Believe it or not, there was a time when Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was a bundle of nerves.
It was the first game of his rookie season, in 1991-92 at the famed Chicago Stadium. At the time, Lidstrom was an up-and-comer from Sweden looking to make an immediate impression. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even think straight.
“I remember being really nervous trying to get through that first game because it was a tough building to play in,’’ Lidstrom recalled. “I remember the crowd was so loud, I couldn’t hear the national anthem. The Blackhawks had some great teams back then and (Chris) Chelios was with Chicago that year, so it was special to play against them in my first game. It was intense.’’
Lidstrom, who turned 38 on April 28, often is regarded as the top European ever to play in the NHL and it’s easy to see why. For starters, he plays almost 30 minutes a game and he’s usually out against the opposing team’s top line. He’s been one of the highest-scoring defenseman in the League in each of his 16 seasons, with 2007-08 being no different. He led the league’s defensemen during the regular-season with 70 points, 60 assists and a plus-40 rating.
He also quarterbacks the Wings’ power play, which ranked third in the regular-season, and logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill, which was rated eighth. With Lidstrom in the fold, the Red Wings have won three Stanley Cups and six Presidents’ Trophies.
“The perfect game for me is playing strong at both ends, shutting down the other team’s top line and contributing offensively,’’ he said. “Playing a complete game is most important to me.’’
He was nominated for a sixth Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman last week, to go along with his 10 NHL All-Star Game appearances, the 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy and the Olympic gold medal he won with Sweden in 2006. And, oh yes, he eventually did overcome those first-season jitters to earn a spot on the 1992 NHL All-Rookie Team.
“That 2002 season was the most memorable because I won the Stanley Cup and Norris and Conn Smythe trophies in the same year,’’ Lidstrom admitted.
The fact Lidstrom has an opportunity to garner a sixth Norris Trophy in only eight seasons is remarkable and something he doesn’t take for granted. He’s been nominated for the award nine times in the past 10 seasons. There’s a reason his teammates have nicknamed him “Norris.”
“If someone told me earlier in my career that I would have won at least five Norris Trophies, I would have laughed at them,’’ Lidstrom said. “To get just one would have been a great honor for me. Being nominated for so many years is something that I really am proud of.’’
He also takes great pride in conditioning his body for the rigors of an entire NHL season. Remarkably, the six games Lidstrom missed this season with a knee injury was the most he’s been sidelined in his 16-season career.
“I take my off-season conditioning very seriously and work very hard at it,’’ Lidstrom said. “It’s such a long season and injuries can happen for many reasons, but I’ve been lucky. You have to be very mobile on your skates in this era of the NHL. I skate hard and fast and work to the best of my ability every night.
“Skating is very important and being able to read plays and see how they develop comes with experience. Once you play a couple years in the league, you kind of get a tendency of the speed of the game, the players and their tendencies. I feel being able to go from forward to backward, being mobile and having the ability to read plays are so important.’’
Lidstrom, who grew up idolizing countryman and former Maple Leafs captain Borje Salming, credits former player and coach Dave Lewis for much of his success. Lewis spent 13 seasons as an assistant in Detroit before taking over as head coach for two seasons, from 2002-04.
“When I started out here in Detroit, Dave (Lewis) was the assistant coach running the defense,’’ Lidstrom said. “I remember he taught me and Vladimir Konstantinov that you have to play your position well, especially when you’re not the biggest or strongest player out there. Reading the play is something I attempt to do every shift and something Dave felt was important.’’
Retirement is the furthest thing from Lidstrom’s mind at this stage of his hall-of-fame career.
“I will certainly cherish things even more when I retire, but right now I’m still in the middle of everything, working at it every day,’’ Lidstrom said. “I frequently think of one of my favorite hockey moments – that first Cup back in 1997, when old men were coming up to me crying and thanking me for bringing the Cup back to Detroit after 42 years. That memory will always stay with me.
“Playing for Detroit has been incredibly special because guys like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay always come around. The organization does a great job of keeping tradition alive and bringing players back. Those guys will come in and just chat with us and it’s always great for me.’’
It’s only a matter of time before some young, aspiring defenseman will be offering similar thoughts about Lidstrom. Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer