Victor Hedman and the Tampa Bay Lightning achieved greatness last year, but it didn't satiate them. Not when they hoisted the 2020 Stanley Cup amid global circumstances so strange that the championship felt surreal in some ways. They’re once again one of the league’s most dominant teams, and they’re shaping up as a legitimate threat to repeat as Cup champs.
The Hockey News recently caught up with Hedman to discuss his dominant 2020-21 season patrolling the Bolts’ blueline, what it was like winning a championship during a pandemic, the pending return of Nikita Kucherov and more.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: After so many years where you and the Lightning came close, did it feel different starting this season with a Stanley Cup ring on your finger? Or did it still feel like any other season?
VICTOR HEDMAN: Obviously it was a dream come true when we went all the way. You might think, when you win one, you’re going to become satisfied, but it worked the other way. When you win one, you want to do it again. So I thought we were ready to go from the start, and we didn’t look back. We looked forward and were excited to get another crack at it. With the season being as different as this year’s, we had some up and downs throughout the year. But we are still in the same mode, and we’re looking forward to trying to get another one.
THN: There’s an old hockey expression, one of those unwritten codes that people say: “Every great team has to learn how to lose first before they learn how to win.” So, I’m curious, for you, the loss to Columbus in 2018-19, the first-round sweep – do you feel like that had to happen for you guys to get over the hump?
HEDMAN: (Laughs) No, I don’t think so. We definitely learned from it, and like you said, sometimes it takes a tough loss like that, but I don’t think that played into what we accomplished in the bubble. There was a bunch of different guys that came in and weren’t a part of the 2019 team. But they obviously knew that’s what happened, and, you know, there’s that question about it all the time. I thought when we won, we wouldn’t have to answer any more questions about it, but they still get brought up.
Now, when you look back at it, you learn from it, that’s for sure. I don’t think it needs to happen, but it’s definitely something that we learn from and something we didn’t want happening again. But this league is so good, and that’s a tough trophy to win. So you need everyone, and you need a little bit of luck and to play your best hockey at the right time, and that’s what we were able to do.
THN: Last year, after winning the Cup, your team had the initial celebration and parade, but there were no traditional “Days with the Cup,” as players couldn’t take it to their hometowns and had to stay in Tampa with it because of COVID-19. So is there extra motivation to win again because you want to have the full experience? Now that people are being vaccinated, there’s at least a chance that the 2021 Cup winner can have a more traditional celebration and be able to take the Cup to different places. It could be something closer to a “normal” environment.
HEDMAN: Yeah, for sure. I still haven’t seen my family since we left last summer before the bubble. I had my wife and kid over here, but I haven’t seen my parents, my brothers. It’s been obviously a tough year for all the people in the world. But (the Stanley Cup) is something that I want to share with my family. It just couldn’t happen because of what (the world is) going though right now. The parade itself was unbelievable, but it’s just one those things you want to experience again and, like you said, hopefully the full experience this time. But at the end of the day, our names are on the Cup forever, and we’ll never forget that.
THN: I won’t ask you to speculate on Nikita Kucherov’s health, but if hypothetically, it turns out he is going to be ready in time for the playoffs, as has been reported so far, are you and your teammates treating it like Nikita is the ultimate trade-deadline acquisition for the team? The ultimate boost?
HEDMAN: Well, ‘Kuch’ is ‘Kuch,’ he’s one of the best players in the world, so we are hoping he will be ready to go when the playoffs start, but we don’t know that. It’s tough to speculate. But when you get a player like that back into your lineup, to a team that’s handled adversity very well the last few years without Steven Stamkos in the playoffs and now without ‘Kuch’ during the season, getting those guys back is a boost not just for them but for us as well. It gives us something to strive for, getting to the playoffs, as we want him to have a chance to play this year. We’ve done a good job of it so far this year. He’s arguably one of the top players in the league, and I’d be super excited if we were to get him back.
THN: Speaking of top players in the league, you’re playing as well as you have in your NHL career – even now that you’ve crossed over into the world of 30-year-olds. How are you managing to peak at this age? And what do you think is different about your game compared to say, five years ago?
HEDMAN: I think that my game is a little bit more complete. I feel like my lows are not that low anymore, and when things are not clicking, I try to keep it simple and make the right plays at the right time. Once you’re moving you just have to get going. I put that pressure on myself to be a difference maker in every game, and I get that opportunity from the coaching staff. I get to play in each and every single situation, I play a lot of minutes, so it’s on me to go out there and deliver. I love having that pressure on myself and try to be as good as I can.
Hopefully it’s going to keep getting better. I’ve turned 30 and played in this league for a long time. I still think I have more things to bring to the table, and hopefully I can just keep it going. Being with the team that I am, too, it makes it a whole lot easier. I’m just going to keep playing the way that I am and keep playing good hockey.