Zetterberg was an elite captain, long after his team wasn’t

Published Sept. 15, 2018

It was March 23, 1974.

I was a 10-year-old attending my second-ever Red Wings game at the old red barn, Olympia Stadium. I don’t remember much about the evening except for two things.

One, was the buzz in the arena before the game. Right winger Mickey Redmond had scored a hat trick in his previous game, bringing him to 49 goals for the season. So naturally, the fans wondered if they would witness no. 50—making it two straight years that Redmond reached that milestone.

Two, was the celebrated goal itself.

The New York Rangers were in town. Redmond—I can’t remember which period it was—raced down his wing, a defenseman between he and goalie Ed Giacomin. Everyone in the building knew that Mickey was going to unleash his howitzer of a shot.

Sure enough, just as he hit the top of the face-off circle, Redmond cocked his weapon. The crowd built into a crescendo of sound.

BAM!!

The slapper beat Giacomin cleanly, and the stadium erupted.

Redmond was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, part of a January 1971 trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Habs. He was 23 years old at the time of the deal. Mickey was considered one of the Canadiens’ new generation of stars, but in order to get the veteran Mahovlich, Canadiens GM Sam Pollock included Redmond in a package that included Billy Collins and Guy Charron.

Redmond started pouring in goals almost as soon as donning the Winged Wheel. He netted 42, 52 and 51 in his first three full seasons in the Motor City.

Then his back popped.

With Redmond, it was ‘What could have been’

Mickey suited up for only 29 games in 1974-75 and 37 the following campaign. The back pain was nerve-related, and it caused numbness down his leg. If you think skating on ice is hard enough, try it when you can’t feel one of your legs.

Because of the leg numbness, Redmond couldn’t drive forward with his shot with nearly the same gusto as he could prior to the injury. Think of a pitcher who can’t feel the leg that he uses to push off the mound.

By January 1976, Redmond was done. Finished. At age 28.

In September 1979, Mickey thought he would give it another shot. He was 31, but felt he owed it to himself to try one last time. The numbness was gone. The back felt better. Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay approved Redmond to skate with mostly minor leaguers in Glens Falls, New York while the NHL training camps were going on.

Redmond lasted two days. The back pain returned. He told Lindsay he was going home.

Fortunately for Redmond, he was able to find another career.

There’s no telling how big of a star Mickey Redmond could have been as a Red Wing. He was handsome, possessed a whale of a shot and was entering into his prime when his back gave out. Sure, he played on bad teams in Detroit, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from filling the nets with pucks.

Z: his back died a slow death

Henrik Zetterberg’s back popped. Actually, it’s been a slow death. It’s not like he bent down to lace his skates and felt something amiss.

Where Mickey Redmond was finished at age 28, Zetterberg lasted a decade longer than that, pretty much. He announced his retirement the other day, his 38th birthday less than a month away.

The amazing thing about Zetterberg’s career ending is that it comes on the heels of four straight seasons of being durable. He had played all 82 games for the past three years, and 77 the year before that. But the last few years, especially, were excruciating. The back condition, which was diagnosed last week as being degenerative, forced Zetterberg out of practicing from January on, in 2018.

A captain who doesn’t practice? That was more than accepted by his teammates, who play for an organization that’s been renowned for respected captains.

Alex Delvecchio wore the C for 11 years (1962-73) and even in the shadows of Gordie Howe, “Fats” was the undisputed leader of the team.

Stevie Yzerman took over the C at age 21 and didn’t take it off until almost 20 years later. Few captains in the history of professional sports commanded the room like Yzerman.

Nick Lidstrom had a tough act to follow but he did it with quiet and grace for seven years. The Perfect Human, they called him. How do you not respect that?

Then there was Zetterberg—“Hank” to his charges in the dressing room.

By the time the C was sewn onto Hank’s sweater, the Red Wings had become a shadow of their former selves. Eventually, so did Hank.

Oh, he put up respectable numbers last season (11 G, 45 A) and he played every game, but Zetterberg was a step slower, his shot a little weaker and his dominance was quite diluted. He no longer was one of the best Swedes in the NHL, as he had been in the first half of his 15-year career in the league.

But no one on the Red Wings roster worked harder, no one gutted it out with more determination and no one felt the sting of missing the playoffs after 24 years more than Hank.

He vowed it would never happen on his watch as captain—the Red Wings missing the post-season. In a way, that attitude, which was prevalent throughout the organization, was more of a hindrance than a help to the long term future of the franchise. But I see where Zetterberg was coming from. To the rest of us, it wouldn’t seem to be a shameful thing to finally miss the playoffs, but not to a warrior like Hank.

Image result for zetterberg

Classy leadership in style of Stevie, Lidstrom

Every night after a game, as Lidstrom and Yzerman did before him with class and calm, Zetterberg stood before the hordes of media and answered all their “So what happened out there?” questions. Never did I see him snap, never did I see him complain or whine, especially when there was a lot to complain and whine about.

It’s been said that the Red Wings officially lost their collective mojo when Lidstrom retired in 2013—that they never recovered from that. I’m not sure. While they haven’t come close to replacing Nick—certainly not a criminal offense—the rest of the roster got old and decrepit around the same time. And the long foreseen but only recently instituted rebuild didn’t help matters by its tardiness.

Even the loss of Pavel Datsyuk a few years ago didn’t truly end an era of Red Wings hockey. It ended with the retirement of Zetterberg.

Hank wasn’t the last connection to the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup in 2008—that honor goes to defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who will be likely following Hank into the sunset after this season. But by hanging up his skates, Zetterberg has officially closed the door on an era of the fast and furious, “firewagon” brand of hockey in Detroit, which is what they used to call Mickey Redmond’s Canadiens style back in the day.

I remember on the night that the Red Wings retired Yzerman’s number 19—Jan. 2, 2007—I was sitting in a private suite, helping out Fox Sports Detroit on that evening’s broadcast. Ted Lindsay sat next to me. As we watched the action on the ice below, Teddy said simply, “It’s a young man’s game today.”

NHL players have been frequently known to skate deep into their 30s and even into their 40s. But it truly is a young man’s game, as every professional sport is. Only the premier, elite players are kept on NHL rosters at advanced ages.

Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t been an elite player in quite some time. His numbers gradually faded with each passing year. But he was an elite teammate and an elite captain.

“One of the greatest warriors I’ve ever been around,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said of Hank last spring.

“One of the greatest Red Wings to ever play for this organization,” GM Kenny Holland said on Thursday.

At least Zetterberg can retire knowing that he had nothing left to give. At his age, and having played so many games in recent years, there really shouldn’t be any “What could have been” feelings coursing through his body.

He wasn’t Mickey Redmond. He was what Mickey could have been.

Nice career, Hank. How Swede it was.

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