Nick Lidstrom is the nicest superstar I have ever met — or ever will meet.
We live in times when the one who boasts the loudest, does the best end-zone dances or gets in the most trouble attracts all the attention.
Lidstrom is the antithesis of that. To paraphrase another superstar’s ad campaign: “We were all witnesses.”
Having covered sports for almost 17 years in Detroit, I have had the privilege of meeting and interviewing some of the top athletes, coaches, managers and general managers in all four major sports, and in college athletics as well.
Many of them are down-to-earth, humble, kind people. Others are, well, a little more enthralled with themselves than they should be.
Lidstrom is, without question, the most patient, generous and down-to-earth of all of them, especially when you consider all of his accomplishments.
Very few professional athletes win four championships, a playoff MVP, Olympic gold, a world championship, seven trophies for being the best at his position and make 12 All-Star teams.
Lidstrom did all of that and more and never seemed to read his own press clippings, as the saying goes.
His patience and generosity with the media was unparalleled. On Thursday, when he said in his retirement speech, “I’ve tried to be available as much as I can,” he wasn’t kidding.
I’ve been part of numerous waves of media that have surrounded Lidstrom after a game, watching him patiently answer the same questions over and over, never acting hurried or frustrated.
He made time for everyone, from the national media to local newspaper beat writers to local TV reporters to Swedish reporters to rare visitors from the smallest papers in the Upper Peninsula to student journalists on assignment.
Not once did Lidstrom cast a withering glare at a perceived stupid question. He always made the time without complaint and never with any attitude.
That calm off-ice demeanor in every situation was the same on the ice. Nothing rattled him.
“I’ve never seen him get upset,” Danny Cleary said after Lidstrom’s retirement press conference. “I think he has the ability to keep it inside and take it out on the ice. He’s just got a great demeanor.
“I wish I was like him. If I had a boy, I’d want him to be like him.”
Cleary said he had never even heard Lidstrom utter a profane word.
“We’re not just trying to protect his image,” Cleary said. “Isn’t that amazing? I’ve never seen him slam the door, break his stick.”
Kris Draper, who played nearly his entire career with Lidstrom, said he’s heard Lidstrom use a profanity, but not often.
“Maybe I heard him swear two or three times over 20 years,” Draper said. “We couldn’t believe it. Nothing from banging his stick, getting frustrated or anything like that.
“It was amazing how composed he was in all situations. That was that calming effect he had on all of us. When things got a little bit out of control, you’d look down the bench and see him sitting there and be like, ‘All right, it’s not that bad.'”
It’s hard to believe, but Lidstrom said he wasn’t always that way.
“I think it’s the way I’ve been brought up, my demeanor, too,” Lidstrom said. “My dad told me I was a wild kid until I started school, when I was 6 or 7.
“Two older sisters that were teasing me all the time, so once I started school and settled down, I kind of kept that demeanor. It’s part my parents and the way I was brought up. My parents taught me values, I guess.”
Chris Chelios, who didn’t have quite the same even-keel personality as Lidstrom, marveled at the way he always was. Chelios brought up an example of when he first took Lidstrom paddleboarding seven years ago near Chelios’ home in California.
“Cool Hand Luke,” Chelios said. “Mr. (Ilitch) said, if there’s any such thing as a perfect person, Nick was perfect. He was a rock. You couldn’t rattle him.
“Even paddleboarding on the ocean the first time, I wanted to see him fall out of control. Even when he fell, it was in total control.
“Other guys were throwing their paddle, Nick put his down nice and slow and started all over again. It was crazy. Dammit, I still didn’t get him.”
Really nothing could upset Lidstrom, not even the countless times his name was misspelled or mispronounced as “Lindstrom.”
In 2008, when he was at the NHL Awards Show and won the sixth of his seven Norris Trophies, there was a young person wearing his Red Wings jersey, presenting Lidstrom with a replica of the trophy. On the back, the kid’s jersey said, “LINDSTROM.” Did I mention it was his SIXTH Norris?
Just this past season, when Lidstrom was out with what general manager Ken Holland finally revealed to be a hairline foot fracture and not a bone bruise, a story on NHL.com had the headline, “Howard back, Lindstrom not.”
I don’t recall anyone asking Lidstrom about his name frequently being misspelled, but if somebody did question it, he probably just laughed.
In 2009, when the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Wings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, captain Sidney Crosby got “caught up in the moment” and never managed to make it into the traditional handshake line in time to shake Lidstrom’s hand.
It was not Lidstrom who made the stink about it, if you recall. It was Kris Draper who was the first to get steamed about the lack of respect. Henrik Zetterberg also voiced his displeasure, but Lidstrom just accepted Crosby’s explanation without any complaint.
Lidstrom just never bothered with slights, real or imagined.
Perhaps that’s why so many members of the local media felt they had to champion him, bringing him more widespread attention, which he deserved, but didn’t covet.
True story: The one and only time I ever wrote into any national publication regarding a Detroit athlete was about Lidstrom. I was a freelance reporter at the time, but wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated as a reader.
Back in 1998, Kostya Kennedy was covering the NHL and wrote a weekly mailbag. Responding to his article about the top-five all-around players in the NHL, I wrote the following:
“If you are going to add Kings defenseman Rob Blake to your list of the top five all-around players in the NHL, you may want to consider fellow Norris Trophy nominee Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings. Although Lidstrom’s skills are best appreciated after observing him over time, he certainly possesses speed and a blistering shot from the point. Lidstrom faces the top offensive players on every team every game, is on the power play and penalty kill as well as his regular shifts, and has assumed an even greater role in the absence of Vladimir Konstantinov. You will almost never see Lidstrom out of position or beaten, even though his game does not include the big hits that Konstantinov doled out nightly.”
This was Kennedy’s response:
“Lidstrom is outstanding and you describe his attributes well. He doesn’t make the list of skill players because he’s so good positionally. Maybe that’s silly, but Lidstrom has such a solid, never-out-of place game that he doesn’t have to make many great plays. He doesn’t amaze you like some players do. Watch him for a couple of shifts. The guy is never in the wrong spot.
“In the case of Blake, he’s got one added bonus: He crushes people, often with that awesome hip check. When that happens, chaos breaks out on the ice. Check out how good Blake is at commandeering the puck and whipping it off at the goal or to a teammate. It’s really that factor — Blake’s ability to change a game with a hit, and then so clearly thrive in that new environment — that made me add him as a supplementary player to the list.”
Blake did win the Norris Trophy that season. It would take Lidstrom three more years to finally win one, his first of three in a row from 2000-03. He also won three straight from the 2005-08. His seventh and final one came after the 2010-11 season, when he was 41, the oldest player to ever win the award.
Lidstrom will soon receive two more well-deserved awards — watching his No. 5 sweater lifted to the Joe Louis Arena rafters when the Wings retire his number, and entering the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame will be an even nicer place when the nicest superstar of all time joins its hallowed ranks.