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Zetterberg's got it all -- except a nickname

October 17, 2002 BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Oh, Henrik! Oh . . . Henry! Oh . . . Zetterberg?

Oh, dear. What to call the newest sensation on the world's most sensational hockey team? Already, fans in Detroit can't wait to get to Joe Louis Arena tonight, not only to see the home opener, not only to see the 2002 championship banner hoisted, but also to catch a glimpse of The Kid, Henrik Zetterberg, a rookie who has captured the imagination of Hockeytown by making the Red Wings' roster and playing with their top line -- a move akin to a high school bass player joining the Rolling Stones.

Hen? Rik? Rikky? Zetty? What do you call him? After all, a time-honored tradition in hockey says you are only truly embraced by your team once your name has been bent into something out of the "Little Rascals." "Stevie." "Cheli." "Shanny." "Drapes." Happens to the best of them.

And here is this 21-year-old kid, fresh out of Sweden, still getting used to this strange, new country, and already he is being touted as another Peter Forsberg?

The least we can do is give him a nickname.

So I go to Wings practice, and I encounter Henrik in the first locker by the doorway, next to fellow Swede Tomas Holmstrom. I ask him how he likes things so far and he says, "It's going pretty good" and I ask how he's adjusting to America and he says, "It's going pretty good" and I ask what the hardest part is and he says, "The food" and I ask what he means and he says, "The sauce you put on your pasta. It's different."

Attention to details. Impressive.

Henny? Zet-man? Zetty? . . .

A Swede deal from the 7th round

Wait. A little more about the new guy, who has already scored his first NHL goal and has shared line duties with Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov. He looks a bit like a Swedish Jon Bon Jovi. He's not imposingly big but appears solid enough. He skates with a sense of purpose, and he sees the whole ice. He is not intimidated by the big boys, since he played with mostly NHL stars on the 2002 Swedish Olympic team.

And -- oh, yeah -- when he first got to Detroit, he was a regular at Nicklas Lidstrom's house, where they apparently make the right pasta sauce.

I ask Lidstrom about Zetterberg's development. Nick says, "He is asking the same questions I asked when I first got here."

Such as?

"Can you make a right turn on a red light?"

Hey. What's more important than that?

Of course, Wings fans have a few questions themselves. Like, how does a 21-year-old crack this roster? How did the Wings, already embarrassingly rich with future Hall of Famers, manage to steal a kid this good, this young, this soon? Does no other team have airplanes?

"When I was first drafted, I was just happy that any team wanted to take me," Z-Man says. "But it was the Red Wings, and that made it better."

That was 1999; Zetterberg was a seventh-round selection. This is like buying Microsoft at 20 cents a share. Since then, Zetterberg has blossomed into a full-blown Swedish sensation -- dreaming of even bigger NHL horizons. Last June, he and a few friends back in Sweden watched the Wings take the Stanley Cup on TV.

"What did you say when Detroit won?" I ask.

"It was 4 in the morning. We weren't talking too much."

Henri? Henner? Hen-boy? . . .

A hankering for something better

Now, let's be honest. The Wings may be the champs, but Zetterberg's youth is a welcome addition. Detroit fans have quietly wondered what happens when Steve Yzerman hangs it up, or when Chris Chelios and Brett Hull finally stop defying the aging process? Last year, Pavel Datsyuk was a bright light in that darkness, a young player with starry skills. Now comes Zetterberg. He could see plenty of time with Yzerman out indefinitely -- playing center or right wing. Very little seems to bother him.

"I watched him on our opening road trip go to three different buildings against three teams he'd never seen before, and he wasn't fazed at all," says coach Dave Lewis. "He had a goal and a breakaway, he was strong defensively, killed penalties, played the power play. He's got really good composure."

And his skills are only going to sharpen. It's amazing, isn't it? You expect the Wings to be good. You are surprised that they can be better.

So tonight, the banner goes up, the cheers rain down, and then last year is officially last year and the new season is what counts. So far, the most intriguing new personality is a longish-haired rookie who is searching for some Swedish sauce.

"He must have a nickname," I say to Lewis. "What do the guys on the team call him?"

"Ooh, let me see" he says, rubbing his chin, "I think they call him Hank."

Hank? HANK?

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