- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2011

Growing up in Sweden, in the 1970s and 1980s, Nicklas Lidstrom watched as the likes of Borje Salming, Hakan Loob and Mats Naslund became stars in the NHL. He knew of the top hockey league in the world by following those Swedish pioneers.

Little did Lidstrom know at the time that an entire generation of Swedish hockey fans and players would come to idolize him. The Detroit Red Wings defenseman is now 41 years old and on Saturday night at Verizon Center will become just the 14th player in NHL history to play 1,500 regular-season games.

“I’m proud to reach 1,500 games,” Lidstrom said in a phone interview Thursday. “I haven’t thought a whole lot about it up until this week. A thousand games was a big deal for me. I didn’t think I’d reach 1,500 and still be playing.”

Along the way, Lidstrom won four Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal, seven Norris Trophies as the league’s best defensemen and one Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He became not just one of the top blueliners to ever play the game and arguably the most accomplished European player in NHL history but the premier symbol of the growth and strength of Swedish hockey.

“I’m sure the guys coming into the league now or are young in the league now followed myself, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg,” Lidstrom said. “We’re sort of ambassadors for Swedish players.”

Lidstrom became an example even for young forwards from his homeland, including the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Those two idolized Forsberg above anyone else — because of the position he played — but still saw Lidstrom as something of a hero.

“He’s one of the best players Sweden’s ever had and I think one of the best defensemen in this league — all-time,” Johansson said. “He’s obviously a big role model and he’s always been.”

Lidstrom was part of a second wave of Swedish players to become prominent NHL stars, a transformation that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau marveled at when thinking back to his time playing with Salming in Toronto.

“There’s a lot more of them. When I played with Borje, there was two — him and Inge Hammarstrom,” Boudreau said. “Now every team is loaded with Swedish hockey players, and they’re great players.”

Lidstrom helped set that tone, but as he plays out what could be the final season of a Hall of Fame career, the spotlight shifts to the next generation: guys like Backstrom, Johansson, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Tobias Enstrom and Victor Hedman.

“Kids in Sweden will be looking up to these guys and trying to follow them,” Lidstrom said.

For the Caps’ Swedes, that’s an odd shift to know they’re now being idolized.

“It’s a little weird,” Backstrom said. “People like what you do — that’s obviously fun and flattering.”

Lidstrom has come to accept his place in Swedish hockey history. While Backstrom and Johansson very well may be two more links in the chain, they’re still trying to make their own mark — just like Lidstrom once did.

Said Johansson: “I’m just happy to be here and happy to play and that people are in Sweden and wanting to watch me.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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