Even Doug Wilson was torn. Upon being asked about the possible retirement announcement of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the San Jose Sharks' general manager didn't even let the question come out.
"I hope he does," Wilson said with a laugh. "And I love him."
Wilson later clarified that he hoped Lidstrom wasn't actually walking away from the game after 20 NHL seasons, 1,564 games and seven Norris trophies. But Lidstrom did call it a Hall of Fame career Thursday, leaving Detroit with a void that's impossible to fill.
"He is the standard of how we want people to play the game. Ultimate professional. When we're teaching young defensemen how to play the game, I don't think there's anybody that's ever been as technically strong as him," Wilson said. "You don't replace players like that. You don't."
At the draft and when free agency opens July 1, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland will have that unenviable task. For the better part of the past two decades, Lidstrom has been one of the cornerstones of the franchise. Until this past season, he had never missed more than six games in a season, setting the example for teammates and young defensemen and Swedes who admired him.
But the admiration society spans the sport.
"He's probably one of the best defensemen ever to play the game, if not the greatest, so I think that alone says something," Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. "I think he's a special player. I think the game of hockey is lucky to have him as many years as we've had."
Lidstrom's ex-teammates and others around the game talked Wednesday about Lidstrom's impending departure like Thursday would be a funeral.
At his news conference in Detroit, the 42-year-old showed class in making clear he was going out on his terms, before his body failed him.
"It's not that the tank is completely empty. I just don't have enough to carry me through," he told reporters. "Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride."
Proud would describe Lidstrom, but Wilson — a defenseman for 16 NHL seasons and the Norris winner in 1982-82 — called Lidstrom's game "brilliant in its simplicity." He rarely if ever sacrificed defensive responsibilities but still put up 1,142 points. At 6-foot-1, he was never a physically imposing force, but his technical abilities compensated for any perceived shortcoming.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, during his 22-year career the Red Wings, had a front-row seat to Lidstrom's brilliance
"Having played with him and watched him closely from his first game in the NHL, people know about it now, but we said it all along, you have to watch him closely to appreciate how good he is, what a great athlete he is, because he makes the position look so easy," Yzerman said. "He is a special athlete."
And eventually a special captain, succeeding Yzerman in that role and becoming the first European to be handed the Stanley Cup.
Though there already has been speculation about Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter signing with Detroit to replace Lidstrom, this may be the hardest loss to move on from since Yzerman retired after the 2005-06 season. Or it might be worse; Yzerman knew stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were waiting in the wings.
"I think the Red Wings have good young players," Yzerman said. "But I think it's fair to say, and it's by no means a criticism, but it's fair to say they don't have Pavel or Hank on the blue line ready to step in."
That's the problem: That there isn't another Lidstrom.
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By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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