Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lidstrom: The retirement of a Legend

By Larry Wigge

Nicklas Lidstrom left hockey without a farewell tour ... he did it own his own terms.

Defense was just an instinct. Lidstrom would look you in the eye and would know what kind of move you were going for.

"I'm aware that some people feel my skills have only diminished some ... and that I can still help the Wings win games. I truly appreciate their support," he said. "At some point, time catches up to everyone and diminishes their ability to perform. This year, it's painfully obvious to me that my strength and energy level are not rebounding enough for me to continue. My drive and motivation are not where they need to be for me to play at this level.

"It's not that the tank is completely empty. It just doesn't have enough to carry me through every day. I don't want to lose that ... I don't want to say status, but that level of play that I've reached. I can't cheat myself."

Lidstrom was never the biggest, the fastest, the quickest, the hardest shooter, the big hitter. He was just the smartest player on the ice for almost every game he played over his two decades of sophistication. You saw Al MacInnis and you watched the slapshot. You saw Scott Stevens and you waited for the hit. You saw Larry Robinson or Denis Potvin and there was a commanding presence and overt belief.

Nick Lidstrom excelled in puck control and puck possession, what he did better than anyone who has ever played the position -- and that includes Bobby Orr -- was win. That, more than anything, is his legacy: He won. He won everything that mattered.

He won four Stanley Cups.

He won an Olympic gold medal.

He won seven Norris trophies as best defenceman -- one fewer than Orr.

He won a Conn Smythe trophy as the best player in the playoffs -- also one fewer than Orr.

Two statistics play into Lidstrom's greatness: In 20 NHL seasons, he missed 43 games and played 1,827 regular season and playoff games. Almost 1,100 more games than Orr could manage on wounded knees.

His career plus/minus of plus-450 -- playing almost every minute against the other teams’ top lines -- is so monumental, it needs to be put into perspective. The next highest-ranked active defenseman, Chris Pronger, is plus-183. After that it's Zdeno Chara at 143 and Sami Salo at 114.

Chelios says Lidstrom is the best partner he's ever had? Better than Larry Robinson?

"Yeah," said Chelios. "Nick just has that competitive edge inside him like a Larry Robinson, a Ray Bourque or an Al MacInnis. He doesn't need to scare opponents with a fiery look on his face. He scares them with the fact that he's so consistent ... never out of position, on offense or defense."

Lidstrom thinks the game better than most. His instincts always are right-on. He's thoughtful, intelligent and always under control, whether he's staring down a power forward like Jaromir Jagr or Todd Bertuzzi or a speedster like Marian Gaborik or Mike Modano, or stepping up into a play and scoring or setting up an important goal.

"I try to play my position right all the time," said Lidstrom. "In today's game you have to be quick on your feet to adjust to the new rules. It's all about timing, awareness and quickness."

"The secret to Nick Lidstrom's success is that he has no weaknesses," Mike Modano said. "It doesn't matter if he's trying to defend a power forward or a fast, quick skater with skill. He'll shut you down."

"I can honestly tell you since I've been here, I've never seen anyone beat him 1-on-1 in a game or in a practice," said center Henrik Zetterberg, who's beaten a lot of defensemen in his five seasons in the NHL. "I've tried myself. It's amazing, really. If you don't watch him closely, you actually don't notice him much watching a game. It's always just basic stuff, but he does it so well."

"He's got that uncanny knack of reading a play and being right almost every time," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "His skills are impeccable, offensively and defensively. And that's important in today's game, where flow and transition are essential."

Though Lidstrom was just a third-round pick, 53rd overall, in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Holland said the Red Wings never underestimated the quality of his favorite defenseman.

Jan-Erik Lidstrom, Nick's father, didn't play hockey and push his son into the game back in Avesta, where Nick grew up. He was the chief of the Swedish highway system. His mother, Gerd, worked in the school cafeteria. His three sisters used to push him around. And, no, there was no uncle or brother to show him the way to the NHL.

"No hockey genes," Lidstrom said. "Just a group of great friends in the neighborhood that loved to play hockey and taught me to be so competitive and never accept losing as an alternative."

He started watching the NHL to follow Swedish legend Borje Salming. He'd sit up late at night to scout the techniques of Robinson, Bourque, Paul Coffey, MacInnis and, yes, Chelios.

"The game means so much to me," Lidstrom said. "It's more than an occupation. It's my hobby. I love what I do every day."

Lidstrom's eyes fixed on me when I asked about his hunger to win.

"I remember Paul Coffey once saying that after he once won the Stanley Cup, he never wanted to give it up," Lidstrom explained. "I even remember hearing him say that when his team didn't win the following year. He said he felt like someone had broken into his house and had stolen his most prized possession. That's how I feel, too."

"He's a special man," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "His attention to detail is great and he's a great role model. He's just great to be around. I think it's important that your best players work hard and are humble and it's always about the team. It's pretty hard for anybody else to be any other way. He's fantastic."

At a time when there really was a little bit of secrecy in the draft, Lidstrom, you might say, was kind of a mystery to the 1989 draft. 

Neil Smith, then head scout of the Red Wings, was scheduled to met outside the airport by a Russian scout. Instead, Christer Rockstrom met Smith in a cab.

Smith was there to see another Swedish player or two, but Rockstrom kept telling him about this 18-year-old defenseman who was a depth player for his hometown Elitserian team in Vasteras, a city of about 100,000 people in central Sweden. Rockstrom and Smith quickly fell in love with his skill set:

"I'd been telling Jimmy D that Lidstrom would be available in the third round -- and we couldn't pick him after that because of his age," Smith remembered. "People didn't know him. The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau had him way down. I knew if he'd be seen the next year and be a sure first-rounder."

That's the story of Nicklas Lidstrom -- unknown to everybody but Christer Rockstrom, who just happened to be filling in for a Russian scout.

What a lucky and fortunate meeting it was for the Red Wings.

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