My dad is a fortunate man. After 14 NHL seasons and more than 1,000 career games (including playoffs), he still feels pretty physically decent for a 57-year-old gent.
Sure, his knees hurt after the multiple surgeries, his back is occasionally sore, but he’s able to play golf with a little Motrin and that’s something we’re able to enjoy together. Other professional athletes are not so lucky after putting their bodies on the line so many times.
With long-term injuries and legacies in mind, the question almost every player has to ask himself at some point is “how long is too long?” How long can you keep pushing the envelope and come back for one more year?
Despite what you may think of certain athletes as people, it can be painful for fans to watch a legend push it too far (though the player became great by “pushing it,” so the cause is understandable). Nobody wants to see Michael Jordan in his Washington Wizards phase. It’s awkward to watch Derek Jeter flail in New York. The Chris Chelios thing became a farce – I don’t even remember when he was great because of those final years.
Dad retired at the extremely young age of 34 after two years in the Los Angeles Kings purple and gold, just before Wayne Gretzky came along. He had two sons who were getting older, his numbers were declining and his knees were starting to make the physical grind more difficult. He chose not to push it and brought the family up to Kelowna, B.C. to settle down.
Sometimes I think he wishes he had played more years, but hey, you never really know when it’s the right time to get up and leave the blackjack table. Sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The professional hockey god that is Nicklas Lidstrom, at age 41, has decided to come back for one more year. He’ll once again cash a nice paycheck and have another run at the Cup with the perennially solid Detroit Red Wings. With his career and his legacy, he’s earned the right to come back if he wants to.
I just wish he wouldn’t.
It’s not that he’s going to enter the sad ‘MJ’ or Jeter or Chelios phase – he plays a smart game and he’s hardly shown much decline at this point. After all, he’s the favorite to win the Norris Trophy in a couple days for the seventh time in his career.
It’s just that at some point, everyone gets slightly worse. Not “bad”…just worse.
He had the opportunity to do something completely unheard of – win the Norris and retire. The concept of that is mind-boggling. Returning won’t sully his legacy any and may in fact add to it, but I just hate that there’s the slightest hair of a possibility he might come back and not play up to Lidstrom-like levels, or worse, get hurt. He’s accomplished it all. I wanted to see it end like that.
The game is getting faster and faster, the men bigger and bigger and he’s only going to go in the opposite direction from here on out. I don’t want to see Taylor Hall roast him wide or Jordin Tootoo plow him into the boards. Lidstrom is hockey royalty.
I understand him making the choice to return. He understands “Norris” means “had the best NHL season of any defenseman” and must know that even if he tails off a bit, he can’t fall that far very fast. He wants to help his team make another push and, of course, it’s always nice to receive another year of big money.
I just don’t want him to look mortal and I fear that may happen.
Training techniques, our understanding of nutrition and medical advances allow players to play a lot longer than they ever used to. Maybe my Dad would’ve played more years had he been privy to these tools…but it’s not like they completely reverse the effects of aging.
Mark Recchi just had an effective season at age 43, but it’s an entirely different situation. He altered his game a great deal to do it by becoming a hard-nosed grinder and chipping in where he could (still, his stride was starting to get just a wee short). Lidstrom doesn’t have that option; his game is one of poise and grace, which are only characteristics you can exhibit when you out-talent people by a great deal. Once you don’t, it’s hard to maintain that cool.
I just want to remember Lidstrom as near flawless, which he’s been for an unheard of length of time. I wanted it to be just that and nothing else.
It’s tough to know when you’ve pushed it too far in sports. It’s tough to know when the fall-off is going to come. For a man who’s been so classy and so unbelievable for so long, I hope he has one last great season in him. I’m sure he knows better than anyone if he does and clearly he believes he can still maintain that high level.
If anyone can do it, it’s Nick Lidstrom. Here’s hoping he’s got one more trick up his sleeve.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin’s blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.