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Thursday, March 6, 2014
Wings gather to say 'Thanks, Nick'

By Craig Custance
ESPN The Magazine

Nicklas Lidstrom
Nicklas Lidstrom's No. 5 was raised to the Joe Louis Arena rafters.

DETROIT -- There are countless stories that articulate why those describing Nicklas Lidstrom typically start by saying he's an even better man than he was a player.

This particular one includes a media exchange, because that's where we interacted with him the most.

It was the playoffs and the Red Wings had just lost. Memory suggests that it was during Detroit's 2009 run to the Stanley Cup finals, but there were so many postseason games during his reign in Detroit that they have since blended together.

As he always did as captain, win or lose, Lidstrom stood and answered every question after the game, if for no other reason than so his teammates didn't have to.

During that particular loss, the Red Wings had a two-second 5-on-3. Maybe it was even one second. Either way, it was completely inconsequential. Completely.

At one point in Lidstrom's scrum a reporter asked about the two-man advantage that lasted a blink of the eye. They wondered how big an impact it had on the game. Whether or not it was the difference in the loss. Believe me when I say it wasn't.

Anyone other than the Perfect Human would have smirked, maybe fired back a sarcastic response, especially with emotions at a high immediately after a playoff loss.

Nicklas Lidstrom
Nicklas Lidstrom always remembered the words of his first defensive partner, Brad McCrimmon: "If you do it well, you can be a star."

Not Lidstrom.

He politely answered the question, without even the slightest hint of annoyance. He explained that it was such a short time that there really wasn't a chance for the Red Wings to capitalize. And then he moved on to the next question, sparing the uninformed questioner what could have been an embarrassing moment.

It was pure class. And there's no doubt everyone who interacted with Lidstrom -- fans, arena workers, coaches, teammates, front-office executives -- each have their own story illustrating Lidstrom's professionalism.

On Thursday night in Detroit, Lidstrom's No. 5 was raised to the Joe Louis Arena rafters, the number retirement ceremony a reminder of what this team, this city is missing. At one point, as he spoke to his fans in perfect clarity, without even the slightest crack in his voice on what had to be an emotional night, he paused and a fan from up high filled the void.

"Don't leave us Nick!" they shouted, with approving cheers immediately following.

They miss him in the cheap seats and they miss him on the ice. On the night they were honoring one of the best players in their history, the Red Wings entered the game one point outside the final playoff spot in the East, behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. That didn't happen when Lidstrom was around. He never missed the playoffs. He won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies -- his career accomplishments laid out over a necessarily long pregame ceremony to get it all in.

Highlights from his career were shown, reminders of his remarkable hand-eye coordination, a gift that allowed him to keep power-play attacks alive by thwarting clearing attempts from opposing penalty killers. And that shot from the point -- it was always perfectly aimed, if not in an attempt to score than to strategically place it where Tomas Holmstrom could tip it by helpless goalies.

All the subtleties of his game added up to one of the most distinguished careers of his era, one of the best defensemen to ever play the game.

That career was appreciated again on Thursday night with stories and accolades from event emcee Ken Daniels, coach Mike Babcock, general manager Ken Holland and Christopher Ilitch, representing his father, Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.

A large group of former teammates and coaches, including Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, Scotty Bowman, Vladimir Konstantinov, Mathieu Schneider, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood -- too many to list them all -- were on hand. Steve Yzerman couldn't make it but provided a sincere video tribute. Teemu Selanne sent a tribute video as well.

Over 30 friends and family members from Sweden made the trip for the honor.

The family of the late Brad McCrimmon, who died in the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in Russia in 2011, was there to represent the first NHL defensive partner Lidstrom ever had. It was McCrimmon, in a story relayed during Lidstrom's speech, who once told Lidstrom that to be a pro, you have to show up to work every day.

"If you do it well, you can be a star," McCrimmon told him.

McCrimmon's words came true. Lidstrom showed up for work every day. He became a pro, in every facet of the game. On the ice. Off the ice. In the room. With the media. Really, it was perfection.

"Thanks, Nick," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said in wrapping up his portion of the night. "It's been a real privilege for all of us."