This excerpt from Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection by Nicklas Lidstrom with Gunnar Nordstrom and Bob Duff is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/NicklasLidstrom.
For Lidstrom, life was surrounded by hockey, including all the rituals that come with playing in the NHL. Dressing up for the games and life on the road soon became part of his everyday routine.
“I had learned to get the knot on my tie right back home in Sweden, so that wasn’t a problem,” Lidstrom said. “A bigger issue was to be able to sleep a couple of hours in the afternoon on game days. That was hard in the beginning. I was used to laying down and reading the newspaper for a little while after lunch on game days, but never actually sleeping for two hours. I had never done that before.”
As a rookie, he was sharing a room with a veteran player on the road. For Lidstrom that meant having McCrimmon as his roommate and instructor on the ways of the NHL. “‘Listen, kid, this is how it works,’ he told me,” Lidstrom remembered.
Lessons in napping weren’t the only part of the learning curve, as Lidstrom would soon discover. McCrimmon liked to lower the thermostat in the room when he was taking his power nap between 2:00 and 4:00 pm. “He wanted it really cold,” Lidstrom explained. “Same thing during the night. One time in Edmonton, when he had opened a window in the evening before we went to bed, I woke up early the next morning with snow in the room. It had started to snow during the night and part of our hotel room was covered in white.”
Lidstrom was shivering under his blanket but quiet as a mouse, not daring to say anything. It was part of the ritualistic life as a rookie. You had to go along with how the veterans wanted things done.
There were other things that made him pay attention. Every other week, he got an envelope in his mailbox at the rink with a check.
“I think the first check I got paid was $15,000,” Lidstrom said. “That was unreal. I couldn’t grasp it. After a number of weeks, I went out and bought myself a new car, a Nissan 300. I wrote a check for the first time in my life. I had looked at a car like that back in Sweden but felt that it was too much money to spend. As a 21-year-old professional hockey player in Detroit, I couldn’t resist the car. My rookie contract paid me an annual salary of $275,000, including a signing bonus of $125,000. The bonus money was put into an account that the Red Wings had opened in my name. That also was a special moment for me. I had no clue they could do that.”
Lidstrom didn’t have any problems adjusting to the game on the smaller rinks in North America. “He’s a good, solid player in every aspect,” McCrimmon said of his defense partner in an interview during Lidstrom’s rookie NHL campaign. “He’s good offensively and he’s good defensively. He’s got good composure and he works hard. He’s a great skater. You can’t say that he has one dominating quality.”
McCrimmon felt that Lidstrom’s international opportunities in the World Championships and Canada Cup had served as a sort of finishing school to enable him to smoothly make the transition from Swedish hockey to the NHL.
“With Nick, I think having been exposed to the World Championships, the Canada Cup, and five years of the Swedish Elite League, he’s had good experience,” McCrimmon explained. “It’s the same with Vladdy [fellow Detroit rookie defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov]. They’re rookies in the NHL, but they’re not rookies in experience.”
Lidstrom credits McCrimmon’s influence and steadying presence for enabling his relatively seamless transition to the NHL. “He was more of a stay-at-home defenseman, and that gave me a chance to be part of the offense,” Lidstrom recalled. “He was my partner for every game my first year. He was that steady defenseman who stayed home all the time. He would protect me in situations when things got heated. He was a great partner and I learned a lot from him that first year.”
Off the ice, since the two lived in the same area, they carpooled to games. Their wives also developed a friendship. “He was always happy, always looking at things the positive way,” Lidstrom said of McCrimmon, who died tragically in 2011 when the plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, of which McCrimmon was the coach, crashed. “He was always trying to encourage players when things weren’t going their way. He helped me out a lot my first year in the league.”
Lidstrom gained a reputation on the ice for intuitively anticipating what would happen next on a play. Off the ice, he did his best to prepare for his next hockey step into the NHL.
“When I played in the World Championships in the spring, I asked Tomas Jonsson, Hakan Loob, Bengt Gustafsson, former NHL players that were playing back in Sweden, how it was over here,” Lidstrom said. “I talked to Borje Salming during the Canada Cup. I just tried to talk to as many players as I could. I just wanted to know how it is, how the cities are, the food…well, everything.”
Once he arrived in Detroit, his tutelage was taken over by Swedish teammate Garpenlov. “When I first came over here, I didn’t know anything,” Lidstrom said. “How to order a phone, find an apartment—things like that. Johan, he helped me. He was great.”
Lidstrom discovered that things on this side of the Atlantic weren’t measurably different than back home. “There was a little difference, but not much,” he said. “Back in Sweden everything was not as spread out as it is here. I had to drive a half hour in my car to get to the arena. I spent a lot more time in my car. The cities in Sweden are a couple hundred thousand people. Here, cities are a million.
“The food was almost the same. There were a lot more fast food places. We had some fast food—McDonald’s, Pizza Hut— but we didn’t have Little Caesars.”
He smiles at that memory. “I thought maybe I should eat that now,” Lidstrom said with a laugh. Little Caesars Pizza is owned by the Ilitch family, who signed Lidstrom’s paychecks as owners of the Red Wings.
Steve Yzerman was the team captain when Lidstrom arrived in Detroit. Yzerman was one of the league’s best forwards, often chasing only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the scoring race.
“Before you were accepted and had earned a regular spot on the team, he treated everybody the same,” Lidstrom recalled. “Stevie wasn’t as outgoing as McCrimmon, but you could see how hard he worked every day. Both on and off the ice. He was highly respected for the person and leader he was.”
Lidstrom’s rookie season was a big success. He played all 80 regular season games and produced 60 points (11 goals and 49 assists). But what impressed his coaches and teammates the most was his plus/minus rating of plus-36, which led all rookies and was third in the NHL behind only teammates Paul Ysebaert (plus-44) and McCrimmon (plus-39).
Yzerman was immediately impressed with the rookie Swedish defenseman. “From the day Nick arrived in Detroit, he clearly belonged in the NHL,” Yzerman said. “Initially, the thing that stood out the most was how poised he was in his play. Nick showed no panic ever when he was on the ice.”
Yzerman did not see Lidstrom having to clear any big hurdles during his first season in Detroit. “I believe Nick adjusted very well both on and off the ice,” Yzerman said. “He was a mature young man, intelligent, very professional in his approach to hockey. No one, including myself, ever had to do anything to help him out.”
Lidstrom was proud to have started off well in the NHL without any complications. “I had a very good first year in the league and was nominated for the Calder Trophy together with Pavel Bure and Tony Amonte,” Lidstrom said. Bure, who scored 34 goals, won the award given to the league’s best rookie; Lidstrom finished second in the voting. Lidstrom and teammate Konstantinov were named the defensemen on the NHL All- Rookie Team, and future Detroit teammate Dominik Hasek was the netminder selected to the squad.
Detroit was an extremely offensive club in the beginning of the 1990s and that suited Lidstrom’s style of play. “The team they had was on the rise, so Nicklas couldn’t have ended up on a better club,” said Calle Johansson, at that time a star defenseman on the Washington Capitals. “They had speedy forwards and he liked to join the attack. It looked like he fit right in. He stepped into what was a dream team in my opinion.”