By Stu Hackel
Of the many things that Nick Lidstrom said Thursday morning while announcing the end of his remarkable playing career (video), it was perhaps the last one in his prepared remarks that spoke the loudest: “Retiring today,” he said, “allows me to walk away from the game with pride rather than have the game walk away from me.”
This is a player who for much of last season was considered the best defenseman in the NHL, and if he returned next season, he’d still be one of the best players. But after being slowed by injuries and unable to raise his level of play in this year’s postseason, Lidstrom has his own standard of excellence to uphold. He knows he’s lost the inner drive to train as hard as he must this offseason in order to bounce back and reach that level of greatness again. He won’t cheat himself, he won’t cheat his teammates and he won’t cheat the fans if he can’t play with the same determined excellence that made him, without question, the best defenseman of his era.
That’s not just me making that evaluation of Lidstrom’s talent and legacy, that’s the opinion of Scotty Bowman.
“I think he’s the best,” Bowman said on the phone just a few minutes before Lidstrom made the formal announcement. “For longevity, no injuries, winning, he’s in a class by himself.”
And how does Scotty rank him all-time? Right in there with the best who have ever played the game.
“You gotta go Bobby Orr first. He changed the game,” Bowman said. “He was an offensive machine. No one will ever play like Bobby Orr again. His sheer speed — there’s never been a skater like that. He only played 10 years and we’re still talking about him. And then, I think Doug Harvey who, in his era of the ’50s and early ’60s,’ he really controlled the game. Then there’s a few guys I’d rank Nick with. Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque. A guy who is really underrated, played kind of mistake free — he was like Nick — was Serge Savard. Didn’t make a lot of rushes, stayed home, played errorless games. Larry Robinson was a different player. He was more a chance taker, would play more physical, could play up and back, he would go up. Paul Coffey was also a different type of player. He was all offense. These were the best.”
For Red Wings GM Ken Holland, speaking after Lidstrom at the press conference (video), his captain wasn’t just the best defenseman of his era, he was also “the most valuable player of his era.”
That’s quite a claim, but if you think about it, you’ll have a hard time coming up with someone who has been more valuable to his team during the last two decades, when you consider how long he played at such a high level and his record of accomplishments. Whether you were up by a goal late in the game or down by a goal late in the game, Holland said, Lidstrom was the guy you wanted on the ice.
“I’ve been dreading this day since I became GM in 1997,” the Red Wings GM lamented, and Lidstrom revealed in the question period after his statement that Holland hoped he’d reconsider (video). Holland’s very difficult task now is to figure out how to fill a massive hole on his blueline. The buzz around Detroit all year has been that the Predators’ Ryan Suter, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, would look pretty great wearing the Winged Wheel next fall (if, in fact, we have hockey next fall).
Nashville GM David Poile may have dreaded this day even more than Ken Holland.
But no one, not even Suter, will be able to step into Lidstrom’s skates, not just as a nearly flawless player, but as a mature, consistent, composed and dignified presence in a game that has always had its share of immature and unpredictable characters as well as out-of-control and distressing episodes.
At the press conference, Wings owner Mike Illitch called Lidstrom “a rock of Gibraltar” and made mention of the frequently voiced characterization of Lidstrom as the “perfect” human being (video), and after Illitch cautioned against that — “Hey, let’s not get carried away here,” he said — the 83-year-old pizza patriarch made a pretty good case for Lidstrom’s exceptional character, humanity, professionalism and leadership.
“Nick was always calm,” Bowman recalled. “He was cool — and he never took too many penalties. I don’t remember him ever getting upset on the ice. I mean, maybe he got upset but he never showed it. He’d just show up and play, and you never had to say anything to him. You just let him play.”
Scotty came to Detroit following Lisdtrom’s rookie year. “We put him with Vladimir Konstantinov,” he recalled, chuckling about the perfect combination of poise in Lidstrom and the exuberant physicality of Konstantinov “who would run up and hit guys. The thing about Lidstrom that stands out for me is I don’t remember him making his partner defend a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-1. He never got caught.”
Bowman is still somewhat amazed at Lidstrom’s perfect positioning. “His partners got him caught a lot,” he said.
“You know he played with different partners over the years,” Bowman continued. “And, just like whoever played with Harvey, whoever Lidstrom’s partner was got a lot better. I put him with Konstantinov, then we made the deal at the deadline for Larry Murphy, because Toronto didn’t want him anymore. And after that it was Brian Ralfaski. They were all good players, but they looked really good with Lidstrom. Now Ian White last year, the leading plus-minus in the league. It’s everybody who plays with him. One year — and we only had him for one year (in 2001-02) and we won the Cup — it was Freddie Olausson. And he went to Anaheim the next year and really couldn’t play at the NHL level any more.”
Bowman marvels at Listrom’s ability to read the play at the point. “That was also outstanding. The guys I remember like that were Ray Bourque, who was tremendous for knowing when to keep the puck in, Denis Potvin – these guys, they have a special sense of how to do it. I think that’s one of the hardest things for young defensemen to master, to be able to handle the puck at the point. Drew Doughty is getting pretty good at it, the guy in Ottawa, Karlsson is really good at the offensive point. They make very few mistakes – and they make good plays, they’re not just robots.
“The other thing about him that you always notice was, when he got the puck, usually the next play, Detroit still had it. That’s the way Doug Harvey was. I know it’s a different era. They were similar players in that way. Harvey was much more physical, but they would both go when they had to go, and their passing was always on target.”
Lidstrom’s defensive positioning has always drawn some of the biggest raves of all. “He was smart,” Scotty said. “He could stretch his stick out. He was tall – Mario Lemieux did the same thing – you can’t get close to him because he could get his stick way out. What he used to do before they changed the rules, the trick he did the best, was when he was backing up and the guy would come down on him, and the guy would put the puck by him on the boards, Nick would put his stick out, and it was long. He’d just slow you up a little bit and his partner would come over and the play would die. And everyone said, ‘Wait until they get the new rules, he’s not going to be able to do that.’ Well, he adapted. He never got penalties for interference.”
It all added up to 1,564 games played, 264 goals, 878 assists, 1,142 points (which ranks third among active players, quite something for a blueliner), seven Norris Trophies as the top NHL defenseman (tied with Harvey and one behind Orr), 10 first team All-Star selections, two second team selections, four Stanley Cup championships and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2002. He also won gold in the 2006 Olympics and the 1991 IIHF Men’s World Championship. The Hall of Fame and his sweater Number 5 retirement await.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, who preceded Lidstrom as Wings captain (and served as a role mode for Lidstrom for his dedicated leadership and work ethic both on and off the ice), said Wednesday coming out of the NHL GM meetings, “I think he’s going to go down, if he does retire, as one of the all-time best defensemen to ever play and having played with him and watched him closely from his first game in the NHL — and people know about it now, but we said it all along — is you have to watch him closely to appreciate how good he is, what a great athlete he is because he makes the position look so easy.”
“He’s such a smart guy,” said former teammate Aaron Ward on TSN (video) from the Stanley Cup Final. “Obviously, a very talented player. He exuded everything you’d want out of a professional, a guy who was perfect in his approach coming into the games. And he’s a great guy, he’s a great ambassador, face of the game, whatever you want to call him, and he picked up where Yzerman left off and he really represented the Detroit Red Wings well and will obviously go into the Hall of Fame. But this guy is quite possibly the smartest guy I ever played with over my career. He got out there, and we talk about hockey being a game of mistakes, this guy rarely committed them. He was always in the right place in the right time and great with everybody as a teammate. Couldn’t be a better teammate for young and old alike.”
TSN’s Ray Ferraro played against Lidstrom in 12 of his 18 NHL seasons and added, “When I think of Lidstrom, I think of a great player that had the puck on his stick less than any other great player I had a chance to play against. His efficiency at moving the puck at the right time to the right player in the right place on the ice was unmatched. When I think of the greatness of Lidstrom, I think of that; that the game wasn’t easy for him, but he made it appear easy because his decision-making was far superior to most players that I ever played against….The one thing I always found playing against Lidstrom is that when you thought you had him in a corner, had him in a bad spot, it was one simple pass, one quick movement and out of the zone the Red Wings go. As much as the Red Wings score, the wheel of their offense has always been Nick Lidstrom.”
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