DETROIT - Nicklas Lidstrom is so used to being great that the star defenceman refused to settle for just being good.
Lidstrom retired after 20 quietly spectacular seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, leaving a legacy of greatness on and off the ice along with perhaps another US$6 million he could have made with a third straight one-year contract.
The four-time Stanley Cup champion and seven-time Norris Trophy winner fought back tears as he made the announcement Thursday. He said he knew it was time to end one of the best careers in NHL history when he started to work out recently.
"My drive and motivation are not where they to need to be to play at this level," Lidstrom said.
The 42-year-old Swede set an NHL record by playing 1,564 games with a single team. He had put retirement on hold in each of the previous two years by signing one-year contracts.
"I've been dreading this day since I became manager in 1997," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said.
When Lidstrom told him last week that he was retiring, Holland said he could have the weekend, weeks or even months to think about it more in the hopes that he would change his mind. Holland now has $20-plus million in salary cap space to attempt to sign a standout defenceman, perhaps Nashville's Ryan Suter if the Predators can't re-sign him before July.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, though, said what everyone in the Motor City is thinking.
"You don't replace players like that," Wilson said.
No, you don't.
Even when Lidstrom didn't have one of his best years, such as last season, he was still the storied franchise's best player on the blue-line and one of the better defencemen in the league.
Lidstrom had 34 points and a plus-21 rating that ranked among the league leaders, and for his career wound up with 264 goals and 1,142 points. After being incredibly durable for 19 seasons, he missed a career-high 11 games last season with a bruised right ankle and was out for another game with the flu.
"That didn't sway me one way or another," Lidstrom said. "A couple weeks after the season is over, you start working out. Once I started doing that, I didn't have the push I need, and I can't cheat myself."
He plans to move his family to Sweden and hopes to have an off-ice role with the Red Wings.
"Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me," said Lidstrom, whose oldest of four sons went to Sweden two years ago to attend school and play hockey.
Lidstrom's wife, Annika, left the door open for her husband to keep playing even though that in effect would often make her a single parent for another season.
"She even said, 'If you want to play another year, we can make this work,'" he recalled in one of many emotional moments at Joe Louis Arena.
Lidstrom was named the NHL's best defenceman last year for a seventh time since 2001, matching Doug Harvey's total and trailing Bobby Orr's league record by one. When Lidstrom won his final Norris Trophy last summer, he was a finalist for the 11th time in 13 seasons.
"Nick Lidstrom's trademarks were his respect for hockey, his humanity and his commitment to his craft—as well as his devotion to the highest standards of success," said commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. "For so many seasons, Nick gave the very best to his team, his city and his league. As he moves on to the next stage of his life, we wish the very same for him and his family."
Defenceman Brad Stuart, who was his teammate the past four-plus seasons, said he was amazed at Lidstrom's ability to make the right play on almost every shift game after game.
"I've played with great players who made mistakes, but I can't think of one game when I thought, 'Nick just didn't have it tonight,'" Stuart said during this year's one-series post-season. "He's that same, steady, amazing defenceman every night. I think I've seen him out of breath maybe three or four times in a few years because he's so smart, he gets himself in the right position to make a play."
The four-time Olympian scored the gold-medal winning goal for Sweden over Finland in 2006. He became the first European-born captain to win a Stanley Cup in 2008, six years after being the first from Europe to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP.
New Jersey Devils defenceman Henrik Tallinder said Lidstrom had long been a Swedish icon. He added "it's like a symphony" watching Lidstrom play.
"I mean, two decades is a long time playing in the best league in the world. The things he has accomplished are remarkable. In my eyes, he's the best Swedish player we've had over here," said Tallinder.
"No offence to (Peter) Forsberg and (Mats) Sundin. Just with four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies, that says it all, I think. ... I mean, who doesn't look up to him? He's an icon. Everybody wants to be like him, play like him. Offensively, defensively, you name it, he does it all."
Lidstrom's six-foot-two, 190-pound body is chiselled thanks to a year-round workout that includes exercise before practice and after games along with a sensible diet that includes only occasional slices of pizza and fast food. His teammates called him "The Perfect Human," in part because he's as humble as he is successful on the ice.
Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter called Lidstrom "an awesome player" who was a difficult opponent.
"He was a frustrating guy to coach against because you could never get to Nicklas Lidstrom. Couldn't get to him. Didn't matter how you forechecked, what you set up, what you did. He was one of the few guys ever that could control a game from the defensive standpoint," said Sutter.
"You think of how many of those guys there are, recent history, maybe Bourque, Lidstrom, not many. As a kid you thought Bobby Orr could do that. Pretty awesome player."
As he said goodbye, Lidstrom thanked the owners, front office staff, coaches and teammates—as all retiring players do—and then added his own touch by praising behind-the-scenes contributors such as Leslie Baker, who serves meals to players and their families.
"It's one of the most emotional days in Red Wings history with Nick retiring and all you people showing your respect for such a high-quality individual," Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said at the packed news conference that included team employees wearing Lidstrom's No. 5 red jersey with a winged wheel.
When Ilitch's wife, Marian, spoke about Lidstrom after the news conference, tears rolled down both of her cheeks.
"I'm happy for him and his family—as sad as I am to lose him," she said. "It's a bittersweet day."
Steve Yzerman's No. 19 jersey became the sixth retired by the storied franchise and was hoisted to the rafters in 2007 alongside Gordie Howe's No. 9, Ted Lindsay's No. 7, Terry Sawchuck's No. 1, Alex Delvecchio's No. 10 and Sid Abel's No. 12.
Lidstrom's No. 5 will likely be next.
"I think he's been the most valuable player of his era and will go down as one of the greatest Red Wings of all time," Holland said.
—With files from The Canadian Press.
—AP Sports Writers Ira Podell in New York and Tom Canavan in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.