When Nicklas Lidstrom raised the Stanley Cup over his head on an early June night, a million shards from hockey's glass ceiling rained down on the ice at the Igloo in Pittsburgh.
Lidstrom was accustomed to breaking barriers. He'd been the first European defenseman to win the Norris Trophy (2001) and the first European player to win the Conn Smythe as MVP of the playoffs (2002). But as he took the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman after Game 6 of the final, Lidstrom, the beaming captain of the Detroit Red Wings, had become the first European to formally lead his team to a championship.
In 35 years, the NHL had gone from "chicken Swedes" -- the estimable Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom, who had joined Toronto at a time when the league was composed almost exclusively of Canadians -- to championship Swedes.
There were a gaggle of Swedes in Detroit, which is now basically Stockholm except for a better choice of Greek restaurants. The 2007-08 Red Wings featured the thunderous checks of defenseman Niklas Kronwall, the goal-scoring touch of Johan (The Mule) Franzen, the timely offensive contributions of Mikael Samuelsson and the net-front staying power of the indestructible Tomas Holmstrom. But in a dressing room with a decidedly European bent, Lidstrom was always the lead Swede.
Lidstrom plays defense differently than almost anyone ever has, using his mind as much as the body. He is always in position. He rarely takes a penalty. Instead of stripping the puck with a crunching hit, he can pickpocket an attacking player with his quick stick. Lidstrom almost never panics, throwing a puck away recklessly under pressure or taking himself out of the play in search of a hit. And he is rarely hit himself. When Colorado's Ian Lapèrriere nailed him into the boards last February -- Lidstrom sustained an MCL injury on the play -- it was shocking because Lidstrom, like Wayne Gretzky in decades past, almost never puts himself in a vulnerable position. He is the template for thinking man's hockey, as efficient as it is bland. Of course, it is also that kind of playing style that has allowed Lidstrom to win the Norris six times in the past seven seasons.
If he occasionally has been unable to raise his level of play in the playoffs, maybe that's because he's had no higher place to take it. But after assuming the captaincy from Steve Yzerman in 2006, Lidstrom felt a heightened need to carry the Red Wings a little further, especially after the keen playoff disappointments of his first two seasons as captain.
Lidstrom has had better playoffs than 2008, including his Conn Smythe year, but never has he had a more personally meaningful one. While Kronwall made the eye-catching hits, Lidstrom methodically kept a lid on Evgeni Malkin and the explosive Penguins. His play was understated in its eloquence -- two months of sustained professionalism that culminated with his accepting the most beautiful trophy in sports.
At that precise moment, the NHL's favorite libel -- Europeans don't care about the Cup -- was forever banished. Like Lidstrom's game, it had no place to go.
You're not sure? Well, when Detroit general manager Ken Holland signed free-agent Marian Hossa to a one-year free agent contract, you didn't hear anyone say that the Red Wings were too European.