A hole just formed on the blue line of Detroit sports.
Nicklas Lidstom is retiring.
It had to happen, even if we didn’t want it to happen. For the last few years, Red Wings fans have been begging the captain for one more season, the way children beg for five more minutes, an extra cookie, one last fairy tale before the lights go out.
Nicklas Lidstrom gave us enough minutes, enough sweet stuff and enough fairy tale moments for any five players, let alone one. So if, as expected, the lights go out on his 20-season career today, in a news conference at Joe Louis Arena – the only NHL rink he’s ever called home – it will be because he chooses to flick them off. And that is how it should be.
Captain Nick hands in the stick.
Parting is such Swede sorrow.
“I think it gets harder and harder as you get older,” Lidstrom said last year, at about this time, when faced with a similar choice. “And my decision gets harder as well.”
He thought about leaving at age 39, at 40, at 41. He kept coming back. He is 42 now. Some of his teammates could easily be his sons. He just finished a year that proves hockey only gets tougher – and less predictable – the longer you stay in it. His Wings posted the longest home winning streak in history this season, yet got bounced from the playoffs with a single win and four losses.
Lidstrom can read the tea leaves. They’re pointing toward home.
Captain Nick makes his pick.
One of a kind
Say good-bye to as close as man comes to hockey god. Unflappable. Undeniable. Often unbelievable. Lidstrom was as quick as a match and as nimble as a flame. In a world where defensemen can be 6-feet-6 and 220 pounds, he was a twig on the scale, and a redwood on the back line. Deft with a stick, perfectly balanced, he could create more disruption with a body twist than some guys could do with a Zamboni.
How good was Lidstrom? Seven Norris Trophies for best defenseman. Four Stanley Cups. An Olympic gold. A world championship.
How good? On the 2002 Red Wings, maybe the greatest group of talent ever assembled on one roster, he was the guy who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
How good? In his first season, as a rookie, he played 80 games; it was like he sprung from the womb as an All-Star.
How good? Until this season, he never played fewer than 76 games in a full regular season. And six times he played every game.
How good? When Steve Yzerman was at his peak, he would constantly refer to Lidstrom as “the best player on the team.”
How good? Lidstrom was behind Keith Primeau and in front of Tim Cheveldae, behind Sergei Fedorov and in front of Mike Vernon, behind Brendan Shanahan and in front of Dominik Hasek, behind Pavel Datsyuk and in front of Chris Osgood.
He was alongside Paul Coffey, Vladimir Konstantinov, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov and Chris Chelios.
He was Zelig, showing up in every team picture, never looking older, the youthful Swedish face, the straight blond hair, the narrow, fatless frame.
Ask anyone who played with him and they gush about his skill.
Ask anyone who played against him…
…and they gush about his skill.
So many honors
And later this morning, he will put that skill to rest and put skates on the shelf, the Free Press has learned. He has lived between countries – extended family in Sweden, immediate and hockey family in Detroit – and last year he said that when retirement came, he would return from whence he came and bring things together.
“That’s been the plan the whole time. Eventually, when I’m done playing, I’ll take my family back and raise my kids in Sweden. Being close to family. That’s what makes it attractive to us to go back.”
If he does, you can’t blame him. He has given Detroit two decades of his career. He has waved at fans through four championship parades. He took the captain’s mantle from Yzerman and wore the “C” proudly and admirably.
And not once did he let us down. If Lidstrom were in “The Avengers,” he’d be Captain America, and that’s saying something considering he’s Swedish. But who wouldn’t want him wearing their flag? In 20 seasons, he never had a whiff of controversy, never had a coach outwardly criticize him, never had an ego issue or a loyalty issue.
Captain Nick hands in his stick. It had to come and everyone knew it. No extra cookie this time. No extra fairy tale. His career was amazing. And today it goes in the books.
You know what?
That book just got a lot fatter.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.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.