We’ve gathered down at Joe Louis Arena for a lot of these farewells the past few years, as the Red Wings’ championship era eased out the door and into retirement. From Chris Chelios to Kris Draper to Nicklas Lidstrom, and others in between, each left an indelible mark. But none of them was quite like today’s lighthearted goodbye from Tomas Holmstrom, a player unlike any other to wear the Winged Wheel the last 20 years.
It started with his first shift in training camp in 1996, when he tried to run over Steve Yzerman, as Draper recalls with a laugh, “And someone had to grab him and say, ‘Whoa, you don’t do that.’ Never mind seeing 1,000 games, you won’t see Game 1.” Holmstrom got the message that day, certainly. (After his pal Lidstrom, Yzerman was the next NHL teammate he thanked in his retirement speech Tuesday, by the way.) But he never really took that warning to heart, and Wings fans should be oh-so-thankful for that, as the Swedish Demolition Man went on to shatter stereotypes and infuriate opponents and inspire teammates the way few players can.
I wrote about Holmstrom’s career last winter when he was on the verge of playing his 1,000th game and we all knew he was likely in his final season. But just as it is for his former teammates, it’s hard to put into words what he meant to this franchise. Almost as hard as it was to understand Holmstrom himself for much of his career. He generally speaks the way he skates, which is not at all graceful but almost always makes you laugh.
And sure enough, he had the crowd in stitches again Tuesday, the current Red Wings team included. There were jokes about the elaborate rink his father built back in Sweden, close enough to his house that he and his brother could fire pucks off their own garage door. (“So Mom knew, “Well, the boys are getting hungry,” Holstrom said.) And lengths to which Hakan Andersson, the Wings’ European scout, went to find him amid the reindeer up in northern Sweden. (“Good job, Hakan.) And the friendship with Lidstrom, who began as a mentor and soon became one of his closest friends. (“All the car rides for 15 years … maybe it was just me doing the talking, I don’t know. He was a good listener, for sure.”)
Holmstrom never will get enough credit for his hockey skills, particularly that remarkable hand-eye coordination he displayed around the net. (Tuesday, he jokingly complained one last time to equipment manager Paul Boyer that he “never got enough glide” from his skate blades. ) I’ll never figure out how he played his entire career as a left-handed shot with a stick that was curved right-handed, either. (Actually, there wasn’t much curve at all. As Boyer used to say, it’s a “perfect stick for stirring the Gatorade jug.”)
But for as much as we’ve said and written about Holmstrom’s willingness to sacrifice his body for the team’s success over a remarkable 15-year career, we could never do justice to his stubbornness, or his persistence. He was hockey’s version of a Whac-A-Mole game: He’d get knocked down, and pop right back up, without fail, right in front of the opponent’s net. Shift after shift, night after night. To be the kind of pest he became, and to last as long as he did in that role in Detroit, it takes a thick skin and a big heart. It probably helps to have a sense of humor, too. In Holmstrom’s case, he had all three: check, check and cross-check.
“Some people may think I was crazy,” Holmstrom said Tuesday, “all those years taking thousands of cross-checks – to my neck, to my head, to my back – and then having my teammates shooting 100-mph pucks at me at the net, too. But I had the greatest job in the world. ”