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Thursday, June 13
Updated: June 17, 2:32 PM ET
Lidstrom's Conn Smythe justifies Red Wings' risk

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

DETROIT -- The ear-shattering din at Joe Louis Arena lulled to a hush.

Nicklas Lidstrom

Nicklas Lidstrom turned his attention from his newly claimed Conn Smythe Trophy and Sergei Fedorov stopped his wild hugging spree. A crowd of delirious Red Wings parted to reveal former All-Star Vladimir Konstantinov carefully wobbling off the bench. And for a precious and electric moment, all members of the revolutionary draft class that turned the Red Wings from contenders into champions were once again together on the ice.

In 1989, the Red Wings took a major gamble by drafting three Europeans -- two defensemen and a forward -- on one day. On Thursday night, one of them became the first European to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and in doing so punctuated an era in the National Hockey League.

Thirteen years ago, they were just names. Lidstrom, a thin and boyish Swede, went in the third round. Fedorov, the Russian with almost mythic talent, went in the fourth. And Konstantinov, a strong and surprisingly gritty Russian, went in the 11th.

The Red Wings organization had no idea if any of the three would ever play in the NHL. Lidstrom had shown no interest in coming to America. Fedorov and Konstantinov simply couldn't.

"They were Eastern Bloc players," said Scotty Bowman. "They couldn't leave."

Then history chimed in. Communism fell later that same year, and within three years they were all Red Wings. Without them, three Stanley Cups may very well have been none.

When Lidstrom entered the league in 1991-92, he was shy both on and off the ice. Few Swedes had made a major impact in the league -- especially on the blue line. No one in Detroit knew if he would ever put on enough weight to withstand the rigors of the NHL -- let alone turn into what Bowman calls "the perfect player on ice."

But Lidstrom got bigger, smarter, and significantly tougher. In this playoffs, he played at least half of every game -- manning the point on the power play and commandeering the penalty-killing unit

And he committed just one penalty.

As if that wasn't enough, Lidstrom scored two of the most crucial goals in the Red Wings' championship run. Trailing Vancouver 2-0 in the first round, Detroit desperately needed a victory on the road. A second-straight first-round loss would have seriously damaged the franchise psychologically and financially.

"That was our season," said general manager Ken Holland.

With less than a minute left in the second period of Game 3, Lidstrom wound up at center ice and blasted a salvo past stunned Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier. The home crowd quieted, and the momentum shifted. Vancouver never recovered.

Then, in Game 2 of the Cup finals, Lidstrom's power-play goal broke a tie at 1 in the third period and created another shift in the Wings' favor. Detroit fed off that lamplighter and posted the last four victories of the season.

Lidstrom is the seventh defenseman to win the playoff Most Valuable Player honors, and to a team that lost in the first round to Los Angeles last season, he is more important than any of its three 600-goal scorers.

And to think he nearly took his family and went back to Sweden in '99. Lidstrom had two rings and three children. He wanted to take his family home.

But he stayed, and became the NHL's best defenseman, winning the Norris Trophy last year and probably again this season.

"This makes that decision all the more sweeter," Lidstrom said Thursday night.

It also makes the Wings' bold decision to draft him and the two Russians even more sweet. Fedorov is a perennial Selke Trophy candidate with Hart Trophy talent. (He won both in 1994.) He exemplifies the Red Wings' system -- backchecking with speed and playmaking with authority. Konstantinov was an All-Star with Scott Stevens' power and Claude Lemieux's ability to grate before a limo crash ended his career less than a week after the Red Wings' 1997 championship. Even the most satisfied Hockeytowner must wonder how many titles the Wings could have collected if No. 16 never got in that limousine on that warm June night.

But Lidstrom is, behind Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings' best draft pick ever. While Yzerman calms the team in the locker room, Lidstrom steadies the ship on the ice. Thirteen years ago, Lidstrom was a very tough choice. Thursday night, to those who hold the Conn Smythe Trophy ballots, he was an easy one.

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at


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