CAPTAIN & CUP SHINE ANEW

This was near midnight Saturday, in the tunnel of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena, as a pair of reporters spoke to Nicklas Lidstrom quietly, while people passed in all directions. At first, this might seem odd, the captain and biggest star on the best team in hockey, a team now within one victory of the Stanley Cup, having a long conversation in the hallway and he wasn’t being interrupted or mobbed? You wouldn’t see Kobe Bryant or Eli Manning alone like that for five seconds.

But as you got closer, it made more sense.

Nick was speaking Swedish.

And as the Red Wings aim to capture their 11th Stanley Cup tonight at Joe Louis Arena, we should realize just how much we are indeed borrowing leaders and stars from another world and another life. They are here and they are there. They answer questions in one language, then another. They phone home after a road game – to Michigan – then they phone home again – to Sweden, or Russia, or Finland. They play in the Rust Belt of America, but they bring a global personality to the ice, captained by a blond defenseman whom teammates call “The Perfect Human.”

Which is why if these Wings hoist the Stanley Cup tonight, they will not be the Wings who did it six years ago, or four and five years before that. These are not the Stevie-Shanny-Sergei Red Wings under the legendary Scotty Bowman. There was a lot more “eh” in that locker room, more fisticuffs on the ice, more superstars, more bravado, more nervous energy, more media, more tension between the coach and players, more connection with the community.

This 2008 group, with arguably four Swedes in the top-five skaters on the team, is like a well-functioning watch. When it’s doing its job, everything is clean, crisp, efficient – sometimes even unappreciated.

Sort of like, well …

Lidstrom.

But Captain Nick Time is upon us. A different type of captain

“Do you remember what you felt like the night before your first Stanley Cup?” I asked Lidstrom after the Swedish reporters left.

“I remember I was excited,” he said of the 1997 experience. “You think, ‘We’re up, 3-0, against Philadelphia.’ But we had some veteran players like Joey Kocur back then who had won a Cup before, and it helped younger players like myself. They reminded us you still can’t take it for granted.”

And that, in his quiet, rarely noticed way, is what Lidstrom will be doing with his teammates, right until they drop the puck a bit after 8 p.m. None of us will hear it. It will not be recorded. But Lidstrom, 38, will steer the ship with the calm, steady hand of a weathered fisherman.

And that will make all the difference.

How can you measure what Lidstrom, in his 16th season in Detroit, means to this team? With Steve Yzerman, it was easier, because we knew what he meant to us. Fans gushed over him. He was the face of the franchise. He wore his passion in his eyes and his brow and his braced knees, fighting a rash of injuries, playing in incredible pain. How could you NOT appreciate the guy?

Lidstrom, by comparison, seems like the android agent in those “Terminator” movies. Nothing slows him. Nothing rattles him. He rarely gets injured. He rarely makes a mistake. He doesn’t need to show passion on his face, because he has total control of every other body part.

But I remember in Yzerman’s heyday saying to him, “Steve, as the best player on the team …” and he would interrupt and say, “Nick’s the best player on the team.” And I remember Brendan Shanahan saying Lidstrom was the most-talented defenseman he’d ever seen. And I remember everyone from Chris Osgood to Kris Draper saying how incredible a player Lidstrom is, one in a million, and if you don’t think all that counts when it comes to leadership, you haven’t played hockey.

This is a sport where excellence matters, and quiet excellence matters more. Thanks to Lidstrom being this polite, efficient, even-keeled leader, no one else on the team dare play prima donna. If Nick can’t, you can’t.

Instead, he sets a different kind of bar, sort of like the perfect score on an SAT test: see how close you can get to what he does, night after night.

Kirk Maltby once told the media, “All we say is, ‘Watch Nick, how he carries himself and what he does on the ice.’ “

Watch Nick.

How’s that for a team philosophy?

“Would winning this Cup mean something extra,” I asked him Saturday night, “because it was the first time you were the captain?”

“Sure, it would be special,” he said. “But even more special is to have four Cups.”

“Do you have the small replicas they give players?” I asked him.

“Yep. They’re at my house.”

“In a trophy case?”

“In my den.”

“Next to a TV set?”

He laughed. “No, next to a Conn Smythe and a couple of Norris trophies.”

“And an Olympic gold?”

He laughed again. “Yeah. An Olympic gold, too.”

See? You almost have to remind him how good he is. Right place at the right time

But you don’t need to remind the opposition. Time after time, teams try to get past Lidstrom. Team after team, the best players challenge him.

And year after year, he stymies them all – not with an overpowering slam into the walls, but with a short stick flick here, a tiny poke steal there, perfect body position, the perfect defensive stance, a seemingly unfailing internal GPS unit that tells him where to go to block a pass or close a shooting lane.

Think about it. Some of the most famous “defenders” in Red Wings history had to draw blood to earn their reputation. Bob Probert. Joey Kocur. Darren McCarty. They were forwards, but they were thought of as men who stopped the other guys from doing what they wanted to do.

Lidstrom, near as I can recall, has never thrown a big punch. He has never decked anyone. He rarely goes to the penalty box.

Yet he has stopped more opponents than any Red Wing in history.

And this year, he has done more than stop; he has led. His style of “be it, don’t brag it” is all over this team. So Henrik Zetterberg is an offensive Superman, but his demeanor is more Clark Kent. And Niklas Kronwall hits like a linebacker, but speaks like a watchmaker. And Johan Franzen scores like a mule, but gives you more “aw shucks, folks” than a roomful of Jimmy Stewart movies. And Tomas Holmstrom majors in aggression and aggravation and will only smirk at himself and his reputation. There’s not a Dennis Rodman bone in any one of them.

Least of all Lidstrom, who would be the first European captain to win Lord Stanley’s trophy. He admitted Saturday that he liked the feeling of being the same in every game, a level plank, an unflinching heartbeat.

“But I even get butterflies before the games, sometimes,” he said, as if apologizing, as if hoping to be considered a little weaker than we all make him out to be.

Can’t fool us. Watch Nick. The five-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman cannot deny his own excellence.

And the Wings can’t deny the steady, unflappable aura he has created.

In Game 4, during that frantic five-on-three stretch in the final period, a time-out was called, and the Wings gathered by the bench. Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Kronwall had a private little circle conversation going on the ice, and you could see coach Mike Babcock moving toward them, then seemingly realizing who it was and backing off, as if figuring, “What can I add to that?”

“Were you speaking English?” I asked Lidstrom.

“No, it was Swedish.”

“And were you running that conversation, since you’re the captain?”

“No,” he said. “It was all equal.”

Which is what makes him a good captain.

The Wings went on to deny the Penguins anything during that power play, and won the game, 2-1. And tonight, if the Wings win again, it will be Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 53 years that is not achieved under Bowman and fronted by Yzerman. Admittedly, that has taken some getting used to around here.

But we should embrace these guys every bit as much as we embraced the old crew. Being this good, this efficient, this defensive – and this humble – doesn’t come along very often. About as often as a 38-year-old defenseman still being the best in the world at what he does.

It’s Captain Nick Time.

Better clear some space in his den.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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