By Larry Wigge
Tomas Holmstrom came into the NHL a shy lad from Pitea, Sweden in 1996. Soon, he became a big and strong player in front of the net. Excuse me, he barged in front of the opposition's net.
Actually, the mild-mannered 6-foot, 200-pounder, was an under-the-radar pick -- ninth round, 257th pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. But, years later, Holmstrom, the 14-year veteran became Detroit's crease-crashing, get-in-the-way-of-the-goaltender, butt-in-the-crease protagonist. He left the game an elite player -- who scored 243 goals and 287 assists in 1,026 game. Most important, he won four Stanley Cup titles.
"The interesting thing, for me, with Homer is -- not a very good skater but was the quickest guy from the net front to the corner, back to the net front, that I've ever coached," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Competed to get to his spot, was a great, great, great teammate, great man. Very, very ultra-competitive. All the best players are ultra-competitive."
I remember a pre-playoff interview with Homer prior to the Wings' last Stanley Cup in 2008 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a series won won by Detroit in six games.
I asked how long do you think it will take for you to become Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh?
A big smile crossed the face of the scraggly-looking bearded Red Wings' winger before Game 1 of what figures to be a hotly-contest series.
"I can't give you a timetable, but ..."
Holmstrom paused, then said, "It doesn't take long for me to get under the other team's skin. I don't know why. I'm a pretty nice guy."
Another big smile.
Let the record show that three times in the first 20 minutes of Game 1 of the Final Series against Pittsburgh, the 35-year-old Pitea, Sweden, native, got the attention of the Penguins. Six minutes, 30 seconds into the game, he provided a good screen in front of the net on a scoring chance by Pavel Datsyuk that quickly prompted some pushing and shoving after the play. Three minutes later, he was in another shoving match in front of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with defenseman Brooks Orpik. Then it was Holmstrom's stick on Fleury's pads that caused a disallowed goal by Nicklas Lidstrom at 15:20. And finally, a high-sticking penalty by Hall Gill on Holmstrom that gave the Red Wings a power play with just one minute left in the first period.
Leave it to this prickly-looking power forward to be right in the middle of the action all the time. He made an impact early in the game with his around-the-crease activity and then recorded a nifty, quick-passing assist to set up Henrik Zetterberg to finish off the scoring in a 4-0 victory over Pittsburgh.
And, hey, don't forget about the goal by Lidstrom that didn't count. That had an impact on the game.
When asked about his many duels with Holmstrom in the NHL and in International competition, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose job is to be on the ice with fellow defender Brooks Orpik against Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Holmstrom most of the time, simply said of Homer, "Enemy? I'd say the other 29 teams in the league learn to hate playing against him pretty quickly, wouldn't you?"
"I thought our guys in front did a good job on him. He didn't bother me too much," Fleury explained, before adding, "but I'm sure I'll be seeing more of him as this series goes on."
In other words, Homer hit a homer in Game 1. He's got the opposing goalie thinking about him already.
When Holmstrom puts on his equipment and gets ready to play, it looks more like the ritual of a gladiator from years of yore or like an X-Games player. Everything is very carefully put on in order.
The hockey pants have been reinforced in the back from the seat on up and include about eight inches of padding for more protection. There's also protection in the back of the shin pads -- made of strong plastics or Kevlar. He wears extra padding almost everywhere, behind his knees and over his calves and ankles.
The extra equipment become covers for the many welts Holmstrom would have suffered -- his red badge of courage so to speak.
"I think it's a compliment to Homer," Lidstrom said. "He's so good at going to the net that I think (the referees) look at him more closely now. But that's not going to stop him from doing his job."
Whether Tomas was playing for the Red Wings or the Swedish Olympic Team, he has gone from what some refer to as "Demolition Man" or a target for abuse or distraction in front of the opponent's net to an X-factor to his team's success.
The way Holmstrom plays may be considered X-rated by most of the teams he faces, but he's come a long way from being simply a distraction or a space eater in front of the net. He has a definite impact role in today's NHL.
"If I had to do it over again, I'd be more like Pav or Hank," he said with a devilish smile. "You know: speed, skills ... and a $5- or $6 million contract like they have. Yeah. That would be good, right?"
The happy-go-lucky Swede grew up skating when he was about 3.
"My dad built a hockey rink for us across the street," Holmstrom said.
I asked him about obstacles he faced to get to this level and ...
"It was always the same thing," he said, an afterthought in the draft. "The scouts always said I couldn't skate well enough."
When asked how that could happen when his dad, Henrik, who knows something about ice since he works for the Pitea Sports Arena. He laughed and said, "That's amazing, isn't it?"
But that's the story on this "Demolition Man," this pain in the butt to play against.
Holmstrom reacts with a somebody's-got-to-do-it approach, while calling it a skill ... which it has become for Tomas.
"The most difficult part is to make a good screen," he added. "It's really important to be in sync with your point man -- and fortunately I've been playing so long with Nick Lidstrom, I pretty much know what is going to happen ahead of time."
And don't think for a moment that Tomas Holmstrom isn't better at his trade than he was a few years ago, when defensemen could hook and hold crease-crashers.
"Before I'd have fight through three crosschecks before I could get to the net," he said. "Now, it's totally different. I'm not going to say it's easy, but it's different."
Yes, it's very different.
I remember standing next to future Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who was then playing for the Colorado Avalache, near the bench area after a Red Wings practice early in the 2001-02 season and listening to Roy speak apathetically -- and yet admiringly -- about Holmstrom.
He was reacting to a routine that on for 15 minutes after practice. Holmstrom would stand in from of his goaltender and tip shots, deflect them -- clearly putting a screen on the netminder.
"Look at him," Roy said, trying to deflect shots from Chris Chelios for nearly 15 minutes. "He could be satisfied with being a pain in the *@% the rest of career. But he's trying to do more ... and I'll bet he succeeds, too."
Tomas Holmstrom you'll be missed.