“No, never,” Nicklas Lidstrom says.
Student council leader?
“We didn’t have that.”
Yearbook editor? Head Boy scout?
“I never went to the Boy Scouts.”
Did they even do Boy Scouts in Sweden?
“Oh, yeah. But I was mostly playing hockey and soccer.”
I am trying to find the leadership positions on Nick Lidstrom’s resume. After all, he is the captain of the Red Wings now – the first new captain after two decades of Steve Yzerman. Surely, he has been groomed from his past.
Hall monitor, I ask?
“I was in the army.”
The army? Now we’re talking! Squadron leader? Top Gun?
“I was just a private.”
Hmm. I did not know that Nick Lidstrom was in the army. The Swedish army. Or that he drove a truck as part of his duties. Or, for that matter, that he spent four years in engineering training, in which he studied – among more advanced classes – trigonometry, calculus, and things I can’t even pronounce.
But then, that’s the book on Lidstrom. Unless you sit and talk with him alone, and give it time, you are not likely to know much beyond the fact that everybody likes him and everybody admires him, and he is a whale of a hockey player. He is so low-key, if he were a piano, he’d need an extension on the left. If he were chalk, he’d erase himself.
Yet when Yzerman retired last summer, there was all but unanimous consent that one man should wear the “C”- including the endorsement from Yzerman himself.
Nick. Quiet Nick. Maintenance-free Nick. The Maytag of Defensemen.
Alderman? PTA leader?
He shakes his head.
No prom king.
Life as a teenager
Here is something you probably didn’t know about Lidstrom: He was living on his own when he was 16. He moved into the basement of “an old couple’s house” in the area of Vasteras, Sweden, where he’d gone to play high-level hockey. This wasn’t one of those sports families, where the parents are coaches, drivers and cash machines.
No, this, Nick says, was just an elderly couple looking for a renter. Lidstrom moved in to the walk-out basement, had a small kitchen, a bedroom, a microwave and his independence.
He also had his first education in taking care of himself. Maybe that’s where some of the quiet comes from. And the self-confidence.
“That was the first time I had to cook,” he says. “My mom would send me food that I could warm up. But sometimes you had to do your own.”
He grins. “I made a lot of pasta.”
During that time, the highest team rank Lidstrom ever reached was “assistant captain.” He was often the best player on the team, but wearing the “A” was fine by him. When it comes to hockey, Lidstrom has no political aspirations. Just wants to play well and inspire the same from his teammates.
But here he is, ready to turn 37 this month, the defending Norris Trophy winner, the most consistent starter among any player with 1,000 or more games (he’s played in over 98% of Detroit’s contests). And tonight, for the first time, the Red Wings begin the playoffs with Nick as the man who has the brief chat with the coach, Nick as the man with whom the officials seek counsel, Nick as the man who has the platform in the locker room to say, “Listen up, guys .”
“I assumed Steve would be here forever,” Lidstrom says. “He was captain five or six years before I got here, and I just thought he’d always be our captain. Last season he was hurt quite a bit, so a few times you’re standing up between periods or before games saying a few things, but in the back of your mind, you’re still thinking Stevie is our captain.”
Not tonight in Game 1 against the Calgary Flames. Not anymore. I mention to Lidstrom that Yzerman used to sing his praises constantly – and even when Yzerman was playing a lot, whenever reporters suggested that he was the Wings’ best player, he would quickly defer that honor to Lidstrom.
“I do remember reading that,” Lidstrom says. “We never talked about it. But it makes you feel good when you hear something like that coming from your captain.”
This, coming from your captain.
The Red Wings’ rock
Another note on that that brief army stint: Lidstrom says he lived in a barracks during basic training. He says the Swedes do have an equivalent of the screaming drill sergeant. And that, yes, even he, Pvt. Nicklas Lidstrom, felt the wrath.
“I just remember every morning standing in line – they’re looking at every guy, looking if his shoes were shined, looking if you’re dressed properly, if your buttons are done, if you’re not shaved, if your bed is not perfectly made . They scream at you.”
And did you get screamed at?
Hard to imagine. But whatever it was, I bet they didn’t scream twice. Rarely has a player been so consistently excellent as Lidstrom at his position; once he masters a skill, he owns it. He doesn’t go backward. Doesn’t have off stretches.
It is precisely because Lidstrom is such a rock that making him captain was such a no-brainer. True, he still may get nervous when he has to publicly speak (he cites having to accept the Norris Trophy as an example of sweaty palms, but then again, with four of them already, he gets enough chances). But once he does talk, people listen. Hey, Yzerman was not exactly Vince Lombardi in that locker room. But the Wings responded to him for the same reason they respond to Lidstrom.
“Steve would stand up and say something at the right time to motivate the team,” Lidstrom says, “but what I most remember is after he did that, he would be the first guy on the ice to make a big play or do the right thing.”
Lidstrom hopes to do the same in this postseason. He knows he can rely on veterans such as Chris Chelios and Kris Draper to be sounding boards.
But in the end, he’s the man who wears the C. The first time he saw it was the opening night of the season, he says, when he came in and the jersey was hanging in his locker.
“It felt strange,” he admits.
But he put it on. And he wears it proudly. And if deeds are what merit leadership, Lidstrom could have three C’s on that sweater tonight.
And I bet his shoes are shined, too.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.