Monday, May 09, 2011

Captain Nick Keeps Us Guessing re: Retirement

I wonder how many of the 20,000-plus throng at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night were aware that they may have just missed an historic moment. Or rather, dodged a bullet.

The Red Wings won, 4-3, thanks to some late heroics by that bottomless pit of energy, Darren Helm. This keeps playoff hockey alive in Detroit, as the San Jose Sharks missed out on their chance to sweep the Red Wings into the Detroit River and out of the post-season.

But as the mostly red-clad crowd whooped and hollered, both after Helm’s goal with 1:27 left in the third period and after the final horn sounded, how many realized that they did not just see Nicklas Lidstrom play his final game?

The fans may have been just that 1:27 and some overtime hockey away from Lidstrom skating off the ice for the final time, had the Red Wings lost.

You’d like to say that Nick Lidstrom is not allowed to retire, just as Monday is not allowed to come after Friday, and a red light is not allowed to come after green without amber in between.

You’d like to point to Lidstrom, who’s 40, and argue that he can’t call it quits because as efficiently as he’s played during his career, his 40 is a 40 in number only and Nick has the body of a 30-year-old, tops. His is the only birth certificate that could be categorized as fiction.

You’d like to say that a guy can’t hang up his skates after a season in which he was nominated for the Norris Trophy, yet again, as the league’s best defenseman. Somewhere there surely must be a by-law against that.

You’d like to scoff and say, “How can a guy quit when he has 44% of his team’s goals in this series with the Sharks?” Yes, Lidstrom has four of the Red Wings’ nine markers in this tussle with San Jose.

The thought of Red Wings hockey without Nick Lidstrom is, at the same time, sad and downright terrifying.

But Nick is 40 and we’re at the point now where every summer, the question gets bandied about. Will Nick retire, or will he come back? Will he abscond to Sweden and leave us on our knees, sobbing and crying out, “NIIIIICK!!!”

Or, will he report to Traverse City in September, like he has since 1990, pull on the sweater with the big “C” on the right breast and declare himself ready for another “kick at the can,” which is hockey talk for trying to win the Stanley Cup?

This isn’t like when the previous captain, Steve Yzerman, retired in 2006.

Yzerman, at age 41, had a body that had been ravaged by injury, mostly below the waist and above the ankles. The stories of the pain he put himself through were both legendary and gruesome. And who can forget when he was felled by a shot puck in the eye against Calgary in the 2004 playoffs?

We could see Yzerman’s retirement coming like the next train at the People Mover station. The word “imminent” comes to mind.

But Nick Lidstrom hasn’t suffered the kind of injuries that Yzerman endured. In fact, Lidstrom has hardly suffered any injury, period.

Save for a few more whiskers, Lidstrom looks pretty much the same as he did in 1990, when he was a rookie. Lord knows he pretty much looks the same on the ice, too.

Check that: he’s immensely better than he was in 1990.

So Lidstrom’s retirement doesn’t have that same feeling of inevitability, because the guy still looks damn good. His body hasn’t been wearing down, like Yzerman’s did.

Yet here we are, possibly—again—on the verge of seeing Lidstrom play his last game as a Red Wing. His team trails the Sharks, 3-1 in the Western Conference Semi-Finals and Nick’s career is either hanging on by a thread or it’s in no danger whatsoever of being finished.

No in between.

Lidstrom, as usual, isn’t tipping his hand about whether he’s returning next season or not. Some might wink and say that he’s got a face for poker. But can you imagine Nick at a poker table? He couldn’t keep a smirk off his face if he was holding a pair of twos, let alone a royal flush.

Lidstrom is too nice, too down-to-earth, to fool anyone at poker. So it’s not a poker face he’s giving us; I truly believe he hasn’t made up his mind yet. Simple as that.

This has been going on for years now. First, the consideration was whether Nick wanted his kids to attend school in the States or in his homeland, Sweden.

Now it’s simply, does Nick want to play again?

Lidstrom has said that there are two main factors to his continuing to play: 1) that the Red Wings are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders; and 2) he still enjoys playing.

Whether the Red Wings survive the Sharks series or not, the answer to No.1 would appear to be, YES, they are. Here’s Lidstrom himself, quoted in the Free Press on Friday.

“Looking at the lineup we have, looking at the depth we have and the core group that are in their prime right now, I have no doubt they’re going to be a successful team.”

I say that’s a YES to No. 1, though leave it to Lidstrom to send mixed signals; first he says “we,” then he says “they.” Oh, Nick.

As for No. 2—whether he still enjoys playing—I don’t see where he’s not enjoying playing. He had one of his best offensive seasons, he’s got that Norris nomination, and he speaks glowingly of the talent level on the team. Doesn’t sound like someone with a sour puss to me.

If you held a gun to my head and forced me into a prediction, I’d say that Lidstrom comes back next season, at age 41. But it’s not for sure, and that’s what could drive people batty if they dwell on it too long.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the Red Wings’ current streak of making the playoffs for 20 years in a row began when Lidstrom’s career in Detroit began? Hell, not even Gordie Howe had such a streak, though Yzerman came close—Stevie made the playoffs in 20 of his 22 seasons.

The Red Wings won on Friday night in dramatic fashion, the Hockeytown denizens boogied in the aisles, and everyone is waiting to see what happens in Game 5 in San Jose on Sunday.

And Nick Lidstrom’s splendid career hangs on by a thread.

Or not.

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