On May 31, 2012, hockey lost a man, a myth and a legend all rolled into one iconic player.
A generation of excellence came to an abrupt, if not half expected, end. Detroit fans and hockey fans everywhere saw legendary 42-year-old defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom declare the end of an unprecedented 20-year NHL career.
As a Red Wings fan my entire life (now going on 28 years), I cannot remember watching a Detroit game without No. 5 suiting up. Having caught on to sports in the mid-90s during the franchise's rise to prominence and eventually a modern-day dynasty, Lidstrom's steadying presence on the blue line made me fall in love with the game of hockey yet was also something that I (along with every Wings fan) took for granted over the past two decades.
At this point, better writers than me have gone on at great length detailing the career of the Swedish skater nicknamed ‘The Perfect Human', yet it would still be a disservice if only to myself not to put words onto the player who has been so meaningful to an inordinate amount of my life growing up.
The numbers speak for themselves but bear repeating in any reference to Lidstrom's career. Twelve All-Star selections, seven Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cups, one Olympic Gold Medal and a Conn Smythe Trophy only scratch the surface of his brilliant two decades wearing the winged wheel.
With all those accolades, the most memorable thing about a man who played 1,564 regular season games in Detroit (second most in franchise history), scored 264 goals and posted 1,142 points was how he just blended in the background. Despite factoring in every game he played in, it requires a deeper understanding of hockey to appreciate Lidstrom's game.
In a game where speed and physicality get the headlines, Lidstrom made a living out of poke checking the puck off the sticks of opposing forwards, beating forecheckers with a deft outlet pass, knocking down clearing attempts at the blue line to keep an offensive possession alive and just being better at every other aspect of the game than his contemporaries.
Over his 20 years, numerous teammates have grabbed the spot light because of obviously dominating traits. Sergei Fedorov was the most breathtaking skater to come from Russia and could turn a game by himself with his speed, passing and scoring touch. Steve Yzerman was a prolific scorer who morphed into a tremendous two-way forward and was in my mind the greatest leader I have ever seen play. Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull could each put holes in the net with their one-timers. Pavel Datsyuk can do things with the puck that I never thought were possible.
Even on the blue line, Lidstrom seemed overshadowed by his teammates in his early years. Paul Coffey won a Norris Trophy with the Wings in 1995 and was probably the closest thing to Bobby Orr in terms of producing offense like a forward from defense. Vladimir Konstantiov was a punishing physical presence whose career was cut far too short by a limousine accident a week after the Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup Championship. Even Chris Chelios was a far more decorated defenseman by the time the Red Wings acquired him in 1999, two years before Lidstrom's first Norris Trophy.
Yet to a man, all of those players will say that the Most Valuable Player the entire way was the unimposing blue liner who produced offensively and shut down the opponent's top lines on a nightly basis with simple, boring efficiency.
While it takes effort to pick out defining moments of his career because of his remarkable game-to-game consistency, there are a few that stick out to me which I will share.
June 7, 1997 - The Red Wings entered game four of the Stanley Cup Finals with a 3-0 lead over the Philadelphia Flyers, on the cusp of their first championship since 1955. After getting drubbed, 6-1, in game three, the Flyers came out strong looking to avoid a sweep. With the game still scoreless and less than a minute left until the first intermission, Lidstrom's shot from the point squirted through the legs of goaltender Ron Hextall and into the net with 32.1 seconds left in the first period. The goal would have been the Cup winner had the Flyers not scored with less than 15 seconds left in the game, but Detroit held on for a 2-1 win and a dynasty was born.
April 21, 2002 - While the 1995-96 Red Wings set an NHL record with 62 victories, the 2001-02 team was the best collection of talent I have ever seen a hockey team accumulate. Detroit won a league-high 51 games with a group that boasted current or future Hall of Famers in Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek and potentially Pavel Datsyuk. Despite all the talent and regular season wins, the Red Wings dropped their first two games to the eighth-seeded Vancouver Canucks at Joe Louis Arena and were in real danger of seeing the dream season ended on the west coast. Game three was tied at one apiece with time winding down in the second period, Lidstrom blasted a shot from center ice that fooled Dan Cloutier and put the Red Wings on top for good in a season-saving 3-1 win. Detroit won nine of its next 10 playoff games en route to a Stanley Cup title and Lidstrom won the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP after finishing with 16 points and a +6 in 23 postseason games.
June 4, 2008 - After suffering a gut wrenching triple overtime defeat when they were 35 seconds away from winning the Cup two days earlier, Detroit had to go back to Pittsburgh with a tenuous 3-2 series lead over the Penguins. Detroit never trailed and won the game 3-2 to clinch the Cup in enemy territory. While Lidstrom was held off the score sheet, he became the first European born player to captain a Stanley Cup winning team.
May 6, 2011 - Trailing the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in the second round of the 2011 Playoffs, the Red Wings came out of chute red hot in front of the Joe Louis Arena faithful. Detroit jumped ahead 3-0 in the first period with the second and third goals coming from Lidstrom. The Red Wings ended up winning the game 4-3 and sent a series they trailed 3-0 to seven games before dropping a 3-2 decision in San Jose.
Beyond just the standout highlights, one personal anecdote stood out for me. When I was working for a radio/TV news station in Saginaw, Mich., I was invited to tag along with one of our sports guys to help cover game five of the Red Wings' first round series against the Nashville Predators in 2008. The series was tied at 2-2 after the Predators won the previous two contests. Detroit would win the game 2-1 in overtime and I got to live a childhood dream if only for a brief moment. I got to walk into the Red Wings' locker room and stand near the players during their postgame interviews.
For a few minutes that seemed like less than a second in my universe, I got to stand across from the greatest defenseman of my lifetime as he answered questions with the same precision that he made outlet passes and fired shots on goal from the blue line. I don't recall if I bothered asking a question or merely stood there holding our sports guys' microphone like an idiot. It didn't matter, I will never forget that night when I got to feel like an insider. It is that moment that drives me to continue plugging away in hopes of breaking into the NHL in my current career field (media relations).
For all those moments and more over his 20 seasons in Detroit, a thank you to one of the players who developed my love of the game is the least that I owe him.
Twenty three years ago, every team in the league failed to recognize the transcendent talent of the Perfect Human twice over. Today, hockey fans everywhere lost a once in a generation player, literally.