- Craig Custance
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DETROIT -- The first text came on Tuesday last week. Red Wings GM Ken Holland received word from his captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, that he wanted to sit down face-to-face Thursday at 9:30 a.m. ET.
That’s when the initial pang of concern hit Holland. It was too early in the offseason for a meeting that would contain any good news about Lidstrom staying.
Two days later, they met.
"We visited for a few minutes, and he told me he made a decision to retire," Holland said Thursday.
Lidstrom took time to put a gap between the playoffs and Detroit's disappointing exit at the hands of division rival Nashville. He started working out again, testing his body and his internal drive to see if he still had the motivation to put in the kind of work you need to do to be successful in the NHL.
The drive wasn't there.
"I didn’t have that fire in me," Lidstrom said.
Some players, such as Lidstrom’s longtime teammate Chris Chelios, empty the tank of every last ounce of effort to stay in the league before making the retirement call. Lidstrom said there was still something left to keep playing. Just not enough to be Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the best defensemen to ever play the game.
"You don't have that push you have to have, that I think you have to have, to play at this level," Lidstrom said. "I know I can't cheat myself and cut corners, especially at this age."
So he made the tough call, even though Holland tried to delay it. He told Lidstrom to take the Memorial Day weekend to see if anything changed.
"I texted him Tuesday morning to say he was on my mind all weekend and that he still had one more really good year left in him," Holland said. "[That] we had a lot of pieces in place with Nick in the lineup, that we could make a few moves, that we could continue to be a team that could contend."
An hour later, Lidstrom returned the message.
"He texted me back and said he was comfortable with the decision," Holland said.
The Red Wings' last-ditch effort was put in the hands of Chelios, who invited Lidstrom out to Orchard Lake in Michigan on Wednesday to go paddleboarding.
At the lake, Chelios took one look at the face of his friend and changed plans.
"After 30 seconds of looking at Nick's eyes and how distraught -- it looked like he just went through a game," Chelios said. "I didn't even have the heart to try and convince him otherwise."
It wouldn't have mattered. Lidstrom isn’t the type to waver. He played with one franchise his entire career and never thought once about leaving in free agency.
The first night he arrived in North America from Sweden after signing with the Red Wings, he stayed as a guest at the house of former Red Wings executive Nick Polano in West Bloomfield, Mich.
"I took him down for practice, and you know the rest of the story," Polano said.
It's a story that will be remembered as one of the best in franchise history. On Thursday, Lidstrom was asked for his most memorable moment and couldn't pick one. Maybe the first Stanley Cup and the unfettered emotion that comes when you're counting down the final seconds while preserving the fourth win in a first championship.
"That feeling, when the buzzer goes, the arena went nuts. The crowd went nuts, the players went nuts. The city had been waiting 40-some years for it," Lidstrom said. "That moment when you’re winning it all ... that moment is something special."
He won three more Stanley Cups, including one in which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Cup to a European captain for the first time in league history. He won seven Norris Trophies and won't ever forget the moment Ray Bourque leaned over to him before the 2001 awards show started and told him he was a lock to win his first one.
Lidstrom played 20 seasons in the NHL and never missed the playoffs. Not once.
How do you pick just one moment?
He'll be impossible to replace, but the Red Wings have no choice. Holland said the day isn't an easy one, but he has his scouts coming in this weekend. They'll go to the Tigers game Saturday against the Yankees and bat around ideas in a suite while watching the game. Over the next few weeks, those ideas will become more concrete. It'll be free agency. It might be with a trade. It'll have to be partially from within.
Still, it'll be impossible to replace the irreplaceable.
"The great thing about life is you have to embrace change. By embracing change, we have a chance to keep doing what we've tried to do here for a long time," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.
There will be change, and there will be a new standard for greatness in Detroit. That's the biggest challenge. For 20 years, Lidstrom was the constant. He was the no-maintenance superstar whose quiet leadership demanded those around him play to his level.
"That’s what makes him so good," Babcock said. "Obviously, he's a superstar who had been touched by God with a wand to be that good, but he was that good a person."
Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall got word from someone in Sweden this might be coming. A message about the Thursday news conference all but confirmed it.
But even as he drove to Joe Louis Arena on Thursday morning, Kronwall kept alive hope that this might be for something else. Hockey fans everywhere in Michigan felt the same way when they woke up Thursday.
"Nobody really wanted to believe it," Kronwall said. "I didn't want to see it coming."
It came. By leaving now, the memory of a near-perfect Lidstrom remains intact. There won't be any images of him playing out his career in another jersey, hanging on for one more shift. The moment he sensed his drive slipping to the point where greatness would suffer, he left.
So that’s what we’re left with. Twenty years of greatness.
"There's no one better," Chelios said. "I got to play with him for 10 years. I played with Larry Robinson, against Bourque, [Paul] Coffey -- different styles, different players. There's no one better."
1dScott Burnside and Craig Custance