Remembering One of Detroit's Greatest
I never had to live through the pain of it all. I’ve only heard the horror stories from my grandfather, father, aunt and uncle – all devoted Wings fans themselves. But between the golden years fueled by none other than Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, and the last twenty years of Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman, Detroit was worlds away from Hockeytown.
The Wings took home 4 Stanley Cups from 1950 to 1955, and remained a title contender for another decade or so while Gordie racked up a seemingly insurmountable pinnacle of 801 goals, but ’55 would be the franchise’s last cup for quite a while.
From 1967 to 1983, the Wings would only make the playoffs 2 times.
The rough periods in the 70s and early 80s have been classified with many labels. First there was “Darkness with Harkness,” when General Manager Ned Harkness seemed to be pulling all the wrong switches, especially when trading away talented youngster Garry Unger in ‘71, reasoning that Unger’s hair was too long – he would then go on to star with the Blues, and total over 400 career goals.
There was even the “Dead Wings” label that started to grow even after the Harkness period, which ended in ’74. The ’77 team went 16-55-9, the ’81 team went 19-43-18, and it wasn’t until 1988 that the Wings topped 40 wins for the first time since ’55.
Thanks mainly to two players acquired at the end of the 80s, the “Dead Wings” would become extinct.
The first, of course, was Steve Yzerman, who became the face of the team when he was just a shade over 20 years old. He’d go on to score 692 goals (8th all-time), win 3 Stanley Cups, and most importantly, give a sports-craving city the type of hard-working, intelligent, competitive, and charismatic leader it needed.
Yeah, he was pretty darn good.
But here we are six years after that sad, sad evening we realized we wouldn’t see a number 19 on the ice anymore, and the Wings have made another six straight playoff appearances and added yet another cup to the trophy case.
The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs, I was less than two years old and Nicklas Lidstrom was a 19-year-old who had been drafted by the Wings before the season. It’s hard to think of any team ever having a more successful draft than the Red Wings did in 1989 when they took Lidstrom with 53rd overall pick, the offensive spectacle Sergei Fedorov with the 74th pick, and the tough-nosed brick-wall of a defender Vladimir Konstantinov with the 221st pick. Fedorov is a probable hall-of-famer who tallied almost 500 goals in his career. Konstantinov was emerging into one of the game’s top defenders before the heartbreaking limousine accident. And Lidstrom is inarguably one of the greatest defenders the NHL has ever seen.
Detroit’s streak of 21 straight post-season appearances dwarves any other attempts at the streak – San Jose’s current streak of 8 in a row is second since the NHL expanded to a 16-team playoff. Now I’m not going to say that with Lidstrom gone, the streak is bound to end next year of the year after, but it’s pretty difficult to replace a player whom teammates refer to as “The Perfect Human” so we’ll have to wait and see.
In order to put together such a steadily dominant streak like the 21-straight, you need something consistently reliable, something that you can always count on, and there may not be anyone in the past two decades of sports (strictly talking the 4 majors, here) who has been as steadily dependable as Nick.
This past season was the only one in Lidstrom’s career (not including the lockout shortened ’95) where he failed to play at least 76 games. Injuries held him to measly 70 this year. You can talk all you want about the 7 Norris trophies, the 2002 Conn Smythe, or the 12 All-Star games, but for me, it’s all about devotion. Going out there every night of the season for 20 straight years shows absolute dedication, and it’s an absolute pleasure for any fan who knows they’ll see that number 5 every time they’re turning on their TV set or heading down to the Joe.
If we were ever to lose Lidstrom these past two decades, it wouldn’t have been to injury, but to the other devotion in his life. After the Wings won the cup in ’99, Lidstrom was considering going back home to Sweden because his oldest son was about to begin school. With his two devotions somewhat pit against each other, Lidstrom made the choice to stay on with the team he had already done so much for, and now it’s Nick’s time to be with his family.
Just as a means of comparison, Chris Pronger is the next best defender of the past twenty years – as much as I hate to admit it as a die-hard Wings fan. Pronger entered the league two years after Lidstrom, but has been held under 76 games 8 times. Now I understand that Pronger is a more aggressive player who has more of a history of injuries, but I think it takes a specific talent to be able to avoid injuries in such a fast-paced, action-packed game, and Lidstrom was surely loaded up on this skill, like if Cal Ripken had to continue his streak while lumberjacks where hammering away at his knees – no offense MLB, but we’re talking hockey here.
We’ve still got number 40 and number 13 roaming around the ice for us and a pretty solid looking number 35, so the team is still in good hands thanks to one of the best front offices in all of sports. But it will surely be sad to never see a number 5 looming at the opponent’s blue line.
Guess we’ll have to just look up to the rafters, instead.
Rarely a down moment, Nick. Thanks for the memories.