PITTSBURGH - Johnny Gottselig is the answer to the trivia question. He was the captain of the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks in 1938. Though he was raised in Canada and played youth hockey there, he was born in Odessa, Russia. So, literally, Gottselig was the first European captain to win the Cup.
But, well, no. Gottselig left Russia as an infant. He was not trained there and his game was not shaped there. He was not a
European in any kind of a
hockey sense. He was from Saskatchewan.
Nicklas Lidstrom is not from Saskatchewan.
"It would mean a lot," Lidstrom acknowledges when the question is asked, the question about what it would mean to be the first European born and trained captain to win the Cup, the first real European captain. But he says the Cup itself would mean a lot more, which is what you would expect the captain of the Detroit Red Wings to say in the middle of the Stanley Cup
Lidstrom is from Sweden. He is very possibly the greatest
European player ever to play in the NHL. He was the first European player to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, and the first to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the
Stanley Cup playoffs.
Already a three-time Cup-winner, the Red Wings hold a 2-1 series lead over the Pittsburgh
Penguins in this year's attempt to get Lidstrom his fourth. At age 38, after 16 seasons with the Red Wings, he remains a premier player, averaging nearly 26 minutes a game in the playoffs. He could very well win his sixth Norris Trophy next month, which would put him behind only Bobby Orr (8) and Doug Harvey (7) all-time.
But it is the captaincy that seems, somehow, unreal. It will be a very big deal for the people within the sport if Lidstrom wins this year. It will be the tumbling of the final barrier for Europeans, who arrived in the league
3 decades ago to find a sport that was very nearly 100 percent Canadian. And it will make for a grand succession in Detroit, from Steve Yzerman, the soft-spoken legend, to Lidstrom, whose excellence is in the
effortlessness of his play.
"First of all, Nick is a tremendous captain," teammate Kris Draper said. "When Stevie decided to retire [following the 2005-06 season], it was a no-brainer who was going to be the next captain of this hockey club. And [Lidstrom is] very similar to Stevie about how he carries himself on and off the ice.
"Really, what he does is he just goes out and leads by example, with playing at a high level, game in, game out. And the one thing you know, Nick has become a little bit more vocal. As a leader of the team, obviously he feels there's sometimes, some situations where he has to say something.
"He doesn't say a lot," Draper said. "He's not a rah-rah kind of guy. But just like Stevie and a lot of the great leaders, when they speak, everyone listens."
Lidstrom says he learned a lot from Yzerman in a decade-long apprenticeship - about preparation, about how you carry yourself, things like that. But he also acknowledges some changes, however slight, in his approach to the job.
"I think I'm more vocal, especially, in the room, maybe than I was in the past as assistant captain," Lidstrom said. "I try to talk to some of the younger players a little bit more, encourage them and try to help them out a little bit. The same thing on the back end, too, with my defensive partners that you want to be a little bit more vocal and try and help them out.
"And I do have lots of great help from the veteran players that we have on our team. Chris Chelios has been a captain before. Dallas Drake has been a captain. Draper has been around for a long time. And [Kirk] Maltby. It helps my job to have experienced players around me."
So far in the playoffs this year, Lidstrom's leadership skill have been tested. The Red Wings were up by 2-0 against Nashville in one series and up 3-0 against Dallas in the conference finals, and both opponents came back and made things at least a little bit uncomfortable.
Now, here are the Penguins, who were shut out in the first two games and totally dominated in the first 15 minutes of Game 3 - but who came back and now threaten to make this another struggle for the Red Wings.
The lesson? "You have to win four games," Lidstrom said. "It's not over after you're up 2-0 or 2-1, even. You have to have that mentality that you have to stick with it for four wins. And whether it's if you win four straight or if you have to find ways to come back after a loss, that's something we can learn from the
[earlier] series . . .
"It's not going to be easy.
They're a very good team over there. And we knew that, too, coming in."
We will see if the Pens are good enough to deny Lidstrom, and history. We might know by late tomorrow night. *
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