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Zetterberg: 'One of the greatest Wings of all time'

Wings celebrate their captain for reaching 1,000 games on special night at Joe Louis Arena

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT - It takes a unique person to go from being a seventh-round draft pick to becoming a Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner and eventual captain of an Original Six team.

It all started when Jim Nill, then the Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager, and Hakan Andersson, director of European scouting, were at a hockey tournament in northern Finland to watch one player but a different player caught their eye.

That player was Henrik Zetterberg, who played in his 1,000th career game as the Red Wings closed out Joe Louis Arena Sunday.

"What we liked was he was always on the puck," Nill said. "He was very tenacious. Back then he was probably about 5-9, 140 pounds soaking wet. You look at a guy that's not very strong, he's not a fluid skater at the best of times, so you can imagine back then when he was weaker, how he looked.

"But there was just something about him. He wasn't the prettiest looking player out there, but he just was always on the puck, always doing the right things. Now you fast forward to 15 or 20 years later, here he is, he's gotten stronger and that same player plays the same way and he's turned himself into one of the elite players of all time."

Zetterberg only grew to 5-11 or so but built himself up to 197 pounds of muscle.

The Wings ended up selecting Zetterberg with the 210th pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.

Zetterberg is only the fourth player from that draft to reach 1,000 career games, joining Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata.

The Sedins were taken with the second and third overall picks in that draft by Vancouver and Vrbata was taken two picks after Zetterberg by Colorado.

Daniel Sedin has 370 goals and 616 assists in 1,225 games while Henrik Sedin has 237 goals and 784 assists in 1,248 games. Vrbata has 279 goals and 330 assists in 1,015 games.

Zetterberg has 326 goals and 578 assists in 1,000 games.

"He's just got a burning desire to be great," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "That burning desire took him from a late-round draft pick to one of the best two-way centers of his generation. He could have cheated for more points throughout his career; he never cheats, but yet he's always put up real good points and won tons of games and has put teams on his back and he's just got a burning desire to be great."

In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Zetterberg was the youngest player named to Team Sweden and one of just a few not already playing in the NHL.

"I got to play against him actually in 2002 in Salt Lake at the Olympics, Sweden beat us in the first game," Steve Yzerman said. "It was my first look at him live and he was really good, made a great play on his backhand 2-on-1 and from that moment on, it was just like, wow, this guy's really good and he has never looked back."

The Wings put Zetterberg right next to Yzerman in the dressing room.

"The day that he came into the organization, he was professional, very mature," Yzerman said. "A professional in the way he conducted himself on a daily basis from the way he practiced, the way he played. He was going to be Henrik whether Nick (Lidstrom) or I was there or not. He just had special qualities of a leader. Tremendous hockey player, tremendous all-around player. From day one, he had all those abilities, which I really admired because a lot of us had to learn that stuff and he knew it as a young man."

Lidstrom, who played with Zetterberg on Team Sweden, including the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy when they won the gold medal, remembers Zetterberg as a quiet, shy kid when he first arrived.

"We had pretty good teams there when he first joined the Wings," Lidstrom said. "He was a quiet guy but I thought he produced right away. I think he scored 20 goals (22, along with 22 assists) his first year, kind of found his role in a way behind Stevie and some of the older players we had. Eventually him and Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) took over as leaders for this team. He's had a great career and it's still going."

People around hockey knew about Zetterberg, but everyone realized what he was about after seeing him in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, when the Wings faced the Pittsburgh Penguins and their 20-year-old superstar, Sidney Crosby.

Every time Crosby jumped onto the ice, Zetterberg immediately hopped on.

Zetterberg was matched up so closely with Crosby that the joke was he followed Crosby to the restroom.

"I know he frustrated Sidney Crosby," Nill said. "I don't think Sidney Crosby enjoyed playing against Henrik Zetterberg because Henrik, he was tenacious. He's on the puck, he's strong on the puck, you're not going to intimidate him. When he's out there, it's his puck and he's going to do it the right way."

The Wings won the series in six games and Zetterberg hoisted the Conn Smythe trophy, only the second European-born player after Lidstrom to do so.

Unlike Lidstrom, Zetterberg faced some adversity in terms of injury as he spent several years dealing with a troublesome back.

Zetterberg was honored to be named captain of Team Sweden at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But after playing in one game, a herniated disc forced Zetterberg to withdraw from the tournament and return to the United States for immediate surgery.

No one expected Zetterberg to play again that year unless the Wings went on an extended postseason run.

The Wings faced the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs and although Zetterberg was still recovering, he returned to play in the final two games of that series.

"He was bound and determined to get back and try and help his team go on a playoff run," Wings general manager Ken Holland said.

The Bruins won the series, but Zetterberg had once again demonstrated that will and determination that he has always possessed.

Zetterberg entered the 2016-17 season with another injury as he hurt his knee in offseason training.

Although Zetterberg couldn't play for Team Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey and missed all but the last preseason game, he made sure he was ready for the Wings' season opener in Tampa Bay on Oct. 13.

Blashill came into the season thinking that he needed to reduce Zetterberg's heavy workload so he started Zetterberg on Frans Nielsen's wing.

That experiment lasted just two games, as the Wings lost 6-4 at the Lightning and 4-1 at the Florida Panthers.

Blashill returned Zetterberg to his familiar role as top-line center and ended up playing the 36-year-old more minutes than any other forward.

"I looked at diminishing his minutes going into the year and all he's done is demand that he plays more, so he's been an elite player in this league for a long time and continues to be," Blashill said.

Only defensemen Mike Green (23:33) and Danny DeKeyser (21:57) averaged more ice time than Zetterberg's 19:43.

On a team that collectively finished minus-187, Zetterberg was plus-15.

One thing that motivated Zetterberg this past offseason was the way he finished the previous season.

Last season in 49 games before the All-Star break, Zetterberg had nine goals, 24 assists and was plus-5.

In the 33 games after the All-Star break, Zetterberg had just four goals, 13 assists and was minus-20.

This season in 49 games before the All-Star break, Zetterberg had an identical nine goals, 24 assists and was plus-8.

In the 33 games after the All-Star break, Zetterberg had eight goals, 27 assists and was plus-7.

"Last year I played a lot of games but not a lot of good ones," Zetterberg said. "I had a tough ending of last season so that's one thing I wanted to improve on this year and it's been better."

Watching from afar as the Dallas Stars general manager, Nill was hardly shocked.

"I know people were kind of starting to say is this the demise of him, but not surprised at all to see how he bounced back and led the team again," Nill said. "That's Henrik Zetterberg."

In the league, Zetterberg was 25th overall in scoring with 68 points. Of the 25, Zetterberg was the oldest by at least four years.

"You look at this year when he's 36 years of age, in a league where everyone is talking youth and he's in the top 30 scorers in the National Hockey League, especially the second half of the year he's really taken his game to another level," Holland said.

Zetterberg said he's learned to make adjustments as he gets older.

"I think you just have to realize you're not 24 anymore and you've got to do what the body can handle," Zetterberg said. "It doesn't get easier the older you get. Kronner (Niklas Kronwall) and I are joking around about that every day, especially when we see all the young guys here coming in fresh as a daisy every morning. Me and Kronner look at each other and wonder how we're going to make it out to the ice."

Kronwall was limited to 57 games because of a chronic knee injury, but Zetterberg has played in all 82 games for two straight seasons.

"Really this year what he has done is probably the most impressive out of all the years he's played," Kronwall said. "At this age, just his level every night, he's our best player every night. A lot of people say he's getting older, yeah, that's a number on a paper, but Hank is still Hank."

Zetterberg often gives credit for his resurgence to playing with some younger linemates but usually it's his wings who benefit from playing with him.

"The thing I've learned the most is his patience, especially playing with him, he is OK and he understands that nothing might happen for 59 minutes and he really preached to me that we just wait for our chance and wait for our chance and wait for our chance, play the right way, play the right way and once the other team makes a mistake or there's a chance to go or a time that there's an opening then he'll take advantage of it," Dylan Larkin said. "As a young guy you don't think like that and it's something that's a style of play that has the team in his mind first and he's never taken chances that will end up in our own net."

It's not just the young players who want to learn from Zetterberg.

Nielsen, 32, said he's been an admirer of Zetterberg's for a long time.

"I liked playing against him. But now being on the same team, he does all the little things I think the normal fan doesn't always see," Nielsen said. "But everything he does out there is right, he never does anything wrong out there. He always makes the right plays, he's always in the right position. It's just awesome to see, especially for a guy like me playing center. It's amazing just watching him. Even sitting on the bench, I like watching him closely all the time because you can learn so much from a guy like that."

Because of the festivities to celebrate the last game at Joe Louis Arena, the Wings honored Zetterberg before he played his 1,000th game Sunday.

Wings legend Ted Lindsay represented the NHL and gave Zetterberg a Tiffany crystal, team president Chris Ilitch gave him a Rolex and alternate captains Kronwall and Justin Abdelkader gave Zetterberg a golf trip on behalf of the team while Zetterberg's wife, Emma, his young son, Love, and his father, Goran, looked on.

"It was a nice ceremony to have my wife, my son and dad on the ice," Zetterberg said. "It's something that I'll always remember. That it ended up to be this game, the last game at the Joe, a lot of guys came back. I actually thought it was for me. It couldn't be a better game because I played a lot of games with a lot of players that were in this weekend so they're a big part of those 1,000 games."

In true Zetterberg fashion, he then went out and had a goal and an assist in the Wings' 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils.

"It was fitting, not only for his career, but for this season," Blashill said. "He's been our best player night in and night out."

Zetterberg made it to 1,000 games and proved he still has a lot of hockey left.

"He's a warrior, he's a competitor, he plays with pride, he's a tremendous leader on an off the ice," Holland said.

"One of the greatest Red Wings of all time."

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