Maybe legendary Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom really is 41 years old, and the end of his illustrious hockey career is closer than most realize -- or, more accurately, want to accept.
You really have to look closely at Lidstrom these days to tell that he's aging -- and even then you aren't entirely sure that he isn't some sort of Swedish-engineered robot the Red Wings just recharge every night before storing in a crate for safekeeping.
He's not, by the way, but it sometimes feels that way.
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The same could be said for the robot, of course -- only Lidstrom isn't programmed to do it.
He just grinds it out as hard as he can, because that's what he's always done. That's one of the biggest reasons for his incredible career and the staggering numbers that go along with it. The numbers really are staggering, starting with four Stanley Cup championship rings and seven Norris Trophies.
Including twp goals and an assist already this season -- Lidstrom's 20th in the NHL -- he's now scored 255 goals and tallied 856 assists for a whopping 1,111 points. He also has a career rating of plus-432, a number just 56 less than the amount of minutes he's spent in the penalty box (488).
Next up on the jaw-dropping milestone list is 1,500 career NHL games played, which he'll reach on the road Saturday night against the Washington Capitals -- he had his second goal of the season in game No. 1,499, a 5-2 win against Columbus on Friday night.
Just how impressive is this feat?
Well, for starters Lidstrom will be just the 14th player in League history to reach that mark. He'll also surpass Mike Modano (1,499) and be hot on the heels of former teammates Steve Yzerman (1,514), and Brendan Shanahan (1,524) -- not to mention John Bucyk (1,540) and Alex Delvecchio (1,549).
Lidstrom could tie or surpass all of them this season, and if he decides to stick around three more seasons he could potentially tie Red Wings legend Gordie Howe for the most games played all-time (1,767).
Honestly, it's starting to get a little difficult to find adjectives strong enough to suit the man's resume -- and he's still going strong, with his sights set on a fifth Cup.
"I don't know if you can really put it in words," said 30-year old Swedish defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who's in his seventh season playing with Lidstrom. "I mean, really … 1,500 games? That's one impressive number. Not only that, but also the way he's played those 1,500 games. He's basically been one of the best players on the ice every night. I'm just proud to be here and be a part of it."
In large part, it goes right back to what Babcock mentioned about Lidstrom -- all that monotonous work he cranks out without anybody but teammates or family watching. Many others have just walked away from such a tedious grind, knowing their personal limits.
Lidstrom apparently doesn't believe in limits.
"Some guys are bored with it and can't do it," Babcock said of grinding through such a long, storied career. "Other guys just embrace doing it. I mean … the guy's won seven Norris Trophies."
Speaking of which, was anybody actually surprised that No. 7 came last season at the tender age of 40?
As if Lidstrom's resume wasn't glimmering enough, he added that seventh Norris by scoring 16 goals, including seven on the power play, one game-winner and his first career hat trick. He also added 46 assists in 82 games before scoring four times and setting up four other goals in 11 playoff contests.
He did finish with a negative rating (minus-2) for the first time in his career, but he didn't miss a single game for the second season in a row. Will anybody be surprised if he wins Norris No. 8 this season?
That would tie Lidstrom with the all-time leader, Bobby Orr, who's widely considered the greatest defenseman ever to play the game. Growing up in Sweden, Lidstrom never saw Orr play -- the only NHL games on TV over there at the time were Stanley Cup Final games that featured Swedish players.
Still, Lidstrom read all about Orr's career before coming to the NHL and knows the significance of all these milestones. Now he's about to reach the 1,500-game plateau, which even makes his head spin a little bit.
"It means a lot," Lidstrom said Friday, after completing yet another morning skate among the thousands he's gone through with the Wings. "A thousand games was a milestone I wanted to reach and 1,500 was never really on my mind. Time's been flying by here in the last few years and games have been adding up. A thousand games was special, but this is special too. Not many players have reached 1,500 games."
Not many have done it in such good shape, either.
Lidstrom still plays much younger than his age and is still in great condition. He also plays with a lot of intelligence and uses angles and anticipation to protect his body. It doesn't hurt that he's also earned copious amounts of respect around the League from players and officials alike.
"He's one of a handful of guys on that team who are very skilled and top-level players and he's probably the top one," said Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, who won the Norris Trophy in 2010. "I guess it's not really for us to worry about when he does choose to retire. It's just fun watching him and fun trying to compete against him while he's here."
It's fun -- as long as he's not beating you at the time. The Pittsburgh Penguins apparently weren't happy with Lidstrom somehow touching the puck while he was still in the penalty box during a pre-season game, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
"The referee came by and said, ‘What's the difference? He's won seven Norris Trophies,'" Babcock recalled. "He said, ‘He can do whatever he wants. That's the 'Seven Norris Trophy Rule.'"
Lidstrom, of course, would be the last guy to invoke the "Seven Norris Trophy Rule." He's as by-the-book as they come and always there to say or do the right thing for the Red Wings, the only NHL team he's played for. Lidstrom answers every last question from reporters because, in his mind, that's just what the captain of a team.
This past summer, however, the Wings and their fans waited on a different answer from Lidstrom -- one that increased exponentially in importance after the retirement of puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski. People wondered if Lidstrom would also hang up the skates, and the relief was palpable around the Motor City when his answer was to return. Lidstrom, however, wasn't going to be rushed into making it -- not at this stage of his career and life.
"I just wanted to make sure I was still motivated to play," Lidstrom told NHL.com. "That's why I wanted to take a few weeks off from skating and working out. Then, once I started working out, I wanted to make sure I could still get into it and do it again. Once I felt like, ‘Yeah, I want to come back and do this,' I haven't had any regrets at all."
He also hasn't had thoughts about retirement, and there isn't a formulated plan to call it quits on the ice if the Wings win another Cup next spring -- a la legendary former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman in 2002 and Boston Bruins forward Mark Recchi last season.
"That's the ultimate goal, to hoist the Cup again," Lidstrom said. "Then … if that's it or not, that remains to be seen. I remember when Scotty retired, he told us right on the ice when we were skating around with the Cup. He said, ‘This is it. This is my last hurrah.' I don't know if he had that planned, but that's never really gone through my mind."
It has gone through the minds of fans and reporters a time or two, along with the thought that each passing season could be the last sight of No. 5 playing in a red-and-white Wings sweater. When told that, Lidstrom just smiled. It was almost like he was surprised to hear it.
"That's not the thought process I have," he said. "I'm not looking forward to what's going to happen after the season. I'm just focused on what I want to do and accomplish this season. I'm looking forward to that and just trying to enjoy the moment that I'm in."
He's not the only one.