What happens between the end of the season and summer tournaments…that’s right we find other sports to talk about!

In a massive departure from my usual ramblings, I’m going to talk about ice hockey.

No…don’t switch off yet…this is worth it…

For those that aren’t familiar, ice hockey is a game of incredible endurance, speed and physical danger, even before you get to the skill involved. It can be hard to follow for the uninitiated, but for a combination of speed and tension it is on a level with football. As opposed to the equally fascinating but more cerebral charms of cricket.

By far the strongest ice hockey competition in the world is the NHL (National Hockey League) in the United States and Canada, and playing there is the primary aim of any ambitious player. The rewards vary massively with success, so a Rooney equivalent can earn up to $9m a season, whereas  a Chamakh  might be on $550k a season. Below the NHL, except for the top players in Russia, the competition level and earning potential drops off significantly. The money is well earned though. The players play an 82 game regular season (sometimes on consecutive nights), and if their teams are successful, up to as many as 28 post season playoff games. In a winning team, stamina is vital!

The reason I’m mentioning this, is that yesterday a gentleman by the name of Nicklas Lidström (yes he IS Swedish!) retired from my favourite team the Detroit Red Wings. This is where things start to become vaguely relevant. I am a Red Wings fan for several reasons. Firstly, they were my favourite team on NHL91 (or was it 92?) when me and my best mate at the time fed our megadrive addiction, partly because they played in red, partly because of the hot wheels logo, and partly because over the few years we played they had lots of cool sounding exotic names, such as Tomas Sandstrom, Sergei Federov, Paul Ysrbeart, Vyachislav Kozlov and Nick Lidström and Steve Yzerman.

Being in the UK it was very hard to find out much about the US NHL scene, so beyond the computer games and the odd random magazine article, my association went no further. My appetite was whetted when a trip to Canada took in a live game, and I wanted to know more. Then the internet happened.

BOOM! Suddenly it was possible to find out about all kinds of things at the touch of a button. I was doubly fortunate because the digital revolution coincided with an upturn in Arsenal’s fortunes after the lost couple of years in the mid 90s, but much more spectacularly for the Red Wings, leading to a whole host of articles, web sites etc popping up. I kept finding more reasons to like the club and more parallels with Arsenal.

Firstly, the Detroit Red Wings were an organisation with a long and significant history. They have been owned by 2 families in the last 86 years, and for the most part have been responsibly run.  In a previous incarnation they were basically one the first significant Ice Hockey teams in the USA that still exists, and they went on to become one of the ‘original six’, i.e. the first six teams who formed the embryonic National Hockey League across Canada and the USA. There are now 30. Much like Arsenal they started slowly but found their first run of success in the 30’s before a second more sustained period of success in the 50s. This was followed by a barren period that would make Arsenal fans of the mid 70s feel better, basically 40 years without a Stanley Cup title, despite a few close calls. For about half of that time, the team was mired in a permanent period of under-achievement and poor managerial appointments, and they became known as ‘the dead wings’. The League had continued to expand rapidly, and they were being left behind.

That is until 1983, when a man by the name of Steve Yzerman made his debut. He is the real reason I became a strong red wings fan. Though principally an attacker, he was the Ice Hockey version of Tony Adams, without the drink problem or the Steve Morrow buccaroo. Like Adams he came into the team as a teenager, and, like Adams, became club captain at the age of 21, the youngest in the team’s history. He then went on to enjoy captaining the team to its most successful run in nearly half a century, winning the Stanley Cup three times, and becoming consistent diners at the top table. He remained a one club man, retiring after countless injuries (including captaining the team to success basically on one leg in 01/02) in 2006. He was widely recognised as a player who had adapted his style and approach, not only to increase his own contribution, but to set an example to others, and his captaincy transformed the team. He has played the second most games in team history and has enjoyed mixed results managing elsewhere, with the hope of returning to his team.

The team currently is slightly struggling to replace its incredibly talented team of a few years ago, (the 2002 vintage was comparable to the Arsenal invincibles – It had a record number of future ‘hall of fame’ players and won the top prize fairly comfortably in the end, taking on an imperious quality towards the latter part of the season) despite another success in 2008. This is made even harder by yesterday’s announcement of the retirement of Nicklas Lidström.

Lidström took on Yzerman’s captaincy mantle, but was already recognised as a key man before then. He also has only played for one team at the top level. He also has had a career with said team spanning more than 20 years, and he is a setter of many milestones:

NHL

  • First European-born and trained Norris Trophy winner* (2000–01).
  • First European-born and trained Conn Smythe Trophy** winner (2001–02).
  • Fourth defenseman (and first European-born and trained defenseman) in NHL to win James Norris Memorial Trophy* three years running (2001–2003, 2006–2008), and third seven-time Norris Trophy* winner.
  • First European-born and trained captain of a Stanley Cup-winning team (2008).
  • First European-born and trained defenceman to reach 1,000 points.
  • Sixth defenceman (and 28th player overall) to reach 855 career assists.
  • Most regular season games played by a player born in Europe, any position (1564).
  • Most regular season games played by a player in a career spent with only one team (1564).
  • Most regular season wins played in (900).
  • Active leader in games played any position (1564).
  • Oldest player ever to record his first hat trick (40 years old)
  • Oldest defenceman ever to record a hat trick (40 years old)
  • Oldest Norris Trophy* winner (41 years, 57 days) (2010–2011)

 

* The Norris Trophy (named after the first owner of the Red Wings) is the trophy for best defenceman in the NHL. Kind of a players player of the year for defenders.  He was also runner up a further 3 times. This officially makes him the second best player in his position ever. What is most extraordinary is that he won his first at the age of 31, and his last at the age of 41.

** The Conn Smythe Trophy goes to the player deemed most valuable to their team in the playoffs. It nearly always goes to attacking players.

These are just the league wide records, not the ones for his own team. There are two further things that make his career even more remarkable. The first is that despite retiring at the age of 42 he was still the best defenceman on the team last season. By a distance. I suppose when you are used to being the best in the world, then best on your team is less exciting.

The second is that in a sport dominated by giants, he has consistently demonstrated that intelligence, good instincts and hard work can beat size, strength and speed. Lidström’s ability to read the game allowed him to be at the right spot of the ice at the right time and rather than delivering a big body check, Lidström preferred to steal the puck seamlessly, through incredible control of his skates, stick and body position. He was the best despite never doing anything unnecessary or potentially dangerous, and had a natural grace that comes from economy of movement.  His cerebral approach also helped him to avoid injury and avoid being penalized by officials, and he barely missed a game throughout his career. In his career he was on the ice for over 500 goals scored more by his team than the opposition (essentially a +500 goal difference!) and leads all the points scoring tallies for defensive players for Detroit Red Wings. The totals are not comparable to football, but he either set up or scored a goal every 1.4 games – despite being the team’s best defender for almost all of his 21 year career.

If his club achievements weren’t enough, he won the world championships with Sweden, and to top it off scored the winning goal in the final of the 2006 Winter Olympics. He is basically the best player of the last 20 years anywhere. Even more remarkable is that he wasn’t a prodigy destined for greatness. North American sports use the draft system to ensure parity, and he was the 53rd player selected in the entry draft, meaning that there were 52 players deemed to be better than him in that year alone. That’s a bit likepicking up a player that Barca have let go from their academy and it turns out to be Lionel Messi…

He is also very well known for his selflessness, graciousness, politeness and modesty. He hated being centre of attention, and would always praise him team-mates and management before himself. Most players in any sport have to learn a team first ethic, including Yzerman etc, but Lidström had it from day one, very much a product of his small-town Swedish upbringing. (There is a long digression about Swedish culture waiting to burst out, but now is not the time!).

If Yzerman was Tony Adams to me, then Lidström was ice hockey’s Paulo Maldini. Never flash, never dirty, always gracious and still the best. No wonder his team mates used to wind him up  by calling him ‘The Perfect Human”.

Nick Lidstrom retirement piece on NHL.com

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