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Lidstrom retires after 20 seasons

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

DETROIT – He’s often been referred to by teammates as the ‘Perfect Human’. That’s because ever since Nicklas Lidstrom arrived in Hockeytown in 1991, the Swedish defenseman has done everything with immaculate brilliance.

Fans will remember him for helping the Red Wings bring four Stanley Cup championships to Detroit, for winning the Norris Trophy seven times, and for making difficult plays look routine throughout a remarkable 20-season career.

But what many may not know is the uneasiness that Lidstrom encountered as he got acclimatized to Detroit and the North American-style of the NHL.

Shortly after Lidstrom and his then-fiancee, Annika, left their hometown of Vasteras – in southern Sweden – to begin a new life in Michigan, he talked about the difficulties of leaving home.

“It was hard to leave all of my family and friends,” said Lidstrom, in a 1995 interview for Inside Line magazine, then the official game day program for the Red Wings. “But I really only felt homesick for about two months. The on-ice adjustment was much harder.”

Lidstrom had been used to the 40-game schedule that he had played with his junior team back home for four seasons. But in 1991, he had to adjust to a schedule with more than double the amount of regular-season games.

“My junior team was very good,” he said in the interview. “We won two championships in a row, so I was used to the intensity and having a desire to win. But it was tough to adjust to playing back-to-back games and playing more than two games a week.”

Over the next few months, Lidstrom will likely learn if leaving behind the game and the organization – not to mention the legions of fans that span several generations – was equally as tough of a decision as setting out on his hall-of-fame journey 21 years ago.

Thursday morning, Lidstrom, who played in 1,827 games, including the playoffs, made the announcement, which stakeholders in Hockeytown knew would eventually come, but were hoping it wouldn’t be so soon.

The most decorated defenseman of his era, Lidstrom, who appeared in 12 All-Star games and won his first Norris Trophy at age 31, has decided to retire instead of returning to the Wings for a 21st season.

Last month, after the Wings were eliminated by Nashville in the Western Conference quarterfinals, Lidstrom said that the toughest thing about coming back next season was getting motivated to make the necessary commitment to the off-ice workouts in the off-season.

“I know what I have to do to get ready for a long year,” said Lidstrom, who has been team captain since 2006. “I'm not willing to sacrifice that to have a good summer or take it easy. I know what I have to do and it's a grind to go through, which all of us do in here. Then you hit the grind of (the) season. It's a long year. You play 3-4 games every week for over six months and that takes its toll on you too.”

If the game took its toll on Lidstrom, it sure didn’t show very much, as he missed only 44 regular-season games during his career. And many of those games that he missed weren’t because of injuries, though he did miss 11 straight games last season with a deep ankle bruise.

In contrast, iconic Steve Yzerman missed 322 regular-season games out of a possible 1,836 games in 22 seasons. And of the seven NHL players, who spent some or all of their 1,500-plus game careers with the Wings, Hall of Famers Alex Delvecchio missed 42 regular-season contests out of a possible 1,591, and Gordie Howe sat-out 57 out of a 1,824.

Last October, as Lidstrom approached his 1,500th career regular-season game, Wings coach Mike Babcock heaped praise onto the 35th captain in franchise history, referring to him as a generational-type player.

“Everyone's going to know who he was long after he's done playing,” Babcock said of Lidstrom. “To me, Bobby Orr's probably going to get the most credit and lots of people who played with different people are going to say different things, but to me, the class of man he is, the kind of leader he is, how good he's been for how long, just how impressive he is and the amount of winning he's done, that counts for a lot as well.

“To me, he's very special to have had the opportunity to coach. He's a good guy for the coach because he gives you a lot of input and goes about it the right away. Great man.”

Lidstrom’s 1,564 regular-season games is 10th all-time in NHL history, and only four defensemen have played in more: Ray Bourque (1,612), Larry Murphy (1,615), Scott Stevens (1,635) and Chris Chelios (1,651).

During Lidstrom’s time in Detroit, the Red Wings never missed the playoffs. He played in 263 postseason games while missing just two contests. Only Chelios (266) has played in more playoff games in Stanley Cup history.

Lidstrom’s longevity certainly puts him in an elite level, especially among European-born players who have come to North America to make their mark in the NHL. He has stood alone since passing Czechoslovakian-born Stan Mikita (1,394) a few seasons ago.

However, as impressive as the number of games that he played is, Lidstrom’s average minutes each night may have meant more. For the last 12 seasons of his career, he led the Wings in most ice-time per game, finishing last season by averaging more than 23 ½-minutes per game.

“He plays lot of minutes,” Tomas Holmstrom said. “That’s half the game every night for 1,500 games. That’s pretty impressive.”

That’s what everyone came to expect from the ‘Perfect Human’.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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