Nicklas Lidstrom subtly transformed Detroit Red Wings, position in Hall of Fame career

The poise and class of Nicklas Lidstrom drew comparisons to that of the great Jean Beliveau. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

It was October 1988, and agent Don Meehan wanted to visit a client in the Swedish city of Vasteras. He hitched a ride from Stockholm with a scout named Christer Rockstrom, who was the chief European scout for the Detroit Red Wings.

Sitting side by side at the rink watching Vasteras play, Meehan noticed this skinny defenseman make a play in the first period.

"This guy is a pretty good player," Meehan remembers telling Rockstrom.

"Oh, I don't know," Rockstrom said, brushing it off.

In the second period, the kid looked even better.

Meehan had no way of knowing that the kid had moved away from home at the age of 16 to go to a hockey school in Vasteras, where he could practice twice a week during school hours. He was a kid who gave up the stability of home to rent a little basement apartment from an older couple in Vasteras -- an experience he would later realize helped him grow up in a hurry and prepare him for a move to North America.

He was a kid who did it all because he played in a tournament at 15 years old called TV-pucken, where he competed against the best players in Sweden on national television and quietly realized he was as good as any of them, realized he might have a shot at making a career of hockey.

Meehan didn't know any of that. He just knew in the second period that this kid looked even better than he did in the first.

"This kid is really good. Are you sure you haven't noticed him before?" Meehan asked Rockstrom.

"Not really," Rockstrom answered, blowing it off again.

The kid was even better in the third period, and Meehan made the decision right there to bail on his ride home.

"I'm not going back to Stockholm tonight. I'm staying here," Meehan said. "I want to meet Nicklas Lidstrom and his parents."

And he did. And yes, he landed Lidstrom as a client.

Still suspicious of how the night played out, he returned home and called Neil Smith, then an executive with the Red Wings.

Meehan told him about Lidstrom. He told him how impressive the kid looked and how he was a future NHL player.

"I don't know, I haven't really heard of the guy," Smith responded.

That was enough.

"Neil, you're full of s--t," was the response Meehan remembers.

Smith's memory was a little more colorful.

"I said, 'OK, buddy, you'd better not tell anybody about this f-----g guy,'" Smith said. "'And don't you bring him to the f-----g draft.'"

Once every lifetime in the career of a scout, if they're lucky, they discover the diamond nobody else had found. Rockstrom believed the Red Wings had that in Lidstrom. So did Smith, and they wanted Lidstrom to remain a secret.

At the time, NHL rules dictated that they had to draft Lidstrom in the first three rounds as an 18-year-old, and the general manager at the time in Detroit, Jimmy Devellano, who had never seen Lidstrom play, had enough sense to trust his top scouts.

The 1989 draft was in Minnesota, and the Red Wings had already selected Mike Sillinger and Bob Boughner in Rounds 1 and 2. Later in that draft, they'd take Sergei Fedorov, Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov.

In the third round came the pick that would transform this 1989 Detroit Red Wings draft from a great one to arguably the best single draft of any team in professional sports history.

The Red Wings were closing in on their pick in the third round, and Devellano asked Rockstrom and Smith for one more description of Lidstrom and what his potential might be in Detroit.

"This is a young man they don't think a whole pile of people are aware of," Devellano said recently. "They said he had terrific hockey sense, was a fluid skater and knew how to play the game. Those were the good points. However, he was not very strong at this point."

But he could get stronger. So they grabbed the kid.

Their decision transformed a franchise.

"Oh, my God, it carried us for 20 years," Devellano said.

On Monday, Lidstrom will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the easiest decisions the committee has ever made. In those decades of success in Detroit, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups. Lidstrom won an Olympic gold medal. He won seven Norris Trophies, finished second three times and, considering he didn't start winning those Norris trophies until he was in his 30s, probably deserved a couple more.

He was the first European captain to raise a Stanley Cup and was so good that his team never missed the playoffs during his entire career.

"To me, he's one of the greatest defensemen ever to play in the league, let alone the organization," Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman said. "Over time, people have recognized just how really good he was."

And yet, despite the enormity of his career and accomplishments, picking one Nicklas Lidstrom moment or highlight is all but impossible for those close to him.

He racked up 1,142 career regular-season points, sixth all-time among defensemen -- yet very few of them stand out.

He was the best player on the ice all the time, every game. Not just for one moment. Look at a photo of his teammates making memorable plays and there's usually No. 5 in the celebration, and chances are he did something to set up that moment for the ages.

"We would have our meetings and talk about our players and talk about Nick Lidstrom, and the rest of the league just did not know," said Hall of Famer Mark Howe, a teammate and then scout with the Red Wings. "We all knew how important [he was] to our hockey club. It just took everybody else some time."

It's because Lidstrom's game was subtle. His gift was making the game look easy and making it easier on his teammates.

"When he's on the ice, it's easy to play," Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk said. "You know, he just took care of things ... you just follow him to see what to do."

It wasn't just teammates following Lidstrom to see what to do. And it wasn't just when he played. It's still happening.

The Los Angeles Kings, under the leadership of formal rival Rob Blake, still study Lidstrom and the way he played. They show clips of Lidstrom to all the defensemen in the organization from the teenager recently drafted right on up to Drew Doughty.

The reason is simple: Lidstrom wasn't some other-worldly physical specimen never to be duplicated. He didn't have Zdeno Chara's size. He didn't have Al MacInnis' huge shot. He wasn't an all-time skater like Paul Coffey or Bobby Orr.

"There isn't anything that young D playing in the NHL physically couldn't do that Nick was doing," Blake said. "You look, physically, he's normal. He doesn't have any attributes that stand out. His understanding of the game, it made it so simple."

In studying Lidstrom, that's when the true appreciation comes.

The small, repeatable things were done over and over again to near-perfection. When he was the coach in Detroit, Scotty Bowman tracked the frequency in which the Red Wings retained the puck after a player passed it.

With Lidstrom, it was over 90 percent.

"He was closer to 100 than anything," Bowman said.

These weren't just passes back to his defensive partner, these were passes to Detroit's forwards on the tape where they could build up speed and gain the offensive zone in position for a quality scoring chance.

He did it by delaying just the right amount of time for the passing lanes to open up.

"He was very good that way," said former teammate Bob Rouse, who was close to Lidstrom as part of a daily carpool from Lidstrom's Detroit-area home in Novi that also included Tomas Holmstrom. "He had very good vision, which is not what a lot of defensemen are known for. You think of that more of a trait for a forward. Nick had eyes in the back of his head, he could see plays before they would happen."

Once in the offensive zone, Lidstrom had the uncanny ability to keep it there without ever getting caught up the ice.

"It was remarkable how he could play on the offensive point," Bowman said. "He used to walk the line very well, making sure he got the right angle at the goalie."

He didn't have MacInnis' shot, but what made Lidstrom's shot so special is that he always got it through. Even as the game evolved into one heavy in shot-blocking, Lidstrom found ways to beat it.

It was subtle. He and the puck would still be moving when he wound that stick high for a shot, his head up surveying the ice the entire time. The second he spotted an opening, either for a shot or pass, he snapped that stick down so quickly there was no way to block it.

"He did that better than anybody," Howe said.

He was just as good in the defensive zone.

"It was like a breath of fresh air when he came over the bench," goalie Jimmy Howard said.

Teams planning to beat the Red Wings would enter a game with the sound strategy to dump the puck into Lidstrom's end in order to force him to turn and get the puck, creating an opportunity to wear him down physically.

It was almost impossible to execute because his hand-eye coordination was so good; he'd often block the dump-in attempt and start the attack the other way.

"He knocked everything down at the blue line," Blake said. "Guys would get so frustrated. They'd go to the other side because it was no use. They avoided him as much as possible and it set up the whole Detroit game."

Lidstrom's stick work was incredible. If opposing forwards got too close with the puck, it was gone and headed the other way in one swift move. It forced forwards to make their move a few paces earlier than they would against any other defenseman, and usually that move was to the outside.

Goalies in Detroit quickly realized Lidstrom's stick was so good that if he was being approached on a 2-on-1, they could be aggressive with the puck carrier because chances are there wouldn't be a clean pass to the other player.

"His stick took away lanes," Howard said. "If the pass did get through, it wouldn't get through clean. It was going to be choppy on the other side. You knew you had that extra second to get across. He had such a long reach that he'd just use the stick to his advantage."

"He was never out of position," Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios said. "He anticipated the play so well. That's why you never had to see him diving or making these great plays. He was always in the right spot."

In return, his greatness was sometimes hard to spot.

"If you just sketched his whole game on a piece of paper, it was always on the left side of the ice," Blake said. "Always in the right spot. We study him all the time. It's amazing."

The best players also transform the game.

Defensively, the list at the top of the all-time greats is small. Doug Harvey. Ray Bourque. Bobby Orr. Denis Potvin.

Harvey could control a game like nobody before him.

"My dad always [said] it was Doug Harvey who revolutionized the game," Howe said of his father, Gordie. "Harvey was the first guy to actually carry the puck over the blue line and make a play rather than just dump it in. He kind of changed the way the game was played."

Orr revolutionized the game for defensemen with his fearless willingness to lead the offensive attack from end to end.

Lidstrom's transformation of the NHL, very aptly, was a little subtler.

He, like most skilled Swedes, started out as a forward. When he was 12 years old, there was a defenseman missing from his team and, being agreeable and helpful even then, he made the move to defense.

"I liked it once I started playing it," Lidstrom said during a phone conversation from Sweden. "I realized I could still be part of the offense and rush with the puck. I enjoyed having everyone in front of me and could see the play developing."

So it stuck.

"I just stayed," he said.

He became a pro, started piling up Norris Trophies and Stanley Cups and hockey fans back home started to notice.

In the 2006 Winter Olympics, it was Lidstrom's third-period goal that clinched the gold medal for Sweden over rival Finland. Fittingly, in a play that touched all the legends of their era, Peter Forsberg won the faceoff, passed to Mats Sundin, who found Lidstrom. It was his slap shot from the point that found the back of the net.

It was the moment Lidstrom reached immortality in Sweden. The team won gold and celebrated in one of the big squares in Stockholm with throngs of fans showing up to hear a few words from each player in the middle of winter.

"People back home didn't realize how good he was," fellow Swede Henrik Zetterberg said. "For Nick, it was a moment for him to get the appreciation back home."

"When you grew up in Sweden, everybody wanted to be a forward," Henrik Sedin said. "Nicklas came around, and all of a sudden, you had the best players when they were 10 [wanting] to play as D-men. When you have that and the best skilled guys wanting to be a defenseman, you're going to get some good D-men coming up through the system."

Today, a generation of young, high-end Swedish defensmen are filtering into the league and changing the NHL. Victor Hedman. Erik Karlsson. Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Hampus Lindholm. John Klingberg.

"He was one of the best to ever play the game. For us growing up back there, he was a big idol," Hedman said. "He was someone you really looked up to when you started playing the game. To see his accomplishments as a player is just unbelievable."

Young Swedish defensemen might not be able to see him on the ice anymore, but if they look closely at the guy volunteering to run the timekeeper's box at the rink in Vasteras, they'll see a guy who looks a lot like Lidstrom. Unassuming. Quietly pitching in simply because somebody asked him to do it.

Rouse used to get a kick out of picking Lidstrom up at his home on sunny days in Detroit because Lidstrom was often playing a little road hockey with his sons and the neighborhood kids while waiting for the ride.

He might be one of the greatest to play the game, but he's also as normal and grounded a dad as there is. Lidstrom was a great player, but what made him as unforgettable to teammates was a humble personality and sincere gentle nature that made him a bit like a Swedish Jean Beliveau.

To best show his and his family's appreciation for Lidstrom, Mark Howe put it this way: In the homes of the Howe children, Lidstrom's autographed jersey is the one that hangs on the walls.

"He's always taken the time for everybody," Howe said. "That's the stuff that means a lot to me."

As good a person as he is, Lidstrom was even better on the ice.

"He was as close as you can get to perfect on or off the ice," Chelios said. "I don't know if there's anyone better who ever played. When you're great, you're great. I can't see anybody being a better defenseman than he was."