The Stanley cup champion Detroit Red Wings have a cast of characters worthy of a premium table at Spago. There's left wing Brendan Shanahan, who resembles Richard Gere both in rugged good looks and intellectual curiosity, having recently beamed after receiving a book written by German existentialist Heinrich B�ll. Captain and center Steve Yzerman has had the up-and-down-and-up career of John Travolta. With an eccentric personality and computerlike brain, coach Scotty Bowman often draws comparisons to Rain Man. And, of course, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov is the team's answer to Christopher Reeve, a star felled by a freak accident.
Such a varied collection of dramatis personae, though, would be incomplete without the presence of a Carl Reineresque straight man, which is where the Wings' reticent defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom fits in. While his colorful teammates treat the locker room at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena like a playground, snapping towels and good-natured insults at each other, Lidstrom sits resolutely on Defenseman's Row—along the back wall, where the blueliners' stalls are located—and escapes the mayhem virtually unnoticed. "I'm pretty calm and quiet," says Lidstrom in a monumental understatement. "I don't really avoid attention, but I don't look for it either, in the locker room or on the ice."
In the latter setting, however, Lidstrom is fast gaining acclaim as the Red Wings' lodestar. With Detroit battling the Dallas Stars for the NHL's top record following a tumultuous off-season, Lidstrom is playing some of the best—and most—hockey in the league. In addition to being consistently outstanding on defense, at week's end he led all defensemen in goals, with 14, thanks to a blinding one-timer. "He's a two-way player who's doing it all for us this season," says Bowman. "He's producing offensively, he's out there on the power play, out there on the penalty kill, and he's matched up against the other team's best players."
Lidstrom gets more ice time than a bottle of Dom P�rignon, often logging upwards of 30 minutes a game. He's so prominent that after the first period of a game earlier this season, Detroit's statisticians credited him with playing 20:08. Yet for all his mileage, Lidstrom seldom succumbs to road rage. In the Red Wings' first 44 games, he spent a mere 14 minutes in the penalty box. "I try to make the right decisions on the ice, and I don't have much of a temper, so I let the young guys like Jamie Pushor, Anders Eriksson and Aaron Ward do my dirty work," says the 27-year-old Lidstrom jokingly. And he's as durable as he is well-mannered, having missed only 10 regular-season games since 1991-92.
Detroit's third pick in the 1989 draft, Lidstrom was selected to the all-rookie team six seasons ago, but for the next several years he all but fell off the radar screen. While his teammates and eventually the Red Wings' fans developed a deep appreciation for his efficiency and subtle skills—including his knack for using his skates to keep the puck in the zone on power plays, a manifestation of his talent as a young soccer player in Sweden—he attracted little notice outside the Joe. "Nick was paired with Paul Coffey and then Konstantinov, so opponents weren't focusing on him," says Detroit right wing Darren McCarty. "He always seemed to be the forgotten guy. We were perfectly happy to keep him a sleeper."
After the Stanley Cup finals against the Philadelphia Flyers last spring, Lidstrom was no longer a secret. While most teams tried to use their biggest and nastiest defensemen against Philly's behemoth Legion of Doom line, Bowman countered shrewdly with finesse, playing Lidstrom, who's a relatively slight 6'2", 190 pounds, in more than half the even-strength shifts against that line. In Detroit's sweep, Lidstrom contained the Flyers' vaunted unit and helped hold Eric Lindros without a goal until 14.8 seconds remained in the series. Although goalie Mike Vernon, who has since moved on to the San Jose Sharks, skated away with the postseason MVP award, the murmurs in the press box were that Lidstrom was at least as deserving.
After the series, Lidstrom, his wife, Annika, and their two children, Kevin, 3�, and Adam, 1�, traveled to Sweden to show off Lord Stanley's chalice and visit Nicklas's parents in his hometown of Avesta. On that trip Nicklas's father, Jan-Eric, also took note of his son's increasingly taciturn ways. "When he was a boy, he was a little warrior, always joking and doing little things to get into trouble," says Jan-Eric, a chief with the Swedish highway system who, like his son, speaks flawless English. "Now every time he comes home, he's more and more quiet." Even after Nicklas's spectacular play during the Stanley Cup, which was televised live to high ratings in Sweden despite the six-hour time difference, he's only the third-most-popular NHL player in his mother country, behind Toronto Maple Leafs center Mats Sundin and Colorado Avalanche center Peter Forsberg.
By the time Lidstrom returned to Hockey-town from Sweden, the Red Wings' profile had changed dramatically. With star center Sergei Fedorov in the midst of a still-unresolved contract dispute and Konstantinov's career ruined by a limousine accident, Lidstrom was called upon to shoulder a greater load. "It obviously changes things when you lose a guy like him," Lidstrom says of Konstantinov. "But I don't mind the extra responsibility or the extra minutes. Actually, the more I play, the easier I get into the game."
Lidstrom is fortunate because there's no respite in sight. Next week he is scheduled to play in the NHL All-Star Game. Then in February he will anchor Sweden's defense in the Nagano Olympics. Finally, there's the small matter of the NHL's postseason and Detroit's bid to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92. "I think we're up there with the league's best teams, but any time you have to win 16 games in a short period of time, it's going to be tough," says Lidstrom. "We're playing well right now, though, and everyone seems comfortable with the system."
Meanwhile teams around the league are taking notice of the Red Wings' indispensable player. Earlier this season some of the Stars spent a flight home to Dallas comparing their nominees for the NHL's major postseason awards. "A number of guys put Lidstrom down not only as the best defenseman but also as the Hart Trophy winner," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said recently. "That's how highly he's regarded."