In Henrik Lundqvist’s native Sweden, when New York Rangers games are set to start, alarm clocks sound at 2 a.m.
Already the biggest hockey star in his country and with a place in the pantheon of the greatest Swedish players of all time, Lundqvist possesses stardom that continues to soar both at home and in the United States.
Continuing his spectacular play with 27 saves, the goalie tied for the Original Six franchise’s all-time lead in playoff wins with 41 on Sunday in the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime victory over Montreal in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final. One more win and Lundqvist, who leads all NHL goalies in the playoffs in wins (11), goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (.931), will send the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
Linus Hugosson, editor of Sweden’s Pro Hockey magazine, said Lundqvist ranks among the top 5 percent of Swedish players of all time. That includes Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and Borje Salming, the Hall of Fame defenseman who debuted with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1973 and served as a pioneer for European players in the NHL.
Hugosson said he sees noticeable signs of increased interest when the Rangers play during the postseason.
"Yeah, amazingly enough, a lot of people do get up at 2 a.m. to watch these games," Hugosson wrote in an electronic message, referring to the six-hour time difference between Sweden and the Eastern U.S. "I notice it on Twitter and on Facebook when I’m up. It’s hard to say any exact figure, but I notice on the traffic on my blog and on my podcast that many people are following the Rangers right now."
While Lundqvist’s stardom at home is not at the level of Swedish international soccer star Zlatan Ibrahomovic, his celebrity has transcended sports.
Hugosson said Lundqvist occasionally appears on the cover of lifestyle magazines and on Swedish television and radio, including on a show akin to MTV’s "Cribs," where the hosts check out his New York apartment, and on another where visitors cook a meal with the ingredients that happen to be in his refrigerator.
Lundqvist’s celebrity status is not just confined to Sweden. He also has attracted the notice of Madison Avenue. He scored a commercial for Advil — a rarity not just for a hockey player, but even more so for any foreign athlete competing in the United States.
Even before he came to the NHL with the Rangers in 2005-06, Lundqvist had a large following in Sweden. That same year, he helped to cement his status by backstopping Sweden to a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
Partly because of Lundqvist and partly because of the team’s proximity to his native country, the Rangers are one of the most popular teams in Sweden.
"There’s so many Swedes going over to New York, not only to watch the Rangers, but coming to the Statue of Liberty," said Johan Hedberg, a Swede who played 12 seasons in the NHL as a goalie.
Hedberg said the Rangers were his favorite NHL team growing up. He added that the Rangers are more popular in his home country than the Detroit Red Wings, even though the Red Wings roster this season had nine Swedes and the club has stocked its lineup for years with Swedes.
"It’s so easy to get to New York from Sweden; there’s a direct flight," Hedberg said before adding wryly, "Not too many people travel to Detroit for a vacation. I don’t know why that is."
Hedberg finished his playing career with the New Jersey Devils from 2010 to 2013, and he continues to work for the team in a scouting capacity. During his time in the New York metropolitan area, he has met Lundqvist socially, and the two players and their wives have dined together.
"It’s been a lot of fun to get to know him. He’s a fascinating guy," Hedberg said. "The will he has to succeed is great. You need that to take the next step to become one of the best."
At the outset of this season, Hedberg, 41, had a tryout with the Rangers and got to see Lundqvist up close. He observed the traits that have helped Lundqvist to win five straight Game 7s. In the annals of the franchise, Lundqvist might never approach the legendary status of Mark Messier. However, with the kind of big-game prowess that New Yorkers admire, he could be gaining on the likes of Mike Richter and Brian Leetch in the hearts and minds of those who sit in the blue seats.
"I’d say what sets him apart from a lot of guys is his mental make-up," Hedberg said. "He’s extremely professional. I’ve been around a lot of players. The way he wants to win and what he’s willing to do to win, it’s beyond a lot of players. I feel like he has the tendency to rise to the occasion and bring his game to the next level when it is a big game.
"You can watch him in his warm-up routines and see how focused he is. That is, I think, what makes him that great. He’s very good technically. His inner balance with his body is very strong. You very seldom see him reaching for pucks. It’s always pushing into the pucks. You might not see him making the spectacular big save because he doesn’t need to do those. … He’s always ready to grab edges and push into new angles and get in position. I had an opportunity for a week here during camp, and I was very, very impressed with his work ethic and the way he approaches the game."
His country — and the rest of North America — has noticed.