The 37-year-old center had not been expected to open training camp Friday or the regular season with the Red Wings, but he and his teammates hoped he would be able to play at some point this season.
After a consultation last week in New York with Dr. Frank Camissa, who performed back surgery on Zetterberg on Feb. 21, 2014, the 15-season NHL veteran and 2008 Stanley Cup winner decided he could no longer play.
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"I've kind of been living this for a while," Zetterberg said at Red Wings camp in Traverse City, Michigan. "Starting [in] January last year, I knew something was not quite right and [I] found a way to play through that season, but kind of midsummer here ... we hoped it was going to get a little bit better, and it kind of wasn't. So I went to see Dr. Cammisa last week and got the final result and nothing really had changed. so that's kind of when it kicked in.
"Obviously it is emotional. It's been 15 years here, and even though I knew that I was on my last couple of years, I wish that I could play a little bit longer."
Zetterberg, who has been Detroit's captain since the 2012-13 season, was second on the Red Wings with 56 points (11 goals, 45 assists) in 82 games last season, behind forward Dylan Larkin (63 points; 16 goals, 47 assists).
"Henrik has made a decision that he's not prepared to take the risk to play professional hockey anymore," said general manager Ken Holland, who said Zetterberg's condition includes significant arthritis. "Nothing can be done. No back surgery, no rehab, no more time off is going to have any positive impact, and if he plays professional hockey, it's going to accelerate the degeneration, and if he does get a bad hit or something, he's risking significant back surgery, and Henrik has decided his quality of life is more important."
Selected by Detroit in the seventh round (No. 210) of the 1999 NHL Draft, Zetterberg is fifth in goals (337), assists (623) and points (960) in Red Wings history, and sixth in games (1,082). He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2008 after tying Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby for the postseason scoring lead with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists).
"I didn't see myself lasting this long when I got drafted in 1999 as a seventh-round pick," Zetterberg said. "I've had some great things [happen], and some low things, but being with one organization for my whole career and being named a captain of this organization, that's obviously something special.
"There's a lot of things I'll think about later when I can look back. Right now, it is surreal saying I'm not going to be playing anymore."
Holland, who said he isn't sure if Detroit will have a captain this season, said Zetterberg will leave a void on and off the ice.
"We're trying to go younger, and we're moving up some young players," Holland said, "but you need role models and there's no better role model than Henrik Zetterberg."
The Red Wings players expect things to be noticeably different without him.
"It's going to be weird, to be honest with you," 37-year-old defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who has played all 14 of his NHL seasons with Zetterberg, told the Red Wings website. "It's going to be tough to wrap your head around it. Sure, we found out the news now, but knowing the reality, and seeing how he works every day, without him in the locker room it's going to be weird. He's been there all these years, ever since I got here. He's always been the backbone of the team and now you're losing a guy like that."
Detroit center Dylan Larkin, 22, told the website, "Every day there was a new lesson I learned from him. … Without him, it's going to be a lot different. He's our leader, he's our captain."
Zetterberg, who has three seasons remaining on a 12-year contract he signed Jan. 28, 2009, will be placed on long-term injured reserve, Holland said.
After his 2014 back surgery, Zetterberg played 77 games in 2014-15 and played all 82 games each of the past three seasons. He said there were several mornings last season when he didn't think he was going to be able to play. He stopped practicing in January.
"I wasn't sure if he was going to try to battle through or how bad it hurts," said Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar, Zetterberg's teammate for seven seasons in Detroit, including last season. "He's a legend, he played there for a really, really long time. He taught me a lot of things so I have a lot of respect for that guy and he made me become a better person, that's for sure.
"He is a really good centerman. ... He's been a great leader, a great guy in the locker room, and obviously it's a tough loss and that's just the way sometimes hockey goes. You're losing a player but health always goes first and you just have to deal with it."
Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "I've got a lot of respect for Henrik and what he meant to the Red Wings, to the game, to the sport. ... He's one of those players, his intelligence was off the charts. He could protect the puck as well as anybody and did a lot of things for the Red Wings organization. I wish him nothing but the best and I wish him good health."
NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers and correspondents Dave Hogg and Sean Farrell contributed to this report.