Hank Zetterberg is seeing ghosts. He sits in an empty Joe Louis Arena locker room and actually nods in their direction as he praises them — Steve Yzerman, who used to sit on his left, Nick Lidstrom, who sat a few stalls down on his right.
“You do know they’re gone,” I say.
“Yeah,” he laughs.
“But you’re nodding at their lockers as if they’re still here.”
“Well,” he says, his eyes crinkling, “they are still here.”
If so, they make home in the bones of the sturdy but aging form of Zetterberg, who, at age 36, is the last link to Detroit’s 2002 Stanley Cup winners like Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov and technically even Scotty Bowman, who was still coaching the Wings in May 2002 when Zetterberg signed his first Detroit contract.
Zetterberg has been here every season since then, 14 years, one uniform. Tradition means everything in the world of the Red Wings, and as the star names have peeled away like magnets coming off a refrigerator door — Hull, Shanahan, Hasek, Holmstrom, Yzerman, Lidstrom and, this year, Pavel Datsyuk — Zetterberg remains, the last of the Mohicans.
If the Mohicans wore hockey skates.
“I don’t feel like I’m 36,” he says. “I don’t feel like the oldest guy on the team. But I am.”
He understands it’s his job to ensure his teammates “know the history here and what should be done.” He carries that mantle lonelier than ever.
Datsyuk, his longtime friend and running mate, is gone back to Russia. They were paired talents. Part of the same phrase. “Datsyuk and Zetterberg” rolled of the tongue like “Jordan and Pippen” or “Trammell and Whitaker.”
Only now it’s just Zetterberg, older, certainly wiser, flecks of grey starting in his trademark beard, which can thicken until he looks like a Swedish lumberjack.
He finds himself in a strange situation: at a crossroads in the middle of the road. He clearly is entering the senior stage, yet has five years left on his contract, one he fully intends to fulfill.
That would take him to his 41st birthday. Is there that much gas in his impressively durable tank?
We sat together after everyone had gone home from Wings practice Tuesday, just two days from the season opener, and spoke about empty chairs at empty lockers, the past, the future, leadership and cell phones.
Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Pavel, the contract and rest
Albom: What is the strangest part of not having Pavel Datsyuk here?
Zetterberg: Just the everyday stuff. Come in in the morning, you look over, he’s not there. I knew for awhile that he was thinking of not coming back. But once you get back and start practice and he’s not here … that’s different.
Albom: Is there some little thing you miss most?
Zetterberg: Our soccer battles. We had them before the games…We played first to 10 points, and we kept score during the season. That’s part of our routine for 14 years. And then obviously on the ice, it’s gonna be different. At the end of games, even if we’re up or down, he was the guy that we leaned on.
Albom: Did you two talk a lot during games?
Zetterberg: We did. We did. And especially when we played in the same line. I thought our communication was special. I don’t know if everyone else understood what we were saying … (laughs) … but I think both our English got better as time went on.
Albom: Do you text him now?
Zetterberg: Yeah, yeah — we had some good communication this summer … obviously we looked forward to seeing each other at World Cup, but I had to pull out … and unfortunately he got hurt, too.
Albom: Could you ever see doing what he’s doing — being done in the NHL then playing professionally back in Sweden?
Zetterberg: For me, no. I think Sweden — that chapter is closed, hockey-wise, for me. Two reasons. When I’m done here, I’ll be 41 years old. If I can’t play out my contract, it’s because I’m injured. So I won’t be playing hockey. And as soon as I signed that 12-year deal, I knew I was done back home. I understand Pavel. I think the KHL obviously is a higher level than the Swedish Elite League … and also for him going back to be with his daughter (who lives in Russia) was a big impact.
Albom: When you signed that 12-year deal (in 2009) did it seem shorter than than it does now with five years still left?
Zetterberg: Well, actually when I signed, 12 years seemed like so long a time. Now all of a sudden, I’ve done over half of it and it’s gone really fast. I thought when I signed it — oh, my God — it’s forever.
Albom: And you have every intention of playing all five years that are left?
Zetterberg: Yes. Yes. But in the same way, I’m human. I know that every year it’s a bigger and bigger battle to get through. We’ll see if my body holds up for five more years. Last year, I played 82 games, which I was proud of doing — maybe it wasn’t 82 good ones, but I played 82 — and so we’ll see. By now, I’m just taking it year by year. And obviously the next two years are big years — the last year at the Joe and then first year at new building. That’s probably where I’m looking.
Albom: In other sports, baseball, basketball, older players often get stretches off to save them for the playoffs — and even to prolong their career. Could you see doing that?
Zetterberg: It’s so hard. For me to say that I’m not going to play all 82? That’s gotta come from someone else. It would be hard for me to be healthy and not play. That consideration has come up. But I’m not open to it yet.
Albom: So you’d have more resistance than management would?
Zetterberg: Yes, I think so. I know when I’m healthy enough to play —
Albom: You don’t wanna sit.
Zetterberg: No. That would be a really tough choice for me.
Being captain, the age gap and Instagram in the locker room
Albom: Of all the teams you’ve ever played on — going to back to grade school — who was the best captain you ever saw?
Zetterberg: To me, it’s Stevie and Nick (Yzerman and Lidstrom). They’re different, but in the same way they’re the same. I’m glad I had a chance to play with Stevie. I wish I could have played with him earlier in his career. But just to see what he did and what he went through with his body the last couple of years — and how good he still was for the team — to me it was amazing. Sitting right next to me here, that was really special. And then obviously I played with Nick for a longer time.
Albom: What made him so admirable?
Zetterberg: He was basically in his prime every year he played. Some people might say he tailed off in the end, but I don’t see that. He was still the guy that at the end of the games, if we needed a goal, he was out there because he made the odds of scoring so much better. And when we were in the lead, Nick was on the ice in the end of the game to defend that lead.
Albom: What did they both do as captains that you try to emulate?
Zetterberg: The biggest thing is the selflessness. They didn’t really care how they looked. They cared about what the team looked like. And I think that’s one thing I’m really trying to do … it doesn’t really matter if I score goals or if I’m the hero … just care what the team does.
Albom: At 36, how young do the youngest guys seem to you?
Zetterberg: It’s funny, ’cause I don’t feel like I’m 36. I don’t feel like the oldest guy on the team. But I am. And sometimes I just think, “What did I think (of the older guys) when I came in?”
Albom: Who was the oldest guy then?
Zetterberg: Well, we had Cheli (Chris Chelios).
Albom: He’s always the oldest guy. What did you think of him?
Zetterberg: Oh, you were scared of him … You didn’t say much.
Albom: Do you see the young players acting that way toward you now?
Zetterberg: They are — but I think the big difference now is they’re younger. I was 22 going on 23 when I came in, and I was the youngest guy. Now they’re ready earlier and the way the league is, you need to bring them in earlier, too … but at the same time it’s fresh, to have them in the locker room, because they always have energy, they always have a story — and it’s fun to see them go through the process of becoming a player in the league.
Albom: Is there any part of the 20- or 21-year-old lifestyle that baffles you?
Zetterberg: The social media is the biggest thing. I’m not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Instagram … all that stuff.
Albom: They must think you’re a hermit.
Zetterberg: Yeah. (chuckles) They’re trying to push me out to get on … I don’t see the benefit of it yet.
Albom: Do you have to tell them to get their heads out of their screen?
Zetterberg: Sometimes …There’s been a few times when the phone is a bigger part of the locker room than it should be. It’s something that obviously they’re used to having — and we’re (the older guys) not used to having. But I think this year we have a good understanding what’s allowed and what isn’t.
Albom: New rules?
Zetterberg: We’re making some new rules, yes.
Albom: So you won’t have phones going off when you’re having a team meeting?
Zetterberg: It’s not that bad, but I think they’re so used to having a phone, they’re checking them all the time. And sometimes you can wait an hour or two before checking your Instagram posts.
Tradition, his changing game
Albom: How much do you feel like you’re the last connection to that 1990s and early 2000s era and the legacy of those players and those years?
Zetterberg: Well, I think it’s one of -– me and Nick (Kronwall) — it’s one of our jobs to make sure that these guys know the history here and what should be done, how we should treat teammates, how basically you want to leave this room in a better place as when you got here.
When we came, it was a really big place. And the way they taught us to play — taught us to work — and stuff like that — that part is important for us to carry over to the next generation. And we have good guys here. And they’re hard workers. So I’m not worried that it’s not gonna get carried over.
Albom: Do they ask you what those years were like?
Zetterberg: They do. They do.
Albom: What it was like playing in the Finals?
Zetterberg: They do … and how the older guys were treating us, because we always tell them these guys (today) have it easy … We don’t want to get into “it was better in the old days” talk … but I do think the guys here have it a little easier here than the ones who came in the early 2000s.
Albom: Is there anything you can’t physically do now that you did when you were 22?
Zetterberg: Yeah, absolutely. You know your limits.
Albom: Like what?
Zetterberg: Well, I’m not in the gym as much as when I was younger … and now I know why it’s probably not the best thing for me —
Albom: Lifting weights?
Zetterberg: Lifting weights … or you’re not doing the same as you did before. You have to be more careful.
Albom: Like eating? Like, what could you eat when you were 22?
Zetterberg: Didn’t matter. Anything. Now, obviously, it’s different. But I think also it’s now easier to do the right things … we have the right food — we have the right supplements — we have everything that we need. That’s probably the biggest challenge for me to stay good and finding ways to stay good.
Albom: And how has your actual game changed?
Zetterberg: Well, I am older. I’m not the way I was in ’07, ’08 — and it’s hard for you to realize that — but you gotta find different ways to manage your game. Last year was a tough year for me, cause it was the first year I had a good start and then I tailed off in the end … usually I made a slow start, but I always found a way to be good again. So it’s a disappointing year for me personally in the end. I’m trying to find different ways this year to be more consistent.
Albom: Did that concern or scare you?
Zetterberg: Absolutely. It’s part of the equation. You’re getting older — you can’t do the stuff you did before. But I think also it’s an easy way out just to say I’m old now, I can’t do that. I can’t be at that level. But you just have to find different ways to stay at that level. Basically it’s putting in your time. You gotta spend that extra hour making sure your body feels good after practice or after a game so you’re ready to go the next day.
Dog days, the Streak, the Joe
Albom: Is hockey as much fun as it used to be?
Zetterberg: I think so. Going into the season is as exciting as it was in ’02 for me. This time — just a few days before we actually open – it’s exciting. The roster gets set. You know what you have. But then also there is the dog days. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Albom: What are the dog days in hockey?
Zetterberg: Well, January is probably tough all the way up to the All Star break. After the All Star break, you see it’s the playoffs push. But I think also the way the league is now the playoff push is longer.
Albom: How so?
Zetterberg: The parity in the league. In my first five or six years, we knew we were in the postseason (when we started the season.)
Albom: Do you ever wonder if your career had been different, if you didn’t have success until the end, rather than coming in early on a successful team?
Zetterberg: Well, don’t get me wrong — I’m really happy I was a part of that — so actually I saw what it took to get there. And that’s the thing, too, that we try to tell these guys. We probably had a better team in ’09 (than in ’08 when they won the Stanley Cup) but we lost. So even if you go all the way — there’s still a team that is probably doing the same or even better. It takes so much out of everyone to go that far. That’s the message you try to deliver to the young guys… there’s a lot of great, great players who played for 15 years and haven’t been in the Stanley Cup Final. So just being a part of this is not the goal. The goal is to go all the way and win.
Albom: And you, personally, want at least one more?
Zetterberg: Yes. You want to be part of that again … I think now, in the league, you’ve got to make the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs, you can get hot … but it’s harder to get in.
Albom: Like last year.
Zetterberg: Yes. But that comes to another subject — the streak.
I think it’s been such a hype about streak the last couple of years that once we get in, it’s almost been — is that the goal for us? It’s hard, because we’re proud of the streak, we don’t wanna be on the team that breaks that streak. But it’s not the goal. It’s just part of our goal.
Albom: Is it going to be weird to leave Joe Louis behind?
Zetterberg: It is. So it is a big year. And I think we all feel that. We have a responsibility not just to us but everyone else that’s been in this locker room to end on a good note and give our fans a good last year at the Joe.
Albom: Will you take a souvenir out of here?
Zetterberg: I will probably steal something, yes. (laughs)
Albom: Let’s end with a lighter question. You’ve had a beard much of your career here. But the beard goes grey before the hair does. If you really play until you’re 41 and by that point, the whole beard is gray, do you think you’ll finally get rid of it?
Zetterberg: Ooh (laughing) that’s a tough question. Once it really goes gray, I will probably shave it off.
Albom: That’s the only thing that will get to lose it?
Zetterberg: Probably, yeah.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.