CHICAGO — The first time Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman set his eyes on the Stanley Cup, he was in awe.
Hedman was 10 years old, and one of his childhood idols, Peter Forsberg, who had won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche, brought the 35-pound, sterling silver "Holy Grail" to their hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.
The town of 25,000 has produced star hockey players like the Dominican Republic spits out shortstops, with Forsberg, Markus Naslund and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin fueling the dreams of many kids. Olle Hedman, Victor's dad, jokes it's "in the water."
"You know it's not impossible," Hedman said.
On that summer day, Hedman stared at the Cup, before stepping on stage and posing for a photo with Forsberg. But Hedman kept his hands off the trophy.
"(Forsberg) was pretty direct about not touching it as a kid," Hedman said, smiling.
It's within Hedman's reach now. The Lightning is two wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup, up 2-1 in the best-of-seven final heading into tonight's Game 4 against the Chicago Blackhawks, and Hedman, the 6-foot-6 Swede, is a big reason.
Hedman, 24, has been dominant at both ends of the ice, offering the complete package — size, skill, speed and smarts. You could see that in his two highlight-reel assists in a 3-2 victory in Monday's Game 3. He's logging more than 25 minutes a game and helping shut down Chicago's top stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. If the Lightning wins the Cup, Hedman just might be voted the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
"Words can't describe the force he's been out there for our team," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's been an absolute beast."
"He's been a monster," wing Brenden Morrow said.
Coach Jon Cooper calls it a "coming-out party" for Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009. But that's not entirely accurate. The Lightning has witnessed Hedman emerge as one of the league's top defenseman the past two seasons, a likely Norris Trophy candidate this year had he not missed six weeks with a fractured finger. But now he's doing it on the world's biggest stage. As Morrow says, "The rest of y'all are getting to see it now."
"It took him a few years," Cooper says, "But Victor Hedman has arrived."
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Olle Hedman wasn't sure if Victor would ever play defense.
Victor loved to play goaltender, a position he got used to as the younger brother of Johan and Oscar.
But Olle intervened when Hedman was 10, telling him if he left the net, he'd buy him the new helmet he coveted. He hasn't played goal since.
"I'm thankful for that now," Hedman said. "You never know what would have happened otherwise."
Hedman often played late into the night on a pond 300 yards or so from home. His mother, Elisabeth, a preschool teacher, often had to fetch him for dinner. His other passions were flying (he has logged eight hours on a Piper PA-32) and soccer, a forward who was a "big scorer."
"He'd just outrun everyone on the field," Olle said.
Hedman still plays soccer in the summer, and religiously follows the sport. Try quizzing him on any player on any English Premier League team; he can't be stumped.
"He probably knows more about football than hockey," Olle said.
But Hedman knew hockey would be his future, encouraged by some of the game's greats. They'd come back every summer to play for a team called the Icebreakers, inviting Hedman to play. "I was like, 'What?!' " Hedman said. There was Forsberg, Naslund, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom.
"I was 16 and just looking around," Hedman said. "My D-partner was Mattias Norstrom. Just looking back at it now, it was an unbelievable experience."
At age 17, Hedman played with Forsberg, who was trying to make a comeback, recalling how the Hall of Famer scored a goal while he was on the ice. "Memories you're going to have with you for the rest of your life."
Hedman followed their lead, starting a hockey school in his hometown. He said last year, it sold out in two hours. "To see the thrill in the kids eyes, it's worth it all," he said.
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Those influence of those former Swedish stars can be seen in Hedman's game-breaking style.
His old defensive partner for his hometown Modo Swedish league team, former NHL player Mattias Timander, gave him confidence to fearlessly jump into the rush offensively.
"He told me to play my game," Hedman said. "And he'd clean up after me."
Paired with fellow Swede Anton Stralman now, Hedman is emboldened with that same freedom. Not many defensemen would boldly dive deep into the opposing zone in a tied game with three minutes left like Hedman did Monday, darting to the left before finding Cedric Paquette in front for the winning goal. Morrow said Hedman moves like Scott Niedermayer, a four-time Cup champion and Norris Trophy winner.
"When I saw him after the game, I said, 'How do you find those plays, man?' '' Stralman said. "I don't know. He's tremendous, tough to stop."
Like many Swedes, Hedman also modeled himself after future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. "The calmness with the puck, always with his head up, don't look at pucks," he said. "Always made those hard plays seem so easy."
Hedman did that on the Lightning's first goal Monday, his 120-foot slap pass from behind his goal hitting Ryan Callahan in stride at the Chicago blueline. Hedman was tired after a long shift, and could have just gotten it out of the zone before going to the bench. But after seeing Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya trip up in the neutral zone, Hedman went for it.
His parents have watched it all, including Game 2 in Tampa in person. Olle, who has worked at a paper mill for 41 years, will see the Lightning games on television at 2 a.m. in Sweden before being at work by 5:30 a.m.
"In the Montreal series, they went double overtime, and I had to leave for work before it was over," Olle said, laughing.
Hedman said he hasn't thought what he would do for his "Cup Day," the one day each player from the championship team gets with it. But Ornskoldsvik will likely be prepared for it, having gone through it many times before.
"Coming from that city, when you look back at it, it's like a dream," Hedman said. "You look at these players who made it to the NHL and Hall of Fame status over here . . . most of them were captains for their teams. . . just looking back it is pretty surreal."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.