By Michael Caples -
You know how Detroit Red Wings employees refer to Nicklas Lidstrom? They call him the “perfect human being.”
Niklas Kronwall mentioned the nickname to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN in December 2010, while LeBrun was working on a piece very similar to what I’m arguing against my friends Darren Eliot and Kevin Allen right now. But the name – perfect for Lidstrom – goes much further than his on-ice abilities, which are second to none.
Lidstrom is perfect at everything.
He nails any Red Wings TV promo in one take. He never, ever, ever says no to an interview. He is a tremendous ambassador for the team when meeting fans, whether they are 8 years old, or 80.
And he treated a scared-out-of-his-mind-Red-Wings-intern with respect every time he needed to get a quote for an article, which said intern will appreciate for the rest of his life. And by ‘said intern’, I mean me.
It’s hard for me to write this argument, considering I grew up with Steve Yzerman posters on my wall and have been lucky enough to have Mr. Hockey throw an elbow my way a few times while walking down the hallways of Joe Louis Arena. But, like with any difficult decision, you have to make a choice – and my choice is Lidstrom.
Let’s get the obvious statistics out of the way. Lidstrom is the only European to ever captain a team to a Stanley Cup championship. He is a 12-time NHL all-star during an era shared by the likes of Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, Ray Bourque, Scott Neidermeyer, Rob Blake, etc. And those seven Norris Trophies on his resume – only one behind Bobby Orr – speak for themselves.
But how’s this for a stat – over 18 NHL seasons, Lidstrom has only missed 32 games. Thirty-two games in a league where forwards are bigger and faster than they have ever been before, and are fearless when it comes to charging at defensemen after dumping the puck in. Night after night, Lidstrom is on the receiving end of bumps, hacks (OK, well he obviously delivers a few back), and checks that would take their toll on any athlete. Yet Lidstrom continues to lead the Wings on the ice, playing against the top forward lines of the opposition, and putting up gaudy statistics at the same time. He outlasted Yzerman, and who’s to say how long Howe could have played in this day and age?
Yzerman has a library full of highlight-reel moments. Howe would have been on SportsCenter on a near-nightly basis had it existed back then. But the fact that Lidstrom has built a legacy by being incognito to the cameras is even more remarkable. With the obvious exceptions of those timely goals to give the Wings the lead, Lidstrom is at his best when he’s unidentifiable to the casual fan. Die-hards will notice how his passes are always tape-to-tape, how quickly he jumpstarts a breakout, how he always seems to double in body mass in time to hold the puck in at the blue line. His game is in the details, thus making him the quietest of the three when it comes to “Who’s the best?” Yet we’re not talking about flashiness here. We’re talking about who performed – who excelled – at their job better than the rest while wearing the Winged Wheel.
Yzerman was the public face of professional hockey’s revival in Detroit. His ability to captivate the fans in Hockeytown saved the franchise. But the reason the Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997 is because of their ability to cultivate talent from across the pond. And that credit should go to Lidstrom more than any other player. Since his arrival in 1991, No. 5 first served as the perfect success story when convincing others to pack up and head to Detroit. Then, in his progression of star to legend, Lidstrom grew into a mentor and leader for the transplanted talent. Would the Wings have seven Swedes and 10 total Europeans lead the Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2008 without Lidstrom’s leadership in the locker room? Lidstrom didn’t open the door to Europe for the Red Wings, but he served as ambassador, liaison, counselor, and leader for those who walked through – the primary reason the Wings have had more success than any other team over the last 20 years.
Lidstrom is the definition of a warrior. He has played in more games than Yzerman, and he has lasted longer than Stevie age-wise. Nobody can top the longevity of Howe, but that goes back to the argument of less competition, smaller players, and less travel. Plus, the fact that Lidstrom has never missed the playoffs means that from the first day he put on a Red Wings jersey, he was experiencing eight straight months (or more) of hockey from jump-street. Yzerman played six seasons that led to long summers before Lidstrom showed up.
The majority of arguments like these end with a statement on who won more championships, so I might as well follow through on today’s sports discussion traditions. Lidstrom has more Stanley Cup rings than Yzerman, he’s tied with Howe, and he’s not done just yet. So I’ll finish with these two questions. First, how many Cups do you think Lidstrom would have won if he was competing against five other teams, rather than 29 other teams? And lastly – Nick won without Stevie, but would Stevie have won without Nick?
Lidstrom has done his job to perfection, night after night. While that job doesn’t mean he is on Sportscenter every morning, it’s the reason the Wings win, and win, and win some more. Without him, there would be no dynasty in Hockeytown. And for that, he’s the best Red Wing of all time.
To read Darren Eliot’s argument for Steve Yzerman, click here.
To read Kevin Allen’s argument for Gordie Howe, click here.