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Wings were sure of Lidstrom's qualities

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

When Nicklas Lidstrom strides to the stage Monday to deliver his Hall of Fame induction speech, Bryan Murray, Nick Polano and Jim Lites might be thinking back to 24 years ago when they weren't sure if he even deserved a contract offer from the Red Wings.

"We went to the World Championship in Finland in 1991," said Murray, who at the time was Red Wings coach and is now general manager of the Ottawa Senators. "Detroit had already drafted him and wasn't sure if he could play or not. So I went over with Nick Polano and Jim Lites and watched him against the Russians."

Lidstrom was highly regarded by only the Red Wings when they selected him in the third round (No. 53) of the 1989 NHL draft. He was barely a blip on the radar to the other 20 NHL teams.

Christer Rockstrom, Detroit's European scout, saw through Lidstrom's wiry frame and soft demeanor to notice his hockey sense. But Lidstrom was not a regular in the lineup for his senior team in Vasteras and wasn't known in international hockey circles.

In the two years after his draft, Lidstrom made a bit of a name for himself playing for Sweden in the 1990 IIHF World Junior Championship, but he was frail and soft, especially for the NHL.

That's why Polano, who was Red Wings assistant general manager, and Lites, their vice president, needed Murray to see Lidstrom.

"I think after three or four shifts I turned to Nick and Jim and said, 'So what's the question about this guy?'" Murray said. "I was like, 'He looks like a star.' Right at that point, there was a faceoff in the Russian zone, the puck came down to him, and he put it under the crossbar from the blue line, so I had a feeling he'd be a pretty good player."

Lidstrom became one of the greatest defenseman of all-time, a four-time Stanley Cup champion and seven-time Norris Trophy winner, one shy of Bobby Orr's NHL record. Lidstrom retired after the 2011-12 season and is entering the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

He became the first European to captain a team to a Stanley Cup championship and win the Conn Smythe Trophy, in 2008. The Red Wings also won the Cup with Lidstrom in 1997, 1998 and 2002, and made the Cup finals in 1995 and 2009.

He became a member of the IIHF Triple Gold Club by winning the World Championship (1991), Olympics (2006) and Stanley Cup.

Lidstrom finished his NHL career with 1,142 points on 264 goals and 878 assists in 1,564 games. He was plus-450. He is the NHL's all-time leader among defensemen with 590 points on the power play, and second behind Chris Chelios with 40 shorthanded points.

Lidstrom is fifth among defensemen in games played, ninth in goals, sixth in assists, sixth in points, and sixth in plus-minus.

"He made the game look easy, and it's not easy," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "In every situation, he was your guy on the ice. He could do it all. He had no weaknesses."

Rockstrom discovered Lidstrom through contacts in Vasteras. He mentioned his discovery to Neil Smith, then Red Wings chief amateur scout. They made a pact not to say anything to anyone outside their inner circle, which included general manager Jim Devallano and Holland. They even had to ward off agent Don Meehan, one of the top power brokers in the game, from talking about Lidstrom to other teams.

"Donnie said to me, 'Do you know a kid in Sweden named Lidster?'" Smith said. "And I said, 'Lidster? I don't know Lidster. Doug Lidster?' He said, 'No, no, Lidstrom.' I go, 'No, I don't know any kid named Lidstrom.' Well, I've known Donnie forever and he goes, 'Neil, come on.' So I said, 'OK Donnie, but don't you tell anybody about him.'"

Smith said he told Meehan not to bring Lidstrom to the draft in Minneapolis out of fear someone would see him, figure out who he was, and get curious.

"Christer wanted it to be a secret that I had a lot of potential," Lidstrom said.

Word never got out. How could it?

Lidstrom barely played for his senior team in the 1988-89 season (19 games) and his lone appearance with Sweden prior to the draft was in the European Junior Championship in 1988.

"He was off the beaten path," Holland said. "Christer saw him, liked him, took Neil over to see him, and they decided early on that he was going to be our third-round pick. They felt comfortable that nobody would even go watch him."

Lidstrom signed his first NHL contract not long after the Red Wings contingent saw him play in Finland. A few months later, he convinced himself he could play in the NHL by playing well for Sweden in the Canada Cup.

"It gave me confidence knowing I could play against the best Americans, the best Canadians, the best Russians," Lidstrom said. "So going to training camp, I felt confident that I played against the best."

Lidstrom had 60 points in 80 games as a rookie. He said his first defense partner, Brad McCrimmon, gave him the confidence to be a presence offensively.

Detroit finished fourth in goals for (320) and sixth in goals against (256) in 1991-92. Lidstrom was on the NHL All-Rookie team. Hall of Fame forward Pavel Bure won the Calder Trophy.

"[McCrimmon] really helped me to develop as a player and kind of let me be that offensive guy," Lidstrom said. "He would stay at home and cover me if I was out of position. He was a key guy to play with for my first year. He's one of the reasons I had a real strong first year."

Lidstrom said Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman gave him the confidence to become a Hall of Fame player.

"Scotty elevated my game from being a young, talented player to when I hit my prime. He was playing me a lot, in all different situations," Lidstrom said. "Scotty kind of just let me play my game. He didn't try to change my game. He let me play my game and he was playing me a lot, so I took that as 'I'm doing something right here.'"

Lidstrom laughs when someone brings up his nickname. He credits former Red Wings teammates Chris Osgood and Kris Draper for calling him "The Perfect Human" for the first time.

"I think some of the reporters overheard it and that's how it all got started," Lidstrom said. "Then, I think it got carried away from there. I'm sure [Osgood] was the one who kept the nickname up. I chuckle about it when I hear it."

It's not really a joking matter to the people who use the nickname. They're serious about it.

Lidstrom had an aura of perfection about him, from the way he played to the way he dressed to how he put on his equipment to his family and the way he lived his life.

"What set him apart is his consistent level of excellence," Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman said.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock once said Lidstrom is so good "he tapes his stick better than everyone else."

"We used to call them Nickisms; when he did something better than everyone else, we tried to teach everyone else how to do it," Babcock said. "He taught us about the game."

Lidstrom's apparent perfection was on display whenever he played, which was almost all the time. He missed 44 games in 20 seasons, and some were as a healthy scratch because Detroit had clinched the Presidents' Trophy and was resting him for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which the Red Wings never missed during Lidstrom's career.

"He was touched by a wand from God to have that skillset and mind like no other," Babcock said. "He could slide sideways in the neutral zone, you'd try to go rink-wide on a pass and he'd cut that pass off. He could slide on the blue line, show shot, find a lane and get it on net like no one I have ever seen. He never got hurt because he didn't get hit."

Lidstrom said his hockey sense was his best attribute. He credited it for his ability to avoid injury and to become the NHL's all-time leader in minutes played (29,968:52).

"You couldn't touch him," Babcock said. "Believe me, they tried to get him every night, but it just didn't happen. He was too smart, too evasive, and he knew what was going on."

So did Murray as soon as he saw Lidstrom play against the Soviets while sitting in the stands at the 1991 World Championship.

Three shifts, maybe four, was all it took. Murray was hooked. The Red Wings were all in. Lidstrom was coming to Detroit.

"The rest is history," Holland said.

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