The Ice Man melteth.
It took 20 seasons, but those steel blue eyes began to water. The voice quivered. He was out of his element, wearing a suit, not a sweater, in front of a news conference, not a raucous arena, with notes in his hand, not a stick.
And he was saying good-bye.
"It's not that the tank is completely empty," Nicklas Lidstrom said, looking out at the crowd, "it just doesn't have enough to carry me through every day at the high level where I want to play at. . . . Retiring today allows me to walk away from the game with pride, rather than having the game walk away from me."
He said a final thank you. The audience applauded. And with that, it became official. The most consistently excellent hockey player of his era had hung up the skates.
And choked up for the first time - in two decades of public life.
"He never cried in the locker room," Kris Draper, his long-time Red Wings teammate, would confirm. But who wouldn't moisten up on Thursday? Marian Ilitch was dabbing her eyes throughout his comments. Nick's wife, Annika, was crying when they entered. Lidstrom himself first got teary when he spoke about the sacrifices she had made.
"It's not easy when you have a husband that's not home all the time," he said. "She's an amazing woman."
It was Annika who first heard the news, a few weeks ago, in the kitchen of their home. It was mid-morning. The kids were at school. Nick, now 42, entered and said, "I've made my decision. I'm going to retire."
"Just like that?" I asked her.
"Just like that," she confirmed.
The Ice Man leaveth.
He knew all the names
It is hard to describe the atmosphere at Lidstrom's farewell. It was as professional as any I've ever witnessed, as emotional as a Swedish good-bye likely ever gets, and as thorough as - well, as Lidstrom's famous preparation for the game he loved.
The Wings captain read from a statement, then free-formed eloquently, then thanked a laundry list of teammates and coaches - but also thanked the ushers, the equipment guys, the team doctors, the media, even Frank, the guy who fills up the water bottles, and Leslie, "who serves us lunch."
The fact that Lidstrom knows them, recalls their names, and chose to include them in his biggest career announcement tells you pretty much all you need to know.
Lidstrom was not only the NHL's best defenseman over the last two decades, not only a four-time Stanley Cup winner, a seven-time Norris trophy winner, and, arguably, as Ken Holland said, "the most valuable player of his era," he was such a perfect package that the Wings referred to him as "No Maintenance."
Not "Low Maintenance."
Come on. Even a robot needs SOME maintenance.
But Lidstrom was always beyond ready, beyond prepared and beyond responsible. He was a Boy Scout rolled into a pop star rolled into an army captain rolled into the guy who mows your grass when he's out mowing his, just because it's a nice thing to do.
Realizing he was really quitting Thursday was like waking up and realizing your favorite neighbors were actually moving, or the beloved school teacher was on her last day.
Lidstrom was so quietly exceptional, we didn't celebrate him enough on a daily basis.
And now we are falling over ourselves for accolades.
His high standards
To that end, here are a few. Professional. Exceptional. Graceful. Deft. Nimble. Clutch. Prepared. Admired. Disciplined. Determined. Courageous. Enduring. Humble.
That's why so many former Wings and teammates were there for him, why his owner, Mike Ilitch, called him "our Rock of Gibraltar," why even hard-bitten media members gave him a thick round of applause.
We will not see his likes again. Twenty season with one team? A 12-time All-Star? A guy who missed just 44 regular season games his entire career - some of which he was being rested? A guy who came in great and retired while still excellent?
His standard of play was so high, that in the end, only Nick Lidstrom was able to be critical of Nick Lidstrom.
"Sadly, this year it's painfully obvious to me that my strength and energy level are not rebounding enough for me to continue to play. My drive and motivation are not where it needs to be to play at this level. That's why I feel that it's time to retire."
He later told me it was as much mental as physical. In short, when he gave himself his annual "Do I still want to do this?" test, he found himself lacking.
Of course, lacking for Lidstrom could be a 96 out of 100. But he deserves great admiration for walking away from a game when he could still be one of its top players, for leaving money on the table when the Wings would have happily paid him, for returning to his native Sweden because "we are a tightknit family" and that's where his aging parents live, and he wants his kids to be near them and their cousins.
He is not hanging around to pick up a paycheck. He is not shuffling off to a cushy network TV job where fame and celebration will continue. He came from a quiet life and he is returning to it now, in a Swedish hometown that, he once told me, is best known for a giant wooden horse, the largest in the world.
"Yeah, that horse is still there," he said Thursday, laughing. And soon Lidstrom will be, too. But while the horse may win on measurements, it will not stand the tallest in his city or ours. That honor belongs to the now-former captain of Hockeytown's most famous army.
The Ice Man retireth.
We were lucky to have him.
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