Thursday, May 31, 2012

Losing A Legend: Nick Lidstrom Retires

After 19 spectacular seasons, Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom called it quits earlier today at a press conference in Detroit. One of the all-time best defensemen leaves behind an impressive Hall Of Fame resume that includes four Stanley Cups and seven Norris Trophies along with Olympic gold.

There are few better than the 42-year old Swede who the Red Wings stole in the third round of the '89 NHL Draft (53rd overall). At the time, taking risks on European players were rare. Yet that's how former GM Jim Devellano built the organization- drafting the likes of Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir KonstantinovTomas Holmstrom and Slava Kozlov to turn Detroit into an NHL powerhouse. They joined one of the league's greatest captains in Steve Yzerman to form the premier team in the NHL. It's no coincidence that they haven't missed the playoffs in 21 years (1991-2012). The longest current streak.

When we look back on Nick Lidstrom, No.5 will take his place among the all-time greats for a storied Original Six franchise. No small feat for a guy who tied Doug Harvey last year for the second most Norrises for league's top defenseman. Only Bobby Orr has more (8). It is pretty amazing when you look at how consistent he's been since entering the league. Almost scary. Even in his final year, the Detroit captain finished with 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points along with a plus-21 rating.

"That didn't sway me one way or another," he said. "A couple weeks after the season is over, you start working out. Once I started doing that, I didn't have the push I need, and I can't cheat myself."

"Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me."

A very commendable statement from a player who understands what greatness is all about. For him to leave the game still on top is as good as it gets. Even if the point total and end result (first round exit) weren't up to his gold standard. If his heart's not in it, then it's the right decision. One that will be difficult for the Wings moving forward. Last year, they lost Brian Rafalski. But for as good as he was, it pales in comparison to losing a legend who played his entire career with one team. There's only one other current player from that Era left who's still trying to write one more chapter.

Sometimes, it really dawns on you when a special player leaves. Lidstrom is a defenseman but deserves the same recognition players at other positions have received. The 264 goals, 878 assists totaling 1,142 points along with a gaudy plus-450 rating  over 1,564 career games tell you just how brilliant Nick was. However, it's not about numbers. Rather about the kind of caliber player he became in helping the Red Wings back to prominence.

It's easy to forget that Detroit had the longest streak without a Cup following the Rangers ending theirs in '94. That's why so many wanted to see them end it in '95 against the Devils. They just weren't ready. New Jersey was more battle tested, which is why it didn't surprise me that they prevailed. Hockey Town would have to wait two more years until their team avenged a crushing loss to Colorado and then swept through the Legion Of Doom for the franchise's first championship since '55. That they are the last repeat champ, also sweeping Washington while paying tribute to Konstantinov ranks as one of the most memorable Cup moments. Them wheeling him around with Lord Stanley will never be forgotten.

Lidstrom and his club weren't done, coming back to beat Carolina in five games for a third Cup over six years in '02. It was the last time they won with Yzerman and Fedorov. Being able to remain competitive when you lose superstars is tough. But thanks to Holland's Euro-invasion that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, new D anchor Nicklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen, the Wings remain on top. Even following the lockout with stiff competition from an improved division, they've maintained the kind of consistency that separates them from the rest.

The Red Wings received their toughest challenge in 2008 when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins took them to six games. It didn't come easy with Conn Smythe winner Zetterberg's goal holding up despite a tally from Marian Hossa. Lidstrom, who took over the captaincy from Yzerman had finally led the team to the Cup. If memory serves, I believe he became the first European captain to accomplish the feat. For years, critics echoed that a team couldn't win unless it was led by a North American. As we've seen recently also with Zdeno Chara, that no longer is true.

Amazingly, the Wings appeared in their sixth Final with Lidstrom in an '09 Cup rematch. Though Pittsburgh prevailed, the last memory is of Lidstrom with a wide open shot off a draw. Only a sliding Marc-Andre Fleury denied him from forcing sudden death. A lasting image.

Lidstrom leaves us after 20 sensational years. It won't be the same watching Detroit next Fall. But his legend shall live on. Thank you No.5!

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