DETROIT – Five defensemen have played in more games for the Red Wings than Niklas Kronwall.
Tonight, the veteran blue liner will play in career game No. 700 when the Wings host the Arizona Coyotes at Joe Louis Arena.
The 34-year-old Kronwall will join Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564), Marcel Pronovost (983), Red Kelly (846), Reed Larson (708) and Gary Bergman (706) as defensemen who have reached the plateau.
It’s certainly an incredible milestone considering the plethora of injuries that plagued the start of Kronwall’s NHL career.
“When you think back there were just so many things that happened that didn’t make since, and for whatever reason those things happened,” Kronwall said. “I think at the same time it makes you stronger in some ways, going through the rehab process and getting back on the horse again and getting back to work really.”
The bad luck struck in his first year in North America.
A freakish pre-game accident at Staples Center in Los Angeles cost Kronwall the last 33 games of the 2003-04 season. While skating backward in warm-ups prior to a game against the Kings, the defenseman caught a rut, breaking his right ankle.
The following season, Kronwall rebounded, leading the American Hockey League as the top-scoring defenseman, becoming the first European-born player to win the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top blue liner.
But serious injuries returned, hounding Kronwall for the next three seasons.
A torn ACL, fractured sacrum, and a separated shoulder stunted his involvement, costing him 79 games from 2005-08. He also missed the entire 2006-07 playoffs.
Luck, however, has turned in Kronwall’s favor as he’s missed just 10 regular-season games since 2010-11.
Yet, through it all, Kronwall blossomed into a solid blue-line asset for the Wings, as well as becoming a reliable resource for younger teammates.
“He’s a huge leader for our whole team, but even more so on the back end for someone like me,” Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “When I came in I was 23 and didn’t really know a whole lot about the team, other than watching them on TV, and he kind of was a great role model for me. He’s a guy you can watch because he always does things the right way. He shows up for practice and always does extra work in the weight room, and makes sure he knows all of the little details of the game.”
For years, Kronwall played second fiddle in Detroit’s lineup to star defensemen like Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Brian Rafalski. Still he has produced 72 goals and 348 points in his career, and new D-partner Mike Green says players throughout the league appreciate Kronwall for his acumen.
“I think the players now, from playing against him and playing with him, know how accomplished he is,” Green said. “Sometimes it’s hard with other players within the team to be over-shadowed at times, but I think Kronner, his game speaks for itself and guys know that.”
Kronwall is only two points from reaching another unique milestone. Once there, he’ll become just the 15th player, and fourth defensemen, in club history to reach 700 games and 350 points in a Wings’ sweater.
Kronwall solidified his reputation as a bruising body checker when he walloped Chicago’s Martin Havlat with a clean hit during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. Though he’s only 6-foot and 194 pounds, Kronwall has never passed on an opportunity to level an unsuspecting opponent who’s skating with his head down.
“Some games are just more physical, there are more moments to step up and be more physical,” he said. “I think it’s something that the situations occur sometimes, and sometimes they don’t.”
Certainly, over time, his trademark hits – like the one last week on Edmonton forward Mark Letestu – should take a toll on the body regardless of who gives and who receives.
Green, who played the first 10 seasons of his NHL career in Washington, counts himself among the fortunate ones who’ve avoided getting Kronwalled.
“He has the knack for throwing open-iced hits,” Green said. “It’s been a pleasure playing with him, a pleasure watching him.
“I know when we played against him we knew he was a guy who could make plays, can finish checks, he can pretty much do it all from back there. It was pretty much eliminating him from time with the puck. Now playing with him I can see why.”
Green added that the hit on Letestu “was great. That’s what the game is about, finishing your checks and keeping guys honest.”
As he talked about his career following Thursday’s morning skate, Kronwall said he was unaware of the milestone or the defensemen he’s chasing on the franchise’s all-time games played list.
Those are topics reserved for the off-season or after he retires, which, he says, won’t be anytime soon.
“At some point there’s gonna be a time where either you’re not good enough anymore or you feel like you’ve had enough,” he said. “Hopefully that day will take a long time to get to that point.”