The Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings have a cast of
characters worthy of a premium table at Spago. There's left wing
Brendan Shanahan, who resembles Richard Gere both in rugged good
looks and intellectual curiosity, having recently beamed after
receiving a book written by German existentialist Heinrich Boll.
Captain and center Steve Yzerman has had the up-and-down-and-up
career of John Travolta. With an eccentric personality and
computerlike brain, coach Scotty Bowman often draws comparisons
to Rain Man. And, of course, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov is
the team's answer to Christopher Reeve, a star felled by a freak
Such a varied collection of dramatis personae, though, would be
incomplete without the presence of a Carl Reineresque straight
man, which is where the Wings' reticent defenseman Nicklas
Lidstrom fits in. While his colorful teammates treat the locker
room at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena like a playground, snapping
towels and good-natured insults at each other, Lidstrom sits
resolutely on Defenseman's Row--along the back wall, where the
blueliners' stalls are located--and escapes the mayhem virtually
unnoticed. "I'm pretty calm and quiet," says Lidstrom in a
monumental understatement. "I don't really avoid attention, but
I don't look for it either, in the locker room or on the ice."
In the latter setting, however, Lidstrom is fast gaining acclaim
as the Red Wings' lodestar. With Detroit battling the Dallas
Stars for the NHL's top record following a tumultuous
off-season, Lidstrom is playing some of the best--and
most--hockey in the league. In addition to being consistently
outstanding on defense, at week's end he led all defensemen in
goals, with 14, thanks to a blinding one-timer. "He's a two-way
player who's doing it all for us this season," says Bowman.
"He's producing offensively, he's out there on the power play,
out there on the penalty kill, and he's matched up against the
other team's best players."
Lidstrom gets more ice time than a bottle of Dom Perignon, often
logging upwards of 30 minutes a game. He's so prominent that
after the first period of a game earlier this season, Detroit's
statisticians credited him with playing 20:08. Yet for all his
mileage, Lidstrom seldom succumbs to road rage. In the Red
Wings' first 44 games, he spent a mere 14 minutes in the penalty
box. "I try to make the right decisions on the ice, and I don't
have much of a temper, so I let the young guys like Jamie
Pushor, Anders Eriksson and Aaron Ward do my dirty work," says
the 27-year-old Lidstrom jokingly. And he's as durable as he is
well-mannered, having missed only 10 regular-season games since
Detroit's third pick in the 1989 draft, Lidstrom was selected to
the all-rookie team six seasons ago, but for the next several
years he all but fell off the radar screen. While his teammates
and eventually the Red Wings' fans developed a deep appreciation
for his efficiency and subtle skills--including his knack for
using his skates to keep the puck in the zone on power plays, a
manifestation of his talent as a young soccer player in
Sweden--he attracted little notice outside the Joe. "Nick was
paired with Paul Coffey and then Konstantinov, so opponents
weren't focusing on him," says Detroit right wing Darren
McCarty. "He always seemed to be the forgotten guy. We were
perfectly happy to keep him a sleeper."
After the Stanley Cup finals against the Philadelphia Flyers
last spring, Lidstrom was no longer a secret. While most teams
tried to use their biggest and nastiest defensemen against
Philly's behemoth Legion of Doom line, Bowman countered shrewdly
with finesse, playing Lidstrom, who's a relatively slight 6'2",
190 pounds, in more than half the even-strength shifts against
that line. In Detroit's sweep, Lidstrom contained the Flyers'
vaunted unit and helped hold Eric Lindros without a goal until
14.8 seconds remained in the series. Although goalie Mike
Vernon, who has since moved on to the San Jose Sharks, skated
away with the postseason MVP award, the murmurs in the press box
were that Lidstrom was at least as deserving.
After the series, Lidstrom, his wife, Annika, and their two
children, Kevin, 3 1/2, and Adam, 1 1/2, traveled to Sweden to
show off Lord Stanley's chalice and visit Nicklas's parents in
his hometown of Avesta. On that trip Nicklas's father, Jan-Eric,
also took note of his son's increasingly taciturn ways. "When he
was a boy, he was a little warrior, always joking and doing
little things to get into trouble," says Jan-Eric, a chief with
the Swedish highway system who, like his son, speaks flawless
English. "Now every time he comes home, he's more and more
quiet." Even after Nicklas's spectacular play during the Stanley
Cup, which was televised live to high ratings in Sweden despite
the six-hour time difference, he's only the third-most-popular
NHL player in his mother country, behind Toronto Maple Leafs
center Mats Sundin and Colorado Avalanche center Peter Forsberg.
By the time Lidstrom returned to Hockeytown from Sweden, the Red
Wings' profile had changed dramatically. With star center Sergei
Fedorov in the midst of a still-unresolved contract dispute and
Konstantinov's career ruined by a limousine accident, Lidstrom
was called upon to shoulder a greater load. "It obviously
changes things when you lose a guy like him," Lidstrom says of
Konstantinov. "But I don't mind the extra responsibility or the
extra minutes. Actually, the more I play, the easier I get into
Lidstrom is fortunate because there's no respite in sight. Next
week he is scheduled to play in the NHL All-Star Game. Then in
February he will anchor Sweden's defense in the Nagano Olympics.
Finally, there's the small matter of the NHL's postseason and
Detroit's bid to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup
champions since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92. "I
think we're up there with the league's best teams, but any time
you have to win 16 games in a short period of time, it's going
to be tough," says Lidstrom. "We're playing well right now,
though, and everyone seems comfortable with the system."
Meanwhile teams around the league are taking notice of the Red
Wings' indispensable player. Earlier this season some of the
Stars spent a flight home to Dallas comparing their nominees for
the NHL's major postseason awards. "A number of guys put
Lidstrom down not only as the best defenseman but also as the
Hart Trophy winner," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said recently.
"That's how highly he's regarded."
Whichever awards Lidstrom may win, there's no worry that his
acceptance speech will run long.