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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Nicklas Lidstrom: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Stellar Swedish defenseman won four Stanley Cup championships, Norris Trophy seven times with Red Wings

by Bob Duff / Special to NHL.com

Growing up in Vasteras, Sweden, Nicklas Lidstrom wanted to be just like the NHL's original Swedish superstar.

"Borje Salming was my big hero growing up," Lidstrom said of the former Toronto Maple Leafs all-star defenseman who made his NHL debut in 1973.

 

Video: Nicklas Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies

 

Imagine his level of excitement during the 1991 Canada Cup when Lidstrom was paired with Salming on the Swedish defense.

"I had a chance to partner up with him, and that was a big thrill for me," Lidstrom said.

The first Swedish defenseman in NHL history skating in tandem with the player who would go on to become the greatest Swedish defenseman to play in the NHL.

 

NICKLAS LIDSTROM CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,564 | Goals: 264 | Assists: 878 | Points: 1,142

 

Lidstrom joined the Detroit Red Wings right after that Canada Cup tournament concluded, and by the time he retired in 2012 he had won the Stanley Cup four times, the Norris Trophy seven times -- only Bobby Orr (eight) won more -- and was the first European-trained NHL player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP and captain a Stanley Cup winner. He also scored the winning goal for Sweden in the gold medal game at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Just as Salming was the man for him, there were countless young defenders who adored Lidstrom and imagined they were him, and not all of them were Swedes.

"He's why I wear the No. 5. It's who I've kind of idolized my whole life as a hockey player," said Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the 2014-15 Calder Trophy winner. "I admired his ability to play good, strong, reliable, responsible defense and have confidence put in him as a good defender, as well as to be able to jump up in the rush, play good power-play minutes and good penalty-kill minutes, kind of a full-rounded, two-way game.

"That's kind of what I always looked at, the ability he had to play so well on both sides of the puck and be such a good player. He was fun to watch and an inspiration to me."

In Michigan, every young defenseman dreamed of becoming the next Lidstrom.

"He was always my favorite player growing up," Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. "He was just so smooth, so smooth with the puck. He made great decisions all the time. It just seemed like he always made the right play out there."

Wanting to play like Lidstrom was the dream, but the reality was that few could.

"I think a lot of kids probably tried to do that, but it's kind of hard to do," DeKeyser said. "The way he skated it was just kind of effortless. He played a lot of minutes because he was able to not exert a lot of energy when he didn't need to."

Lidstrom was an inspiration to all around him, a sensational performer who made playing the most difficult position on the ice seem easy. Off the ice, Lidstrom carried himself with similar poise.

"He was one of the few guys in the League that can make the game look easy at this level," former Detroit goalie Chris Osgood said. "That's when you know a guy is a superstar and Hall of Fame player, when he's playing with the best of the best and still makes it look easy."

His nickname said it all. In Detroit, they called Lidstrom "The Perfect Human."

"Well, when I first heard it, it was through [teammates] Kris Draper and Chris Osgood who were joking about it, and that's when it first came out, and that's how it grew," Lidstrom said. "I took a lot of pride in being prepared for games and practices and trying to play at a high level all of the time. But that nickname is kind of something that I just chuckle about."

Even the opponents he continually thwarted couldn't muster up any distaste for Lidstrom.

"You can't hate that guy," longtime NHL forward Teemu Selanne said. "He was so classy, played so fair and he has no enemies."

Lidstrom's game was never about flash. You weren't going to see something he did highlighted on play of the day, but he made the plays that paid off at the end of the day.

Night after night. Game after game. Season after season.

"He made your game a lot easier," said Larry Murphy, the Hockey Hall of Famer who was Lidstrom's defense partner with the Red Wings. "He liked to play the control game and liked to make the play with the puck."

Nothing seemed to bother Lidstrom. Even when he committed a rare mistake, his trademark steadiness never wavered.

"I told this story about him all the time to our young 'D'," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock remembered from his time behind the Detroit bench from 2005-15. "If Nick ever made a mistake, like if he passed it to someone in the slot and they shot it in our net, he'd come to the bench, have a drink of water and play the next shift. In other words, nothing bothered him. Just play.

"He was a just a special, special human being. He was as good a player as he was a person, and a better teammate, a better leader by example and a good family man."

"In my opinion, he's the best player on the back end of his generation, bar none. Sliding along the blue line, he was as good as I've ever seen. He made you a lot better coach."

Lidstrom owns NHL records for the most games played by a European-born player (1,564) and for the most regular-season and postseason games (263) played with one franchise.

"He's one of the best defensemen to ever play the game," former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Igor Larionov said. "To have him in the lineup, it gave you so much confidence because you know he's going to be taking care of defense, and at the same time, he can be helpful to create the offense as well."

Henrik Zetterberg, who succeeded Lidstrom as captain of the Red Wings in 2012-13, ramped up the praise even more.

"In my eyes he's probably the best defenseman who ever played," Zetterberg said. "I played with him for [nine] years and he was the best player every night."

Settled into retirement, Lidstrom allows himself to reflect on his career and the accomplishments that led to his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2015, his first year of eligibility.

"When you're playing, you're always thinking about the next game, the next season," Lidstrom said. "You're always focusing on what's ahead. Now you can look back and enjoy it in a different way.

"You can enjoy winning the first Norris Trophy, you can enjoy some of the accomplishments I had as an individual."

That never was what drove Lidstrom to play, and perhaps that is best reflected in the first memory most of his Red Wings teammates mention when discussing Lidstrom's career. He scored more Stanley Cup goals (54) than any defenseman in Red Wings history, but the Lidstrom goal most frequently cited was his shot from center ice that eluded Dan Cloutier of the Vancouver Canucks during the opening round of the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Detroit, heavy favorites to win the Cup, fell behind 2-0 in that series on home ice, but Lidstrom's goal in Game 3 seemed to deflate the Canucks, and the Red Wings rallied to win the series in six games. Detroit won the Stanley Cup and Lidstrom captured the Conn Smythe Trophy.

"What it really comes down to, the whole year you're thinking about when you won with a team," said Lidstrom, who also won a World Championship with Sweden in 1991, making him a member of the Triple Gold club: a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and World title.

"Winning as a team, winning with the guys, you set up that goal and you reach that goal with the guys, with the guys you battled with for 80-some games and then you have the playoffs. Those are the memories I really cherish," Lidstrom said. "Being a part of the Red Wings throughout my whole career, that's something I cherish as well."

Of all the accolades sent Lidstrom's way, that so many sought to emulate him is the one that leaves him the most humbled.

"When I hear that it makes me proud, really proud, to hear that players looked up to me, looked at how I played in the League when they were kids growing up," he said.

"Especially fellow countrymen following the NHL and wanted to play like me and looked at me as a role model, it makes me feel very proud."

 

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