that was a good lesson, but at the time it sucked.”

Luckily for Holmstrom his passion for the sport over-powered a short-term desire to abandon his dreams. Now, 25 years since that first meaningful hockey lesson, Holmstrom is embarking on an NHL milestone that he never thought possible.

The veteran forward, who earned the nickname Demolition Man in his early 20s, and is known around the league for battling in front of opposing goalies, drawing penalties and scoring timely goals, will play in career game No. 1,000 when the Wings host the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

“I never thought that I would reach 1,000,” Holmstrom said, “certainly not when I first got here.”
Holmstrom now enters into an elite group of Wings to reach the 1,000-game milestone, joining Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper.

The 257th overall pick in the 1994 draft, Holmstrom is the most-decorated late-round player in franchise history, winning four Stanley Cup titles. Only defensemen Dmitri Bykov (No. 258 in 2001) and Jonathan Ericsson (No. 291 in 2002) were later Wings’ picks to reach the NHL.

Though he was part of the Wings’ back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in the late 90s, things didn’t start so well for Holmstrom. A prolific scorer back home in the Swedish leagues, he struggled in Detroit, where he was often the subject of Scotty Bowman’s ire during his rookie campaign. But then he received a phone call from then-assistant coach Barry Smith on Christmas Eve which had Homer contemplating an early return home.

“Coming to Detroit with a stacked up team, there was no room,” Holmstrom said. “And Scotty was all over me. I remember Barry Smith called me on the 24th when we celebrate Christmas. I was in the shower when Annelie, my wife, told me that Barry had called and needed to talk to me. I had a feeling because I knew that they had talked about signing Joey Kocur, so that wasn’t the best Christmas present that I ever got.”

For Holmstrom the Christmas Eve demotion was like that winter walk home as a 14-year-old.

“I knew that I was way better than Joey Kocur,” Holmstrom said, “but they really didn’t need Kocur as a player, they needed him more as an enforcer. They needed that role right then and I knew that I had to wait my turn. I told my wife, ‘Let’s give it two years with this two-year contract and see what happens.’ ”

Holmstrom went to Adirondack and played six games in his only minor-league stint, before making a return to Detroit where he has made a mark as one of the best power play performers in hockey.

Shortly after his return to the Wings, things quickly turned in Holmstrom’s favor, and by the following spring, the Swede, whom scouts back home said couldn’t skate and wasn’t fast enough to make it in the NHL, was the talk of the league when he chipped in with 19-points in the ’97 playoffs during the Wings’ second straight championship run.

“I really didn’t see him until after we drafted him,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “Here you have a guy who’s not a great skater and not overly big, but as we’ve seen over time just an incredible heart, tremendous determination, a fierce competitor. And he goes to the hard areas. Along with Ryan Smyth, in my mind, in the last 15 years is one of the two best players in the world at knowing how to be a net-front presence.”

It was that grit and dauntlessness that Wings’ super scout Hakan Andersson saw in a 17-year-old Holmstrom during a Swedish national team tryout camp. Yet competing against young Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, Holmstrom was out of his league.

“I saw him then with the same drive for the net and competing for pucks,” Andersson said. “Now skating was a big issue. But what you look for – even in the late rounds – is somebody who has something that really stands out. A lot of the other stuff you can work on. But his was working in the slot. You couldn’t stop him. He went to the front of the net every time. He fought so hard for the puck and for rebounds in front of the net that that stood out.”

Even after the ’94 draft, other scouts berated Andersson for the Wings wasting a late-round pick by selecting a player with limited skills.

“I had one scout tell me, ‘I can’t even believe that you would draft a guy like that when the good players can’t get to the NHL,’ ” Andersson said. “But every late pick is a gamble.”

Though many criticized his abilities, nothing was going to dishearten the boy who grew-up near the North Pole, idolizing a young man named Lars Hurtig, who played for his hometown’s club team and eventually graduated to the Swedish Elite League.

“We were from the same hometown and I really liked him a lot when I was growing up,” said Holmstrom, who was determined to play his style. “He was a big boy, who had a great shot, went to the net. … He was one of those small power forwards and one that really liked going in and getting his nose dirty.”

It wasn’t long before Holmstrom was emulating his boyhood idol, crashing the net and getting physical against older players.

“When you’re growing up and playing with guys, one, two, three years older, that’s a lot,” he said. “They could be like two-heads taller and I was always getting banged around. And I couldn’t do anything about it, but get up and get up and get up again.”

While Holmstrom has always managed to get up, it’s been more difficult with every passing season for a veteran who arrived in North America with bad knees, which will eventually need replacing, he said.

Numerous hernias, concussions and ankle injuries have also taken a toll.

“It as maybe 2-3 years ago, my knees were buckling, I was in pain all of the time, even in practice I could hardly skate,” Holmstrom said. “Then I had the hernias, too, one on each side in ’08 and ’09. I took shots and tolerated the shots and worked my way through it. … Those were two tough years right there.
Thomas Holmstrom said he's received two or three concussions from battles against defenseman Rob Blake over the years. (Photo by Getty Images)

“Then on top of that I had the problems with my knees, so I was like, ‘OK, I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ But time goes by, and you love the game so much.

Most of his aches and pains have been the result of colossal net-front battles with the likes of Ed Belfour, Patrick Roy, Chris Pronger, among others. But his greatest individual rival was defenseman Rob Blake, who spent 20-seasons between Los Angeles, Colorado and San Jose.

“He gave my two or three concussions and my first fight was Rob Blake, even though I couldn’t fight really,” Holmstrom said. “I ran him over in front of the net, the puck goes out toward our end and I hear somebody scream, and he’s already dropped his gloves and was coming after me.

“In the playoffs he cross-checked me once in the neck, then he came to me later and said, ‘OK, Homer, I respect you, I was out of line and I shouldn’t have cross-checked you in the neck and jaw. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.’ ”

But opponents, particularly goalies, still need to be aware of his skills around the net, said Edmonton’s Smyth, who with Holmstrom, is considered one of the best ever at screening goalies and tipping shots.

“The game’s changed tremendously from the previous lockout – and he can probably tell you this too – the hacks and whacks and crosschecks, it’s significant compared to now,” Smyth said. “It still is a tough job to do but there were some tough D-men that really took liberty. For him to go there, it shows a lot of character for his teammates.”

But as Holmstrom saw it, the style that he’s perfected over 15-seasons was his only path to making a lasting career out of professional hockey.

“Hakan Andersson used to say to me, ‘You’ve got to go to the net and you’re going to take a beating,’ ” Holmstrom said. “And nobody wanted to be around the net, so I knew that when I got drafted by Detroit they talked about Dino Ciccarelli a lot, and sure, I liked the game that he played, he scored over 600 goals, so for that guy in that era, that’s really, really good.”

Holmstrom has scored 122 of his 240 career goals on the power play. The Wings are quick to note that Homer is responsible for many, many more power-play goals that he’s not been credited for.

“I remember some people have said, even in Sweden, that there’s thousands of Tomas Holmstroms overseas, why would they bring him over?” Lidstrom said. “He’s still one of the best at screening the goalie and getting a stick on pucks, his hand-eye coordination is second to none.

“You know he’s sometimes in pain, but just knowing his will and determination to battle through things to be on the ice and win, just shows a lot about his character.”

A true Demolition Man.


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