When you think of the greatest players of all time in the NHL, you think of names like Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, maybe even Crosby. While Canadian players may occupy the top of this list of the past, it’s hard to ignore names of the Swedish greats. Names like Lidstrom, Sundin, Alfredsson, Forsberg, Naslund, Salming, all proud Swedes who have made a significant mark in the NHL.
In today’s NHL, some of the greats to still play the game are carrying on the tradition of Swedish players dominating, but in the most polite way. You have players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are fourth and fifth in all time Swedish scoring in the NHL (first and second among active Swedish players). You have Nicklas Backstrom, who is only 30 years old, and is well established as an elite NHL centre, but also finds himself in 12th place in that same scoring race (likely to pass Salming this season). These three players have been a part of their teams since their very first game, and it doesn’t seem like any of them are planning on leaving before their retirement.
Enter Henrik Zetterberg. The man who eclipsed 1000 games last season, and has a chance to breach 1000 points if he plays next season as well. Another Swedish player slated to play his entire career with the team that drafted him, and a player who has meant the world to his team, ever since the last Swede left.
Zetterberg has nothing left to prove, hockey-wise. He was the runner up for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in 2003, he’s a two-time NHL All Star in a flawed All Star system, he has a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy win in 2008, he was named TSN’s Player of the Year that same year, along with being nominated for the Selke Trophy, and won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2015; and that’s just his NHL career. He’s got two bronze medals, a silver medal, and a gold medal from the World Championships, to go with a gold medal in the European Junior Championship, and a gold medal, and silver medal in the Olympics. Dreams of another Stanley Cup are far from believable in Detroit, and yet, Zetterberg remains committed to the Red Wings.
Much like the Sedins said recently, Zetterberg has said publicly that he won’t play for another NHL team. Zetterberg was the heir apparent to the captaincy of the Detroit Red Wings following such incredible leaders such as Steve Yzerman, and Nicklas Lidstrom, and has given his heart and soul to the team ever since. Gone were the days of sharing the ice with the likes of Yzerman, Lidstrom, Larionov, Hull, and Hasek. These days, Zetterberg found himself sharing the ice with people like Drew Miller, Steve Ott, and Ryan Sproul. That’s no knock on these NHL players, but they are far from the players that donned the Winged Wheel during Detroit’s glory days; and yet, Zetterberg remained a constant.
In the 2016-2017 season, a season in which the Red Wings famously missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, Zetterberg looked dejected. However, he never stopped working. He lead the Red Wings with 68 points, which was 20-more than his nearest teammate, and his highest point total since 2012. He also was plus-15, on a team that had a minus-37 goal differential, even though he was 36 years old. He had recently gone through some serious back problems, and yet, he continues to be the one to show the younger players what it means to work hard every single day. When teaching the team about traditions, Zetterberg told the media “whatever the Yzermans, the Lidstroms, the Drapers, the Chelioses, the Larionovs — all the guys who helped us coming in and being a Red Wing, we want to do the same thing for the young kids coming in.” It’s his job as the captain, and one of the surviving legends in the NHL, to keep the pride of the Red Wings alive. This, coming from the man who, when he signed his latest contract extension, refused to make more money than Nicklas Lidstrom, and structured his contract to do make sure that he made less than the then-captain.
At the same time, Zetterberg isn’t afraid to keep the team accountable. When the Red Wings were demolished by the Canadians 10-1 this season, Zetterberg spoke candidly, saying that the team embarrassed themselves, and anyone who has ever worn a Red Wings jersey. He’s more than an encouraging uncle; he’s more of a strict father. In 2009, Steve Yzerman had this to say about Zetterberg: “I got to know him myself personally, in the locker room playing along side him, watching his work ethic, seeing his character, seeing all the intangible things that it takes to be a good hockey player and a player to build your team around and structure everything around. You get a little bit of the inside look that some other people don’t have.” Yzerman finished by saying that Zetterberg is “the type of person that we want to represent our organization throughout his career.”
For Zetterberg, there is no other team to play for. He made that very clear when he signed a 12 year, $73 million contract back in 2009. It was obvious that he wanted to be a Red Wing for life, which is why his comments back in August were a little hard to digest. Zetterberg admitted that his contract became a 12 year deal to “fool the system.” While he never wanted to leave Detroit, he admitted that he likely won’t have it in him to finish out his contract until 2021. Sure, he’s only slated to make $1 million in his last two seasons, but it was never about the money for Zetterberg. Likely, he will go the route of former teammate Pavel Datsyuk, and simply not play his last couple years. He won’t retire from the NHL, and force a cap recapture penalty on his team; that’s not his style. He is part of a long line of Swedish players who are incredibly loyal, and will do anything for their organization.
20 years from now, hockey fans will look back at the large number of Swedes that have left the NHL, and will remember them fondly. Names like Zetterberg, Sedin, Backstrom, will become synonymous with Swedish lore, and they’ll join Sundin, Alfredsson, and Lidstrom in the annals of Swedish history.