By: Will Burchfield
Henrik Zetterberg had been eyeing the number for a while. He knew he was close.
How happy he was to finally reach it — at home, in front of the fans, in a much-needed win.
Zetterberg’s second-period goal in Detroit’s 3-1 victory over Carolina on Saturday night, the 335th of his Hall-of-Fame career, moved him into a tie with Ted Lindsay for fifth most in franchise history. The milestone was especially meaningful to the Red Wings captain because of his friendship with the man who got there first.
“It’s special to have with him,” Zetterberg said of Lindsay.
Lindsay has meant a lot to the game of hockey. On top of all that he accomplished on the ice, he led the fight to form the NHL’s players’ union back in 1958. He’s a Hall-of-Famer whose mark on the game will never fade.
He’s also meant a lot to Zetterberg. The two have developed a close bond over the course of Zetterberg’s 15-year career in Detroit, one franchise great watching the rise of another.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him here when we come back from the road trip,” Zetterberg said. “Hopefully he’ll sign that stick.”
Following Zetterberg’s goal, a deft redirection between the circles on the power play, the video board at Little Caesars Arena highlighted his achievement. The cheers began slowly at first, gained steam as the crowd became aware of the moment and crescendoed in a standing ovation. Zetterberg was shown on the bench, and he thanked the fans with a wave of the glove as his teammates came to their feet and banged their sticks against the boards.
It was about as loud — and soulful — as it’s been in the shiny new arena.
Zetterberg, who dealt with a crippling back injury in 2014 and has emerged stronger on the other side, felt the love on Saturday night just like he felt it as a rookie in 2002.
“It’s awesome. I think we have the greatest fans here. They stood by me in good and bad for 15 years here, so it was nice to score that goal here at home,” he said.
Zetterberg kept the puck, one of a few he’s collected during his remarkable career. It’s a career that no one saw coming, Zetterberg included. He was a seventh-round pick (as if any Wings fan needs the reminder) in the 1999 draft. 209 players were chosen before him. Not one of them has achieved the same level of success.
He’s a Cup winner, a Conn Smythe winner and a Clancy Award winner. He’s one of the greatest players ever in a franchise that has seen more than a few greats. He could never have envisioned this when he moved from Njurunda, Sweden to Detroit, Michigan, 15 years ago.
“No, no, not at all. Late bloomer,” Zetterberg said. “For me to think that I would last this long and have a chance to play with all these great players for this long, I would never think that.”
Yet here he is. And he isn’t lingering. The 37-year-old is far from the over-the-hill vet who’s playing out the string, the faded star who’s sticking around for milestones. He’s one of the best players on his team, a team that’s almost impossible to imagine without him.
“It was pretty cool,” Trevor Daley said of watching Zetterberg tie Lindsay.
Then Daley smiled and shook his head: “He also played 25 minutes tonight, which is pretty amazing. Good for him, he’s a special person.”
The official number was 24:28, by far Zetterberg’s most this season and the 10th most of his career. Jeff Blashill would rather not heap so many minutes on one of his oldest players, but lately Zetterberg hasn’t been giving him a choice.
“Part of that is for the last month he’s been our best player on a nightly basis. Doesn’t really practice much and just goes out there,” Blashill said. “He’s so hyper competitive that he just refuses to lose battles. Combine that with his hockey sense and his skill set, and you get certainly one of the great Red Wings.”
By now, Zetterberg is destined to join Lindsay in the Hall of Fame. Heck, he’s a shoe-in — right?
“I can’t believe he wouldn’t be,” Blashill said. “For me, you should judge people as winners. … Winners, to me, are the guys that can carry teams to wins, the guys that play complete games and the guys that do all that. He has to be one of the best of his generation.”
It can’t be stressed enough how vigorously, and how improbably, Zetterberg has rebounded since the back injury that threatened to end his career. In the four seasons since then he’s racked up 226 points. Only one player who’s older — Joe Thornton — has recorded more. 170 of those points are assists, right in the neighborhood of Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar and John Tavares, three of the best centers in the league.
Niklas Kronwall, who’s played alongside Zetterberg for the past 14 seasons and who fittingly assisted on his milestone goal Saturday night, has a keen appreciation for what keeps his countryman going.
“He’s just one of those guys who will do whatever it takes to play,” Kronwall said. “He surrounds himself with the right people, and the hours and the work that he puts in, it’s pretty remarkable. It’s been pretty awesome to watch from a close range.”
Kronwall himself has battled through injuries the past few seasons, and has found Zetterberg to be a source of inspiration.
“I feed off him. I see what he’s gone through and that just makes you want to do the same thing. Not that it’s any close, by any means, but anytime you go through something, all you have to do is look at him,” Kronwall said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dylan Larkin, the 21-year-old who grew up cheering for the player he now calls a teammate. Larkin is the heir apparent to Zetterberg, which means so much more than being an elite two-way center. It means representing the Red Wings. It means honoring the winged wheel. It means gaining unanimous respect. (No pressure, kid.)
To that end, Larkin watches Zetterberg carefully. He tries to emulate his play, of course, but also his character. Over the past few days, as Zetterberg drew within one goal of Lindsay’s record, Larkin saw the same old Z. That resonated with the youngster.
“It’s pretty special the way he carries himself,” said Larkin.
Maybe, one day, Larkin will join Zetterberg and Lindsay on the Wings’ all-time leaderboard.
“Well,” he said with a smile, “that’s a lot of goals.”
With the Wings taking to the road for the next five games, Zetterberg won’t see Lindsay for a couple weeks. When the team arrives home, he may well have passed Lindsay in the goals department. Surely, he’ll poke his pal in the ribs and let him know.
“We’ll see,” Zetterberg grinned. “I’m pretty happy where I am right now.”