-- Crazy as it may seem now, there were some last spring who thought Detroit Red Wings
star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom
should call it quits.
After getting off to a slower-than-usual start, Lidstrom was thought to be slowing as a skater and deteriorating in general as a player. Despite Detroit making back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final the previous two seasons and Lidstrom playing for Sweden in the 2010 Winter Olympics, a growing segment thought his rock-solid consistency on the Wings' blue line was diminishing with his increasing age.
Regardless of Lidstrom's six Norris trophies and four Stanley Cups -- all with Detroit -- more than a few Wings fans called local radio stations saying he should think about retiring after the Wings were eliminated by San Jose in the second round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Instead, the 40-year old Lidstrom chose to come back on a one-year contract -- and Detroit fans couldn't be happier. In his 19th NHL season, Lidstrom is as good as ever.
His overtime goal and 2 assists in Sunday's win against the Flames gave him 20 points, tied with Colorado's John-Michael Liles
for tops among the League's defenseman.
His 17 assists are tied for the lead among all defensemen and are tied for fourth in the League. His 10 power-play assists lead all defensemen, and his 11 power-play points tie him for the top spot. He also had a career-best 11-game scoring streak earlier this season. That's not to mention a healthy plus-3 rating while averaging a team-high 24:19 of ice time per game.
Anybody want to suggest that he should retire now?
"We talk about this every single year," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "We think he's the best defenseman in the game and obviously he's an elite talent. But he's an elite person and he's a great leader. He sets the tone for this hockey club structurally, work-ethic wise, how he handles himself as a pro, how you practice and the way you play. He models. You've got to give the guy a lot of credit."
Babcock, by the way, never doubted his captain's return. He knew Lidstrom, recently named by The Hockey News as its No. 5 defenseman of all-time, still had plenty of skill and drive left.
"I knew our team was too good and our team was too good (for him) to retire," Babcock said. "Hopefully our team continues to be good. I think if our team continues to be good, then Nick will continue to play. As soon as our team is no good, then Nick's got no interest in that."
Not only because he's 40, but because of what being that age means in terms of his family life. Lidstrom briefly did consider retiring, but not because of what he could no longer do in hockey.
It was more about what his oldest son Kevin, 16, could do on the ice.
Kevin Lidstrom, also a defenseman, wanted to attend a hockey academy in Sweden rather than going to school in suburban Detroit. He got his parents' blessing, but it meant being separated by thousands of miles -- something that's tough for the elder Lidstrom to deal with.
"You miss him, for sure," he said. "Your oldest boy has gone off to play hockey, but that's something he wanted to do. It's something he wants to pursue, so we're real supportive of that. I wanted to make sure he was in good hands and in a good situation over there. That's why I took everything into account before I made a decision."
Once he did, it was almost a no-brainer choice to come back.
He still felt good. He still was able to keep up with the League's young stars, some literally half his age. He also still got a thrill from pulling on a Red Wings sweater and looking around the Detroit locker room -- a shrine to the team's storied history.
All that, combined with the fact the Wings were returning intact, healthy and hungry for another Stanley Cup made retiring seem like a silly question to entertain.
Retire now? Not a chance. Not with more success for the Wings conceivably within reach. Lidstrom, as much as anything, loves the fact he's played his entire career for Detroit, a proud Original Six franchise.
"I've never seriously considered playing elsewhere," Lidstrom said of the Wings, who drafted him in the third round (No. 53) in the 1989 Entry Draft. "You can just look around at the pictures on the wall in here (locker room). It's the tradition that's part of this team. It's something I take a lot of pride in, being part of the Red Wings for such a long time."
Among those pictures is one of Lidstrom, oversized, placed right outside the hallway that leads from the locker room to the ice at Joe Louis Arena. Guys who get that kind of placement don't just retire because somebody else thinks they're getting old. They go out on their own terms and work their tails off to make sure those terms are impressive. Lidstrom said he'll go through the same debate about retiring next summer, but if this turns out to be his last hurrah, it's certainly off to a great start.
Aside from providing the same even-keeled consistency he's become famous for, Lidstrom also is looking to create even more offense for the explosive Wings' attack.
"We talk about this every single year. We think he's the best defenseman in the game and obviously he's an elite talent. But he's an elite person and he's a great leader. He sets the tone for this hockey club structurally, work-ethic wise, how he handles himself as a pro, how you practice and the way you play. He models. You've got to give the guy a lot of credit." -- Mike Babcock
"One thing I try to focus on this year is taking more shots or getting more shots at the net, in order to hit the net or try for tips or screens or whatnot," he said. "I've been trying to do that. I haven't looked it up, but that's something I've been trying to do."
So far, so good.
His 43 shots on goal are the fifth-highest on the team. Still, the mere fact Lidstrom came into the season with something to work on impresses his teammates -- who look at him and wonder if he's found the Fountain of Youth.
"Obviously he loves the game," Wings forward Johan Franzen
told NHL.com. "It's hard to just quit, and he's still at the top, right? He's one of the best out there -- if not the best. It's very impressive. I know I probably won't be playing when I'm 40, but he shows up every night like he did five years ago and there's no difference. He's not slowing down a bit."
Lidstrom's drive to win another Cup isn't any less, either. Franzen had to chuckle a little when asked about No. 5's desire to win it all again -- something he helped the Wings do in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
"What's he got … four?" Franzen said, smiling. "You'd think that would be enough for him, right? I guess he wants five."