Johnson: Lidstrom-less Wings will be a most unfamiliar sight for Flames
Calgary heads into Detroit for first meeting against Western Conference rival without legendary defenceman
It’s as if the Eiffel Tower had somehow been removed from the skyline of Paris. The Empire State Building vanished out of midtown Manhattan. The Colosseum razed overnight and gobsmacked Romans left to gaze at an empty plot of ground.
That’s how much he’d come to mean, to represent, to symbolize.
Detroit without Nick Lidstrom?
Hardly seems possible. Hardly seems fair.
“Starting out in Colorado, we had some great battles in the playoffs,” Alex Tanguay was reminiscing Monday, as the Calgary Flames hustled to catch a charter flight to the Motor City and their first encounter against the Lidstrom-less Detroit Red Wings. “Playing on Joe (Sakic) or Peter (Forsberg)’s line, I’d see Nick on the other side most nights.
“It’s going to be a nice feeling not to see him.
“In my mind, ever since I’ve been in the NHL, he and Ray Bourque are probably the two best Ds I’ve seen. One I had a chance to play with and the other one I had a chance to watch for a long, long time.
“What a career. What a player.
“It was certainly fun to watch. But I’m glad he’s not playing anymore.”
The resume is virtually without equal: 21 seasons, four Stanley Cups, 12 NHL All-Star selections, 10 to the first team. Seven Norris Trophy nods, a Conn Smythe Trophy win in 2002. Impeccable timing. Amazing durability. That stick everyone talks about, flicking out as quick and lethal as a serpent’s tongue. Hooked up to an invisible, limitless air tank, able to log 28 to 30 minutes a night without — or at least it seemed — so much as breaking a sweat.
In an often savage profession, he was the equivalent of Fred Astaire, light and limber, all burnished elegance and grace.
Lidstrom and Flames’ captain Jarome Iginla tussled often over the years, particularly memorably through two playoff series. When the ‘book’ on Iginla was to play him physically, take the body often and hard, Lidstrom relied on his greatest assets, guile and timing, to contain the captain.
“He’s been such a great part of their team for ... my, uh, whole career,” said Iginla on Monday. “It’s funny, you don’t even realize he’s gone yet when you haven’t played them.
“He’s out there in all the situations, his PK, his good stick. Trying to play against him, he was just such a smart player. He didn’t get beat often. If you ever did score when he was out there you really did feel good about that, try to remember that, because it was tough.
“He was that good.
“He plays off you. He picked off so many passes. I don’t know what his straight-out speed was, but he always seemed to get beat. It is hard. I kinda like guys who run at you; I like to try and roll off it. He definitely played a different style. He could frustrate you at times, for sure.”
Interesting how Iginla and others kept flip-flopping from past to present tense in talking about Lidstrom. As if they couldn’t quite believe he officially retired on May 31, at the age of 42, either.
“It’ll be a nice change,” mused centre Matt Stajan, who, as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, faced off against Lidstrom in countless Original Six battles. “For us. For anybody going in there. He’s obviously one of the best D-man that’s ever played. His positioning was second to none. Always in the right spot. He probably had the best stick in the game for the last 20 years. You’d try and chip it by him, he’d bat it out of the air.
“I don’t think a guy like that is replaceable. But they play a good system and it’s never an easy building to go into.”
For Jiri Hudler, the opener of this three-game road swing is special on many fronts. It marks his return to Detroit, to The Joe, where he spent so many fruitful seasons. It also marks the first time he’ll suit up against all his old mates — minus one.
“He’s special, because of the way he played the game,” lauded Hudler. “He played hard. He’s got skills like nobody. So smart. It’s really tough to describe. He was one of the best to ever play the game. So it’s going to be different. They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of young guys. Obviously, there’s no second Nick Lidstrom there.
“It’s going to be weird not seeing him there.”
Weird does not even begin to describe it.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” joked the retired Craig Conroy. “And he outlasted me! Man! He always kept saying he was going back to Sweden. Year after year. And then he’d come back. So I’m like ‘OK, so WHEN’s he going, anyway?!’ But honestly, he’s one of those guys you wish you’d had a chance to play with. A season. A game. Even a shift. Puck always on your tape, at the right time. I remember it being a nightmare trying to block his shot. Not that it was hard, but he’d just lift his head up, pull you out, suck you in, and Bang! it was in the net.
“From the time I started, he was there. This great, great player. So you just feel he should still be there. Doesn’t seem right, somehow, an NHL without Nick Lidstrom in it.”
Not, it does not.
So these Flames, Iginla and the rest, can be forgiven, then, for thinking if maybe tonight they close their eyes for a moment, there he’ll be again when they look up, the unflappable No. 5, making the difficult appear nothing more than child’s play.
“Those guys,” praised Tanguay, “are ageless. He could’ve played for another three or four, easy. And been a Norris Trophy contender on a yearly basis. So certainly it’s going to be a big difference on their side, but they’ve been a winning team, a winning organization for a long, long time.
“So we’re not thinking about going in there and admiring the ceiling — I don’t know when his jersey’s going to be up there, but I’m sure it’s going to be soon.
“We’ve got to focus. We’ve got a job to do.”
And that job, without Nick Lidstrom around to run the show, must now seem more possible than ever before.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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