That was no accident Friday. Hank Zetterberg said goodbye to an amazing hockey career exactly where he wanted to do it:
Where it began.
“Having a little media scrum in the corner, in a practice rink, in Traverse City, during training camp,” he admitted Saturday via telephone, in typical understated humility, “that was a perfect ending for me.”
Off sails the captain, off sails the ship. Zetterberg’s retirement is more than just the end of a star career under a particular Red Wing banner. It’s the end of that banner. By the time the Wings hoist another Stanley Cup, they will look nothing like the team Zetterberg began on, and possibly nothing like the one he’s retiring from.
Think about this. The man they call “Z” birthed his Detroit legacy by skating beside the following players, who had all hoisted a Stanley Cup a few months earlier: Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Igor Larionov, Darren McCarty, even Luc Robitaille. Luc Robitaille? Does Zetterberg go back that far?
“Looking back at that roster,” he said Saturday, almost in awe, “I really didn’t think I was going to be able to crack it.”
He cracked it all right. And for 15 seasons, he skated through rosters as deftly as he skated through defenses, surfing the changes with a silent grace that made you think he was older than he was, until you thought he was younger than he was.
Zetterberg, soon to be 38, had 44 points that rookie year, and nearly 1,000 points for his career. But he was more hardnosed than people recognized, more determined, more defensive, and the years took their toll, especially on his back. He played through constant pain. When the doctors told him there were no real options left, and that continued damage might not only end his hockey playing, but endanger his quality of life, the future crystallized.
“I had the feeling that it was going to be over. I tried everything this summer.”
He sighed. “It’s time.”
Off sails the captain.
Last of the era
Now understand, this really is about the injury, which has been a struggle since having back surgery four years ago.
“Yeah, otherwise, I would be playing,” Zetterberg said. “I think we have a very interesting team of young kids coming in, a brand new arena. If I could play, I would play.
“But ever since the surgery, it wasn’t getting better. It can only go one way. If you look, since last year, I didn’t practice. I only played games. You can’t play at this level and not practice. You have to be prepared, especially at my age, when things are slowing down. You have to be 100 percent or you can’t be out there.”
So Zetterberg, who, amazingly, played in all 82 games the last two seasons, which says something about his perseverance, announced his goodbye in Traverse City, where he said the people have always been so amazing, and the Red Wing spirit was on display from his first exposure.
He remembered, in 2002, when the bus pulled up, and there was already a mob of fans waiting. He’d never pictured anything like that for a training camp. Back then, Zetterberg was a late-round draft pick, and few beyond the scouts had any idea what he might become.
So he showed us. Zetterberg won one Stanley Cup, was a playoff MVP, has an Olympic Gold, a World Championship, and, perhaps most importantly, at least in Detroit, a special letter on his sweater that places you in the most elite of company.
The captain’s ‘C’.
Yzerman wore it during the early years of the Wings four-Cup run, Lidstrom took it from him. And Zetterberg took it from him.
Three captains in 31 seasons. With Zetterberg’s departure, that lineage is officially broken. Only Nick Kronwall remains from the 2002-03 season, and he has hinted at retirement after this year.
Off sails the ship.
An amazing voyage
Do you know how Zetterberg spent the first morning of his retirement?
He watched practice.
He hung by the ice and saw the younger players zipping past. He watched the scrimmage drills. It wasn’t torture. It was what he wanted to do.
“I spent some time with the trainers here, and with the guys, and seeing the people in Traverse City that have been taking care of us and me for 15 years. This is an unbelievable spot for us.
“It was a bit different today,” he admitted. “Because of everyone that reached out yesterday. It’s been amazing. You never knew that you had that many former teammates and coaches and fans. It’s been very emotional, but still, it’s been good. It was good to be here today, to watch the guys scrimmage.”
And that is that. No press conference. No video package. No parading out the family or the friends. We forget how lucky we have been in Detroit to have three straight Red Wings captains who are the embodiment of low-key, no-ego, hardworking and grateful men. By the time Zetterberg was effacing those traits, we’d grown so totally used to them, thanks to Yzerman and Lidstrom, we expected them.
But that only speaks to how special Zetterberg was. To start a humble trend is to get noticed. To continue it is to live up to a legacy that, by definition, leaves you out of the biggest spotlights.
So be it. There may not be a zillion people who will blink twice at the news that Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings forward, No. 40, has retired.
Doesn’t matter. We know. We blinked. We recalled the nights of speed and dazzle, the defensive plays forwards often don’t want to make, the teaming with Pavel Datsyuk, the lap with the Stanley Cup, the thick head of hair that was enough for two men, the beard that suggested of a Swedish lumberjack.
We remember how well he played, but just as importantly, how well he led. He led by example. He led by hard work. And he led by one other thing.
Two years ago, Zetterberg and I sat together in the Joe Louis locker room, and he kept nodding left and right whenever he spoke about Yzerman or Lidstrom.
“You do know they’re gone?” I joked.
“But you’re nodding at their old lockers as if they’re still here.”
“Well,” he said, eyes twinkling, “they are still here.”
And he will be, too. In the locker room, in the banners, every time someone talks about the glory era, or the Euro Twins, or the Mike Babcock regime, or 2008, or the captain’s table of one name excellence, Stevie, Nick and Hank.
Off sails the captain, off sails the ship. What a long and amazing voyage it was.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.