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Winning is the only thing for Lidstrom

by Larry Wigge

Nicklas Lidstrom has lifted Lord Stanley's silver chalice in victory in 1997, 1998 and 2002, but has his first chance to hoist the Cup as captain of the Red Wings. Highlights
With that same delightfully determined and understated defensive mindset that has helped Nicklas Lidstrom win five Norris trophies as the best defenseman in the world, one probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that he didn't want to commit to answering the question of how it would feel to become the first European captain to lift the Stanley Cup. But his face did swell with pride when the question was raised.

Lidstrom has lifted Lord Stanley's silver chalice in victory in 1997, 1998 and 2002, but he didn't become captain until 2006, when he was 36 and he inherited the "C" from Steve Yzerman, who captained the Wings for 20 seasons.

"Sure, it would be something special ... to be the first," Lidstrom said. "But ..."

There was another defensive pause at that moment while he tried to find the right words to describe what this honor truly would mean to him.

"I know what it's like to raise the Cup," he said. "It's the biggest highlight of our career. It's the culmination of a dream that started when you were a kid. But I don't want to win the Stanley Cup just to be the first European captain. I want to get that feeling of being a champion back again."

Lidstrom has been a champion since he and Larry Murphy combined to neutralize the Philadelphia Flyers' "Legion of Doom" line (Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg) in 1997 for Detroit's first Stanley Cup since 1955. And he'll remain a champion until he decides to retire.

Asked if he had a speech ready for this year’s Stanley Cup Final, he got a little embarrassed, feeling that his leadership is more by example than with words.

"I'll probably steal something from Stevie," Lidstrom said with a laugh. "It's all about playing with confidence. In 2002 that was Stevie's message. If you're hesitant, or unsure about yourself, guys can tell right away and you won't get it done. But if you're confident, it shows your teammates that you're ready, it shows the other team that you're not going away. You need to come out with that same confidence, that fire that got you there ... and the whole team will feed off that.

"What I remember most is that Steve would stand up and say something at the right time to motivate the team. But what I remember most is after he did that, he would be the first guy on the ice to make a big play."

"Nick doesn't have to say anything," said Chris Chelios, who has served as captain in Montreal and Chicago and won three Norris trophies himself. "He's the perfect player. He's the best partner I've ever had."

Wait just a minute – Chelios says Lidstrom is the best partner he's ever had? Better than Larry Robinson?

"Yeah," said Chelios. "Nick just has that competitive edge inside him like a Larry Robinson, a Ray Bourque or an Al MacInnis. He doesn't need to scare opponents with a fiery look on his face. He scares them with the fact that he’s so consistent ... never out of position, on offense or defense."

Lidstrom thinks the game better than most. His instincts always are right-on. He's thoughtful, intelligent and always under control, whether he's staring down a power forward like Jaromir Jagr or Todd Bertuzzi or a speedster like Marian Gaborik or Mike Modano, or stepping up into a play and scoring or setting up an important goal.

"I try to play my position right all the time," said Lidstrom. "In today's game you have to be quick on your feet to adjust to the new rules. It's all about timing, awareness and quickness."

"The secret to Nick Lidstrom's success is that he has no weaknesses," Modano said. "It doesn't matter if he's trying to defend a power forward or a fast, quick skater with skill. He'll shut you down."

"I can honestly tell you since I've been here, I've never seen anyone beat him 1-on-1 in a game or in a practice," said center Henrik Zetterberg, who's beaten a lot of defensemen in his five seasons in the NHL. "I've tried myself. It's amazing, really. If you don't watch him closely, you actually don't notice him much watching a game. It's always just basic stuff, but he does it so well."

"He's got that uncanny knack of reading a play and being right almost every time," Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland said. "His skills are impeccable, offensively and defensively. And that's important in today's game, where flow and transition are essential."

Though Lidstrom was just a third-round pick (No. 53 overall) in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Holland said the Red Wings never underestimated the quality of his favorite defenseman. "He's 38 now and we have him under contract for the next two seasons, but I hope he can see that Chris Chelios is still going strong at 46 and Mark Messier and Ray Bourque and others were stars in this League into their 40s."

It was at that point Holland remembered a long summer he and the Wings had in 1999, when Lidstrom went back to Sweden and debated continuing to live in Detroit and play for the Red Wings, or move his young family back to Vasteras, Sweden.

Lidstrom wants his sons Kevin, 5, and Adam, 3, to be raised with the same Swedish values as he and his wife, Annika, grew up with. They were worried Kevin, who was about to enter kindergarten, already was mixing up Swedish and English words and phrases.

"We didn't have any problems giving all of this up and moving back to Sweden," Lidstrom recalled recently, nearly nine years afterward. "But I felt we owed it to ourselves to investigate the situation from all angles.

"We were talking to some friends in Sweden that used to live here in Detroit. They moved back to Sweden, and they had kids older than ours. After talking with them and having them explain that their kids didn't have any problems getting used to things in Sweden, we decided to stay here. We're happy with the decision that we made."

"It was a big deal back then," Holland said. "I had several of the players tell me they couldn't lose Nick. One of them even suggested I have Mr. Ilitch (Wings Owner Mike Ilitch) buy the entire Swedish Elite League to make sure Nick would stay, the same way the Montreal Canadiens did to finally get Jean Beliveau to play for the Canadiens."

Swedish pride always will be paramount to Lidstrom and his family. It was a tough decision that came out in favor of Detroit and the NHL in the end.

Jan-Erik Lidstrom, Nick's father, didn't play hockey and push his son into the game back in Avesta, where Nick grew up. He was the chief of the Swedish highway system. His mother, Gerd, worked in the school cafeteria. His three sisters used to push him around. And, no, there was no uncle or brother to show him the way to the NHL.

"No hockey genes," Lidstrom said. "Just a group of great friends in the neighborhood that loved to play hockey and taught me to be so competitive and never accept losing as an alternative."

He started watching the NHL to follow Swedish legend Borje Salming. He'd sit up late at night to scout the techniques of Robinson, Bourque, Paul Coffey, MacInnis and, yes, Chelios.

"The game means so much to me," Lidstrom said. "It's more than an occupation. It's my hobby. I love what I do every day."

It was at that time that I wondered what drives him. Lidstrom's eyes fixed on me when I asked about his hunger to win.

"I remember Paul Coffey once saying that after he once won the Stanley Cup, he never wanted to give it up," Lidstrom explained. "I even remember hearing him say that when his team didn't win the following year. He said he felt like someone had broken into his house and had stolen his most prized possession. That's how I feel, too.

"It's been six years since we won the Cup. That's too long."

Only champions like Lidstrom can feel like they've underachieved when they don't have that little ceremony of raising a silver chalice into the air in victory.


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