Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom perfect to the end

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Perfect. That's the word we use to describe Nicklas Lidstrom, and that's the word we should use to describe his retirement. He went out the same way he played for two decades, with grace, at the highest level. He didn't try to do too much. He didn't make a mistake.

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Red Wings superstar Nicklas Lidstrom retired after 20 flawless seasons in the NHL. (AP)

The captain of the Detroit Red Wings looked more like he was 32 than 42 as he sat on the podium Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. His face was tanned and youthful. His hair had not receded, had not a hint of gray. He said he was aware some people think that his skills have "only diminished some" and that he could still help the team win.

Those people are right. There is no doubt he could still outperform the vast majority of defensemen in the NHL for the foreseeable future, especially because of his ultra-efficient style, brains over brawn. As general manager Ken Holland said midseason: "I think he can play two or three more years. Easy."

But Lidstrom has set his own standard, and that is a straight line of excellence drawn from 1991-92 to 2011-12, unparalleled. Seven Norris Trophies. Four Stanley Cups. A Conn Smythe. Incredible statistics. He never missed the playoffs, and he was never going to let himself slip. He would not risk staying too long. To him, saying he has "only diminished some" means he has diminished too much already.

Lidstrom was great because he stayed composed when others couldn't. He saw things develop before others could. He made smart decisions, the right play at the right time. He avoided hits and stayed healthy.

And that is how he left.

"Retiring today allows me to walk away from the game with pride," he said, "rather than having the game walk away from me."

One last time, Nicklas Lidstrom was a step ahead.

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It was unfair to call Lidstrom "The Perfect Human." Nobody's perfect, not even him. And sometimes his spotless performance and quiet personality worked against him. He was too often taken for granted because there were no downs to illustrate the ups. He was never beloved quite like his predecessor as captain, Steve Yzerman, who transformed himself from a slick scorer into a gritty leader. Who can relate to perfection? How can you celebrate a triumph over adversity when there isn't any?

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Lidstrom won four Stanley Cups and seven Norris Trophies during his magnificent career. (Reuters)

Still, Lidstrom lived up to the label somehow. If he lacked any love or attention, he never seemed to mind. He was never rude. He always had time for everyone.He was as close to perfect as a player and person could be, the definition of consistency and class, the ultimate high-performance, low-maintenance superstar. Actually, Holland called him "no-maintenance. "

He retires as the best defenseman of his generation and one of the three best in the history of hockey. Bobby Orr won the Norris eight times. Doug Harvey won it seven times, like Lidstrom did. Though Orr could have won it more had his knees not given out, Lidstrom could have won it more, too. He was underappreciated early in his career, a three-time Norris runner-up, and the 2004-05 lockout erased a season of his prime.

Orr belongs in a class by himself, because the way he skated and created offense was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. He changed the game. But the only comparison to Lidstrom is Harvey.

"He and Doug Harvey were very similar," said the legendary Scotty Bowman, who coached both. "The way that they could play the offensive blue line was just incredible – mistake-free most games, keeping the puck in, starting plays. They controlled the play."

[Related: Wings GM has been "dreading this day."]

Lidstrom controlled it for a very long time. Since joining the Red Wings at age 21, he missed only a handful of games – many of them to rest for the playoffs – and played a third to a half of each game, in all situations, against top competition. He was plus-450. Only once did he record a minus rating, and that was a minus-2 in 2010-11, when he won his seventh Norris. He produced 1,142 points, sixth-most among defensemen.

He used as much energy in 30 minutes as some use in 15, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson once said. His vision was comparable to Wayne Gretzky's, according to former Team Sweden GM Anders Hedberg. His hand-eye coordination allowed him to take slapshots with his head up, so they wouldn't be blocked, and to pick pucks out of the air with ease, a skill he developed batting a tennis ball down a hallway and against a door growing up in Sweden. Smack, bang, bounce. Smack, bang, bounce. Over and over and over.

His positioning was impeccable. "I don't think there's anybody that's ever been as technically strong as him – and that includes everybody," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, a Norris winner himself. "He's brilliant in his simplicity. Brilliant."

Though Lidstrom never crushed anyone into the boards, he didn't need to. He diffused plays before they started. He rarely took penalties, and he didn't take them for violent acts like slashing or cross-checking, let alone roughing or fighting. It's a crime that he never won the Lady Byng Trophy, which is supposed to go to the player who has "exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." For the last time: It should be renamed for him.

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Lidstrom carried himself with class on and off the ice, speaking with his actions rather than words. (Getty)

"If you watched him play, he had a knack of extending his arms," Bowman said. "I don't know if it's the way he held his stick different than other guys. He could always stretch his arms out. It looked like he had arms that were six feet long. He could take the puck on his stick and push it way ahead of him, and people couldn't get near it. You couldn't go check him in close, because he didn't have it in close. I think that's how he avoided getting hit a lot."

Lidstrom played with a wide range of partners – from Larry Murphy to Fredrik Olausson, from Andreas Lilja to Brian Rafalski, among others – and made all of them better. Ian White bounced from Calgary to Carolina to San Jose to Detroit in a matter of months. He paired with Lidstrom. He was plus-23 this season, by far the best of his career.

Day to day, year to year, decade to decade, Lidstrom never changed. Not in games. Not even in practices. "He practiced the same way he played," said NHL executive Brendan Shanahan, a former teammate. "He didn't make mistakes. We used to howl and cheer and bang our sticks on the ice if someone beat him in practice."

He amazed his teammates most of all, even though they saw what he could do every day – make that because they saw what he could do every day. "We said it all along," said Yzerman, now GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "You have to watch him closely to appreciate how good he is, what a great athlete he is, because he makes the position look so easy."

[Related: Lidstrom wants Zetterberg or Kronwall to take over as captain.]

In the 2000 All-Star Game in Toronto, Shanahan and Yzerman skated for North America, Lidstrom for the World. There was an all-Detroit 2-on-1. Yzerman tried to saucer a pass across for Shanahan. Lidstrom knocked the puck out of the air.

"And he smirked at us on the ice, like, 'That was stupid,' like, 'Do you guys not know me?' " Shanahan said. "I remember both of us going back to the bench and saying, 'We're really going to hear it from all our teammates when we go back home, like, "What were you thinking?" ' "

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You had to know Lidstrom to know that smirk. The perfect part of him seemed like steel. He never lost his cool and never complained, no matter the situation. He never made grand displays of his competitiveness, though it clearly burned deep. He never seemed hurt, even when he was playing through injuries no one knew about outside the dressing room.

But the human part noticed things, and it had a sense of humor. You could catch Lidstrom cracking sarcastic jokes, Shanahan said, if you were "close enough to be able to hear his whisper."

And the human part finally caught up with Lidstrom, as it catches up with everyone, and it finally came out in public Thursday. He was fine at first as he read his prepared statement. Except for some sniffs and sighs amplified by the microphone, he was his stoic self as he talked about his career ending.

"Sadly this year, it's painfully obvious to me that my strength and energy level are not rebounding enough for me to continue to play," Lidstrom said. "My drive and motivation are not where it needs to be."

Then, at the end of a long list of thank-yous, he choked up, just a little, as he acknowledged the support staff that had taken care of him and his family. And then he struggled to contain his emotions as he acknowledged his wife, Annika, and their four sons. He talked about being a husband and father who wasn't always home, who couldn't always help take the kids to their activities. There was homework to be done, and there were dinners to be made, and he often wasn't there.

"Annika's been doing all that, and she's been amazing," he said. "She's an amazing woman."

She even told him they could make it work if he wanted to play another year. But it's time. It's time to go home. The Lidstroms will return to Sweden as they have long envisioned, where they can raise their children as Swedes, as they were raised, and watch their sons play hockey. They are building a new house. They will build a new life.

Nicklas Lidstrom will not be back. He is no Peter Forsberg, who was hampered by injuries, had unfinished business and kept trying to go out on his own terms. His work is done. He is going out on his own terms. That is the beauty of it.

"It's not that the tank is completely empty," he said. "It just doesn't have enough to carry me through every day at the high level where I want to play at. My family and I are completely comfortable with this decision."

His career is completely full.

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