Last Friday, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland announced that longtime Red Wings forward and current captain Henrik Zetterberg would be retiring after doctors declared that his back condition would worsen even more if the soon-to-be 38 year old suited up for another year in Detroit. Watching Zetterberg go is another bittersweet moment as we slowly bid the 2008 era Red Wings farewell and it requires us to take a long look at his illustrious career.
Goodbye to Hank
Henrik Zetterberg’s NHL career was almost as unlikely as that of his Euro Twin counterpart, Pavel Datsyuk. A 7th round pick out of Sweden in 1999, Zetterberg was another gem plucked out of obscurity by legendary European hockey scout Hakan Andersson. He made his debut with the Red Wings in the fall of 2002 just days after his 22nd birthday. After two promising seasons with Detroit and the cancelled 2005 season, Zetterberg’s career exploded. He scored 39 goals and 46 assists for 85 points as the Red Wings won the President’s Trophy but fell short in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of Edmonton. He followed it up with 68 points in 63 games the following season before hitting his peak in 2007-08. That year he netted 43 goals and 49 assists for 92 points in 75 games. He also had a career best +30 rating and was named a 2nd team NHL All-Star. But his greatest achievements would come after the regular season, as he would score 27 points in 22 playoff games. He led the NHL playoffs in games played, goals, points, and +/-, en route to a Stanley Cup Championship and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
In that playoff run were several memorable highlights including a shift for the ages against Pittsburgh in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, where he nearly single handedly killed off a minute of 5-on-3 time at a crucial juncture of the series. He also scored the championship-winning goal in the third period of Game 6 against Pittsburgh, with a little help from Marc-Andre Fleury of course. There was also his slick shorthanded goal to seal a 3-0 series lead for the Red Wings in the WCF against Dallas (skip to 18:58) and an icing on the cake shorty in game 5 of that series (skip to 21:52).
The following season, the Red Wings would come oh so close to another title, falling one game short against Pittsburgh, losing in game 7 of the finals to the Penguins. That would be the beginning of the end of the dynasty and it was a downward slope from there. Detroit would never make the conference finals again with Zetterberg, losing in the second round three different times (2010, 2011, 2013), twice in game 7. In 2012, Zetterberg became the new captain following the retirement of Nick Lidstrom and he led the team with grace, even as the overall talent of the team declined. After 2016, the Euro Twins were reduced to just one, as Zetterberg and the Red Wings fan-base bid farewell to Pavel Datsyuk. The following year, Detroit missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and last year, the team had such a poor record that they snagged their highest first round pick since 1989.
A Look Back
In looking back on the career of Henrik Zetterberg, there’s a lot to think about. He will go down as one of the 10 or 12 greatest players in the history of one of the three most legendary franchises in professional hockey (I had a power ranking once upon a time that I never finished). His 1,082 games played ranks 6th, while his 337 goals, 623 assists, and 960 points ranks 5th in the team all-time record books, trailing only legends like Alex Delvecchio, Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom, and Gordie Howe. He won a Stanley Cup and was arguably the best player on that team. All those accolades mean that his #40 should be retired into the rafters of Little Caesars Arena one day (hopefully next to Pavel Datsyuk’s #13).
But when I look back at his career, I see myself. No, not in a hockey player sense obviously. But his evolution tracks closely with my Red Wings fandom because more than anyone else on the team in the past decade, Henrik Zetterberg made me a Red Wings fan. Hockey has always been an essential part of my family. My dad played (and still plays). My brother plays, so did multiple of my cousins, and many of my friends growing up. At Drain family gatherings in the winter, the television will likely be on, and it will likely be tuned into that night’s Red Wings game. Put simply, I was always going to be a Red Wings fan. But there also comes a point in life when the fandom doesn’t accept you. Rather you have to accept the fandom for yourself.
That happened to me in 2008. My earliest memories as a Red Wings fan were from 2006. While I watched the team pre-lockout, for a memory from 2003-2004 or before to stick, it would have to be quite vivid, like a championship (see: Detroit Pistons). But the Wings didn’t win a title back then, so some of my first Wings memories were from the 05-06 season. Strangely enough, that was Zetterberg’s first big season with the team. I remember Jiri Fischer’s heart attack and I remember everyone’s sadness when Steve Yzerman retired at the end of the season. But the year when I truly became a fan was Zetterberg’s best year with the team: 2007-08. It was that year that the Wings won the Stanley Cup and made me a Red Wings fan for life. My dad and I had tickets to Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that year, a 4-0 victory over Dallas. While at the game, I bought an inflatable Stanley Cup which I still have. I remember the excitement of the championship, the happiness of being on top. The next season, I watched nearly every game and every playoff game, the year that I became a Red Wings addict. I remember Zetterberg dragging the team to the Finals, even while Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and Franzen missed key games late in the playoff run. And most of all, I remember the searing heartbreak in Game 7 of the Finals.
As the years have gone on, I’ve gained perspective in my relationship with the Red Wings and I’ve matured. But every year I’ve gotten older, Zetterberg was there too. For a nearly 5 year period, I had a Red Wings jersey, and the name on the back was Zetterberg. He played with grace, finesse, and leadership. He wasn’t the biggest, the fastest, the strongest, or the flashiest. He lacked Datsyuk’s brilliant skill and in many ways, he was the silent superstar of the past 12 years of the NHL. Yet Zetterberg was so darn likable, and respected by everyone across the NHL. He was sportsmanlike and won the Clancy Trophy in 2014-15 for humanitarian work in Metro Detroit as well as Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Nepal. Even as he got older and the team got worse, he was always a fixture of the team, competing game in and game out, scoring at about a 60 points/82 games clip in the last 4 seasons and missing just 5 games over that span. He helped bid us, as Red Wings fans, farewell to Yzerman, Osgood, Lidstrom, Franzen, Datsyuk, and The Joe along the way.
But now the time has come that we must say goodbye to Zetterberg too. With Zetterberg goes the last vestige of the era that I grew up with. Now that Hank is gone, Nick Kronwall is the only 2008 fixture left on the current team. Jimmy Howard, Darren Helm, and Justin Abdelkader all played games on that squad but none were mainstays and all, including Kronwall, are nearing the end of their playing careers. It’s been clear to Red Wings fans for a while that those days are long gone but sometimes it takes visceral moments like a farewell to the captain to make it clear. Whenever the Red Wings are contenders again, that team will look very different than it did in 2008.
But there still may be Zetterberg’s imprint on it. After all, guys like Larkin and Mantha, while not nearly the whole core, are important pieces of the Red Wings’ future and they benefited immensely from getting an up close experience with Zetterberg’s leadership. He was the ideal veteran mentor and embodied the skill and class that was the Red Wings dynasty of 1995-2009. And so it’s fitting that with Zetterberg goes the last symbol of the dynasty. He will be missed in Hockeytown, but it will always be his home and we will forever be grateful for the joy he brought us. So Hank, thanks for everything.
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