Lidstrom retirement closes curtain on era

Nicklas Lidstrom calls it a career, and so ends an era that likely never will be matched again.

Twenty years, 7 months and 28 days ago, Nicklas Lidstrom made his NHL debut for the Detroit Red Wings in a season-opening 3-3 tie at the old Chicago Stadium.

Oct. 3, 1991.

It might not have seemed at the time like anything more than another rookie playing in his first game, but it was the beginning of an era that quite likely never will be matched again in Detroit hockey history.

That era officially came to an end Thursday morning when Lidstrom, 42, announced his retirement during a news conference at Joe Louis Arena.

"At some point in time, it catches up with everyone and diminishes their ability to perform, and something you love and care about passionately comes to an end sooner than what you would have liked," Lidstrom said. "The last two years, I waited until after the season was over to assess my ability to play another year. I need to let a few weeks go by to get a reading on my body's ability to recover from the grind of an NHL season.
"Sadly, this year it's painfully obvious to me that my strength and energy level are not rebounding enough for me to continue to play. My drive, motivation are not where it needs to be to play at this level, and it's time to retire."

Lidstrom never played for another organization. He appeared in 1,827 games (regular season and playoffs) during his two-decade career and finished with 318 goals and 1,007 assists for 1,325 points.

He played on four Stanley Cup championship teams, won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2002 as the playoff MVP and in 2008 became the first European born-and-trained captain to hoist the Cup.

He won seven Norris Trophy awards as the league’s top defenseman, equaling Doug Harvey’s total and coming one shy of Bobby Orr’s record eight.

He scored the winning goal for his native land Sweden in a 3-2 victory over Finland to win an Olympic gold medal in 2006.

He was named to the NHL All-Star team 12 times, appeared in the playoffs every season and has been the Wings captain the past six years.

About the only thing Lidstrom didn’t accomplish during his legendary career was to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season MVP. It was a total snub.

Lidstrom was never even a finalist for the award despite being the best defenseman of his generation and playing on all those championship-caliber teams year after year.

Shame on the voters.

Nevertheless, there’s no disputing that Lidstrom ranks among the all-time great defensemen, behind only Orr and maybe Harvey.

Lidstrom’s also in a select group of athletes who had the biggest impact in Detroit’s sports history, joining former Red Wings Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman, boxing’s Joe Louis, baseball’s Al Kaline and football’s Barry Sanders.

Lidstrom wasn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest. He was simply the best.

His teammates referred to him as the “perfect human” because he always did everything the right way, whether it was on the ice, in the workout room or just in life general.

To fully appreciate Nicklas Erik Lidstrom, you had to watch him closely day after day. He wasn’t the type of player who made spectacular highlight clips with end-to-end rushes. His greatness was more subtle. He was all substance, not so much style.

Always in the right position, that was Lidstrom. Always thinking one stride ahead of everybody else to anticipate the next play, always doing the little things that can easily go unnoticed.

Lidstrom’s hockey IQ made him a genius on skates.

He was a fundamental marvel. His uncanny hand-eye coordination allowed him to knock pucks out of the air with regularity.

He wasn’t concerned with blasting shots from the point, like many players these days. He kept his head up and found the smallest of openings in a defense to get the puck to the net one way or another for a possible deflection or rebound.

There were no off-the-chart highs and lows to his game. He was steady from the first day of training camp through the final horn in the playoffs.

He never tried to do too much, just always the right amount. It was the reason he was almost always in the right place at the right time.

At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, Lidstrom didn’t look like an iron man, but he most definitely was one. He played in at least 80 regular-season games 14 times. As recently as the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, he played all 82 games.

His work ethic during offseason training enabled him to avoid injury for so much of his career, along with knowing how to not put himself in risky situations on the ice.

It also helped that he was so highly respected that opponents simply didn’t try to take runs at him.

What’s more, Lidstrom was a true low-maintenance superstar, the soft spoken, unassuming role model for all. He seemed to have no ego, which created a culture around the Red Wings where the team, not individuals, is what matters.

If he got mad, he didn’t show it. His patience, even with the media for all these years, was admirable.

Born in Vasteras, Sweden, Lidstrom was a third-round draft pick by the Red Wings in 1989, the 20th defenseman selected overall that year.

His NHL career really started to take off, as it turns out, following the career-ending injury that teammate Vladimir Konstantinov suffered in a limo accident shortly after winning the 1997 Stanley Cup. Lidstrom knew he had to raise his game to an even higher level to become the heart and soul of the Wings’ defense.

Eventually, he became the face of the franchise, too.

Forty-one days ago, Lidstrom played what turned out to be his final game in a 2-1 loss at Nashville as the Red Wings were eliminated in five games in the opening round of the playoffs.

It was the end of a career that should be remembered and appreciated for decades to come. Nobody did it with more class and professionalism than Nicklas Lidstrom.

"My family and I are completely comfortable with this decision," he said. "Retiring today allows me to walk away from the game with pride, rather than having the game walk away from me. Thank you very much."

Thank you, Nick.

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