Christer Rockstrom tried to remember how it happened. The Swedish scout has seen a lot of players and watched a lot of games in the past 27 years.
One stands out. Hidden in plain sight, Nicklas Lidstrom was the find of a lifetime.
Rockstrom discovered Lidstrom back in 1988, seeing enough in the defenceman's limited ice time to convince the Detroit Red Wings to draft him. That third-round pick turned into a 20-year career with seven Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cups that will be celebrated Monday as Lidstrom goes into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"Nicklas makes a lot of people look smart," Rockstrom said by phone from his home in Sweden. "Coaches, GMs, scouts, everybody in the organization looks smarter with Nicklas on the team. But we were not as smart. We didn't know exactly what he was going to be. But we knew enough that he was worth taking a chance on."
Fortunately for the Red Wings, no other NHL team knew what they knew. Rockstrom had friends playing on Vasteras IK in the Swedish Elite League who knew how good Lidstrom was.
The 18-year-old wasn't physical, perhaps played a little soft but was too good for juniors. His senior-level coach didn't consider him a top-six defenceman, so he sat on the bench and only got a few shifts here and there.
"That was the reason why he wasn't seen, I guess," Rockstrom said. "One reason he was flying under the radar was because he wasn't playing much and he was difficult to see."
Rockstrom drove to Vasteras to watch Lidstrom practise and then play once a couple of injuries gave him an opportunity. Impressed and knowing NHL Central Scouting hadn't ranked Lidstrom high, Rockstrom wanted Red Wings director of scouting Neil Smith to see for himself.
Part of Lidstrom's brilliance was that he often went unnoticed because he made so few mistakes and was so often in the perfect position. Smith called him the kind of player that someone has to point out to you, but once he watched, he saw the same hockey sense and vision and fundamentals that set off Rockstrom's radar.
"This wasn't a Bobby Orr rushing type of a defenceman, certainly wasn't a physical killer," Smith said by phone. "He had a great understanding of the game. Nobody could beat him. Just think of a younger version of what you saw in the league all those years."
Rockstrom and Smith took Lidstrom to a Pizza Hut in Vasteras ??? in Smith's estimation the most expensive Pizza Hut he's ever been to ??? and talked about his game and what he wanted to accomplish. When Smith returned to Detroit, he told general manager Jimmy Devellano that Lidstrom was worth taking in the third round, the latest a team could draft an 18-year-old.
"I said to Jimmy if we don't take him in the third round this year he'll go in the first round next year because he'll play in the world juniors for Sweden and then everybody will know about him," Smith said.
Devellano agreed, but with the draft months away, the Red Wings were determined not to let the secret get out. Smith ordered his scouting staff not to talk about Lidstrom.
Lidstrom's agent Don Meehan got wind that the Wings had scouted his client and called Smith to do some digging. After a back-and-forth, Smith conceded he knew plenty about Lidstrom but pleaded with Meehan not to say anything and not to bring his client to the draft.
"I said, 'I'm taking him, but don't screw me on this,'" Smith recalled. "He listened to me."
At the 1989 draft, the Red Wings took Mike Sillinger in the first round, Bob Boughner in the second round and then in the third round, 53rd overall, selected Lidstrom. Smith called it by far the best pick of his career ??? and that includes Steve Yzerman.
By taking Lidstrom and then a round later Russian Sergei Fedorov, who's also in the 2015 Hall of Fame class, the Red Wings' fortunes changed. Rockstrom, who now works for the Montreal Canadiens, remembered them being called the "Dead Wings," but now they're a model NHL franchise lauded for superior drafting.
Lidstrom wasn't the only home run the Red Wings hit on, but he was the most satisfying. By the next season Lidstrom already stood out, and it was clear the Red Wings pulled off a steal.
"That wouldn't happen today," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who was a western scout at the time. "I don't know how we got him in the third round, but I know he's a top-10 pick today."
Lidstrom was so hidden that the Philadelphia Flyers took Vasteras teammate Patrik Juhlin 19 picks earlier while Lidstrom slid by.
"This was a very unique case. It was the only time in my career it ever happened," Smith said. "There are fables about guys getting diamonds in the rough, but they're all fables. That never happens."
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