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Lidstrom set for Game No. 1,500

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
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DETROIT – Last spring, the coaching staff experimented with cutting Nicklas Lidstrom’s ice-time. In theory, it made perfect sense to divvy up the ice-time among younger defensemen, thus allowing Lidstrom to be fresher come playoff time.

“He didn't like it, so we fixed it,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “He says he plays better when he’s playing.”

Who can argue?

At age 41, Lidstrom continues to shine in a young man’s sport, and Saturday he’ll become just the 14th player in NHL history – and the first European-born player – to play in 1,500 regular-season games when the Wings travel to Washington to take on the Capitals.

“When you're used to it, I think it's harder to play less and stay in a good rhythm,” said Lidstrom, explaining his side of the ice-time debate. “If the team is playing better and that’s what it takes, that’s fine with me, too.”

Saturday’s milestone will be just the latest in a 20-season career of great accomplishments, which includes four Stanley Cup championship rings, seven Norris Trophies, and a street named for him in suburban Detroit. And already the oldest defenseman to record 60 points in a season – a feat that he established last year – Lidstrom continues to deny Mother Nature.

“I really don’t know if you can put it in words,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Really, 1,500 games, that’s one impressive number. Not only that, but the way he’s played those 1,500 games. I mean, he’s basically been one of the best players on the ice every night.”

Lidstrom will join Steve Yzerman (1,514) and Alex Delvecchio (1,549) as the only players to reach 1,500 games during a career with a single NHL club. That statistic alone is staggering considering that he’s amassed that total in far fewer seasons than his fellow Wings’ legends.

“He’s a phenomenal player, he’s a generational-type player,” Babcock said. “Everyone's going to know who he was long after he's done playing. 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.”

As long as Lidstrom stays healthy, he should pass Delvecchio’s mark this season, leaving nine players who have played in more NHL games, including four defensemen – Ray Bourque (1,612), Larry Murphy (1,615), Scott Stevens (1,635), and Chris Chelios (1,651). And of course, there’s always the possibility to catching Gordie Howe’s incredible league record of 1,767 games, or is there?

“I think he's got a few more hundreds than I do,” Lidstrom said. “It's something that I'm proud of, to be able to play at a high level for a long period of time and reach 1,500 games.

“I'm trying to enjoy it as much as I can. Enjoy every moment, whether you're struggling or playing well, or the team's doing well. Just enjoy the moment that I'm in.”

His longevity puts him in an elite level, especially among Europeans who have come to North America to make their mark in the NHL. He now stands alone since passing Czechoslovakian-born Stan Mikita (1,394) several seasons ago.

However, as impressive as 1,500 games is, Lidstrom’s average minutes each night might mean even more. For the last 11 seasons, he has led the Wings in most ice-time per game. And already this season, he is playing more than 24-minutes per game.

“He plays lot of minutes,” said Tomas Holmstrom, who has played in 956 games. “I don’t know, he must average 26-28 minutes. That’s half the game every night for 1,500 games. That’s pretty impressive.”

Impressive is an understatement for defenseman Jonathan Ericsson when he describes what Lidstrom means to him. Ericsson was a pre-teen growing up in Sweden when he began watching Lidstrom. Fifteen years later, Ericsson, who was the 291st and last player picked in the 2002 amateur draft, said that playing along side his idol is still a dream job.
“Nick was my favorite player as well,” Ericsson said. “I had one defenseman and one forward, Nick and Mario Lemieux. That's why I really liked Detroit, too, because Nick was playing here.

“I always looked in the paper to see who was playing that night. If it was Detroit, I set my alarm and watched the game as much as I could before I fell asleep. He put up a lot of good numbers. That's how someone becomes your favorite. Watching him play was very exciting for me.”

And now in his fourth NHL season, Ericsson still learns all that he can – on and off the ice – from Lidstrom.

“He's always been my favorite player, and now I'm sitting next to him and playing with him, I kind of have to pinch myself,” Ericsson said. “I get reminded when I talk to people at home. Now this is part of my everyday process, where you don't think about it as much but people say, ‘You're playing with Nick and sitting next to him and he's like your friend.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, it's pretty remarkable.’ ”

It’s also astonishing to see Lidstrom play at the level that he does and try not to believe that his career will come to a close sooner than later.

“I still take a lot of pride in playing a lot of minutes, and playing against the top lines, and still being on special teams as well,” he said. “It's something that we talked about in the off-season, that they wanted to get the minutes up a little more, and (Babcock) asked me if I was ready for it, if I could still do it? And I said, ‘Yeah, I'm more than willing to play more minutes.’ ”

Red Wings’ fans are glad to hear that too.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill
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