When Tomas Holmström of the Detroit Red Wings officially announced his retirement on January 22, one group of people was particularly happy: opposing goalies.
The 40-year-old winger from Piteå, Sweden, made his living with an extraordinary net-front presence, fearlessly screening netminders and tipping in pucks while getting relentlessly abused by massive defencemen like Chris Pronger and Derian Hatcher.
“Some people may think that I’m crazy for all of those years taking thousands of cross-checkings to my neck, to my head, to my back,” said Holmström. “And then having my teammates shooting hundreds of 100-mile-per-hour pucks at me. But I had the greatest job in the world.”
During his NHL career, which ran from 1997 to 2012, nobody filled a similar role with equal aplomb except perhaps longtime Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth (AKA “Captain Canada”). Holmström’s gritty style was far from typical for a Swede: you could easily have supposed he was born in Medicine Hat or Moose Jaw.
Holmström was the last active Red Wing to have participated in all of Detroit’s last four Stanley Cup victories (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008). With sheer determination, he wound up with the sixth-most games played in club history (1,026), the fourth-most playoff games (180), and the 13th-most points (530).
He was one of the great steals in NHL draft history, taken in the 10th round (257th overall) in 1994 due to the expert advice of Detroit’s European scout, Håkan Andersson.
His Wings teammates were happy to pay tribute to the gap-toothed veteran noted for always bringing a touch of humor to the dressing room.
“He was the best in the business and paid the price for it, too,” said goalie Jimmy Howard.
“He basically made sure that there's a new role on everyone's team,” said defenceman Niklas Kronwall. “What he did in front of the net on the power play and in 5-on-5 situations really created jobs for more people.”
“The interesting thing with Homer is that he’s not a very good skater, [but] was the quickest guy from the net-front to the corner and back to the net-front that I’ve ever coached,'' coach Mike Babcock said. “He competed to get to his spot.”
In a humour-laced 16-minute speech at his farewell press conference at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the gap-toothed jokester thanked just about everybody. He acknowledged his father for building a beautiful backyard rink in his childhood and noted the role of Boden coaches Ulf Taavola and Niklas Wikegård in developing his net-front style.
He also reminisced about talking a blue streak during car rides with ex-captain Nicklas Lidström (“He’s a good listener for sure”) and things he learned from rooming with Igor Larionov (“When you have the puck, you dictate the game.”).
This five-time 20-goal scorer’s feats weren’t limited to the NHL. He won a Swedish Elitserien championship with Luleå in 1996. And while he wasn’t a fixture with the Swedish national team – he only played at one IIHF World Championship (1996) partly due to the Wings’ long playoff runs – he helped create one of the greatest moments in Tre Kronor history.
Holmström won an Olympic gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He scored the final goal in a 7-3 semi-final romp over the Czech Republic and added three assists in the tournament. It made up for what he dubbed the “fiasco” of his previous Olympic experience in 2002, where Sweden lost to underdog Belarus in the quarter-finals.
He also suited up at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, potting five points in four games.
Even with Holmström’s retirement, the Wings are far from bereft of Swedes on their roster. They’ve used seven so far in the opening month of the 2013 NHL campaign. But Holmström is the kind of character who just can’t be replaced.