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Red Wings retire Nicklas Lidstrom's No. 5

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- They rolled out the red carpet Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena, and there was no question as to whom it was meant to welcome.

Looking down at center ice prior to the Detroit Red Wings' game against the Colorado Avalanche, the red carpet was in the shape of the No. 5. If you looked behind each net, "5" was painted into the ice; in the corners of the rink, there were 5s; and attached to the lapels of Red Wings employees: 5.

That, of course, was the number Nicklas Lidstrom wore during his legendary 20-year NHL career, all with the Red Wings.

It clearly was the seven-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman’s night, and the Red Wings made sure everybody knew it.

The night could conclude only one way, so after a heartfelt speech by the guest of honor, in which Lidstrom thanked a lot of people, his No. 5 was raised to the rafters to join the likes of Hall of Fame members Gordie Howe (9), Ted Lindsay (7), Alex Delvecchio (10), Terry Sawchuk (1) and Steve Yzerman (19).

Perhaps Detroit television broadcaster Ken Daniels, who emceed the festivities, put it best right before the banner went up: "Nick, it's your time to take your place with them. This, in Detroit, will be forever known as the greatest high five."

Seconds later, Lidstrom, his wife, Annika, and their four sons watched as the Red Wings legends up in the rafters officially welcomed a new member to a prestigious club.

It was a ceremony that was supposed to last 45 minutes but stretched to 70, and nobody in the building complained. In fact, if one loud fan had it his way, it might have lasted all night. As Lidstrom started wrapping up his 10-minute speech, he paused just long enough for the fan in the upper reaches of the arena to be heard loud and clear: "Don't leave us, Nick!"

It was that kind of night in the building where Lidstrom spent hundreds of nights displaying the effort and skill that earned him the nickname "The Perfect Human."

He did his best to live up to that moniker with his speech, in which he thanked all of his former coaches, teammates, Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, the large contingent of family and friends who traveled from Sweden to attend, and, finally, the fans.

Lidstrom also delivered some memorable lines.

Near the beginning of his time at the podium, he revealed just how he came to wear No. 5. It all started while meeting with the team's trainer at the time, shortly after coming over from Sweden as a 19-year-old.

"I was here to sign my first contract. I didn't know much about the team," Lidstrom said. "I knew Steve Yzerman was the captain and played here for a long time, but besides that I didn't know a lot about the team. So when the trainer at the time asked me what number I'd like if I made the team, I told him that I wore No. 9 in Sweden and it'd be great to be No. 9 again. He said, 'Kid, that just ain't gonna happen.' So I just kept my mouth shut, and No. 5 was handed to me.

“So I came back here in the fall of ’91 and just kept my mouth shut. No. 5 was handed to me. It’s really special for me to have No. 5 hang in the rafters next to the other guys that are up there. And one of them was my captain for 15 years, and one of the reasons I’m standing here today, Steve Yzerman."

Lidstrom saved another good line for Tomas Holmstrom, who's not only a former teammate but his best friend.

"Homer, I'm not sure how many shots you blocked or how many goals I scored that got disallowed because you were standing in the crease," Lidstrom said. "I do know one thing: If you weren't standing there, I wouldn't have scored as many goals. Thank you!"

Prior to Lidstrom's words, he was feted by coach Mike Babcock, general manager Ken Holland and Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, who spoke on behalf of his parents.

After revealing that his family's nickname for Lidstrom is "The Perfect Red Wing," Ilitch, who parents could not attend the ceremony, summed up the evening's meaning with a turn of phrase that again centered on the No. 5.

"No one will wear the No. 5 again," he said, "because no one can wear it quite like Nick Lidstrom."

The ceremony was as memorable for the pomp and circumstance as it was for the words. Delvecchio and Lindsay attended, and Howe, Sawchuk and Abel were represented by family members. There were two video presentations, and two long rows of seats behind Lidstrom and his family were filled with former coaches and teammates.

Among those sitting in those seats were former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman and former assistant coach Barry Smith, both of whom work in the Chicago Blackhawks’ front office. Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, Holland's former assistant in the Red Wings' front office, was also on hand. Former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was too; besides Lidstrom, he drew the biggest applause of the night.

Yzerman, now general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, wasn't able to attend but called Lidstrom earlier in the day and also delivered a message via the scoreboard video screen during a first-period stoppage. Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal did the same.

Lidstrom and his family were welcomed to the ice by the current Red Wings, all of whom wore jerseys bearing No. 5 and lined both sides of the red carpet. The Stanley Cup, the Norris Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy, all of which were won by Lidstrom over his career, were also displayed to the side of the podium.

Then there were the gifts.

Lidstrom's former teammates gave him a safari trip to Africa, and he received a gray pickup truck from the organization and local auto dealers.

It was quite a celebration and it won't soon be forgotten by those who saw it, particularly the guy whom that Red Wings trainer randomly assigned the No. 5.

“When Ken Holland told me that Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch wanted to retire my jersey I tried to put the honor in context," he said. "It’s not like winning a trophy for a successful season or playoff. It’s not like winning an individual trophy. This is something different. This is all about being a Detroit Red Wing.

Or the "Perfect Red Wing," as the Ilitches might say.

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