Nick Lidstrom doesn’t block shots. He doesn’t body check anyone. He’s never thrown an elbow. His next fight will be his first.
The greatest hockey defenseman of his time, or maybe of any time, isn’t supposed to be so mild-mannered. He isn’t supposed to be less physical than a second baseman.
Lidstrom, the Red Wings all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years. In hockey playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.
Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x 80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.
There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.
He’s 41 and despite his lack of wear and tear, Lidstrom is on the back end of his career. Only a delusional fool would believe otherwise.
The topic came up Monday night on “The Knee Jerks,” the podcast I co-host each week with Big Al Beaton of The Wayne Fontes Experience.
What will life be like, we wondered, when Lidstrom neatly folds his sweater and hangs up his skates?
The word “terrifying” came up, more than once.
It’s an annual question—one that we ask without really wanting to know the answer. You ask the question and then bury your face in something, shivering.
Last spring, Nick made us sweat a little bit more than normal. It took several weeks after the Red Wings were once again eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, for Lidstrom to consent to play his 20th season.
They could hear the sighs of relief fromDetroitall the way to, well,San Jose.
It’s not just that Lidstrom has played 20 seasons, or that he’s played them flawlessly, or that he’s the perfect teammate, or that he seamlessly took over as captain from Steve Yzerman, no less—which is like a singer stepping onto the stage right after a set by Sinatra and no one noticing.
No, it’s that Lidstrom has done all that while hardly missing a game.
His games played column reads like an early-summer thermometer: 76, 78, 80, 77, 79, 80, 81.
The spooky notion of no more Nick Lidstrom is just as much the fear of the unknown as anything else.
We don’t want to think of the Red Wings without Lidstrom because we haven’t really seen the Red Wings without Lidstrom since before he was a Red Wing.
It’s History 101.
The last time a Red Wings roster didn’t list Lidstrom’s name, George Bush The First was President. The Pistons were defending NBA champs—but they were the Pistons of Isiah and Dumars, not Chauncey and Hamilton.
There was no Internet.
The kids graduating high school this year were still two years from being born.
Need I go on?
Lidstrom’s longevity is one thing; his durability is quite another.
As much as Yzerman is revered inDetroit—and he should be—Steve wasn’t exactly an Iron Man, unless you count his days spent in those hyperbaric chambers. Stevie Y was more Iron Lung thanIronMan.
Yzerman missed games in chunks, due to various injuries. He was the anti-Lidstrom, in a sense.
There was a serious knee injury in 1988. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As Yzerman got older, his body broke down more frequently. He played the 2002 playoffs on a knee so mangled that he managed to report to work for just 13 games the following season, recovering from the knee’s reconstruction.
There was more time lost in the 2005-06 season, Yzerman’s last as a player.
So we had heaping spoonfuls of Red Wings life without Steve Yzerman, making his retirement no less sad—just less of a shock to the system.
Not so with Lidstrom, who has played with mind-numbing consistency and Lou Gehrig-like durability.
We have not been prepped for Lidstrom’s retirement.
If the Red Wings fan base thinks that another Lidstrom is being groomed, or that he can in anyway be replaced, forget it. Not going to happen.
This is no affront to Niklas Kronwall or Brad Stuart or Jonathan Ericsson or to any of the prospects in the Red Wings’ system.
Players like Nick Lidstrom come by once in a franchise’s lifetime—if that.
How will the Red Wings ever replace him?
Did the Boston Bruins replace Raymond Bourque?
Yzerman, for all of his Hall of Fame worthiness, was in the process of being phased out by the time he retired in 2006. The cache of forwards the Red Wings employed made Stevie’s departure easier to digest.
All the Red Wings can do when Lidstrom finally bids farewell—and it’ll be sooner rather than later—is take a deep breath, exhale, and hope that they have a defensemen corps that can band together and do one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of things.
Because if you think he’s going to be replaced, you’re mad.
The Red Wings have had four—four—players who’ve played 20+ seasons for them: Lidstrom, Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.
This is significant.
The Montreal Canadiens, for all their history and Stanley Cups, have had just one player—Jean Beliveau—play as many as 19 seasons for them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had only George Armstrong play 20 seasons wearing the Leaf.
The New York Rangers have no 20+ year men.
The Boston Bruins have only Bourque, who played a tad over 20 in Beantown.
The Chicago Blackhawks had Stan Mikita for 21 years. That’s it.
The Red Wings have had four such men. It’s significant.
The most recent of the Red Wings’ 20+ Year Men might leave a void that none of his predecessors left—not even Howe, for Gordie “retired” with the team well on its way to being miserable for an entire decade.
How do the Red Wings replace Nick Lidstrom?
I guess he’ll just have to keep playing until we figure something out.
(Greg Eno is a freelance sports journalist and has been following the Detroit Red Wings since 1970. You can follow him on Twitter @GregEno and also read more of him at www.GregEno.com)
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