When Victor Hedman was 17, he was playing in the Swedish League and living in an apartment with his girlfriend in Ornskoldsvik, in northern Sweden, cooking his own meals, paying bills – on time – and doing laundry. Colors didn’t bleed, either. He didn’t think that was a big deal. But then again, Swedes rarely think anything they do is a big deal.
Hedman, like many of his countrymen in the NHL, isn’t terribly impressed with himself. He’s making $4 million a year to play in the best hockey league in the world and doing it very well. Yet there is no air about him. He prefers to allow his performance to do his communicating, and by that standard, he’s starting to scream from the rooftops.
Hedman has become the player the Lightning envisioned when they selected him second overall behind John Tavares in 2009. He has become a punishing shutdown defenseman with an offensive bent. He has an ability to make opponents look ordinary and teammates extraordinary. In short, he has all the makings of becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
All those qualities were on display in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, when he not only helped limit Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to one assist but outscored them with two of his own. “I like to be a guy who rises to the occasion in these big games,” Hedman said. “I like to take a lot of responsibility and play a lot of minutes. That’s the type of player I want to be.”
This has been coming for the better part of two years now, and it seems inconceivable that Hedman was left off the Swedish Olympic team last year. If not for a broken finger he sustained five games into this season, there’s a good chance he would have been part of this season’s Norris Trophy conversation. He missed 18 games with the injury, but didn’t lament the time lost.
“Just watching what (Steven Stamkos) went through last year with his broken leg really made the process easier for me,” Hedman said. “He was a guy who was out for four months and he came to the rink with a smile on his face every day. I was out for five weeks. I wanted to be the same way. Not be moody at the rink, be in good spirits and keep having fun with the guys.”
Hedman, 24, said it’s for others to judge whether he would have contended for the Norris. And while it’s not a completely objective opinion, Lightning assistant coach Rick Bowness weighed in with a resounding, “Hell, yeah!” Bowness runs the defense for coach Jon Cooper and has watched Hedman develop into an elite defensemen.
“First of all, he’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen in my 40 years around the league,” Bowness said. “He’s 6-foot-6 and he skates like he’s 6-foot-1 and 190. North to south, east to west, he’s a phenomenal skater. I love watching him skate. I used to love watching Paul Coffey and Mike Modano skate and I’m telling you, he can skate with those guys.”
The skating ability and enormous reach are a large part of what makes him so dominant at both ends of the ice. Bowness worked with Hedman on his defensive game last season, and we’re beginning to see the results. During the Stanley Cup final, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville broke up Kane and Toews, in large part to get one of them away from Hedman.
Having a veteran countryman such as Anton Stralman has also helped. The Lightning saw a glaring need in the off-season for a right-shot defenseman. Stralman was placed with Hedman and the two developed instant chemistry.
“It’s been a privilege to see him up close and see how much he’s growing,” Stralman said. “He has all the tools to really become a special player.”
Hedman said depending on the situation, he and Stralman straddle between communicating in Swedish and English on the ice. But after a particularly tiring shift where they’ve battled big forwards, they usually go to the default setting, which is Swedish.
“It’s way easier to talk that language when you’re tired,” Hedman said.
No matter the language, the hockey world is starting to hear a lot from Hedman.
This is an edited version of a feature that appears in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.