DETROIT – Words of praise can only go so far in describing the extraordinary career of Nicklas Lidström, who will announce his retirement today at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, his home for two decades of NHL play.
“I came to the decision last week and I informed our general manager Ken Holland,” Lidström told the Swedish tabloid Expressen Wednesday night, a few hours after the announcement of Thursday’s press conference in Detroit.
“Holland asked me to think about it for a couple days, which I did, and last Wednesday I texted him my final decision,” Lidström told the paper. “I feel that I don’t have the desire and the motivation which is needed to go through the pre-season buildup. And when you feel that, it’s time to go.”
He is a member of the Triple Gold Club, and a sure inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his NHL career as well as the IIHF Hall of Fame for his international career.
"It's not that the tank is completely empty," Lidstrom explained. "I just don't have enough to carry me at the high level I want to play at. Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me."
Drafted 53rd overall by Detroit in 1989 – incredibly, in the third round of the draft and only in his second year of eligibility – Lidström stayed in his native Sweden for two more years before joining the Red Wings at the start of the 1991-92 season just days after playing for Sweden at the 1991 Canada Cup. He had helped Tre Kronor to a gold medal a few months earlier at the World Championship, and he felt ready to give the NHL a try.
Lidström joined a Red Wings team that had some talent but was nowhere near a Stanley Cup-quality team. Yet virtually from Day One he brought to the organization attributes for which he became famous as the years progressed.
Although he was big and tough, he was also a sportsmanlike player who never had to resort to fisticuffs. He moved the puck out of his end with ridiculous ease and efficiency, and in the offensive zone his passing and slapshot were weapons he exploited at every opportunity. He seemingly never made mistakes he was so reliable.
"I've played with great players who made mistakes, but I can't think of one game when I thought, 'Nick just didn't have it tonight,"' said teammate Brad Stuart. "He's that same, steady, amazing defenceman every night. I think I've seen him out of breath maybe three or four times in a few years because he's so smart, he gets himself in the right position to make a play."
As well, despite being a defenceman, he showed a remarkable resilience thanks to fantastic fitness and conditioning. In 20 years in the NHL, Lidström missed just 46 games.
Most remarkable is the duality of his career. In North America, he is remembered as a superstar in the NHL. In Europe, his career with the Swedish national team stands out. In addition to the 1991 Worlds, he also played in 1994 (bronze) and 2004 (silver).
More important, he played at all four Olympic Games featuring NHL players, most famously in 2006 in Turin. Lidström scored the winning goal early in the third period of the gold medal game against Finland, the crowning glory of his career with Tre Kronor. He also played in both World Cup of Hockey events (1996, 2004).
In the NHL, Lidström was a rock. He played 1,564 regular-season games and had 1,142 points, both among all-time leaders for defencemen, and he also played in 263 playoff games, winning the Stanley Cup four times. The last of these came in 2008, and it holds a special place in Cup history because Lidström, who had inherited the “C” from Steve Yzerman, became the first European captain to lead his team to the greatest pro prize in hockey.
Lidström also won the Norris Trophy (Best Defenceman) seven times (nominated 12 times), each one coming since 2001. He was the first European to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP, in 2002), and for all hockey traditionalists it’s impossible not to look in awe at the fact that he played his entire career with only the Red Wings. He played in the NHL All-Star Game eleven times. Of course, it is only a matter of time before the Wings retire his number 5 sweater.
Said team owner Mike Ilitch: "The more time you spend with him and with the team as a group, you see how things go and witness his leadership. He’s always right there, no variations--get out there, get the job done and be a professional, be a human being, be a good citizen and don’t do anything that will hurt your team."
Lidström’s absence will create a huge void in the Red Wings defence for the upcoming season, but it will create an even bigger void in the game itself, for his presence made the game better.
Lidström celebrates with his teammates after the gold medal winning goal against Finland at the 2006 Olympics. Photo: Eurohockey