Henrik Zetterberg cannot play hockey anymore because of a degenerative back condition, signaling the end of an era for the Detroit Red Wings.
Zetterberg, 37, one of the greatest players in Red Wings history, did not pass his physical and will go on long-term injured reserve, but he is not retiring with three years left on his contract, general manager Ken Holland said as the Red Wings opened training camp in Traverse City, Michigan on Friday.
Since Zetterberg had back surgery Feb. 21, 2014, his back has gotten worse. Part of the condition is significant arthritis. Although he played 82 games each of the past three seasons, he did not practice down the stretch last season and couldn't train this summer.
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"The doctor told him, 'If you play hockey you're going to accelerate the degeneration. You're also running the risk if … you do get a bad hit, significant back surgery would be necessary at that point in time,'" Holland said. "He's not prepared to take the risk on his health any further.
"I think he wants to play, but he can't."
Zetterberg spoke to reporters in Traverse City on Friday.
"Obviously it's emotional," he said. "It's been 15 years here. Even though I knew I was on my last couple years, I wish that I could play a little bit longer."
Zetterberg was a main reason the Red Wings sustained success into the 2000s, winning the Stanley Cup in 2008 and stretching their Stanley Cup Playoff streak to 25 seasons in 2016.
After the departures of Hall of Fame centers Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings seamlessly shifted to Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk taking lead roles.
Datsyuk returned home to Russia in 2016. It was no coincidence the Red Wings missed the playoffs in 2016-17 for the first time since 1989-90. They missed the playoffs again last season.
"[Zetterberg and Datsyuk] really carried the torch for this franchise for a decade to great heights," Holland said.
Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs in 2008 and became Red Wings captain on Jan. 15, 2013, succeeding defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. He ranks fifth in goals (337), assists (623) and points (960), and sixth in games played (1,082) in Red Wings history.
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"I watched him a ton," said Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, 22, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs. "I idolized him."
When new sticks came out each season, Larkin wanted the Easton with the Zetterberg curve. Before Larkin's rookie season with the Red Wings in 2015-16, he met Zetterberg for the first time at an informal skate at Joe Louis Arena. There he was, 19 years old, nervous around his hero -- and another Red Wings legend too.
"Ted Lindsay walked into the locker room and was shaking everyone's hand," Larkin said. "I got to sit next to Ted and talk to him, and Henrik came up. It was pretty special."
When Larkin got to play with Zetterberg, he appreciated him on another level. Zetterberg wasn't the smoothest or fastest skater, but he was skilled and cerebral. He could slow the game and control it like a soccer midfielder.
"I didn't really understand how good of a playmaker he was, how he knew where everyone was on the ice," Larkin said. "Playing with him, you don't even need to call for the puck. You know it's coming. He's going to find a way to get it to you. You're on a 2-on-1 or you're ... there's a stick in the lane or there's a couple guys there, he's going to get the pass through, which is, I think, amazing."
Now the Red Wings will have to play without him. In a team meeting Thursday, Holland told the players it looked like the Red Wings would be without Zetterberg for a longer period and this was an opportunity.
"Obviously we're leaning on the youth," Holland said. "The youth has got to be up to the challenge. … We want to be as competitive as we can be, not only for the franchise but in terms of player development. You need to have an environment where you're competitive."
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Larkin will be the No. 1 center and will have to take more of a leadership role, whether or not he becomes the captain. Forwards like Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou need to take another step. Prospects like Michael Rasmussen, the No. 9 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, and Filip Zadina, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, need to grow into stars.
If anyone knows the lineage they follow, it's Larkin, the kid from the Detroit suburbs, the Zetterberg fan.
"You look at the legends of the Detroit Red Wings, and they live on," Larkin said. "The fans are so passionate, and one thing that those guys have done is win. They've won Stanley Cups for the fans and for themselves and for their legacy. It's something I want to bring to our fan base."