Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was sitting in the stands of Joe Louis Arena in mid-September, watching the Wings skate through some drills, when apropos of nothing in particular he raised a hand and pointed to Nicklas Lidstrom, the defenseman who was just a few months removed from winning his sixth Norris Trophy and fourth Stanley Cup. "That guy right there," Babcock said, "he's the guy who makes all this possible. He's the reason the Red Wings can be the Red Wings."
Babcock might have been talking about Lidstrom's extraordinary level of play, which has defined him, without argument, as the best NHL defenseman since Bobby Orr. Lidstrom's teammates call him the perfect human, for his smooth and seemingly flawless game. (Lidstrom fits comfortably into an old saw: Two thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third is covered by Nicklas Lidstrom.) In leading the Red Wings to the NHL's best record last season he played a tireless 27 minutes a night, scored 70 points (tops among NHL defensemen) and was on the ice for 40 more even-strength goals scored than allowed. He also captained Detroit to its fourth title in 12 years. Those, folks, are Sportsman of the Year credentials.
Yet as indispensable as Lidstrom is on the ice, it is his impact on more mercenary matters that Babcock was talking about. Lidstrom earns a salary of $7.45 million, a sweet sum to be sure, but also millions less than he could have commanded from Detroit, or on the open market. That does two things: It gives the Red Wings additional room under the salary cap and it sets a precedent. Other players figure that if the world's best hockey player will accept reduced pay to be a Red Wing, then they can do it too. Several teammates -- Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Brad Stuart -- have done exactly that, which is part of the reason why Detroit has the most stocked roster in the NHL.
In a parity-stricken league, Lidstrom has ensured that the Red Wings remain in a class of one, and in June he crossed into hockey's final frontier when he became the first European captain in NHL history to hoist the Stanley Cup. "I'm very proud to be the first," he said, and in the next breath, "I'm very proud of the whole team too."
What makes Lidstrom so Sportsman-like is, well, his sportsmanship: his humility, his professionalism. He is intuitive on the ice and equally so in the locker room. Earlier this year Babcock told me that he had never coached player this good. "In what way?" I asked. Replied Babcock: "In any way you can think of."