Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Steve Yzerman. These are the names that Nick Lidstrom joined in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena in an emotional ceremony prior to the, fittingly, Avalanche-Red Wings game, as Nick Lidstrom’s number 5 was raised in retirement. No other player in recent NHL history has deserved this honor more, and this extends beyond Nick Lidstrom’s 4 Stanley Cups, his Conn Smythe, his 12 All-Star selections, his 7 Norris trophies, or even his Triple Gold, for Nick Lidstrom was the PERFECT Red Wing, the PERFECT hockey player, the PERFECT man.
Quiet and humble, like the captain that preceded the first European-born captain of a Stanley Cup champion, Nick Lidstrom displayed all the qualities one could want from a leader, and he did it well. For 20 seasons, he played a dynamic role in the shaping of the Red Wings organization. Drafted by the Wings in the 3rd round of the 1989 draft, Lidstrom joined the Wings for the 1991-92 season after a few seasons with VIK Västerås HK in Sweden.
Nick Lidstrom’s Early Career
In his first season, he scored 60 points and finished second for the Calder Trophy behind Pavel Bure, and was selected to the All-Rookie team along with Russian Five member Vladimir Konstantinov. Time On Ice was not a statistic that was kept during his first seven seasons, but judging by his career average, along with how his seasons immediately following when it was recorded, Nick Lidstrom averaged 28-30 minutes a game in the early years in Detroit. He kept that average up in that range throughout most of his career, finishing just shy of 28 minutes per game average, and only missing 40 out of a possible 1,604 possible regular season games in that time.
Nick Lidstrom was never a big, bruising defender, not a fighter. In 20 seasons, he served ONE roughing penalty, almost unheard of in the era of the old NHL rules. Instead, he read the ice, read the plays, and created turnovers. Many longtime fans consider Nick Lidstrom to be one of the top 20 skaters of all-time, which contributed to his ability to be in the right place at the right time. He used his brains more than his brawn, and kept his injuries and penalty minutes down, playing over an estimated 40,000 minutes on ice during the regular season, and close to another 8,000 in the playoffs, as his stalwart defensive skills and ability to score goals and set up goals by teammates helped lead the Wings into the playoffs every year Lidstrom wore the Winged Wheel.
The Importance of Leadership
While standing on the puck-shaped podium Thursday night, Nick Lidstrom kept returning to how much of an influence Steve Yzerman was on his career. “One of the reasons I am standing here today is because of Steve Yzerman,” Lidstrom said. “Stevie really showed me, and the rest of our team, what it is like to be a leader, and what it takes to win. His dedication and his will was something I’d never seen before, and I think that’s the reason I had a lot of success, and that is the reason why you see guys like Zetterberg and Datsyuk leading the team now. Steve Yzerman set the tone, and I followed, and I believe the current team is following in Stevie’s footsteps as well.”
Nick went on during his speech, poking fun at his friend Tomas Holmstrom. “Now Homer, I’m not sure how many shots you blocked or how many goals I scored that were disallowed because you were standing in the crease, but I do know one thing. If Homer wasn’t standing there, I wouldn’t have scored as many goals, so thank you very much Homer.”
He also said that having his number retired was “not like winning a trophy for a successful season or playoff; it’s not like winning an individual trophy. This is something different. This is all about being a Detroit Red Wing. Everything I learned from the first moment I stepped on the ice until tonight, I owe it to Mr. and Mrs. Illitch, but to Steve Yzerman as well, leading the way.” Lidstrom proved he was a Red Wing for life in many ways, most notably in 2006. The lockout that caused the loss of the 2004-05 season created a new collective bargaining agreement, which lowered Lidstrom’s salary for 2005-06 from $10 million to $7.6 million. In the 2005-06 season, he posted one of his best seasons, and could have easily taken more money elsewhere, but instead signed a two-year deal for $15.2 million, the same amount he made after the reduction from the new CBA.
What Others Say About Him
“Nick is humble, he has no ego, he leads by example,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said at the ceremony Thursday, “I became general manager in 1997 and negotiated many contract extensions with Nick and his agent Don Mean, every negotiation was professional, and every contract was fair to our hockey club so we could compete and he could have some teammates that allowed us to be competitive.”
“Similar to his predecessor Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom walked the walk, and spared the talk,” spoke president & CEO of Illitch Holdings Christopher Illitch, “He commanded a kind of universal admiration and respect that is really rare in sports. To sum it up, Nick Lidstrom was everything you could want in a Red Wing. Incredibly talented, dependable, consistent, classy, respectful and respected, humble, dignified, a family man, a leader, a champion.”
By the Numbers
By the numbers, Nick Lidstrom was one of the greatest to ever lace up his skates. He played in 1,564 games as a Red Wing, the most ever by a European-born player, second only to Gordie Howe in Red Wings franchise history, and in those games, he was +450. He added on another 263 playoff games, second all-time only to former teammate Chris Chelios’ 266. A 12 time All-Star. In 12 of his final 14 years, he was picked as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as top defenseman; he won seven of those, tying him with Hall of Famer Doug Harvey, and trailing only Bobby Orr with 8. The last Norris Trophy was at age 41, making him the oldest to ever win it. He was the first European-born defenseman, the fourth Red Wing, and the eighth defenseman to reach the 1,000 point plateau. He became the oldest defenseman to score his first career hat trick at age 40 in 2010, passing former teammate Mathieu Schneider. Nick Lidstrom was the first player to reach the 1,500 games mark in only his 20th season, the 14th NHL player to ever reach that mark, and joined Alex Delvecchio and Steve Yzerman as the only players to play 1,500 or more games with only one team. He also won the four Stanley Cups, a World Championship winner with Sweden in 1991, and an Olympic Gold Medalist, also with Sweden, in 2006, a team that included Red Wing teammates Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Mikael Samuelsson. The gold medal win also made Nick Lidstrom the 17th member of the Triple Gold Club, an exclusive club of players who have won a Stanley Cup, a World Championship, and Olympic Gold; there are 8 total Red Wing players and one coach who have been inducted into this prestigious and exclusive club, more than any other team.
A Funny Thing Happened When…
When Lidstrom first came to the Joe after the draft to sign his first contract, he had a funny incident upon meeting the trainer for the first time. Lidstrom tells the story this way:
“I didn’t know much about the history of the team. I knew that Steve Yzerman was the captain, and had played here for a long time, but besides that, I didn’t know a whole lot about the team. So when the trainer at the time asked me what number I would like, if I made the team. I told him I wore number 9 in Sweden, and it would be great if I got number 9 again, and he just said ‘Kid, that just ain’t happening.’ So I came back here in the fall of ’91, I just kept my mouth shut, and number 5 was handed to me.”
Now, years from now, when some kid who doesn’t know much about the Red Wings comes to sign his first contract, and says he would like number 5, his future trainer can tell him “Kid, that just ain’t happening,” and point up to the rafters at Nick Lidstrom’s name and the number 5 below it. Enjoy it Nick, you deserve it.