Wednesday September 14th, 2016

ARLINGTON, Va.—The accidental architect of the world’s most dynamic blue line stands near a blown-up banner of the Swedish national team logo, sipping coffee from the paper cup in his hand.

It’s been more than four years since Nicklas Lidstrom retired from playing hockey, but he still wears the blue and yellow of Tre Kronor. Along with countrymen Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin, his official title for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey reads SENIOR ADVISOR, though it might as well be IN-PERSON INSPIRATION. When Sweden unloaded here Sunday evening for practice, a particularly meaningful picture was hung inside an auxiliary dressing room: It shows Lidstrom, Alfredsson, and Sundin smiling after beating Finland at the 2006 Torino Olympics, gold medals dangling from their necks.

“They obviously set their mark on the history of the sport,” Swedish defenseman Anton Stralman says. “Look at the music industry—all the bands that come up are influenced by other bands and make them special. I think it’s the exact same thing in hockey.”

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For Lidstrom’s particular impact, look no further than Stralman and his colleagues, the smooth skaters and puck movers on Sweden’s back end. There’s Erik Karlsson, who won his first Norris Trophy at 21 years old, the season after Lidstrom won his seventh and last at 40. There’s Stralman and Victor Hedman, workhorse partners for the Tampa Bay Lightning and repeat participants in the Eastern Conference finals. There are five of seven born in the 1990s, right around the time Lidstrom migrated stateside, joined the Red Wings and became a symbol of what Swedish defensemen could accomplish halfway across the world.

See the connection? They certainly do.

“He was my idol growing up,” says Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who recorded his second straight 20-goal season with Arizona in 2015–16 and ranked second among all NHL blueliners with 27 power play points. “That’s why we have so many good defensemen in the league. I think that’s because of him.”

“I think you could see, especially the D that’s coming up now and the way they play and the way they’re trying to play, it’s definitely influenced by him, no doubt about that,” Stralman says. “I definitely think he’s a big part of it.”

“He’s the guy all of us looked at,” Hedman says.

Informed of this praise a few minutes before practice Tuesday afternoon, Lidstrom laughs—like he didn’t revolutionize how Swedish defensemen played, like he didn’t impact an entire generation. “I never thought much about that,” he says. “If that’s the case, I’m honored that some of the D are trying to play like I did.”

Pressed a little further, Lidstrom concedes that there might exist some truth to this. “When Peter Forsberg scored that shootout goal against Canada in the ‘94 Olympics, kids want to try that move, or when I took my slap shot in the Torino Olympics, they probably watched that and wanted to take a lot of slap shots,” he says, nodding toward the rink. “Same thing with these guys out here on the ice. They’re influencing a lot of kids in the way they play, they’re watching them and want to be like them. Without thinking about it, they’re role models too.”

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Except the fruits of Lidstrom’s success are right here, powering Sweden into this week’s tournament in Toronto. Ekman-Larsson guesses he was 7 or 8 years old when he began watching Red Wings games on television, and he figures several Nicklas Lidstrom trading cards are tucked away at his parents’ home in Sweden. Not long ago, Lidstrom and Swedish head coach Rikard Gronborg visited Ekman-Larsson in Arizona—they did this for “most, not all” of the defensemen named to the squad, Lidstrom says—and met him out for lunch. It took some time for Ekman-Larsson’s starry eyes to disappear.

“When we sat down, started talking to him, it was pretty special,” he says of Lidstrom. “Even after when I was driving home in the car, I was thinking, Holy cow, that was special.”

In some ways, Lidstrom merely forecast what the modern NHL demands from its defensemen. “They’re all playing with their heads up,” Lidstrom says. “They’re trying to be creative. They’re all strong skaters. They can join the rush. They can be part of the offense, and they’re really solid in their own zone too. But the one thing that really sticks out is their skating ability.”

And few countries—if any—do that better than the Swedes. In a testament to their national defensive depth, they managed to withstand an injury to veteran Niklas Kronwall and arguably got better by replacing him with Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm. This also meant that Dallas’ John Klingberg, fifth among all NHL defensemen with 58 points last season, was still left on the outside.

“I think the Swedish blue line has been fairly good throughout the years,” Stralman says. “But you look back, the Mattias Norstroms, the Mattias Ohlunds, guys that are the same age, the same generation as Nick, but with a completely different playing style. Now you see the Karlssons, the Hedmans, the Klingbergs, the Ekholms and even the younger guys, more of a puck-moving type of defenseman, instead of a one-way.”

These are big-picture ideas, though, hardly considered by Lidstrom and his successors unless, say, approached by an inquiring reporter. The more motivating idea is where Lidstrom succeeded, not how. As Lidstrom, Alfredsson, and Sundin watched from a perch overlooking the Capitals’ practice facility, the current Tre Kronor continued its tune-up for its first best-on-best competition since winning silver in Sochi. Afterward, they retreated into the dressing room where the gold medal picture still hangs. “What they accomplished with the three crowns was something we want to accomplish as a group,” Hedman says. “You don’t want to disappoint those guys.”

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