The first time I laid eyes on Daniel and Henrik Sedin was almost 18 years ago. They were cherubs.
It was early September, 2000, in their hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, and we had agreed to meet in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. The twins had been drafted second and third overall by the Vancouver Canucks a year earlier, and people knew very little about them other than they were supposed to be pretty good hockey players. And they looked alike.
In fact, to me they were indistinguishable. Over the years, Henrik’s face would take on a more oval shape than his brother’s, allowing people to more easily tell them apart. But back then, boy, only their parents knew for sure. Anyway, the 19-year-olds walked through the doors of the hotel and I saw these – I’m sorry, there are no other words – cute, adorable kids with the kind of round, rosy cheeks that grandmothers like to grab.
Their English was tentative back then, and they often turned beet red over the most innocuous of queries. (“Do you guys have girlfriends?”) We talked about the usual stuff: whether they thought they were ready to play with the big boys in the NHL; whether it would be hard to leave the familiarity of Sweden behind; whether they saw themselves returning to play some of their careers in their hometown. They wore matching shirts that looked freshly ironed. It was as if their mother had dressed them for the interview.
They did their best to answer every question as honestly as they could. They were respectful and humble and all the things that would later define them and make them not just remarkable players, but remarkable people, too.
After shaking hands and saying goodbye, I remember thinking three things: a) these are two of the nicest young men you’ll ever meet; b) they are going to get eaten alive in the NHL; and c) I can see them lasting a few years before they retreat to Sweden to play hockey in a league better suited to their benign personalities. I was only right about one thing – how nice they were.
A lot has happened since that day in Ornskoldsvik. The following month the Sedins would play their first NHL game and begin an incredible, 17-year journey that wraps up Saturday night in Edmonton against the Oilers. The farewell at their last home game this week at Rogers Arena will be remembered for decades. The outpouring of affection was profound; the tears in the eyes of fans straddling generations were as genuine and authentic as the two men on the ice for whom they fell. There has never been a salute, a goodbye, to any athlete in this city that’s come close to the one witnessed Thursday night. But then, there have never been two athletes quite like the Sedins either.
I’m not blind to the fact that we sometimes mythologize sports figures undeservedly. Often it’s only because they played a sport exceedingly well, perhaps gave the world moments we won’t soon forget, or achieved things that astonished contemporaries. And often we don’t care what kind of people they are off the field of play, as long as they’re not murderers. We tend to draw the line there.
And then, occasionally, rarely, the likes of Henrik and Daniel Sedin will come along, two people who are talked about as much for their comportment, their class, their kindness and generosity of spirit as their skills with a puck, which, make no mistake, were formidable and will unquestionably land them in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Canucks fans have said so long to lots of beloved players over the years, including icons such as Trevor Linden and Stay Smyl. And sure, there was some melancholy associated with those moments. But nothing like there was Thursday in Vancouver. It was different. There was a palpable sadness, not just in the arena but around the city and in living rooms throughout the province. People did not want to let them go.
Maybe it has something to do with their ever-reassuring presence, in good times and bad. They possessed qualities we often seek out and find comfort in, especially in times like these. They were dependable, calm, stoic and always accountable. They never took shortcuts. Ever. They were, and remain, walking, talking examples of the best we can be as human beings – people we would love our children to emulate. And, of course, they used the telepathy with which they were born to play the game like it’s never been played before.
We will miss them. And yet, in some ways, we will always have them.