Almost 37, Z still wears the ‘C’ with aplomb

Published September 30, 2017

He’s not the last man standing from the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup team. In fact, he’s not even the last Swede standing from that championship club.

But Henrik Zetterberg is still a relic. His sweater—in hockey, it’s not a jersey, it’s a sweater—should be behind glass in a display at the new Little Caesars Arena. The Red Wings would love to do that, except for the fact that Zetterberg is still wearing it.

He wore it 82 times last season—every regular season game. Zetterberg wore it for all 82 games in 2015-16 as well, and for 77 games the season before that. The older he gets, the more durable he gets. He’s the opposite of a battery.

He’s also the Red Wings’ most complete player. Still.

That’s a fact but it could be taken two ways.

The optimist would say that it’s a nice story that Zetterberg, who’ll be 37 in ten days, can claim that designation. The cynic would say that it’s an indictment of the team’s roster that one of the league’s AARP members is the team’s best player.

No matter how you choose to look at it, Zetterberg, who became team captain upon the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2012, is by far the Red Wings’ most consistent man on the ice on any given night.

“He always seemed to have the puck”

Zetterberg, who made his NHL debut in 2002, is another of the Red Wings’ star players who was far from being a top draft choice. He was the 210th player taken off the board (seventh round) in the 1999 Entry Draft.

The Red Wings’ super scouts in Europe, led by Hakan Andersson (who should be in the Hall of Fame, by the way), found Zetterberg during a tournament in Finland in 1999. And Z wasn’t the player that Andersson and then-assistant general manager Jim Nill came to see play.

Andersson wanted to have a look at a winger named Mattias Weinhandl. But Nill couldn’t keep his eyes off “this little Zetterberg guy who always seemed to have the puck.”

Yet Weinhandl was drafted far ahead of Z in 1999 (78th overall), after all. By the time the Red Wings took their turn in the seventh round, Zetterberg was still available and, remembering Nill’s impression from that Finnish tournament, the Wings took a flyer on the 18 year-old Swede.

Weinhandl, by the way, played in 182 NHL games, divided between the New York Islanders and the Minnesota Wild.

Zetterberg has exceeded that figure by 818 games, and counting.

His career total in games played stands at an even 1,000, with game 1K coming in the last game ever played at Joe Louis Arena.

Z’s current Iron Man status is even more amazing when you consider that when he was 33, Zetterberg had trouble staying on the ice, due to an assortment of injuries, primarily having to do with his back. He played in just 45 contests in 2013-14.

Back troubles are notorious for getting worse as a professional athlete gets older.

Zetterberg is getting older yet his back is getting better. Go figure.

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Zetterberg, at age 36, played some of his best hockey last season.

The ‘fine wine’ player

He doesn’t get up and down the ice as briskly as he once did, and speed was never his thing, anyway. Zetterberg relies now more on his brains than his legs. You don’t have to be a speed skater if you know the best routes to the puck. Age begets efficiency.

But despite the wear on his treads, Zetterberg still manages to be one of his team’s best forecheckers and penalty killers. He has what the hockey people call, a “smart stick,” which comes in handy when the years on the calendar are flying by with the speed you don’t possess on the ice.

The Iron Man status may be in jeopardy, though. Zetterberg hasn’t played in any of the Red Wings’ exhibition games yet, and will only suit up once before the regular season starts, due to a nagging neck injury.

Zetterberg notched 17 goals last season, but his 51 assists were the second highest total in his 14-year career. He was plus-15 in 2016-17, which came after he was minus-15 the season before—a plus-30 turnaround in one year.

The irony of Zetterberg’s career, and maybe it’s sad irony, is that after years of playing in the shadows of, in order: Steve Yzerman, Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, now that the Red Wings are truly Z’s team, there isn’t much to write home about in Hockeytown, aside from the team’s sparkling new ice palace.

During Z’s captaincy, the Red Wings have advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once, and last season, the much-ballyhooed playoff streak ended with a whimper.

This year’s Red Wings aren’t moving the meter of most hockey experts. One pre-season forecast after the other has the Red Wings finishing last in the Atlantic Division.

Cue the cynics once more.

“What do you expect, when the Red Wings’ best player is almost 37 years old?”

But Zetterberg didn’t choose when to be born. He can’t help it if he’s the team’s oldest player. And he certainly can’t be blamed for a nightly effort that rarely leaves anything to be desired.

A legacy of leadership

“I think Henrik will go down as one of the best winners of his era,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill told the media after that last game at JLA.

“He’s probably one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around in my life,” Blashill added. “His competitive desire is unreal. It’s not an outwardly competitiveness where he is real emotional — it’s just his ability to grind.”

Blashill’s comments sound like they could have been said about Zetterberg’s predecessors wearing the C—Lidstrom and Yzerman, whose leadership didn’t revolve around rah-rah speeches.

“I can’t hear what you say, I only hear what you do,” is how a long-ago pro football coach put it.

The Red Wings’ push to the make the playoffs near the end of last season didn’t seem to have much urgency. The team’s play on too many nights was uninspiring.

Except for the play of no. 40.

“You just go out and work as hard as you can,” Zetterberg said as the season was winding down. “I am just enjoying every day of being in this league. I’m having a lot of good fun with all the guys.”

Zetterberg isn’t a titular captain. He doesn’t wear the C out of reverence. He’s the team’s oldest player but he’s also its wisest. And, on just about every night, its best.

Age is just a number. Speaking of which, maybe Henrik Zetterberg will play in the NHL until his age matches the number on his sweater.

At the rate he’s going, who knows how good he’ll be by then?