I want to say he was like Tim Duncan: Understated, fundamentally sound, caring only about winning, spending his entire career with a single franchise. But Duncan is a spotty free-throw shooter, and he can't shoot three-pointers, and you wouldn't ask him to dribble the ball up court unless everybody else on your team had fouled out. As great as Duncan was (and is), there are so many things that a 7-footer just can't do as well as a great 6-footer. So no, he was not quite like Tim Duncan.
I want to say he was like Joe DiMaggio, the mysterious genius, who rarely struck out and supposedly always threw to the right base and could help his team win a single game in a dozen ways. But by most accounts, talking to DiMaggio was like trying to get to second base with a porcupine. So no, he was not quite like Joe DiMaggio.
I want to say he was like Joe Montana, another third-round pick whose subtle gifts were hard to recognize, who seemed to get calmer when everybody else panicked. But Montana missed half the 1986 season and almost all of the 1991 and 1992 seasons with injuries, then battled desperately to come back from brutal injuries so he could determine how his career ended. Montana took a lot of hits, and his career is defined in part by his desire to play through pain. And besides, every once in a while, Montana threw interceptions. So no, he was not quite like Joe Montana.
If you don't follow hockey, this is hard to understand. But there has never, ever, in the history of sports, ever been anybody like Nick Lidstrom.
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According to various reports, Nick Lidstrom is retiring from the Detroit Red Wings. His teammates called him "The Perfect Human." Picture that in an obit someday: Nick Lidstrom, The Perfect Human, passed away at the age of ... His teammates were not joking. Lidstrom played 1,827 games in the regular season and playoffs, and as his longtime partner and current TV analyst Larry Murphy told me recently: "I don't recall him ever having a bad game."
Lidstrom was not the best at anything. But he was the best at doing everything. He did not have the hardest shot. But it always seemed to go exactly where he wanted it to go. He did not make the prettiest passes, but he almost always made the correct ones. Quick Lidstrom story: Before the 1997 Stanley Cup finals, the big question was about the matchup between Red Wings' star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and the Philadelphia Flyers' Legion of Doom line, led by Eric Lindros.
Concussions and controversy cloud our memories of Lindros, but at the time, he was an unparalleled force: a big, skilled center who could knock you in your butt and make a beautiful assist in the same shift. Lindros finished second in the league in points per game that year, thanks in part to his wings, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg.
Konstantinov was a defenseman's version of Lindros: a Russian known as "Vlad the Impaler" who appeared destined for the Hall of Fame.
There was a lot of hype for the Legion of Doom against Vlad the Impaler -- hockey fans could not wait to see them go at each other. Well, Wings coach Scotty Bowman was never much for hype. Shortly before Game 1 in Philadelphia, Bowman told his team that he would put the pairing of Lidstrom and Murphy -- not Konstantinov against the Legion of Doom.
At the time, Lidstrom was considered just another All-Star. But it was like the Flyers showed up to a checkers game and found out they had to play chess.
Legion of Doom?
"They never had the puck," Murphy said.
The Red Wings swept the Flyers, one of four times they won the Stanley Cup with Lidstrom. From the time he showed up in 1991, they never missed the playoffs.
Lidstrom controlled 1,827 games with his mind. He knew what opposing players would do before they did. He saw openings when nobody else could, and he saw them close before they actually did. Mostly, simply, there was this: Imagine pouring a glass of water to the very top, without a single drop overflowing. Then imagine doing that thousands of times in a row. That was Nick Lidstrom. He always seemed to do exactly what he was capable of doing in every situation, and never tried to do a bit too much. I hate using these absolutes -- always, exactly, never. But hey, they don't call him the Nearly Perfect Human.
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In hockey lore, Bobby Orr is the best defenseman ever. Well, it's hard to argue with lore. Lidstrom played in a different era, against a much deeper league. He won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman seven times, but the truth is he probably should have won it 12 times. It took people a decade to realize how great he was. Heck, in 1997, Vladimir Konstantinov finished second in Norris Trophy voting -- and that was the year Lidstrom usurped him in the Stanley Cup Finals.
A few months ago, as I researched this piece in my old job at the Detroit Free Press, I asked Lidstrom's sister Ann Sophie the question everybody in the NHL asked every summer: When would Nick retire? "We ask sometimes," she said, "but he says 'I don't know. I don't know.' He doesn't want to talk about it."
This was not surprising. Lidstrom in life was like Lidstrom on the ice: He never made a decision until he had to make it, and he never panicked. If he ever raised his voice, in two decades in the NHL, I never heard anybody mention it. He told me he gets mad on the golf course, but those who have played with him say Lidstrom's mad would not qualify as mad for anybody else.
I don't know why he finally decided to retire. Perhaps he will explain it at a Thursday news conference in Detroit. He certainly didn't have to do it -- the Red Wings wanted him back very badly, and as of this writing, he is the reigning Norris Trophy winner, having won the award in 2011. Perhaps his fluky ankle injury this year affected his thinking, though he said it would not. Maybe he saw his talent receding before anybody else did, and that ungodly, unteachable hockey sense guided him one last time. I like to think that Nick Lidstrom just looked at his career and decided he had done exactly what he was capable of doing, and he wouldn't try to do a bit too much.