DETROIT -- It was a ritual Nicklas Lidstrom did before nearly every practice at Joe Louis Arena.
While stretching at center ice, the former Red Wings captain would look up to the rafters. First he'd spot the long string of Stanley Cup championship banners, which grew from seven to 11 during his 20-year NHL career.
Next he'd see the six red banners of players whose numbers were retired: Gordie Howe (9), Sid Abel (12), Ted Lindsay (7), Alex Delvecchio (10), Terry Sawchuk (1) and former teammate Steve Yzerman (19).
Thursday night, prior to the Red Wings facing the Colorado Avalanche (8 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), Lidstrom's No. 5 will join them. A pre-game ceremony will officially remove his number from circulation for one of the League's storied franchises and he's still a little bit in awe of the whole thing.
"You always looked at the Stanley Cup banners and you looked at the numbers that were retired," Lidstrom said Wednesday in front of his old locker in a room filled with his home jersey hanging in nearly every stall. "It just seems so much bigger than I imagined. I thought [those were] legends being up there, looking at Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk and you go down the line … Stevie’s up there. It’s just such a tremendous honor to have my jersey up there, as well."
Lidstrom was asked what used to go through his mind as he stared up at those banners before practices. A small laugh escaped before his answer.
"Looking at the years they played," he said. "Looking at Gordie from the [1940s] up to the early '70s, I believe, I was just amazed by all the years that those guys played."
Lidstrom, who retired at age 41 near the top of his game, was pretty amazing himself.
Two years after announcing his retirement, it's fair to call the former defenseman from Vasteras, Sweden, a Red Wings legend. He earned his spot in the rafters by giving the Motor City an illustrious career filled with memorable moments.
Lidstrom logged 1,564 games in the regular season and 263 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Red Wings, playing in the Stanley Cup Final six times and winning four championships. He also won the Norris Trophy, as the League's top defenseman, seven times and was named to the NHL's All-Star team 12 times (10 as a first-team selection).
He also earned widespread respect around the NHL and was dubbed "The Perfect Human" by teammates for his relentless work ethic and near-flawless ability. There was also the matter of his leadership, which really became apparent after he took on the captain's role when Yzerman retired.
"When you have a real good pro, who does it right each and every day and doesn’t mind communicating with his teammates or the coaching staff, you can gather a lot of information from him to be a better coach and to help your players get better, which makes you a better team," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "He had one of those minds [where] he was a real composed guy and had a good feel of what was going on with people in the room and what’s needed to have success."
That rock-solid composure will be tested Thursday night. Lidstrom will do something during the ceremony that never came easy to him as a player. He'll talk about himself and reflect on his outstanding career.
He has a speech all worked out and everything.
"I have something written down," Lidstrom said. "I’m going to talk about the memories and what I’ve been through here over the last 20 years and what I experienced. Also my former teammates will be on the ice, so I'll try to cover as much as I can. I don’t have all night. I know there’s going to be a game being played, but I got to try and cover as much as I can."
It'll be quite the challenge. Not only will former teammates be there, but his wife Annika and four sons will be at his side, not to mention his parents and in-laws.
Will he be able to hold it together?
"I hope so," Lidstrom said, laughing. "I know it's going to be emotional. It's going to be a lot of memories going through my mind and especially with family and close friends being there, being able to watch the ceremony, I think it will be a very emotional one. But it's something I'm looking forward to, as well."
Where will it rank in his rich vault of memories?
"It's probably right up there with the Stanley Cups, but it's kind of on a different level, because you're always playing with your teammates, you're always winning or losing as a team," he said. "You accomplish something as a team, and this is something a little bit different. It's still a tremendous honor that I'm being honored like this."
The fact he never pulled on a jersey for another NHL team also holds significance. It might seem silly to think the Red Wings would've entertained the idea of trading Lidstrom, but he didn't always see it that way.
Like a lot of players, Lidstrom's mind would sometimes fill with uncertainty near the NHL Trade Deadline, at least until he earned a no-trade clause in his contract. Looking back on it now, during an era where players change teams more often, it's a matter of pride that he spent all 20 seasons wearing the winged wheel on his chest.
"That's another thing I didn't think was going to happen, being with the same team for all these years," Lidstrom said. "It makes it even more special that I've been a Red Wing my whole career. I was able to finish as a Red Wing and now I'm getting my jersey up there in the rafters as a Red Wing, as well. That means a lot to me."
Just being an NHL player did too.
Among the many questions he fielded Wednesday was one about advice he'd give to young players now, particularly those playing for the Red Wings. It only took him a couple seconds to think of his answer, which could probably be engraved at the base of a statue someday.
"Really enjoy the moment," Lidstrom said. "Enjoy being in the NHL. Enjoy being a Red Wing. And take it all in. Have fun with it. It's a lot of hard work. You've got to work hard and put your time in, but you have to enjoy it too. This doesn't last for a lifetime."
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