What will you remember most about Detroit Red Wings’ forward Tomas Holmstrom, a man who’s reportedly decided that he’s ready to hang up the skates?
For some, it will be how he seemed to perpetually wear a smile at all times, no matter what was going on during games. Others will always laugh and recall his very unique accent, perhaps the best personification of “swinglish,” play-by-play man Ken Daniels’ favorite term for a blend of Swedish and English.
Of course, for most, there was also the fact he stood parked in front of the net, always remaining in the right place at the right time for rebounds and tipping shots. During his 15 year career, nobody did that better than Holmstrom, drawing both proper amounts of ire and praise from opposing players, fans and even referees.
I can remember exactly where I was when that legacy began for me. It was fifth grade in the spring of 1998. The Red Wings were trying to repeat as champions, and like most youngsters in Detroit, I was captivated by the chase for the cup. In a highly anticipated conference final clash with the Dallas Stars, I disticntly remember seeing this weird, oversized guy standing in front of the net all the time. I continually wondered how he could do that and not get killed every shift, either by a shot or an angry member of the opposition.
Then, out of nowhere, Stars’ goalie Ed Belfour took his stick and, ahem, tapped Holmstrom in a certain nether region. Ouch. Holmstrom, despite the cowardly act, didn’t back down. I was both shocked and impressed.
Instead of letting that one play ruin him and never going back to his office, Holmstrom continued to pester goalies and hone his shot tipping, rebound corralling craft. That love tap from Belfour, one of hockey’s most volatile personalities, likely helped Holmstrom become who he was for the next 14 years. Though the NHL tried desperately to crack down in multiple ways, including absurd rule changes regarding skates in the goal paint and goalie contact, Holmstrom always found a way around the rule of the day to impact the game. On power plays, there was nobody better to have in your corner.
Given his size and hands, coaches knew from day one that Holmstrom was never going to be a burner on the ice, nor was he going to be a sniper on the wing. Give him credit for creating a role for himself and embracing it, doing what he had to do to become an asset to the team. It ended up helping the Red Wings win four championships and in the process, also vaulted Holmstrom to household name status in hockey. The myth of the perpetually soft European player died with every hit Holmstrom endured.
Youngsters should take notice. There’s not enough of that selfless attitude in sports anymore, nor is there enough toughness shown like Holmstrom displayed night in and night out ever since Belfour smacked him in 1998. As an athlete, one play can always define you, both positively and negatively. Holmstrom used his infamous moment in the sun to become somebody and craft an image. That image stood the test of time.
Last February, after “Homer” had become just the sixth Red Wing to complete his 1,000th NHL game (and got a broken nose in the process), he showed his indifference to such trivial matters as pain and discomfort in an interview after practice, complete with his newly swollen nose bulging.
“Of course it’s gonna happen in my 1,000th game,” he said with a laugh, just before shrugging off the notion that he’d ever wear a shield. “I’m sure I’ll remember it.”
Holmstrom was the toughest guy on the ice to ever knock out, no matter where or how he was getting hit. That’s exactly how we’ll always remember him.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax.