Mitch Albom: One-on-one with Nick Lidstrom

Jun 19 2012 - 2:29pm

We meet in a Starbucks near his Northville, Mich., home. He comes alone, in a T-shirt and jeans, sits for nearly 2 hours, and never looks at his watch. You are tempted to say this is the new, relaxed, retired Nicklas Lidstrom, but he was pretty much always this way. He had as much use for pretense as he did for a second stick.

The economy of Nick Lidstrom is the story of his Hall of Fame career: no extra movement, no wasted energy, no dillydally, no shenanigans. Show up and play. Go home and rest. Come back ready to do it again next season.

He approaches his Second Act the same way. Lidstrom and his wife, Annika, are in the final stages of packing, heading back with their family to the country Nick left behind 20 some years ago - just as he always planned. You might think two decades of fame and fortune would seduce a man, but as Lidstrom says: "Almost all Swedish players eventually go back to Sweden."

He came. He played. He conquered.

He goes home.

Because he did not court headlines, Nick Lidstrom, now 42, one of the greatest Red Wings of all time, will never pop into fans' minds the way a Bob Probert or a Sergei Fedorov does. With them you remember talent along with incidents, comments, noise, headlines. With Lidstrom you remember only excellence. If he were a color he'd be bright white - or maybe Swedish blond.

But all men have shades, and Lidstrom does, too. As we speak, he admits to self-criticism, to mistakes, to maybe playing it too close to the vest early. He recalls a classic Scotty Bowman story, a tug-of-war with the NHL commissioner over the Stanley Cup, and the old days when players weren't absorbed with their iPhones.

Perhaps most revealing is when Lidstrom admits he didn't want to play anymore if he couldn't be the best or damn close. You sit across from his muscled, fatless body, and you know he easily could go two more seasons. Why walk away now?

Because Lidstrom views his life through his own eyes. And unless he can be proud of what he sees, he's not going to do it.

QUESTION: So. Has retirement sunk in?

ANSWER: Yeah. I think it will sink in even more once fall comes around.

Q: Was the farewell press conference strange for you? I mean, there were people crying.

A: Yeah. I choked up, too. My wife and I took separate cars - she was with the kids - and when she got out of the car, she's crying. Then I met Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch in Kenny's office, and Mrs. Ilitch is crying. . I said to myself, "Whoa, this has gotta be hard."

Q: Did you know - once you skated off the ice after that last loss - that that was your last game?

A: No. I really didn't. You're disappointed, and you might say to yourself, "I'm not gonna do this again." But I try to push those thoughts aside.

Q: Then was there something in the weeks that followed, maybe when you worked out, where you said, "Gee, I'm just not as fast as I was"?

A: I noticed that I wasn't able to get off the ice and get back and be that kind of active player. . I think I was staying back a little bit more. . I didn't have that everyday .

Q: Acceleration?

A: Yeah. But it's not one specific thing. . Hungry, I guess, is the word. When guys are hungry, they wanna get out there, they want it all the time, to get up and be part of the offense - whereas I know I didn't have that.

Q: Still, you could have played very good hockey for at least another couple years. There are guys in the league who do that.

A: I think I wanted to play at a certain level. Part of it was the enjoyment of being that top guy. Being the best. And when you're, I guess, slipping a little bit, when I didn't play to the level I wanted to play - where I didn't have that motivation to do it every day - that's when I realized it was time for me to retire.

Q: When the media portray you as The Perfect Human - how do you take that?

A: I take it positively. . I'm trying to do the right things . especially on the ice. . Even when I talk to the media, I try to not be obnoxious or be rude. I try to approach you with respect. Same thing when I played . especially if you're the captain, you wanna try and set an example.

Q: Will you be relieved not to have to watch your comments anymore?

A: Yeah. When you're the captain or part of the team . you always try to be cautious about what you say.

Q: Did you ever feel you were too cautious?

A: Sometimes, yeah. Especially early in my career . I could have let out a little bit more. . I was just holding stuff in.

Q: You're sometimes called the perfect player. Or a robot. But nobody is the robot.

A: No.

Q: And nobody is perfect.

A: And I'm not perfect, either. I kind of laugh about it. I tell people you can just ask my wife. She'll let you know right away.

Q: What's an example of a fault you have?

A: It could be anything around the house. My wife will want me to help out more. It could be in games - where we won - but I know things I could have done better or mistakes I made. . I make mistakes all the time.

Q: I think people would be surprised to hear you remember your mistakes. Was there a significant one - like in playoff game?

A: There was one back in '93 - against Toronto in the playoffs - we lost Game 7 in overtime, and the guy that scored the goal was my guy that I was supposed to cover. I was with him, but I didn't have his stick. And he scored, and we lost the series. That ate at me for a while.

Q: That's almost 20 years ago.

A: Right.

Q: Do you remember who that was?

A: Borschevsky. A Russian guy. Played for Toronto.

Q: How did you react after that?

A: I was depressed. . I felt down. . You messed up - you made a big mistake that cost the team a win and the series.

Q: How did you try to compensate for that?

A: I think I just took a mental note that . as a defenseman in front of the net - what you have to do better. . Really, it's a small thing, but it ended up being a huge thing. I'm standing next to the guy but I don't have his stick. I think I learned a lot from it.

Q: How about the polar opposite of that? Was there one play in your career where even you said, "That's pretty impressive"?

A: There was one play - this was in the playoffs - our first year we won the Cup (1997) against Colorado - in Denver - and they had an empty-netter. And somehow I got my stick, caught it and knocked it out - the guy probably thought for sure he was gonna score. I can't even recall how I did it, but I know I got the puck out of there. If they scored, it could have been a totally different series.

Q: Any others?

A: Another one was also in the playoffs - Vancouver 2002 - I scored from the red line - this was Game 3 - we lost the first two home games. We're going out there - score is tied, 1-1, and I score from the red line with less than a minute left in the second period. I think we won the game, 2-1. (It actually was 3-1 after a late goal in the final period.)

Q: Is that first Stanley Cup still your career highlight?

A: It is. It is. They're all special in a way. I said they're like your kids. But the first one . I remember the last few seconds. I remember Vladdie (Konstantinov) falling on the puck. I know the clock's counting down. I remember Stevie (Yzerman) jumping on Mike Vernon . the crowd . Mr. Ilitch hoisting the Cup the first time on the bench. . Those things stick in your mind.

Q: You can see them even now?

A: Yeah. I can see. . He was almost crying, Mr. Ilitch. . And the next year, when Stevie put the Cup in Vladdie's lap - he was sitting in the wheelchair. Igor (Larionov) and Slava (Fetisov) on each side of him.

Q: Do you remember gripping the first Cup?

A: Yeah. And I remember the last Cup, too, when Gary Bettman asks me to come over, and you're standing next to him - and you're taking a picture with him - and he kind of hands you the Cup, and he won't let go, 'cause we're taking pictures, so he's hanging onto it. And I'm waiting for him to let go so I can finally lift it.

Q: You almost wanted to pull it away from him?

A: Yeah, right (chuckles).

Q: Has the locker-room atmosphere changed with technology?

A: Yeah.

Q: When you broke in, in 1991, there were no iPads or cell phones.

A: You had the odd guy reading the actual newspaper - holding it and reading it. But now you got Twitter, Facebook . guys are on nonstop. Before, there was a lot more talking going on.

Q: Did you like it better back then?

A: There was more interaction . especially on the plane. Now everybody is sitting with their headphones on. They're watching a movie or on their computer. It's totally different.

Q: Who were your closest friends on the team over the years?

A: When I first came in, Brad McCrimmon. He was my partner, but he was also my friend off the ice. There was another Swede, Johan Garpenlov, was on that team, too. Then Bob Rouse when he came . and Mike Ramsey. . And Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) came in '96. And then Homer and I started hanging out.

Q: You're pretty close with him.

A: I didn't know him before he came here. We started hanging out. Our wives became good friends. And then we had a couple kids and they started having kids, and our kids started playing together. . He's been my closest friend for the last 15 years.

Q: Do you speak English when you're with him?

A: Swedish.

Q: Do you ever switch to Swedish in the locker room when you don't want somebody to understand what you're saying?

A: Yeah . more when we're joking.

Q: Is Homer gonna have a hard time without you?

A: I think he'll adapt. He's got so many friends.

Q: What's the best part of your friendship?

A: I think . going down to the rinks, just the two of us in the car, talking - not only hockey, but everything in general. Even though you hang out with all the other guys - there's always one guy that's kind of your best friend.

Q: Let me ask you about a few Red Wings over the years and give me one thing that pops out about them.

A: OK.

Q: Vladimir Konstantinov.

A: Fearless. He was a great competitor. I remember our first year, the older guys told him, "You're a first-year rookie - don't run a big, tough guy on the fourth line . and don't cross-check Wayne Gretzky 'cause someone's gonna come after you." And I remember Vladdie says, "OK, yeah, yeah, I'll do it." Then he'd go and cross-check Gretzky and he'd run some tough guy.

Q: Maybe he didn't understand English.

A: (Chuckles.) No, he was fearless.

Q: How about Paul Coffey?

A: He was my partner for three years. I usually played on the left side, he came, and he was playing lefty, so I was moved over to the right side. And I think it helped me to become a better player. He was a great offensive player . and he was a great skater.

Q: How about Chris Chelios?

A: We faced him so many times with Chicago. . You know, he tried going after Stevie, going after Sergei (Fedorov). . He's just a pain in the butt to play against. But when you played with him, you realized how good he was. You realized how competitive he was as well. . But it was just weird seeing Chelios on the Red Wings and wearing the jersey.

Q: Did you become friends over time?

A: Yeah, yeah. We've become great friends.

Q: Steve Yzerman?

A: I just remember his determination. . The bigger the game, the bigger he became as a player. . And even though he's kind of a quiet leader . when it mattered, he stood up and said the right things in the locker room.

Q: How about Scotty Bowman? Did you ever really understand him? He was like the nutty professor to me.

A: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think some of it was planned, or he kind of wanted people to be off-guard a little. . He was probably laughing in his office. But he was a great hockey mind.

Q: Did he ever try mind games with you?

A: You know, Scotty - he kind of left me alone - he wasn't talking a whole lot to me, so I figured I must be doing something good - 'cause I'm playing a lot (chuckles).

Q: So, no incidents?

A: I remember one time I was sick. I was throwing up all night before the game. I didn't come down for morning skate. And I was talking to (the trainer) and he said, "Well, Scotty just wants you to come down and play the power play. You're not gonna be doing anything else - just come down." So I get down there - and my dad was in town at the time, so he drove down with me - and he thought I was just gonna be in there 10 minutes and get back in the car and go home. Again, Scotty told the trainer that you're only gonna play power play - it might be four, five power plays - that's it - you're not gonna play anything more.

Q: And?

A: By the end of the game, I'd played 26 minutes. (Laughs.) I went home, and I slept the whole next day.

Q: And no apologies from him or anything.

A: No, he didn't say a thing. I played 26 minutes.

Q: Was your dad still waiting in the car?

A: He was waiting outside the locker room. . And all of a sudden warm-ups start, so he's asking the usher, "Can you see if my son is still in there and if he's seen the doctors?" And they said, "No, he's on the ice." So my dad went up and watched the game. (Chuckles.)

Q: Was it a playoff game?

A: No. It was like Game 43 or something - middle of the season.

Q: That's a classic Scotty story.

A: Yeah.

Q: When Yzerman retired, was there any part of you that didn't want to be the captain? That didn't want the pressure of that C?

A: Not really. No, I was hoping they were gonna ask me. I wanted the challenge. You can play all the minutes. You can play against the top players. But when you're a captain, you're looked upon as being something off the ice, too.

Q: Did you let them know that you wanted it?

A: No. I never did. Kenny (Holland) kind of hinted at it, so I was hoping they were gonna ask me.

Q: Who else would it have been if not you?

A: Well, Cheli was on the team. Mathieu Schneider was on our team, too. Both of them have been captains before.

Q: When you won the 2008 Stanley Cup - with you as captain - did that one feel like, "OK, now I've really done everything there is to be done in the NHL"?

A: Yeah . in a way. . People are doubting that Europeans can win as captains, but we accomplished that. . I felt a bit of relief, but a lot of pride, too.

Q: What's the difference between how you are perceived in Detroit versus back home?

A: I've been gone from Sweden for 20 years. . But in the last 10 years with the Internet showing so many NHL games in Sweden, kids there know a lot more than you would think. And I think the Olympic gold in 2006 - when I scored the winning goal - I think that kind of raised my recognition a little bit.

Q: When they recognize you in Sweden, what kind of fuss do they make?

A: You know, Swedes are a lot more reserved than Americans. You can tell if they recognize you. . You can see someone is looking at you and they kind of poke at their friend, but they won't come up and approach you. . Americans are a lot more open.

Q: It's more of a star culture.

A: Yeah.

Q: Have you ever gotten comfortable with that kind of a fuss - how fans might scream if they spot you?

A: (Chuckles.) Uh . I think I'm kind of used to it now.

Q: Did you ever have something where someone was over the top?

A: A couple years ago, they had all the Red Wings going to different businesses around town. . I think it was down in Canton (Mich.) . and as we're leaving - we had a couple security guys from the Red Wings - they noticed a car following us, so they called us and said, "There's a car following you." . And we looked in the mirror, and sure enough there's a car following us. I didn't think much of it, but they said, "Turn around and come back." So I did, and the car turned around, too, but when I went back to the same spot, he kind of kept going. It gives you a little scare when things like that happen.

Q: Do you think your fame is tougher for your wife or your kids?

A: I think the kids in a way, 'cause they're all playing hockey. And I think sometimes they feel the pressure, even though I tell 'em, "You're gonna be your own player, and don't worry about what people say." I think sometimes they still feel the pressure of having the name on the back of their jersey.

Q: You have never had a whiff of controversy off ice . but the Wings have had some over the years, particularly with alcohol. What was your approach to all that?

A: I went out, too, but I never went out the night before games. I don't know how guys could do that - be out partying all night, then you had to play a game the next night.

Q: But guys did.

A: Yeah. Some of the guys did. And I knew I couldn't do it. . When you're younger, you don't have the authority or the guts to tell someone that's older than you that you can't do that. Once I got older, on a couple occasions, I've kind of told guys, "Hey, you have to take it easy. We've got a big game coming up here."

Q: What part of the hockey lifestyle will you not miss?

A: Long road trips. I didn't mind playing two road games and coming back home again, but packing your stuff - going away for 10 days - I think that's been harder the last couple years as you get older.

Q: You're building a dream house in Sweden?

A: Right. . It's on the water, facing south - have the sun all day. . And it's where we want to be.

Q: Why not stay in the U.S.?

A: Almost all Swedish players eventually go back to Sweden, 'cause I think we want to be close to our families - siblings or parents or whatnot. I think that's just the way Swedes are. Here, being a big country, a lot of families spread out all over - whereas Swedes try to stay close.

Q: How far away will most of your relatives be?

A: My parents, my in-laws, two of my sisters, my cousins, all just about an hour away. We'll see each other on weekends. That's something we miss.

Q: How will you fill your other days?

A: Uh, I'm sure I'll find something to do. People are calling off the hook now. (chuckles)

Q: But would it be business? Would it be totally unrelated to hockey? Coaching?

A: I don't think . maybe . not coaching at this level, but helping out with the kids. Kenny wanted to sit down with me. I want to hear what he has to say.

Q: What sort of things are you talking about?

A: I think it's kind of staying within the organization. We have a Swedish scout - Hakan Andersson.

Q: He's pretty good.

A: Yeah, it could be joining him and following him and see how he does and how you discover talent.

Q: Do you think you'd be a good judge of somebody else's talent?

A: You know what? I'm not sure. I think I can spot it, but I don't know if I can see what they're gonna be like in three or four years.

Q: When everyone was saying you were the best defenseman in hockey, did you believe it?

A: I think in a way I did, but I always felt I had to go out there and prove it. . I can't just sit and relax and think I'm the best defenseman.

Q: Was there ever a Norris Trophy that you got that you didn't really think you deserved?

A: I think the last one was close. I don't know if I deserved it or not. . I remember the first one I won - Ray Bourque was telling me, "You're gonna win this; it's gonna be a landslide." And I'm thinking, "That's Ray Bourque!"

Q: If you had to analyze the one thing you did better skill-wise than anyone else during your career?

A: I think just reading plays, anticipating plays. . I know I wasn't the fastest skater. . I wasn't the most physical guy. . I didn't have the hardest shot. . But I felt that I could read plays . anticipate plays and read where the puck was gonna go. And I could play a lot of minutes at a high level . and I think some guys, when they play more, they get fatigued - it's mentally hard, to play a lot of minutes, stay sharp, not make mistakes. So I think I was able to play a lot of minutes without making mistakes.

Q: And was the key to that an economy of movement? You were able to do so much with just a little turn of your body?

A: Yeah. And I think that's why I could play a lot of minutes . I wasn't all over the ice.

Q: What would you want someone to say about Nick Lidstrom - the first line of the Wikipedia entry - if you could have your druthers?

A: Ooh . that's not easy. I guess - a work ethic? He always took a lot of pride in working hard, whether preparing for a season or during the season. And showing up every night.

Q: That's it?

A: Yeah. I think those are the most important things to me: showing up every night and working hard.

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