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What Zetterberg’s Retirement Means to Me

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There’s a lot to unpack when your favorite Wing retires.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We are pushing two months now since Henrik Zetterberg hung up the skates. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings about his retirement, to try and make sense of the whole thing. But when it comes to the Red Wings and the NHL, Zetterberg was always the main way I made sense of anything. He’s been there with me since the beginning of becoming a die hard fan.

Seriously, I’ve sat down to write this article multiple times and I’ve failed every time until now, and arguably this time as well. It has been a real struggle. I’ve found a way to enjoy watching the Wings this season, despite their position in the standings, but some of the magic is gone. Don’t get me wrong, I love Larkin and Nyquist and Cholowski (probably my three favorite Wings if I am being honest. Really inspired list, I know,) but without Hank on my television two to three times a week, it’s just like, something’s different. And I can’t figure it out.

NHL: New York Islanders at Detroit Red Wings
Losing Datsyuk and, hell, even Lidstrom wasn’t the same. This guy was something else to me.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It feels kind of like my senior cross country season back in college, when I walked onto the bus for a race, and because of a combination of graduation, injuries, and a bout of the flu making the rounds through campus, there was no one on the bus I had run or trained with in my first two seasons. Which seems like a weird divergence unrelated to Zetterberg’s retirement, but I think running cross country and track in college is where my struggle with the Zetterberg retirement goes back to, strangely enough.

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In the winter and spring of 2008, when the Red Wings last won the Stanley Cup, I wasn’t much of a sports watchin’ guy; I was more of a sports doin’ guy. It was my freshman year of college, and I’d been recruited by my new head coach to help jump-start the cross country team’s rebuild. I was the epitome of nerdy teenage distance runner angst, which means I hated any sport that was popular because nobody (read: girls) paid any attention to what is objectively an extremely demanding and exacting sport, moreso than most others.

Angsty, nerdy distance runner? You don’t say. This guy would shortly later be photographed beating Battletoads on the Super NES, which says enough that any additional comment would detract from the statement.

The main reason I agreed is that my new head coach had been my old head coach for two years in high school. When he coached me in high school, our cross country team was a well-oiled machine. Anything less than a top-ten finish at the state finals was a disappointment, and some years anything short of winning the whole thing was a let-down. Every kid who came into our cross country program was expected to work, learn from the older guys, and compete the right way, which was every day. My teammates and I were routinely told to think about the State Meet every day, and we did. We were always thinking about it, planning workouts, coming up with a way to win the whole thing.

Not too unlike the Red Wings in the early and mid-aughts, but I wasn’t paying super close attention to them. Sure, I remember being in a restaurant when the Wings won in ‘98, and I saw a few games on TV in ‘02. During those days it was hard not to be at least partially aware of their success; it was in Michiganders’ blood streams. But it was in 2008, as an anxious college frosh, that I fell in love with the Red Wings, and it was because of Henrik Zetterberg.

That year, so good for the Red Wings, was so hard for me. I was iron-bound to my identity as an athlete to the point that even the nominal shift of heading off to college and joining a different team was heavy on my shoulders and forced me to re-think who I was. Cross country and my new teammates/friends in college were pretty similar to my old life in high school, but just different enough to be horrifying, kind of like the way we think aliens are scary: they are just different enough that we can see they aren’t human, but some parts of their grotesque forms are still recognizable, familiar.

The 4th Annual Las Vegas Halloween Parade
Pictured: Friends from college, and the guys who forced me to watch the NHL until I loved it, Wade and John.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

So that first year was very disorienting for me. Eventually, my new cross country teammates wore me down and I warmed up to their terrifying, alien, and aberrant natures. One was my roommate, and the other lived across the hall, and they were both from the Traverse City area, a place that had ice rinks and pond hockey, unlike my hometown. They grew up with hockey around them in a way that I didn’t, so when the Wings were on, they out-voted me 2-1 to watch the Wings every time.

And of course, the Wings were a well-oiled winning machine; every player was expected to work, learn from the veterans, and compete the right way. Those were ideas that felt familiar to me in some unfamiliar times. The Red Wings were out to win their championship every year, just like I’d once been. And who was one of the cogs of that team? Henrik Zetterberg. Sure, Pavel Datsyuk was at the forefront, dazzling everybody with his slick moves, and the praise for Nick Lidstrom knew no end, but somewhere between those two guys was Hank, still clearly a monster on the ice, but the way he played looked much more like work than Pav or Lids. I was a farm-kid who loved distance running; I knew what work was, and if there was a star on the Red Wings’ for me, it was Zetterberg, the guy who never quit on any shift, the guy who worked.

Zetterberg’s play was especially resonant with me in the spring of 2008, when I really started to get into the games. I had tendinitis and plantar fasciitis in my left foot from overuse (and doing a bad workout with an old high school buddy on a weekend break.) It was so bad that I couldn’t stand on my left foot in the morning until I’d been awake for a few hours and my muscles loosened. While the injury stopped me from competing, which was so important to my sense of self, Henrik could compete. The ‘08 playoffs started and the guy reached into the depths of himself to reach a new level. I remember watching the shift cited over and over again since Zetterberg’s retirement as the brightest moment of his career: The Conn Smythe shift (I guess that’s what we’re calling it now, anyway.)

That’s the good stuff, man. That is perhaps the most defining shift of Zetterberg’s career. There’s nothing too flashy involved, save Hank’s little breakaway toward the end, which he just uses to chew up more time on the PK. It’s not a highlight reel goal, scored in the waning minutes of a key game, although he did have his fair share of those over his career. It’s not an amazing execution of dekes followed by a pass to set up somebody else’s goal, although that was certainly in his toolbox. The defining shift of Zetterberg’s career, at least as far as I’m concerned, wasn’t any razzle dazzle. It was work.

~

Three years on from that awkward freshman year (and Detroit’s last championship) I was heading into my final collegiate track season. I’d had a good career, with two mostly healthy seasons in those middle years, where I ran some pretty strong races, considering my (relative lack-of) talent. Just before Christmas break, a teammate and I drove through a snow storm to get to an indoor track meet at Grand Valley State. It was a totally optional competition, and I ran it because why not? I loved the sport, even though I’d never really say as much. Most athletes’ relationships to their trade is so deeply complicated that it is hard to say these things.

It turned out that this 3000m race in a blizzard (well, I was indoors, but outside there was a blizzard) during a month most runners are taking pretty easy to recover from the wear-and-tear of the fall season would be the last race I ever ran healthy. A month later I slid on one leg down an ice-slick during a recovery run and found myself with a deep tissue strain in my hamstring. By the time the injury fully healed, I’d had to take two months off. I finished out the spring track season, but was a shell of my former self. The final race of my career was the 10,000m at the conference championship, where I ran something on the order of six minutes slower than I’d ran the previous year, when I’d finished as high as fourth in the event.

It was an unceremonious end to my athletic career. After eight years of running, often putting in 50 to 80 miles a week (and sometimes more,) I knew I didn’t want to pursue a post-collegiate career. The injury to my hamstring blindsided me; I remember weeping in a hallway when I finally realized, a few months before my final race, that my career was effectively over. When I crossed my last finish line, I packed my bags and moved back home the next day, and just like that the great fight in my life was over.

Detroit Red Wings v New York Islanders
Zetterberg played his last game against the Isles on April 7th, 2018. I’ve often wondered at what point he knew it was over, that he was playing out the stretch of his career.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

So when Zetterberg went to LTIRetirement this summer, I felt something resonate, like when I first got into watching the Wings. A lot of folks felt like they were robbed of a proper send-off for one of the most beloved Wings in the organization’s storied history, and I had to agree: it sucked. None of us knew that we were watching Hank’s last game on April 7th against the Islanders. We weren’t emotionally prepared for it. It felt like the proper send-off was snagged from us.

But sometimes, that just happens. Look, I’m not saying that I know what it’s like when a pro-athlete retires, what’s going on in their minds. But I do know that Zetterberg got me one last time, got me in a moment of “Oh, I can see and understand myself better through your actions.” It’s not that I can look at Zetterberg’s career and say “Man, I totally get you. We’d be friends irl.” It’s that by watching him play I can better understand myself. That is the gift his career gave me.

~

That’s some heady stuff, but humans are meaning-making machines. We are constantly folding what we’ve witnessed and experienced into stories that make sense, and we can’t help ourselves. This can be really frustrating, especially for the money-puck folks, whose advanced analytics were born out of a desire to further divorce narrative from the game. But we just aren’t comfortable with not knowing. We are constantly trying to figure out what the sense of something is.

Watching hockey is a lot of things for me. I love competition, and the game possesses grace and beauty in a way other major sports don’t. Plus, it’s fast. I love how fast it is. And there’s the sense of community it creates, and the connection to my home state, especially now that I live elsewhere. But also, the game has narrative, which allows me to understand myself a little better. And now that Zetterberg is retired, I’ve lost the best and most consistent narrative I’ve ever had in hockey. So since Hank hung up the skates, the bind I’m in is where do I see myself now in the sport, because me watching the game isn’t the same without him.