DETROIT - Never again will a Red Wing wear No. 5. It just wouldn’t be the same to watch anyone but Nicklas Lidstrom pull that jersey over his shoulders.
“Nick Lidstrom was everything you could ever want in a Red Wing,” said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. “Incredibly talented, dependable, consistent, class act, respectful and respected, humble, dignified, a family man, a leader, a champion. It takes a very special player to join the ranks of Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Terry Sawchuk and Steve Yzerman.”
Lidstrom is that special player. And on Thursday night, he saw his number rise high into the rafters to hang alongside the organization’s all-time greats, with many of Detroit’s most notable alumni proudly in attendance.
Lindsay, Delvecchio, Brendan Shanahan, Scotty Bowman, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Tomas Holmstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov were just a few of the many former Wings in attendance, and there wasn’t a lack of smiles between them.
“It’s wonderful, it’s obviously a big celebration for Nick’s time here and his contribution,” Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy said of the ceremony. “I’m very proud I was here for it. It feels like it’s the end of an era, like officially over, that Nick’s never coming back, so it’s kind of mixed feelings. Obviously very proud to have played with him but we’ll never see him play again. Bummer.”
General manager Ken Holland shared Murphy’s feelings.
“I had the pleasure of a front row seat on and off the ice since 1997 to watch one of the greatest defenseman to ever play the game,” Holland said. “Boy do I miss watching No. 5 play.”
No one seated on the red carpet shaped into a No. 5 would disagree. After the ceremony’s notable guests were recognized, the club’s current players formed a tunnel on the ice to welcome Lidstrom, wearing replicas of the jersey he made famous.
But the legend’s introduction wouldn’t be complete without a video recapping his historic 20-year career. The video awed the audience, as they watched Lidstrom’s name being engraved on the Stanley Cup, the “C” sewed onto his jersey, the defenseman hoisting the Cup as the first European-born captain to earn the honor, and everything in between.
The cheers at The Joe were deafening when Lidstrom finally appeared alongside his wife, Annika, and their four boys, Kevin, Adam, Samuel and Lukas.
“Beautiful,” Bowman said of Lidstrom’s celebration. “It’s a lot of history and they did it right, they took their time and it was a great ceremony. The fans loved it, they were all sitting in their seats for an hour it’s a long one but it was great.”
One by one, coach Mike Babcock, Holland and Ilitch stepped onto the puck-shaped podium and tried to put into words just how much Lidstrom meant to the organization since 1991.
“Nick Lidstrom is the type of person, the type of player, you want wearing your jersey, to represent your team and everything we stand for in this city, to carry on the tradition of excellence,” Ilitch said.
Babcock couldn’t agree more.
“For as good a player as he was, he was a better man and a better teammate,” Babcock said. “Beyond no maintenance, led by example, did it right every day whether that was summer training, whether that was preparation, whether that was practice, attention to detail is what he was. His ability to communicate with his teammates and coaches was second to none. Nick Lidstrom is a true model. He’s someone for our community, for Hockeytown, to trust, for the players, to respect.”
After accepting a gift of an African safari from Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall and receiving a 2014 RAM 1500 EcoDiesel truck, it was finally time for the Perfect Human to speak to the sold out crowd congregated at The Joe. But before he could utter a word, Lidstrom enjoyed over one minute of a standing ovation, a telling tribute to everything he did both on and off the ice in Detroit.
Lidstrom thanked his family, 30 guests from Sweden who flew in for the ceremony, Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch, Ram Truck and those who had helped him excel in his career, including Steve Yzerman, Brad McCrimmon, Tomas Holmstrom, and countless others.
The former defenseman also shared just how he came to possess the number that was just minutes away from being retired.
“In the spring of ’91, the first time I walked into Joe Louis Arena, I had my agent Don Meehan with me and I was here to sign my first contract,” Lidstrom explained. “I didn’t know much about the history of the team. I knew that Steve Yzerman was the captain and had played here a long time, but besides that I didn’t know a whole lot about the team. So when the trainer at the time ask me what number I would like if I made the team, I told him ‘I wore No. 9 in Sweden and it would be great if I could get No. 9 again.’ He just said, ‘Kid that just ain’t going to happen.’
“So I came back here in the fall of ’91 and just kept my mouth shut. No. 5 was handed to me.”
And then came the moment that everyone had been waiting for, the moment that Lidstrom never thought imaginable when he arrived at The Joe 23 years ago.
With the arena’s lights off, the spotlight narrowed on a chest with vapor billowing over its sides, and never wavered as the seventh number to be retired high into The Joe’s rafters was slowly revealed. Lidstrom looked on with his wife and four boys as the banner bearing his name and famous No. 5 was lifted to rest next to six other Wings legends.
“When Ken Holland told me that Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch wanted to retire my jersey I tried to put the honor in context,” Lidstrom said. “It’s not like winning a trophy for a successful season or playoff. It’s not like winning an individual trophy. This is something different. This is all about being a Detroit Red Wing.”
Not just any Detroit Red Wing, the Perfect Detroit Red Wing.
Follow Andrea Nelson on Twitter @Nelson_Andrea