Spreading Their Wings

By closing in on its fourth NHL title in 11 years Detroit proved it could win on a budget, while team captain Nicklas Lidstrom helped change perceptions on the limits of European players
June 08, 2008

THE GLASS CEILING was about to be shattered. With the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom ready to lift the world's most elegant and imposing 35-pound weight—Detroit led the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals three games to one with Game 5 being played when SI went to press on Monday night—the team captain was poised to break the last barrier to making the NHL a truly global game. ¬∂ The Red Wings' fourth Cup in 11 years, and the 11th in franchise history, would validate their claim to being the dominant NHL team of their era, the triumph of puck possession over chip-in-and-chase hockey as well as old-time verities like scouting, drafting and player development. But most important, a Detroit victory would dispel the hoary notion that a European-born and trained player—in this case, Lidstrom, a Swede—could not captain a Stanley Cup champion: the old myth and the C.

The first time an NHL commissioner hands the Cup to a European, says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, "is a big deal, but everyone's got to get over it and realize these guys are all hockey players. It's been almost 20 years since that first Russian guy [Sergei Priakin] went to Calgary. More than 30 years since [Swedish defenseman Borje] Salming came over to Toronto. Look at Pittsburgh—loaded with key Europeans Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa, Petr Sykora. If Pittsburgh doesn't have its Europeans and we don't have ours, neither of us gets to the final. To say you can only have so many is nonsense. That's old thinking."

The thinking is so archaic, it can be traced all the way back to 2007. When the Anaheim Ducks won the Cup last spring, after eliminating Detroit in the Western Conference finals, they had two European skaters: venerable right wing Teemu Selanne and checking center Samuel Pahlsson. G.M. Brian Burke delighted in saying that Pahlsson, a jagged-edged Swede, was so tough that he seemed to hail from Red Deer, Alberta. Burke's implication was transparent: A standard-issue European was not gritty enough to make an important contribution to a serious playoff team, at least not his serious playoff team. This was Euros trashed—even in a league in which roughly 25% of players come from overseas. Early in the second round of the playoffs last month, Holland asked a guest in his office, "Why do people still think we're a soft team?" Thirty seconds into a rambling reply citing the Wings' loss to Anaheim last year, Holland interjected, "Because of our passports, right?"

At the time, the Red Wings were barging through the postseason with six forwards on their top two lines and two exceptional defensemen, all from Europe. Lidstrom, the 38-year-old cyborg blueliner, is a finalist for a sixth Norris Trophy; fellow Swedish defender Niklas Kronwall throws seismic bodychecks, which were infrequent on the larger international-sized rinks that he grew up on but play a prominent role in North America. Swedish left wing Henrik Zetterberg and Russian center Pavel Datsyuk, the wizards on the No. 1 line, were Detroit's leading scorers throughout the playoffs. That was no shock, but this was: The 5'11", 197-pound Datsyuk was second on the Red Wings in playoff hits through Game 4, with 49. He even went so far as to muss up the considerably larger Penguins forward Ryan Malone for a late hit on Zetterberg and to go all Ivan Drago on Gary Roberts for apparently taking a run at Johan Franzen.

Zetterberg can handle himself, thank you, when he is not handling the entire Penguins team. At a pivotal point in Game 4 last Saturday night, a five-on-three advantage for Pittsburgh that lasted 1:26 midway through the third period, Sidney Crosby was on the edge of the crease and ready for a power-play gimme; Zetterberg abandoned his spot at the point and burst to the net, tying up Crosby's stick with his own and knocking the Pittsburgh center off the play. Zetterberg, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward, also blocked a point shot during the same sequence and intercepted a pass, enabling him to carry the puck into the Penguins' zone, get off a shot and kill some clock. That might have been the best minute-plus by any athlete since Big Brown won the Preakness. Then with Pittsburgh pressing for a tying goal in the final seconds, Zetterberg stood in front of a Sergei Gonchar shot, helping to preserve a 2--1 win in which Jiri Hudler, a Czech, had scored the winning goal.

"Our top players are all Europeans—and they're also our hardest competitors," says Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings vice president, Lidstrom's predecessor as captain and G.M. of silver-medal-winning Team Canada at the world championships last month. "Good players come from all over, and dogs come from all over, including Canada."

Detroit has been among the most Euro-friendly NHL teams for two decades, even before former coach Scotty Bowman created the Russian Five in 1995. Says Yzerman, "In our room nationality was irrelevant." But Russians were a sideshow on the back-to-back Cup winners of '97 and '98; those were still Yzerman's teams, North American at their core. Now with 10 Europeans in the lineup for most of the finals—no Cup winner had ever played that many—this was indisputably Lidstrom's team. He had put to rest one conceit by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2002, becoming the first European to be the most valuable player in the tough sledding of the playoffs. Now he could end the prattle about European players forever.

ONE DAY late in December, Lidstrom arrived, unannounced, at the door of Mikael Samuelsson's suburban Detroit home. Lidstrom had purchased julskinka, the traditional salty Christmas ham, at Ikea and was delivering it to Samuelsson and the five other Swedes on the Red Wings. Samuelsson, a laconic right wing who would score two unassisted goals in the 4--0 Game 1 win against the Penguins, was appreciative but neither particularly surprised nor impressed. "That's just Nick," he said. "And I see him in the dressing room every day, anyway." But Samuelsson's visiting stepparents were agog at the sight of Lidstrom and the julskinka, loudly reminding Samuelsson that the captain of the Red Wings, maybe the best player in hockey, had dropped off a gustatory hunk of home, and praising Lidstrom for going, well, whole hog.

Two things: 1) Lidstrom is "the kind of classy person you want representing your organization," Yzerman says; and 2) he delivers.

"He's so humble, so solid," says forward Dan Cleary of Lidstrom, whose team won only twice when he missed six games after spraining a knee in February. "A great role model as a captain: He has everybody's ear and everybody's respect. For me, I respect him so much that I don't want to let him down."

If no European captain had led his team to a Cup, it was primarily a by-product of how few Europeans had worn the c. Lars-Erik Sjoberg was Winnipeg's captain when the Jets were folded into the NHL in 1979, but the era of the modern Euro captaincy dates to the '97--98 season with Mats Sundin and the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 2007--08 there were nine full-time European captains, including four among the six Canadian teams. For the Red Wings, Lidstrom's ascension from alternate captain when Yzerman retired before the '06--07 season was seamless, given the defenseman's longevity in the organization—Lidstrom was a third-round pick in the 1989 draft—and the two players' similar low-key leadership styles.

Indeed the most vocal that Lidstrom became during this year's playoff run was before Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, after Detroit had lost two straight to the Dallas Stars. According to Cleary, Lidstrom said, "O.K., boys, this is going to be a good night for us. Do what we do, boys. Just believe in ourselves, and let's not be nervous." The Red Wings won 4--1 to clinch the series. Lidstrom speaks the hockey idiom in an English so lightly accented that veteran fourth-liner Kirk Maltby said he "found it weird" when Tomas Holmstrom joined the team in 1996 and Maltby heard Lidstrom speaking Swedish for the first time.

Yet Detroit's most significant transition has not been from Yzerman to Lidstrom, or the drift from Russian to Swedish as the second language in the dressing room, but from free-spending powerhouse into an organization constrained, like 29 others, by the salary cap. In the 2001--02 playoffs the Cup-winning Red Wings could afford to have two presumptive Hall of Famers, Igor Larionov and Luc Robitaille, on the fourth line with Holmstrom.

"When we went into a salary-capped world, many people thought—and Kenny [Holland] and I thought they might be right—that we'd have trouble continuing our domination," senior vice president Jim Devellano says. "The inference was that we bought teams, which was partially true. People thought we'd be neutralized, that we'd never win another Cup, or at least not in the near future."

Even so, in the three seasons since the lockout, Detroit twice had the NHL's best regular-season record and, heading into this year's final, had won five playoff series, second only to Anaheim over that time. The Red Wings are basically the New England Patriots on skates. "We feel a little vindicated as an organization," says Devellano. "The scouting staff has done a great job, identifying players in the middle and late rounds who became stars."

HAKAN ANDERSSON, the European scouting director who is based in Stockholm, has been prescient. While in Moscow in the winter of 1997--98 to scout Dmitri Kalinin, a defenseman now with Buffalo, his eyes were drawn to "this little guy on the other team"—a slender Datsyuk. After seeing him play a second time for Dynamo Yekaterinburg, Andersson added Datsyuk to his list of prospects. He was on his way to watch Datsyuk a third time when his connecting flight sat on the runway for five hours before being canceled because of a snowstorm. Andersson didn't see Datsyuk play that night, but neither did the other scout on the plane; Andersson is relatively certain he is the only NHL scout to have seen Datsyuk before Detroit selected him 171st in the '98 draft.

The following year, while checking out Mattias Weinhandl, who would play 182 NHL games before returning to the Swedish Elite League, Andersson noticed Zetterberg, who turned out to be the best player drafted in 1999 even though he went 210th. If the Red Wings were really hockey's Einsteins, they would not have waited so long to take Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Still....

"I've heard other scouts say [Europeans] are too weak, too soft," Andersson says, "but I don't see how anyone can doubt their willingness or their toughness, their ability to take a hit and keep on playing."

The sturdy Red Wings kept playing into June, led by a Swedish captain who gave the younger Penguins a lesson in leadership.

"He's a great role model as a captain," Cleary says of teammate Lidstrom. "I respect him so much that I DON'T WANT TO LET HIM DOWN."

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PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoBATTLE-TESTED Samuelsson (37) and Draper (33) mucked with Malkin; Lidstrom led all Red Wings skaters in ice time. PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho[See caption above] PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLATHREE-WING BINDER Andreas Lilja (3), Lidstrom (5) and Draper clogged up the Penguins, who had only 22 shots a game. PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoNO KID LOVE The Red Wings, including Sid-flattener Brian Rafalski, were determined to keep Crosby down.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)