The news is official now, but that doesn’t make it less impactful: Henrik Zetterberg’s NHL career is finished. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland made the announcement, citing a degenerative back injury to the captain that will prevent Zetterberg from lacing ‘em up anymore.
The Red Wings’ franchise has played host to numerous legends during the team’s storied tenure in the NHL and Zetterberg certainly belongs among that pantheon. One of the best two-way players in the game, Zetterberg is a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner. Thanks to gold medals at the 2006 Olympics and World Championship, he is also part of the rare ‘Triple Gold Club,’ which features just 28 members in all of hockey.
Zetterberg’s origin story is already legend. Taken 210th overall by the Red Wings back in 1999, the Swedish project was part of a wave of incredible finds by Detroit super-scout Hakan Andersson, who also nabbed the Wings Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk with incredibly late selections.
Zetterberg arrived in Detroit during the salad days, as superstars Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull and Nicklas Lidstrom were leading a pre-salary cap group of legends. As players such as Fedorov, Hull and Brendan Shanahan aged out, Zetterberg and Lidstrom formed the next bulwark along with Datsyuk. Detroit beat a young Pittsburgh Penguins team for the Cup in 2008, with Zetterberg tallying the winning goal. On the strength of 27 points in 22 post-season games, he was awarded the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Detroit would head back to the final one year later, but Pittsburgh bested them in the rematch. Though Zetterberg would never return to the final, he became one of the most reliable two-way players in the league, using his smarts on defense and his playmaking ability on offense. He also took over the captaincy when fellow Swede Lidstrom retired in 2012.
For years now, Zetterberg has been the sinew of the Red Wings, particularly since Datysuk decamped for the KHL in 2016. Detroit’s incredible streak of 25 straight seasons in the playoffs ended in 2017 and the writing was on the wall that a rebuild was finally necessary.
Center Dylan Larkin was one of the first products of that rebuild and the cover that Zetterberg gave him in those initial years was crucial to the youngster’s development. At 22, Larkin now seems poised to become a future captain in Detroit. Following Larkin into the lineup are Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, with Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina coming up fast behind them. The blueline has a number of youngsters vying for a roster spot, with Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski at the head.
Times are going to be tough in Detroit for awhile. Zetterberg’s health was already a concern, but this announcement brings reality into the fore. The team still has veterans, but none who play at the high level that Zetterberg brought to the ice.
The next question: Is he a Hall of Famer? To be sure, the Red Wings themselves will retire his No. 40, but Zetterberg’s individual trophy case is limited to that Conn Smythe and a King Clancy Trophy for leadership back in 2014-15. He has one all-star designation to his name, when he was voted onto the second team in 2007-08.
Whichever way you feel about his Hall of Fame credentials, no one can dispute that Zetterberg was an excellent NHLer. His career possession numbers have him at 55.1 percent and he faced the opponent’s best players right until the end. He finishes with 960 points in 1,082 regular season games.
Zetterberg’s career ends on a down note, but there were many, many good times to remember before that. And in an era where few players skate for only one franchise, Zetterberg retires as a Red Wing, having never worn another NHL team's sweater.