With four Stanley Cup victories to his name, Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidström already belongs to an exclusive circle of Swedish NHL players. Last year the defenseman turned 40, but the thirst to win is still there.
Lidström is having one of his best seasons to date despite turning 40 last year. Photo: Carlos Osorio/Scanpix
“I’ve had the best job in the world for 20 years,” Lidström says.
Given the personal awards, the praise heaped on him by the media and the various milestones he has passed, Lidström probably ranks as Sweden’s greatest ice hockey player of all time.
Six times in the course of his NHL career, Lidström has won the James Norris Memorial Trophy awarded to the league’s top defenseman at the glamorous presentation ceremony — not unlike the film world’s Oscars — that traditionally winds up each nine-month season.
Despite all the previous accolades, North American media consider this season to be his best yet.
After almost every Red Wings match, the TV networks’ gray-suited experts draw arrows, circles and crosses to explain how well Lidström gets himself and his team out of tight situations. Newspaper articles are full of descriptions of a 40-year-old who maintains a level of excellence that no-one else can even approach, match after match.
Most of Lidström’s colleagues, past and present, spread across the NHL’s 30 teams in the US and Canada, share this view. When the captain of the Detroit Red Wings is on the ice, he is in a class of his own.
“‘Lidas’ is tremendous,” says New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who played alongside Lidström in the Sweden team that won gold at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
“He’s one of the best in the history of ice hockey. What’s really impressive is that he’s been good for so long, that he’s managed to play at such a high level all the time.”
The modest Lidström attributes his success to three factors in particular.
“Summer training has meant that I’ve been injury-free and always been able to play many matches during a season,” he says. “Then I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always been in a good team and have grown in confidence the older I’ve become.
“Finally, I think it has to do with positioning, your grasp of the game — knowing where to be on the ice.”
The acclaim showered on him is one of the things that drives Lidström to constantly seek improvement.
“I read what’s written about me and it acts as a spur,” he says. “It makes me want to maintain the same level of play — or better — in every match.”
Positioning is one of the key strengths in Nicklas Lidström's game. Photo: Christian Petersen/Scanpix
When Nicklas Lidström was seven, at home in Avesta in central Sweden, he began playing land hockey with his friends in the street before joining a small local club, Skogsbo.
It was not until his early teens that he began dreaming of becoming a professional ice hockey player in the National Hockey League.
“You didn’t read much about the NHL in the papers in those days, maybe just once a week,” he says.
“But it was via the papers and the occasional TV clip that I tried to keep up with how the Swedes over there were doing — people like Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, Håkan Loob, Kent Nilsson and Thomas Steen.”
After playing for Dalarna County in Sweden’s annual youth tournament screened live on TV, Lidström moved to the city of Västerås at the age of 16 and began developing rapidly, aided by a tougher training schedule and the opportunity to work endlessly on details in his game.
Finally, after seeing him play in a match in the Swedish top division in 1989, the Detroit Red Wings expressed an interest in the young defenseman.
“Originally, I was invited to go over and watch from the stands during the draft, but just before it was time to go they phoned up and said they didn’t want me to come. They didn’t want another club to catch sight of me and grab me before it was their turn to choose.”
During the 1991 world championship finals, Lidström signed his first NHL contract. He did not move to the US, however, until the Canada Cup tournament (nowadays called the World Cup) had been completed later in the year.
Things went well in his first NHL year, but it was during his third season that his career and the acclaim really began to take off. His confidence and his time on the ice both increased, and by the mid-1990s he was firmly established as a star defenseman.
Then in 1997, Detroit won the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than 40 years.
Since then, Lidström has added three more championship medals to his collection, along with an Olympic gold and a number of individual awards, including the Conn Smythe Trophy for the best player in the playoffs in 2002.
Anders Kallur and Stefan Persson, who dominated the NHL in the early eighties with the New York Islanders, and Tomas Holmström, Lidström's team mate in Detroit, are the only other Swedish players to have won the Stanley Cup four times.
But what makes Lidström a more prominent figure than his compatriots is the manner in which he has won his titles.
“The 2002 victory was special for me, since I became the first European to win the Conn Smythe, and in 2008 I got to lift the cup myself, as team captain.”
Lifting the 2008 Stanley Cup as captain — one of the highlights in Nicklas Lidström's long NHL career. Bruce Bennet/Getty Images
In the Swedish national team, Lidström has impressed somewhat less, but he has the bragging rights to scoring the winning 3-2 goal against Finland in the Olympic final in Turin.
Fittingly enough, the two other greats of Lidström’s generation, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg, assisted him in that goal. Of the three, Lidström is the only one still active.
Today, Lidström’s successful defensive style is something other defensemen in the NHL seek to emulate.
This was particularly obvious in the case of the reigning champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, who decided to produce their own copy of the Swede.
“I heard about that,” says Lidström. “It was a reporter from Chicago who told me that the club had screened a video of my game for Duncan Keith, to help him improve. That kind of thing is always flattering to hear about.”
What was Chicago trying to copy?
“I think it was about tactics, placement, decisions on the ice both with and without the puck, and also how I move.”
Lidström’s age and his expiring contract have caused North American bloggers, columnists and TV commentators to speculate frequently on whether or not he will continue to play next season.
So far, however, Lidström has not delivered his verdict.
“I still think playing ice hockey is fantastic fun, but I don’t know if I’ll keep going,” he says. “I’ll decide at the end of this season.”
Anders Wallin is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He is a regular contributor to Swedish news agency TT and has an NHL blog on the website of daily Dagens Nyheter.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Stephen Croall
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