By Ashley Dunkak
JOE LOUIS ARENA (CBS DETROIT) – As the national anthem plays before the puck drops for another Detroit Red Wings game at old-school Joe Louis Arena, coach Mike Babcock always gazes up to the rafters. Every time, the collection of names and numbers of the franchise’s all-time greats – Terry Sawchuck, Sid Abel, Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio – catches the coach’s eye.
Soon Nicklas Lidstrom’s No. 5 will join that revered group. Lidstrom, whom Babcock coached for years, will have his own place in the rafters, and Babcock sounds honored to have worked with the 20-year Red Wing and 10-time All-Star. In his lengthy career, Lidstrom helped Detroit to four Stanley Cups and won the Norris Trophy seven times.
“You don’t get to touch generational type players very often in your career, and when you’re fortunate to be around one as great a person as Nick is, and as great an athlete as he was, it’s pretty special,” Babcock said Wednesday. “So it’s great to join him and his family in the celebration of him.”
The coach said there is no question Lidstrom made his job easier, not just with remarkable ability on the ice but also with a presence in the locker room.
“When you have a real good pro who does it right each and every day and doesn’t mind communicating with his teammates or with the coaching staff, you can gather a lot of information from him to help you be a better coach and help your players to be better and you to be a better team,” Babcock said. “He had one of those minds. He’s a real composed guy who has a good feel for what’s going on with people in the room and what’s needed to have success. He was around a ton of winning. In those seven years that I coached Nick, he won the Norris Trophy four times, I think he averaged like 60 points a year, was like plus-176. We got 100 points every single year. He’s a pretty good player.”
Babcock credited Lidstrom with making Detroit’s franchise what it is now. While the last couple of years have not been stellar, the Red Wings have emerged as contenders with startling consistency. They have made the postseason in 22 straight years, and during Lidstrom’s tenure the team won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
“It’s a totally different program we have going here right now, obviously, than we had when Nick was here – and maybe not so much the last couple years, but especially my first five or six years here, we were as good as any team in hockey or better,” Babcock said. “He was a big part of that.”
Niklas Kronwall, who has played in Detroit since the 2003-2004 season, said what stuck out to him most about Lidstrom was the low-risk, high-reward nature of his play.
“When you’re younger, you’re taking more chances,” Kronwall said. “Playing alongside Nick and on the same team, you get to see how he doesn’t really take a lot of risks, but yet he’s out there being the best player every night.
“It’s one thing to play against somebody, but once you get to play with somebody that you really get to see how good they really are,” Kronwall added. “We were so spoiled having Nick in the lineup for so many years that you kind of take for granted, and you don’t realize it until he’s not here anymore, how good he really was.”
On the ice, the Red Wings still miss Lidstrom, widely renowned as one of the best defensemen of all time, and they hope he enjoys the festivities Thursday, when Detroit will retire his number with a special pregame ceremony.
“I hope that he gets to just enjoy it, sit back and kind of relax and enjoy the whole thing,” Kronwall said. “Nick is just one of those guys that whatever you throw at him, he just finds himself in a comfortable position. I think he’s going to enjoy it and have a good time with it.”