Lidstrom still blazing European trail
1989 -- First European drafted first overall, Swede Mats Sundin, Quebec Nordiques.
1993 -- First European captain, Russian Alexander Mogilny, Buffalo Sabres.
1994 -- First European MVP, Russian Sergei Fedorov, Detroit Red Wings.
1995 -- First European to lead NHL in scoring, Czech Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh Penguins.
2001 -- First European Norris Trophy winner, Swede Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings.
2002 -- First European playoff MVP, Swede Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings.
2007 -- First European captain in Stanley Cup final, Swede Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators.
DETROIT -- Nicklas Lidstrom and Borje Salming were teammates for a few weeks in September of 1991 when the pair played for Team Sweden in the Canada Cup.
The two defensemen were opposites in career terms.
At that time, Lidstrom was a 21-year-old just about to start his first NHL season, ready to join the Detroit Red Wings. Salming was a 40-year-old who one year earlier had ended a 17-season NHL career by playing his final campaign with the Red Wings.
Lidstrom was the future of European hockey players in the NHL. Salming was the past.
Lidstrom today starts a Stanley Cup final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins that could make him the first European to ever captain an NHL champion. Seventeen years ago, Lidstrom was a kid playing alongside his boyhood idol, Borje Salming, if only for one tournament.
Salming told Lidstrom what it was like to break into the NHL in 1973, back when Europeans were just a handful in number scattered throughout North America. Salming was the first great NHL player from Europe.
"I think he paved the way for a lot of Europeans the way he played," said Lidstrom of Salming. "He faced a lot of tough games. He was a target when he first came over here and he played through it. I think he proved to a lot of people over here that Europeans can play this style, this type of hockey over here too. He did a lot not only for the Swedes, but for all Europeans."
When Salming started in North America, there had been one European taken in the history of the NHL draft. (Finnish-born left winger Tommi Salmelainen was selected 66th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 1969. Salming was signed as a free agent by Toronto.)
By 1980, there had been a total of 48 NHL picks spent on Europeans in the history of the draft. It was an NHL landscape that changed dramatically in the 1990s. In the draft of 2000 alone, there were 123 Europeans selected.
Back when Salming broke into the NHL in the 1970s, however, Europeans were oddities that were viewed with skepticism. It was common for a youth hockey player in Canada back then to hear phrases like "hits (softly) like a Swede" and "chicken Swede", cultural biases that were born out of stylistic differences in play.
Europeans back then did play more of a skill-oriented game with less hitting involved than did North Americans. And North Americans played more of a straight-forward, high body contact game than did Europeans.
In today's NHL, however, the two styles have blended because of the high number of Europeans in the league.
"I think we play more of a mix of European and North American hockey where you have speed and a lot of physical play and hitting, but you have more skill too," said Lidstrom. "The Europeans bring that. I think that was a big difference from what it was like when Salming joined the league."
Detroit goalie Dominik Hasek broke into the NHL in 1990 -- one year before Lidstrom -- as a 25-year-old. Training techniques were different. Hasek was used to much longer practices in Europe that went at a much slower pace.
But the biggest difference he experienced -- even as recently as the early 90s -- was the attitude towards European players.
"When I came in, there were maybe 10, 15 Europeans," said Hasek, who in 1997 became the second European MVP of the NHL, following Detroit's Sergei Fedorov. "Especially goalies. Nobody believed in European goalies. I think they only thought the Russian players were good. They didn't think much of Czechs or Finns or Swedes. Now, I think people now see European players completely different from 1990 when I broke into the league. It's a blended league."
And in this blended NHL, the Red Wings have become a poster child of sorts.
Ten of the 20 players who dressed for Detroit in the victory that clinched the Western Conference playoff title were Europeans. Only five of 20 Penguins in the final game of the Eastern Conference final were Europeans.
Having been named playoff MVP in 2002, Lidstrom is still the only European to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy and one of only two non-Canadians to do so. (American Brian Leetch won the award in 1994.) Lidstrom is also the only European to ever win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.
Last season, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, a Swede, became the first European to captain a team to the Stanley Cup final. Sterling Heights native Derian Hatcher won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with Dallas and is still the only non-Canadian to captain a hockey champion.
Russian Alexander Mogilny became the first European captain in the NHL in 1993 with the Buffalo Sabres.
Nicklas Lidstrom could soon become the first European captain to win the Stanley Cup.
Lidstrom has become in his own time what Salming was in his. A trail blazer.