Lundqvist was very close to return with Capitals last season: report

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Henrik Lundqvist said he was days away from joining the Washington Capitals near the end of last season when the goalie’s plan to resume his NHL career following open-heart surgery was derailed because of an infection.

Lundqvist, who announced his retirement Aug. 20, detailed how close he came to playing last season in an article published in the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten.

“It was three days before I was going back to Washington that I found out that I had pericarditis,” Lundqvist said in Swedish, translated by NHL.com, referring to an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart. “I was very close to coming back. It was very tough to go through that again, but this was a completely different thing because it had nothing to do with the operation.”

Lundqvist signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Capitals on Oct. 9, 2020, after he had the final season of his contract bought out by the New York Rangers on Sept. 30. After 15 seasons with New York, Lundqvist was expected to compete for Washington’s starting goalie job in training camp, but a physical raised new concerns about a heart condition he played with throughout his NHL career. After further testing, he received news in mid-December he needed to have a heart valve replaced.

Lundqvist resumed skating at a private rink in Alpine, New Jersey, on Feb. 23, about seven weeks after his surgery, and was on the ice nearly every day with the hope he would be cleared medically in time to help the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he announced April 11 that a checkup revealed inflammation around his heart and that he would need more time to recover.

“I got some kind of infection that attacked and sat around the heart in some way. It was quite painful,” Lundqvist said. “I was completely overwhelmed for five days, lying with chest pains and feeling sick.”

Lundqvist’s announcement that he would be unable to return last season came the day before the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. Washington opted not to add another goalie before the deadline, and Vitek Vanecek, Ilya Samsonov and Craig Anderson each played in a five-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup First Round.

ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes, who watched Lundqvist skate and face shots twice in the spring, said he believes the goalie would have been able to resume playing at a high level if he had been cleared to join the Capitals. 

“It was him and I in one session and then him and I and (former NHL forward) Aaron Voros and a couple other shooters in another session, and it was the same attention to detail,” said Weekes, a former NHL goalie who was a teammate of Lundqvist with the Rangers from 2005-07. “You couldn’t tell if he was playing in [Madison Square Garden] in a game or if this was a skate and a goalie session for him working his way back from major heart surgery. 

“You couldn’t tell the difference. … From what I saw five months, four months ago, if the health was willing, he would have gone on there and been the same player, the same goalie.”

Lundqvist began light workouts again in July and, after becoming an unrestricted free agent July 28, hoped to receive medical clearance to play this season. But the 39-year-old decided to retire after continued problems with the inflammation around his heart.

“I’ve had a couple of setbacks this spring — and this was a reminder,” Lundqvist said. “I didn’t want to end up there again. I have to listen to the body and land on this decision (to retire).”

Lundqvist said he will need another surgery on his heart in the future to have a mechanical valve inserted. He opted to have a valve made of cow tissue inserted in January because he hoped to return to the NHL and wants to remain active physically after retirement.

“A mechanical valve is not recommended for an active life, because you’ll have to back it up with blood-thinning medicine and I’m not interested in that,” Lundqvist said. “Hockey was definitely a reason for the choice, but also what I should be able to do after my career. I want to be able to ski again. I haven’t skied since 2003, I think. And before that it was 1998 or something like that.”

Lundqvist finished his NHL career with a record of 459-310-96, a 2.43 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 64 shutouts. He is sixth in NHL history in wins, seventh in saves (23,509), eighth in games played (887), ninth in starts (871), ninth in time on ice (51,816:51) and 17th in shutouts.

The Rangers announced Aug. 20 that they will retire his No. 30 at a date to be determined this season.

“It’s a tremendous honor that they have chosen to retire my jersey,” Lundqvist said. “The association will always have a big part of my heart. That’s for sure.”

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