For most, even the greats, there's a natural inclination to overstay your welcome. And who can blame them? Who wouldn't want to extend the time in the spotlight, the special bonds with teammates and those hefty pay checks as long as possible?
That's why the final memories of Willie Mays are of the former Giants great hobbling around the Mets outfield. The constant waffling and endless comebacks are the first image that now comes to mind at a mention of Brett Favre. The aura of Michael Jordan lost some luster when he was shown to be a mere mortal with the Wizards.
The accomplishments of those greats in their prime will never be forgotten, but their legacies were tarnished a bit by sticking around a little too long.
Nicklas Lidstrom won't face that issue. The Red Wings standout defenseman announced his retirement on Thursday, stepping away from the game at age 42 after 20 seasons in the NHL, all with Detroit.
Lidstrom isn't leaving because he has to. His skills may have slipped ever so slightly over time, but he remains one of the top defensemen in the NHL and there's no reason to believe he couldn't stay at the level for a while longer.
Lidstrom was a rare talent, winning seven Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman, four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2002 and a gold medal with Sweden in the 2006 Olympics. But he's the rarer athlete able to walk away from the game without having suffered any noticeable decline in his abilities.
"Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me," Lidstrom told reporters at a news conference Thursday in Detroit to announce his decision to retire, as reported by the Detroit Free Press.
Lidstrom was as strong as ever this past season, putting up 11-23-34 totals and a plus-21 rating. That last number rectified a rare blemish on his resume after he finished a minus for the only time in his career last season. Of course, even at a minus-2 in 2010-11, Lidstrom still won his seventh Norris with 16-46-62 totals, matching Doug Harvey for the second-most Norris wins, one behind the legendary Bobby Orr.
Lidstrom was an ironman throughout his career, never playing less than 70 games in a season outside of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign. Overall he played in 1,564 regular season games with 264-878-1,142 totals and an astounding career plus/minus of plus-450. He added 54-129-183 totals and a plus-61 in 263 playoff contests.
This past year was his lowest full-season game total with 70, but he still led the Red Wings in average ice time in both the regular season (23:46) and playoffs (23:43). But while he may have shown no outward signs of decline, the weight of all those minutes and games had been taking a toll on Lidstrom, letting him know it was time to go.
"The last two years, I waited until season was over to assess if I could play again," Lidstrom said. "I let my body recover. Sadly, this year, it's painfully obvious to me my strength and energy level are not rebounding. My drive and motivation is not where it needs to be to play at this level.
"That's why it's time to retire," Lidstrom added. "I'm aware some think I can still help the Wings win games. I appreciate that. It's been a great, great ride.
"I take a lot of pride in how hard I worked, in representing my country, and in representing Detroit."
Lidstrom handled his exit from the game with the same class and grace he always displayed on the ice. His departure will be difficult for the Red Wings and their fans to accept. It's a disappointment for every hockey fan to know that one of the true greats has played his final game.
"It's one of the most emotional days in Red Wing history," Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said at the news conference. "Nick has been a Rock of Gibraltar. A solid leader. The word perfect comes up."
And painful though it may be, it was the perfect exit. Like any good showman, Lidstrom left them wanting more.
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