DETROIT – It didn’t end quite the way anyone wanted it.
But for many of the Red Wings who got to play with Daniel Alfredsson for one season it was a tremendous opportunity to learn from one of the world’s greatest players.
“He was a player that I looked up to, and he established himself as a hard-working guy right from the beginning,” Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. “To have him in the locker room last year was great. We have a lot of good leaders on this team but his words carried a lot of weight. It was great to have him. It would have been great to have him this year as well. He was great on the power play, especially, the way he played there. We’ve been missing him for sure.”
Regrettably, Alfredsson’s illustrious career was brought to a conclusion Thursday when he announced his retirement in Ottawa. He signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the Senators, and plans to join the team on the ice for pregame warm-ups before tonight’s game against the New York Islanders at Canadian Tire Centre.
“Today is a special day for him and his family,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “You get to look back and you go through all the years at how good you’ve been, and for the Ottawa Senators to let him do what he’s doing today and retire a Senator the way he should I think is a real, real special thing.”
Alfredsson spent the first 17 seasons of his NHL career in Ottawa, where he was team captain from 1999-2013. He retires as the greatest player in franchise history, holding club records for goals (426), assists (682) and points (1,108).
In July 2013, Alfredsson shocked the hockey world when he left the Senators to sign a one-year, free-agent contract in Detroit, where he made an immediate impact with his new teammates, especially the young and impressionable players on the roster.
“His presence was definitely known,” Wings center Riley Sheahan said. “He had a calm, soothing attitude so when things weren’t going your way he was there to pick you back up with just little things in the game and show ways to play. He definitely helped me with some good advice.”
For some time, however, Alfredsson has been dealing with herniated disks in his lower back. The persistent pain caused by pinched nerves limited him to 68 regular-season and three playoff games with the Red Wings last season.
“The unfortunate thing with Alfie when he was here was he was hurt all the time and he always had the tingling going down his leg,” Babcock said. “That makes it hard to train the way you want to train, to be as quick as you want to be in games because you can’t practice. And if you can’t practice … it’s a hard league.”
Still, despite his limitations, Alfredsson remained a definition of class, even leading the Wings in scoring (18 goals, 49 points) during a season of adversity with some many injured Wings players last year. He had hoped to sign on with the Red Wings for at least one more season.
Team officials were patient with Alfredsson, giving his back time to heal, but several times his recovery went in reverse. In September, he often skated on his own at Joe Louis Arena, trying to prepare himself for the rigors of training camp and a long, grueling season that awaited him. But he soon besieged by setbacks and epidural injections offered little relief.
“I talked to him,” forward Johan Franzen said. “He still had problems with the back. I know he was skating, but it was hard for him. He wanted to play. It’s like when one leg that doesn’t want to follow, it’s something with the back that just doesn’t want to happen. It’s too bad. He had a great career.”
More than 250 Swedish-born players have crossed the Atlantic to play in the NHL, and only Mats Sundin has compiled more goals and points during his career than Alfredsson, who also starred on five Olympic teams for Sweden and help that country win the gold medal in 2006.
“Obviously, he’s meant very much for Swedish hockey and in Ottawa as well,” said forward Gustav Nyquist, who was six years old when Alfie break into the league. “I’m very lucky to have played a full season with him and learned a lot from him. You understand why he could play so long, how hard he works. Just the way he carries himself off the ice is something special.”
Franzen first met Alfie in Innsbruck, Austria. It was 2005 when the pair was joined by Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg on Sweden’s world championship squad.
“I remember my first time meeting him,” Franzen said. “He came in and it was just like greatness. I was a young kid and you have so much respect watching those guys and he came in and was just so humble. Such a great guy, real easy to be around.”
In his first NHL season, Alfredsson set a high standard for himself, producing 61 points in 82 games to win the 1996 Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. In the next 14 years he put together 11 seasons of 70 or more points.
“No doubt, he was a great leader,” Franzen said. “You can’t get enough of those on a team. He knows what it takes to win. He comes to play every day. He’s one of those guys that gets it done every day somehow. I played with him before on the national team. I’ve always been impressed with him with the level of skill he has out there. I’m just happy to be able to be part of one of his years as a hockey player. That’s something special.”
Ericsson feels blessed to have played with two Swedish icons as he has in Detroit with future hall of famers like Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ericsson said. “You live in this moment all of the time, I mean, we’re all hockey players, but I think from all of my family and friends back home they think it’s so big. That’s when you think about it and how big it really is, and how fortunate I am to be where I am. The people at home remind me.”