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Zetterberg's career ends due to degenerative back condition

Red Wings GM Holland calls captain 'one of the greatest Red Wing players in our history'

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

TRAVERSE CITY -- Only Henrik Zetterberg, his teammates, coaches and trainers really know what it took for him to play in all 82 games last season.

No one realized it at the time, but those were the final games of the Detroit Red Wings captain's 15-year career.

On Friday at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City, as Zetterberg's teammates took the ice for the first day of training camp, the team officially announced that Zetterberg was calling it a career due to a degenerative back condition that has worsened.

Zetterberg went to New York late last week to meet with Dr. Frank Cammisa, the Chief Emeritus of the Spine Service at Hospital for Special Surgery, the doctor who had performed his back surgery in 2014.

After taking new pictures of Zetterberg's back and comparing them with the past ones, Dr. Cammisa consulted with Dr. Doug Plagens, the Wings team doctor.

"For me, I've kind of been living this for a while," Zetterberg said. "Starting in January last year I knew something was not quite right. I found a way to play through that season but kind of mid-summer here when we hoped it was going to get a little bit better and it kind of wasn't. I went to see Dr. Camissa last week and got the final result and nothing really had changed, so that's kind of when it kicked in.

"Obviously, it is emotional. It's been 15 years here. Even though I knew I was on my last couple years, I wish that I could have played a little bit longer."

Because the condition is degenerative, general manager Ken Holland said that there is no solution that would have allowed Zetterberg to safely continue to play.

"Part of the degenerative condition is significant arthritis," Holland said. "Nothing can be done, no back surgery, no rehab, no more time off is going to have any positive impact. Obviously if he plays professional hockey, it's going to accelerate the degeneration and if he does get a bad hit or something, then he's risking a significant back surgery. Henrik has decided that his quality of life is more important than taking the risk of back surgery."

Because Holland and coach Jeff Blashill had known for months that this was the likely scenario, it wasn't as emotional a day as it was at the end of the season.

"Nothing changed from January, February to April, and then after having two months off with doing nothing, nothing changed," Holland said. "It became apparent as we headed towards July the 1st that we were heading in this direction. Again, you're always hoping that you're going to wake up one day in the middle of July and the phone's going to ring and it's Z saying, 'You know what, I feel pretty good. I was in the gym every day for a week and I'm going to kind of take this on a test run.' But that call never came. So I would say to you, you're holding out hope but we certainly realized that this was the direction that we were heading towards."

Zetterberg, whose young son Love just started school last week, said he and his family will remain in metro Detroit for now but he doesn't know what the future holds yet.

He was asked if he was disappointed or at peace with his decision.

"Both," Zetterberg said. "I'm happy with what I've accomplished but in the same way I'd have loved to play playoff hockey last year but didn't get that chance. We have a really interesting group of guys here, young guys that we saw the last few years have been taking steps. It would be fun to be with them a little bit longer but I'm just going to watch and support."

Zetterberg said he felt pretty good earlier last season but things started going downhill in January and he told Blashill he would not be able to practice.

It's somewhat miraculous he was able to play every game and be as good as he was.

"You have good people around you that fix you up," Zetterberg said. "Also, it becomes normal. You learn a lot about yourself, learn a lot about your body, you know what to do to get a little bit better and find a way to get out there."

While his best playing days were behind him as the injury and Father Time took their toll, Zetterberg remained an extremely effective player.

Zetterberg was second on the team in points with 56 behind Dylan Larkin's 63 and was one of just five plus players at plus-1.

"He's a massive hole for a variety of reasons," Holland said. "I think last year he was the fifth leading forward in terms of minutes 5-on-5 in the National Hockey League last year. Obviously played all 82 games. Somebody has to eat up all those minutes. It's not only those minutes. We're trying to go younger and we're going to move some more young people, you need role models and there's no better role model than Henrik Zetterberg."

Holland said the void that Zetterberg leaves will be felt off the ice as well.

"The other thing that he did, and obviously it was a tough year last year, when the game was over, as you all know, whenever we had a loss, he's there, he's a stand-up guy and he was answering all the questions on behalf of the team," Holland said. "He's not there now, somebody else when we lose a game is going to have to answer the questions. It might be some of the younger guys. When you're a young player, you're really just trying to figure out how to be a good player and get better versus answering questions for the entire team."

While Love will no doubt be thrilled to have his dad around more, Zetterberg said his wife Emma will probably have mixed emotions.

"I think Detroit Red Wings have been such a big part of our life for the last 15 years for me, 11 for her," Zetterberg said. "We've been spending basically our grown-up life over here. We have an American son, so it is mixed, but she has seen me go through what I've gone through. I think she's happy I don't have to do that but in the same way also she knows I want to play and so she probably wanted me to play, too."

Although he wishes he could have played longer, Zetterberg won't have any regrets about his career, which includes winning a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy in 2008.

"I didn't see myself lasting those long probably, when I got drafted back in '99 as a seventh-round pick," Zetterberg said. "Been through all the good things and some low things during my career but being in one organization for the whole time, being named the captain of this organization, that's something special. So there's a lot of things. It'll probably kick in a little bit later when you look back to it. Now it's just kind of surreal standing here and talking about I'm done playing. But I've been through a lot, played with some great teammates, had some great teams throughout the years. In '08 winning the Cup probably is the highlight, but also I thought we had some great teams around that, too. In '09 I thought we were close, too. I would say all the guys I played with through the years, had some special bonds with a lot of players."

On the Red Wings' all-time list, Zetterberg finishes sixth in games played with 1,082, fifth in goals with 337, fifth in assists with 623, fifth in points with 960, sixth in plus-minus at plus-160, seventh in even-strength goals with 228, eighth in power-play goals with 100, fifth in game-winning goals with 64 and fourth in shots with 3,455.

It likely won't be long before the Wings raise No. 40 into the rafters at Little Caesars Arena.

While the Red Wings now prepare to move forward into a future that does not include Zetterberg, Holland made it clear where the captain stands in his eyes.

"I think he's one of the greatest Red Wing players in our history," Holland said. "He's got (960) points, he's played almost 1,100 games, he's almost a point-a-game player in the playoffs. When you go to the history of the Red Wings, I think he's sixth or seventh in all-time this, all-time points, this and that, so he's one of the greatest Red Wing players in my opinion in the history of this franchise. In 2005, obviously coming out of the work stoppage, Steve Yzerman was 40ish and Shanahan and Fedorov, basically Lidstrom and Zetterberg and Datsyuk carried this franchise for another decade.

"He carried the torch. Obviously when Nick Lidstrom retired, he became the captain, so he's one of the greatest Red Wing players in my opinion of this storied franchise."

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