Swedish ice hockey star Victor Hedman favours mindset over muscle
The NHL's top defenceman was the lynchpin of Tampa Bay Lighting's two Stanley Cup wins, and now he wants to win the one ice hockey accolade that alludes him: Olympic gold.
Before Victor Hedman, defence was an afterthought at ice hockey's Tampa Bay Lightning.
The NHL franchise were known for their goal-scoring exploits, but also their inability to prevent them.
That all changed in 2009 when the team drafted Hedman, the 6-foot-6 (1.98m) Swede who became their safety net at the back.
Over the next decade he became the best defenceman in the league, and was the lynchpin of his team's back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2020 and 2021.
The secret to his success? Mindset.
“I have to produce. I put the pressure on myself to produce, to be productive every game, to be good at both ends of the ice. I have to be one of those guys that produces offensively and keeps the puck out of the net too. That's the focus," he told NHL.com.
It’s well known that Hedman’s sticks are not safe from being snapped should he make a mistake even in training, such are the high standards he demands of himself.
But it doesn’t stop on the ice. The Swede is a huge football fan, and if his favourite side Manchester United lose, his calm demeanour quickly shifts.
It is that intensity that makes Hedman, Hedman.
Victor Hedman’s route to the NHL
Hedman’s hockey journey began at his hometown team Modo Hockey, in the Swedish J20 SuperElit league.
He originally started out as a goaltender. But his father, Olle, told his son that if he left the net, he would purchase him a new helmet.
“My coordination wasn’t the best when I was young,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’d lose my balance on the ice. I really had to work through that.
“Once I grew into my body and I started to feel better, I felt my development [accelerate]. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a real good hockey player.
“And I played a lot of soccer, which obviously helped too, with the coordination and stamina and quickness. Playing two sports I think really helped me with hockey. I was always a big guy, always the biggest guy in class and on my teams. That was never a problem for me. But growing into my body took a little bit of time. Once I did, I felt really strong on the ice.”
He scored 25 points in 34 games during his first full season, and turned professional at the age of 16.
Those performances were rewarded with a call-up to the national team for the 2008 World Junior Championships, where he helped the team win silver.
Senior honours were not far away and at the age of 17, Hedman became one of the youngest players to play for Sweden’s men’s team in an exhibition match against Norway.
After helping Sweden to another silver medal at the 2009 World Junior Championships, the Tampa Bay Lightning snatched up Europe’s top prospect with the second overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.
Stanley Cup success
After a promising first few seasons in Tampa, that included an infamous check on Pittsburgh Penguins talisman
Sidney Crosby, Hedman was offered a five-year, $20 million contract. Tampa Bay wanted to lock down the man they thought could deliver them a Stanley cup.
He rewarded the team’s confidence in him with a breakout 2013/14 season that included a career best in goals (13), assists (42) and points (55).
Hedman’s upgraded skill-set provided a significant boost for the Swedish National Team. He was named as an assistant captain for the 2017 IIHF World Championship, where Sweden captured the gold medal with a 1-0 over Canada in the final.
But the top prize was still to come.
In 2019 Hedman, by then the reigning Norris Trophy holder as the league's top defensive player, scored the series clinching double-overtime goal over the Boston Bruins. The Lightning went on to beat the Dallas Stars for their second Stanley Cup ever, and Hedman was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.
The franchise backed up that performance next season, beating the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 to lift a second-successive Stanley Cup.
Hedman wasn’t about to let his individual accolades and records go to his head, however.
“You won’t get the individual trophies if you’re not on a good team or a good organisation,” he continued to Sports Illustrated. “I’m fortunate to be on an unbelievable team that helped me out through my first decade in the league, to help me grow into the player I want to be.
Ignoring the pain
The true strength of Hedman’s mindset was only revealed after Tampa Bay’s second Stanley Cup win.
It transpired that the Swede had been battling a knee injury since March of that season, and had to play 19 additional regular-season games before the team’s 23-game Stanley Cup run.
Knowing that doctors would prevent him from playing if they saw the extent of his injury, the defenceman decided to play through the pain.
“I had to find a little bit of a different way to play my game.“I couldn’t be as aggressive as I wanted but I still found a way to be effective.” - Victory Hedman to NHL.
Asked how he could play through such pain, Hedman quickly replied: “Swedish blood.”
Beijing 2022 ambitions
With a Stanley Cup and a World Championship title safely locked away, there remains one prize Hedman needs to complete his collection: Olympic gold.
In October 2021, he was named on his first ever Olympic roster for Sweden for the Beijing 2022 Games, following the NHL’s decision not to let its players participate at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics.
“I’m obviously very honoured to be named to that team,” he told NHL at the time. "We're looking forward to it and obviously it's probably going in the back of everyone's mind for the whole season.
“I'm sure we're going to hear all year about the Olympics. It's going to be a short tournament and you've got to be on your toes from the start."
Sweden are certainly not the favourites to win the event. But with Hedman’s mind and body healthy, their opponents will have their work cut out trying to break down a fearsome defence.