The unfortunate thing for the rest of the NHL is that hockey is nowhere near as easy as Nicklas Lidstrom
makes it look.
He’s been making it look that way for 16 seasons, since arriving in North America in 1991 as a 21-year-old rookie with a Detroit team on the rise. Three championships and a trophy case full of awards later, he’s the 37-year-old captain of the NHL’s best team and now looking for a fourth Stanley Cup ring after leading NHL defensemen in points (70) and finishing second in the League to teammate Pavel Datsyuk
in plus-minus (plus-40).
“He makes it look so easy out there, it (ticks) me off,” Nashville center Jason Arnott
, who has to face Lidstrom eight times a season when the Central Division rivals meet, said with a smile. “He looks like he could play another 50 years, the way he glides around out there.”
Lidstrom isn’t the NHL’s fastest skater, biggest hitter or hardest shooter. What makes him unique is a combination of physical skills and intelligence that enables him to see the ice in ways most other players don’t.
“I think my style of play -- my positional play -- is very important to me,” Lidstrom said. “I think that’s why I’ve been in the League so long. I play my position really well. I’m good at reading plays and anticipating plays on the ice. I use my stick a lot more than maybe other players, where they use their bodies more. I’m not a physical player, but I try to play my position right.”
It’s hard to argue with the results.
In addition to his three Stanley Cup rings, Lidstrom has five Norris Trophies (with a sixth likely to come in June), a Conn Smythe Trophy, seven First-Team All-Star berths and 10 trips to the NHL All-Star Game, including this season’s contest in Atlanta.
“Nick always takes care of the other guys’ best player -- and he does a great job -- while racking up the points,” Detroit goalie and fellow All-Star Chris Osgood
He’s done such a superb job racking up points this season that he easily finished first in scoring among defensemen despite missing six games with a sprained right knee. In his return, March 9, he looked like he’d never been away, setting up two goals in the Wings’ 4-3 win against Nashville.
Unlike most players in this era of widespread player movement, Lidstrom has spent his entire career with the Red Wings, with whom he recently signed a two-year deal that will take him to age 40. Through the years, he’s had the opportunity to go elsewhere – for more money than he was making in Detroit – but opted to stay put.
Familiarity with the only organization he’d ever known might have been part of the reason he stayed, but it wasn’t the main factor.
“Probably the winning tradition,” he says when asked what makes Detroit special. “We’ve won three Stanley Cups and we’ve had solid contenders for a lot of years. Just having the chance to win it every year — I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed for so long. That’s one of the reasons I signed a two-year deal as well -- because I enjoy it so much and we have such a competitive team.”
On a team loaded with stars like Henrik Zetterberg
and hockey legends like Dominik Hasek
and Chris Chelios
, Lidstrom is the gear that turns the Winged Wheel.
“He’s our centerpiece,” Osgood said.
Whatever Lidstrom might have lost physically during the years has more than been made up for by the gains he’s derived from 16 NHL seasons.
“I think I was looked upon as being a good, talented young offensive player -- good on the power play, someone who could join the rush. When I first came into the League, I was an offensive-minded player,” he said. “I think that over the years, I’ve established myself as a good defensive player, too. I think my all-around game is a lot better, and I’ve got a lot more experience than when I came into the League. All that experience really helps.”
Perhaps most amazing is Lidstrom’s endurance. Though he’s averaged upward of 25 minutes a night on the ice while playing 1,252 games in his career (including 26:43 in 76 games this season), Lidstrom has missed just 28 games in his 16 NHL regular seasons, including the six this season. Part of the reason, according to Arnott, is that while Lidstrom isn’t a big banger himself, getting a clean shot at Lidstrom is almost impossible.
“He’s the hardest guy to hit. He’s so smooth,” Arnott said. “You think ‘I have him in my sights and I’m going to try to hit him.’ Then he takes one step and you’re running into the boards.”
Lidstrom has made his partners look good over the years — Brian Rafalski
is the latest player to benefit from playing with the future Hall of Famer. But Lidstrom feels he’s benefited from the partnerships as well.
“They were good before they played with me,” he said. “Good players like Schneids (Mathieu Schneider
) and Rafalski help my game, too. I’ve had some great partners over the years – Paul Coffey
, Larry Murphy
, Brad McCrimmon
. It’s helped my game, too, playing with good partners over the years.”
Lidstrom is one of a handful of players with Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medal -- he was captain of the Swedish team that won in 2006. While both are special, Lidstrom feels there’s nothing like the season-long quest to win a Cup.
“It’s different when you’re battling with the same team for a long time,” he said. “I enjoy playing for my country, but when you play for the Wings, you play six months before the playoffs start -- and hopefully a couple of months after that.”