Thursday, May 31, 2012
Lidstrom was the class of his generation
By Pierre LeBrun
In another era, Scott Niedermayer would have won more than one Norris Trophy. He certainly had the all-world game for it.
The future Hall of Famer, however, shared a similar career timeline as a guy named Nicklas Lidstrom.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt he was the class of our generation on defense," Niedermayer told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Seven Norris Trophies speaks to that."
The only player with more Norris Trophies echoed the sentiment about Lidstrom.
"First of all, we’re going to miss him,’’ Bobby Orr told ESPN.com. "Putting aside the injuries last year, the guy still played awfully good hockey. After 20 years, to continue to perform like he did in his 20th season, in my mind that’s incredible. He was still a superstar, a key player for the team. Off the ice, the way he’s handled himself, he’s just class, he’s a classy gentleman. He’s represented our game as well as any player. To perform the way he did for 20 years, that’s special. That’s a special player.’’
Lidstrom’s retirement Thursday left the NHL with a chasm to fill in the sport, not just on the ice, where he was the very best at what he did, but off it, where his class and demeanor made him this generation’s Jean Beliveau.
Those are skates no one will ever fill.
"One of the classiest guys I ever met, and he’s going to go down as one of the very, very best defensemen of all time, no question," former star blueliner Rob Blake told ESPN.com on Thursday.
Lidstrom was actually runner-up to Blake for the 1998 Norris Trophy, Blake’s one inscription on the prestigious award.
"I caught him before people realized how good he was," Blake said, chuckling. "I snuck one in before he soon reeled off seven. He just dominated. He never missed games. That absolutely amazes me."
That durability was certainly a trademark of Lidstrom’s career. He was hardly ever hurt. Hardly ever missed a game. And, certainly, he was hardly ever a player who got crushed or blindsided. He was too smart to get caught. Always in the right position.
"Nick played the game like a chess match," former Wings teammate Brendan Shanahan told ESPN.com on Thursday.
"He definitely had his own unique way of playing the game," said Niedermayer. "You get to thinking about how he played, you never really saw him with the puck on his stick for 10 to 15 seconds skating with it or making plays that way. It’s like when you teach kids now in whatever sport, you say, 'Let the ball or the puck do the work.' He took that to the highest level you could in terms of moving the puck and putting it in a place where your team could get it back. His shot from the point was rarely blocked. He was a very smart player, probably one of the smartest players to ever play the game. And I think that’s why he was so good."
Lidstrom didn’t have those classic end-to-end rushes like a Niedermayer or an Orr. He didn’t hammer people like Scott Stevens. All he did was deliver over and over again every single night -- the right pass, the right read, the right positioning -- with the kind of consistency perhaps unmatched in the history of the game.
It was the repetition of those perfect little plays that amounted to an incredible player.
"His highlight reel may not be the flashiest things, but they’re the most effective," said Niedermayer.
"He’s never out of control," said Shanahan. "I don’t ever remember him having to recover on a play, hustle back and recover. ... Never mind just games, I never saw him make a mistake in practice."
Lidstrom’s consistency could sometimes fool an outsider into thinking he wasn’t that noticeable in a game.
"I don’t feel like he ever had to take over a game, but he never didn’t have it under his control already," said Shanahan. "I feel like some other defensemen could suddenly take over and be splashy and make a remarkable appearance late in the game, I don’t know that that was Nick, because he was that way from the start to the end."
That consistency was a trademark on and off the ice. Practice habits, routine, demeanor -- you name it. It’s why his teammates dubbed him "The Perfect Human."
"I don’t know if you can say anybody is perfect, but Nick is pretty darn close," former teammate Chris Chelios, and a future Hall of Famer in his own right, told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Whether it’s leadership on the ice, off the ice -- the person and the player -- you learn a lot from a quality guy like that, just like I did from Steve Yzerman. I’ve never seen a guy more composed than Nick, nothing ever rattled him. His demeanor on and off the ice -- he handled adversity as well as he handled success."
At 42, there’s no question Lidstrom could have played another few years. But he called it quits, just a year after winning his seventh Norris Trophy.
"It’s a tough decision," said Niedermayer. "Even myself, before I was thinking, 'Yeah, one day I’ll just wake up and just retire. It won’t be that difficult a decision.' But the reality is that it truly is. Everybody has an opinion about the right time to retire. After having gone through it, I personally believe it’s a very personal thing. You hear people say, 'Retire on top,' and that type of thing. I don’t know what meaning that really has. If a guy still wants to be out there, wants to compete, I think that’s great. It’s a personal thing."
And the adjustment to real life after being among the elite of the elite at your craft is difficult.
"It’s going to be a big change," said Niedermayer. "He doesn’t probably know what he’s getting into and what his life will be like. You just have to be flexible and be ready to make adjustments. But it is a tough choice for sure."
Chelios hung on as long he could, playing until he was 48. But he understands Lidstrom’s decision not to push it that far.
"Everything he’s done so far since I’ve known him has been perfect," said Chelios. "And this decision he made, he’s the only one who knows it, deep down he feels he made the right decision and I have to agree with him because I’ve never seen him do anything wrong."