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Lightning leader Hedman is a force on the ice – and fun off it

Matt Larkin
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Lightning leader Hedman is a force on the ice – and fun off it

Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman. Source: Getty Images

News

Lightning leader Hedman is a force on the ice – and fun off it

Matt Larkin
By:

Victor Hedman truly is a sight to see, whether he’s steering the gears in the sky or getting the gears from his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates on the ice.

Jake Dotchin describes the incident as follows: It’s a practice day for the Tampa Bay Lightning in late October, one that always ends with a shootout when it’s the day before a game. It’s Victor Hedman’s turn for a breakaway, but his teammates decide, nah, he doesn’t get to shoot this time. They block him from trying, exclude him from the game and tell him, “You’re done. You’re not going today.” Hedman throws a little fit. He starts sabotaging the other players’ breakaways. He blasts pucks at Braydon Coburn during his attempt. Then Hedman hurls his stick into the boards and skates away.

Hey, NHL? We have a problem to report. There’s a 6-foot-6, 223-pound bullying victim playing defense for the Tampa Bay Lightning. His name is Victor Hedman. Please send help.

OK, so the truth is Hedman hams it up when people provoke him. The stick throwing and mock tantrums are his way of entertaining his teammates, who love him for it. But you know the expression, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke”? Well, it applies here. Hedman’s as good a sport as anyone, and he gives it to his teammates just as well as they give it to him, but the teasing comes from somewhere. He’s legitimately a hothead, and his teammates know how to set him off.

“He’s a great person, first and foremost, very humble, and he likes to take care of his teammates and get involved, but he can be grumpy,” said Bolts blueliner and longtime buddy Anton Stralman. “He definitely goes on the defensive. So the guys like to be on him at practice sometimes if he messes up a pass or a play. He’s easy to get going, and when he gets going, it’s even funnier, because he can break a stick or smash the boards or chase somebody down.”

To play amateur psychologist: maybe Hedman’s short fuse and his role as the easy mark come from his childhood. As he explains it, he was always the big kid, never the runt who suddenly shot up in puberty. Hedman stood out in crowds among his friends, the one outgrowing his clothes quicker than everyone else, though he at least could inherit hand-me-down skates from his older brothers Oscar and Johan. Hedman told this story in a Las Vegas hotel hallway this past June at the NHL Awards, dressed in a snazzy black-on-black suit ensemble, thick hair slicked back, looking like he was about to challenge James Bond to a game of baccarat followed by a fight to the death, so it’s difficult to picture such a specimen ever having a low opinion of himself. But Hedman insists he was the awkward kid in his neighborhood growing up Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. He started out as a goalie, but his parents worried he’d get hurt, so he told his mom he’d switch positions if she bought him a new helmet. The following Christmas, there it was under the tree, and Hedman the goalie became Hedman the skater. He wasn’t happy with the results at first.

“I don’t think I was that skilled when I was younger,” he said. “I had some trouble growing into my body. My co-ordination wasn’t the best. I had some tough years.”

It was also difficult simply fuelling his massive frame properly. He was extremely prone to cramping, especially late in games, and that continued into his first few NHL years with the Lightning, who selected him second overall in 2009 behind only John Tavares. Now he compensates for the problem by loading up his water bottles with salt between periods.

But the cramping is just one side effect of being such a big guy. It also makes it difficult for him to stuff himself into the cockpit of a single-engine plane. Why would he want to do that? As claustrophobic as it sounds, it’s very much Hedman’s idea of a good time. He’s passionate about flying, having discovered it through his grandfather, who was a military pilot. Hedman has logged eight hours so far in a Piper PA-32. That’s one of those tiny planes you see in the movies with the single propeller on the front, the kind that lands on water during drug runs or when Indiana Jones makes a getaway with a freshly stolen artifact. Picture Hedman of all people inside one of those. It’s a fun thought, but it’s not exactly the safest off-season hobby.

“It’s a dream, but it’s maybe not a realistic dream, as I don’t think I have the time to do it,” Hedman said. “I’ll have more time once I’m retired, but that’s pretty far down the line. You don’t know what your passion will be and what you’ll like when that time comes, but I enjoy flying. You obviously fly a lot with the team, so you get a little bit sick of it, but piloting an aircraft is one of the best feelings I’ve had. I don’t think the Lightning want me flying. We fly enough, and for me to try and get my license is an unnecessary risk. I put it on hold.”

That’s a huge relief for the Lightning, especially when Hedman has outgrown that whole gangly, two-left-feet phase to become an elite player. The teammates who’ve known him the longest speak about him with a sense of pride. They admire what he’s accomplished, perhaps none more than Stralman. As someone who readily admits he enjoys tracking all his fellow Swedes in the NHL, Stralman was a fan of Hedman’s before signing with the Lightning in July 2014, and they only grew closer once paired together. Now coach Jon Cooper opts to deploy his two best blueliners separately to spread out the responsibility, with the Hedman-Dotchin tandem leading the way and Stralman playing with sensational rookie Mikhail Sergachev. Stralman and Hedman miss sharing the ice together but understand what’s best for the team. They also maintain their bond by watching their soccer teams compete. Hedman is an absolute diehard for Manchester United and an encyclopedia of the English Premier League, while Stralman loves Liverpool. During road trips, they “bundle up in their rooms,” as Stralman put it, order breakfast and watch their nemeses whenever they play each other. There’s a real sense of brotherhood between the pair, and it gives Stralman a fond admiration over Hedman’s evolution.

“He really just took all those tools, his size and how powerful he is, his skating – for his size he moves well – and his shot,” Stralman said. “He found a way to put it all together and become a really good player. It’s been fun being close up to see where his game is now.”

The brain and body have synched to forge one of the very best blueliners in the NHL. Hedman ranks up there with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Drew Doughty now. Since the start of 2015-16 only Karlsson and Burns have outscored him among defensemen. Hedman plays it humble, of course, claiming the explosion in points is a product of the changing game, not his own play. “Getting the ‘D’ involved is huge, joining the rush, creating offense, creating confusion in the ‘O’ zone,” he said. “I don’t have an explanation why that is, but that’s how the game is played right now. You involve everyone in offense. You need everyone to play defense as well. It’s a five-man unit out there right now. You’ve got to make the most of it and use everyone to create plays, so that’s why you see those high numbers (for defensemen).”

It’s a boom era of scoring among NHL defensemen, true. Hedman, Karlsson and Burns each topped 70 points last season. The last time three blueliners did that in one year: 1995-96, 21 seasons earlier. Hedman finished seventh and third, respectively, on the Norris Trophy ballot over the past two seasons, and it feels like he’s next in the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s unofficial voting queue, which tends to reward defensemen who are “due.” It was Doughty in 2016, Burns in 2017, and maybe Hedman gets his Norris in 2018.

It helps that, on top of posting almost peerless offensive numbers, Hedman suits up for a Bolts team that is currently the class of the league. Much of that can be attributed to the sizzling first halves for forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, not to mention Andrei Vasilevskiy’s play in goal, but this team isn’t a Stanley Cup contender without Hedman, who has graded out as an elite advanced stats/possession defender in recent seasons. And Hedman controls the play despite often facing the other teams’ best offensive threats.

He’s also become a real field general at 26. He’s a great communicator with his teammates, especially Dotchin, who made the team last season and ended up discovering chemistry with Hedman on the top pair. Hedman constantly chatters to him – during shifts, between shifts, during practices, after practices, after games – and he asks Dotchin to do the same with him. Sometimes, Hedman’s famous temper rears itself, but never in a way that belittles the youngster.

“He’s constructive with me,” Dotchin said. “If he feels like he’s come off the wrong way toward me or something, he’ll always come talk to me later and make sure I understand what he meant by what he said. He’ll make sure I’m comfortable with him still and do things a leader should do.”

Hedman has transformed from the long-term project slowly growing into his body to the guy Tampa Bay turns to when it needs someone to rally others, give advice, keep them in a close game, protect a lead or generate a chance with a scintillating rush. If he keeps getting better, his teammates will have nothing left to tease him about. Their best bet for new material may be to find him on a runway and watch him try to squeeze into a PA-32. But that’s years away. For now, he and the Lightning have a Stanley Cup to chase.

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Lightning leader Hedman is a force on the ice – and fun off it