The Detroit Red Wings were a team in flux at the start of the 1990s. At times labeled the “Dead Things,” they had not won a Stanley Cup since 1954-55 and had won just five playoff rounds over the previous 24 seasons. The team did make the postseason in 1990-91, but they bowed out to the St. Louis Blues in seven games during the first round.
While it is impossible to predict the future, that 1990-91 season started one of the great reigns of dominance in North American professional sport as the Red Wings went on to qualify for the playoffs in each of the next 24 seasons. During the streak, the team won four Stanley Cups, six Presidents’ Trophies, and set numerous other records.
To achieve such remarkable success, the Red Wings deployed legends ranging from Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, and Sergei Fedorov to Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. While all championship teams need their stars to win, it is the unheralded players that serve as the lifeblood of the squad.
With all due respect to other heart-and-soul players like Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Darren McCarty, Swedish winger Tomas Holmstrom was underrated, yet instrumental in the Red Wings’ revival. His fearless playing style opened the ice up for his skilled teammates and endeared him to fans over the entire course of his career.
Holmstrom’s Humble Beginnings
Playing as a 19-year-old in the Swedish Allsvenskan league, Holmstrom was drafted 257th overall in the 10th round by the Red Wings during the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. Considering that the 10th round no longer exists, it is safe to assume that expectations were low for the fresh-faced forward.
Surprisingly, Holmstrom managed to crack the Red Wings’ lineup by the 1996-97 season. He only had nine points during the regular season and suited up for one game in the playoffs, but he saw his name etched on the Stanley Cup as the Red Wings won their first championship in 42 years.
Holmstrom followed that up with 22 points in 57 games during the 1997-98 regular season, but it was in the playoffs where he truly broke out. He recorded seven goals, 12 assists, and a plus-nine rating en route to a second straight Stanley Cup. His 19 playoff points were good enough for third on the team, trailing only Yzerman and Fedorov, both eventual Hall-of-Famers.
The Screening Machine
The 1997-98 postseason run gave the hockey world their first taste of what Holmstrom would become in his NHL career – a goaltender’s worst nightmare. Despite only being six feet tall, he would do anything to get to the front of the net, as he fearlessly battled with reckless abandon. Holmstrom’s presence in the crease would occupy rival defensemen and open up more space for his skilled teammates.
Not only did he obscure a goaltender’s vision, but he was an expert at deflecting shots. His deft touch and remarkable hand-eye coordination made life even tougher for opposing netminders. He was able to endure brutally physical situations and still be in the perfect spot to tip-in a puck. Despite taking so much abuse on a nightly basis, he was a relatively level-headed player that rarely retaliated in a dirty manner.
He produced at least 34 points each season from 1998-99 to 2000-01, before suffering through an injury-riddled 2001-02 season. Despite the ailments, Holmstrom managed to produce eight goals and three assists during the playoffs as he played a prominent role in another Stanley Cup victory.
Being a net-front nuisance was a role in hockey long before Holmstrom ever cracked the NHL, but he may very well be the first to perfect the position. He broke the 20-goal barrier during the 2002-03 season, set a career high with 59 points in 2005-06, and had his only 30-goal season in 2006-07.
Holmstrom was unquestionably at his most valuable with the man advantage. During his 15-season NHL career, the Red Wings finished top-10 in the league in power-play percentage 12 different times. With offensive defensemen like Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Mathieu Schneider, and Brian Rafalski firing shots on goal, it was a perfect situation for Holmstrom.
Likewise, he is the only forward in NHL history, with at least 100 even-strength goals, to finish his career with more goals on the power play (122) than at even strength (121). He scored 43 percent of his 530 career points with the extra man.
His teammates regularly poked fun at how poor of a skater Holmstrom was, but he never needed to have that element to his game. His hockey sense and work ethic ensured he was more than capable of playing against some of the greatest players in the league despite lacking top-end speed.
Holmstrom won his final Stanley Cup in 2007-08. He was yet again a key contributor in the playoffs with 12 points in 21 games. He scored 46 goals and 51 assists throughout his postseason career, and he never missed the playoffs at the NHL level.
A Red Wing Forever
He retired following the 2011-12 season, much to the relief of many goalies. He played all 1,026 games of his career with the franchise that drafted him back in 1994. He is the sixth player in Red Wings history to suit up for 1,000 games with the team. It is incredible ‘Homer’ managed to play that long after suffering countless slashes, scrapes, and bruises in front of the net.
Red Wings’ fans had the pleasure of watching some of the best talents in league history over the past three decades. While the superstars deservedly command most of the attention, it is the warriors in the trenches that ultimately help turn a team into a champion.
Holmstrom will never be confused for an all-time great scorer, but his undying determination deserves all the praise in the world. He retired a four-time Stanley Cup champion and won a gold medal with Team Sweden at the 2006 Olympics. Not bad for someone selected in the 10th round.