Lidstrom won everything that mattered
STEVE SIMMONS, QMI AGENCY
|Nicklas Lidstrom won seven Norris trophies, four Stanley Cups and one Conn Smythe trophy over his 20-year career. (Derek Ruttan/QMI Agency)
Bobby Orr was easy to define. He took the puck and skated like no one before him, and usually with our mouths open wide in amazement.
He rushed from end to end, controlled the game, sped it up, slowed it down: He was singular in his brilliance, There was no one else like him.
Never has been. Maybe never will be.
Nicklas Lidstrom defined subtlety, which meant it took to years and all kinds of analysis to understand exactly who he was, what he did, and how he did it. He was just there, always there, in the right place at the right time, playing defence, thinking the game, putting the puck where it mattered, rarely turning it over and for all his 20 seasons, altering the fortunes of one of hockey’s elite franchises.
On my list, they are No. 1 and No. 2 — the two greatest defencemen I have seen in the National Hockey League. In fairness, I only saw Doug Harvey as an old man in his final days in St. Louis and never saw Eddie Shore or Red Kelly play on the blueline. This is my 47th year watching the NHL as fan, hockey lover and journalist: For whatever reason — maybe because it’s a thinking man’s position — I’ve always taken a liking to defencemen.
You couldn’t take your eyes off Orr. He was like a bright streak of light. You had to squint. He wasn’t necessarily comfortable in the spotlight — one of the few things he shared with Lidstrom — didn’t have a lot to say, didn’t care to be the focus of anyone’s attention. But his game made him the focus, for as brief as his career happened to be.
Lidstrom, who announced his retirement Thursday, was never the biggest, the fastest, the quickest, the hardest shooter, the big hitter. He was just the smartest player on the ice for almost every game he played over his two decades of sophistication. You saw Al MacInnis and you watched the slapshot. You saw Scott Stevens and you waited for the hit. You saw Larry Robinson or Denis Potvin and there was a commanding presence and overt belief.
With Lidstrom, and all those years of puck control and puck possession, what he did better than anyone who has ever played the position — and that includes Orr — was win. That, more than anything, is his legacy: He won. He won everything that mattered. And then he would win it again and do an aw shucks with his shoulders: He never wanted it to be about him.
He won four Stanley Cups.
He won an Olympic gold medal.
He won seven Norris trophies as best defenceman — one fewer than Orr.
He won a Conn Smythe trophy as the best player in the playoffs — also one fewer than Orr.
And maybe the craziest of all his crazy numbers: In 20 NHL seasons, he missed 43 games and played 1827 regular season and playoff games. Almost 1,100 more games than Orr could manage on wounded knees.
And aside from the Olympic gold and the world championship he won playing for Sweden, everything else he won wearing just one uniform. He was another great Red Wing. Like Kelly and Bill Gadsby before him. Like Gordie Howe. Like Steve Yzerman. Howe is Mr. Hockey. What name, then, for Nick Lidstrom? Even that, over 20 seasons of success, doesn’t come easily.
The tributes for Lidstrom poured in Thursday, but maybe the most meaningful response came from Orr.
“First of all, we’re going to miss him,’’ he told my friend, Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com and TSN. “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.’’
From greatest to almost greatest, one special player to another. Orr isn’t the hyperbolic type. That’s his tribute, his nod of approval.
Ken Holland, the shrewd general manager of the Red Wings, has joked for so many years that he would never have to start a rebuild until Lidstrom retired. There is no joking anymore. You can’t replace the irreplaceable and Nicklas Lidstrom chose Thursday to say his goodbyes.