When Nick Lidstrom first suited up for the Red Wings in 1991, George Bush was president—the first Bush. The Tigers’ first baseman was Fielder—the first Fielder. Joe Dumars was hard at work at the Palace—as a player. The Lions were having a season that would find them in the NFC Championship Game.
It was a long time ago.
In 1991, we had no idea that this Swedish defenseman, an NHL rookie, would grow up to be the greatest blueliner of his time—and maybe of all time.
It wasn’t like when Bobby Orr burst onto the scene in the 1960s. With Orr, greatness seemed inevitable. Orr was unlike anything we’d seen before. Before Orr, no defenseman made an end-to-end rush. No defenseman could skate like Orr. No defenseman could pass like Orr.
NHL defensemen before Bobby Orr treated the rink as if there was a force field beyond the center red line. They were among the worst skaters and were often placed on defense because of that lack of ability. Being a defenseman was like being the kid deposited into right field during a game of pickup baseball. Or the street football player who was told on every play to “go long.”
The NHL defensemen of the Original Six era scored exactly one goal each, every season. They had more bruises on their body from blocking shots than they had points. They had names like Doug Harvey and Leo Boivin and Moose Vasko. They were so heavy on their skates they created divots on the ice.
So when Orr arrived, it was like when the electric guitar first screeched on the nation’s 45s.
A guitar can do that?
A defenseman can skate? Shoot? Pass?
Nick Lidstrom snuck up on us. He didn’t do anything in a flashy way. He didn’t wow us. He didn’t reinvent the position, like Orr did.
All he did was play it perfectly—for 20 seasons.
That’s the irony of Lidstrom’s career, which came to an end in one of those press conferences in the bowels of an arena where the athlete toiled. The end came, as it always does, with the athlete wearing Armani instead of Nike and speaking into a single microphone instead of the cluster that is thrust at him in the locker room after the game.
When the news broke yesterday that there was a press conference called for today involving Lidstrom and GM Ken Holland, didn’t we all feel like we were told that the coach wanted to see us, and that we’d better bring our playbook?
We all knew. We tried to theorize that there was some reason, any other reason, for the presser.
But we all knew.
The irony is that Lidstrom was the Perfect Defenseman yet he managed to do so in a manner that rarely stood out.
When you ask a hockey person about what they liked most about Orr there is quite a menu.
When you ask a football fan about Barry Sanders and what they liked most, you might as well have a seat.
Back to the Red Wings: ask someone who watched Steve Yzerman play in Detroit for 22 years about Stevie’s characteristics and the superlatives will flow: toughness; determined; focused; warrior; leader; heart and soul.
But ask the same folks about Lidstrom and there’ll be yammering and stammering before the person finally blurts out “Perfect!”
Yes, that sums it up, but how can someone play his position perfectly yet leave so few words for us to use to describe the perfection?
It was clear that when we paid to see Barry Sanders, we paid to see him juke, twist, stop and start and split into two in order to avoid a tackle.
We paid to see Cecil Fielder hit a baseball over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium—or strike out mightily trying.
We paid to see Yzerman play on one leg, gut through a horrific eye injury, and grind his way over, around and past the Colorado Avalanche.
But what did we pay to see Lidstrom do?
Using a hockey stick like a skilled surgeon would wield a scalpel? Never being out of position? Seeing the rink like Bobby Fischer would see a chess board? Playing the angles like Minnesota Fats played the cushions?
Lidstrom did all of that, but it wasn’t “pay to see it” stuff.
Perfect isn’t exciting. We’re more enthralled by the imperfect with style and panache.
Lidstrom had neither style nor panache. He appeared to blend in, until you bothered to stop and recall a time when he made a mistake—and couldn’t think of one.
So what now, with the announcement of Lidstrom’s retirement this morning?
Well, the Red Wings can go out and sign free agent Ryan Suter. But frankly, they could sign three Suters and I’m not sure it would be an upgrade. And that’s no knock on Suter, any more than saying three Ford Mustangs aren’t an upgrade over a Lamborghini.
First, when discussing the Red Wings without Lidstrom, please refrain from using the R-word.
You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.
All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.
But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now.
The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.