Learning To Live Without Mr. Perfect

Nicklas Lidstrom

Nicklas Lidstrom. AP photo

Former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Dave Lewis said wherever he traveled, the now-retired Nicklas Lidstrom was the favorite topic of conversation among young defensemen.

It didn’t matter the country or continent, they all wanted to know how Lidstrom was able to dominate the game while making it look effortless.

Lewis never had an answer. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Lidstrom isn’t big, didn’t get into needless scraps and rarely put a big hit on anyone.

He was simply the smartest guy on the ice. That, and he was a great skater who handled the stick like it was an extension of his body.

What made Lidstrom special is that he was quite likely the smartest player in NHL history. Wings general manager Ken Holland called him a Picasso, saying Lidstrom thought in ways no one else could. His coach Mike Babcock said it was impossible to know how he mentally processed the game. San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson called Lidstrom brilliant in his simplicity. He was that good.

Lidstrom always appeared to be at least one step ahead of everyone else, sometimes two. Instead of powering guys off the puck, the Red Wing defenseman used his deft stick handling to separate opponent from puck. At times he seemed like he was at two places at once, faking movement in one direction to present a false sense of security for the puck handler. Kris Draper told the media at Lidstrom’s retirement press conference that his former teammate, “is not just looking at where the puck is. He’s looking at where players are, where players are coming, what he needs to do.”

Whatever Lidstrom was doing, however he was doing it, the 53rd pick in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft turned himself into arguably the second-greatest defenseman in NHL history. Bobby Orr is, and always will be, No. 1, but Nick comes close.

During his 20-year career, all with Detroit, Lidstrom was a 12-time all-star, 10-time all-NHL First Team and seven-time Norris Trophy winner (given to the league’s best defenseman), second only to Orr.

His last Norris Trophy came a year ago at the age of 41. Had it not taken the voters so long to recognize his unique gifts, or had the 2004-’05 season not been canceled because of labor strife, Lidstrom surely would have passed Orr.

Perhaps most telling, if you believe titles and post-season success are the true measures of greatness, Lidstrom never missed the playoffs in his NHL career. He even broke a stereotype that European captains were too soft to lead the team to a title, and became only the 17th player in history to win a Stanley Cup (four times), a world title and an Olympic gold medal for his homeland, Sweden.

Lidstrom said he was retiring because he didn’t feel he could produce at the necessary level. It seems he was the only one. Chris Ilitch, son of Red Wings’ owner Mike Ilitch and president of Ilitch Holdings, and Holland asked him to rethink his decision. His coach, Mike Babcock, said he could easily play another two years or three. His comment that “it’s painfully obvious to me that my strength and energy level are not rebounding enough for me to continue to play” at the press conference seeming almost laughable.

But his comment, “Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me,” was not. Though he never spoke of it, Lidstrom demanded more from himself than anyone dared to ask. It’s that commitment, his unquestioned skill on the ice and his seemingly complete lack of ego off it that caused his teammates to dub him Mr. Perfect, or the perfect human being. That’s a bit much, but no one ever questioned the label.

He plans to retire in Sweden and maintain a yet-to-be-determined professional relationship with the Wings. His oldest son Adam is 18 and playing for his father’s old club in Vasteras. He has three more boys who also love hockey and are excited just to have Dad home. Lidstrom will be fine.

His former team, however, has a huge void to fill.

The Wings hardly missed a beat when Steve Yzerman retired. They had Hall of Famers in waiting – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – ready to pick up the slack. No such defensive replacement exists on the Wings roster, but the team has plenty of cap space and a shopping list that could include Nashville’s Ryan Suter or New Jersey’s Zach Parise.

That could take some of the sting out of losing the NHL’s best defenseman of the last 35 years.

No, not really.