January 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm

John Niyo

Feb. 9, 2012: Tomas Holmstrom at the doorstep of his 1,000th game

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This John Niyo column was originally published on Feb. 9, 2012, as Tomas Holmstrom, who announced his retirement Tuesday, was about to play his 1,000th NHL game.

Detroit — It's not just Tomas Holmstrom who is on the verge of playing in his 1,000th career game Friday. It's a milestone for the hidden relics of his 15-year NHL career, too.

When the Swedish "Demolition Man" came to Detroit in 1996, he brought with him two well-worn pieces of hard plastic — hacked-off inserts from an old pair of shoulder pads. He has them rigged to the back of his hockey pants, attached by a pair of shoelaces, so that the plastic covers the exposed back of his calf muscles — a prime target for opposing goaltenders as Holmstrom parks directly in front of the net and proceeds to make himself a nuisance.

All these years, we've assumed there was more. But this, it turns out, is the sum total of Holmstrom's extra protection, night after painful night, as one of the league's easiest and most willing targets for abuse.

He endured it for the 999th time in the regular season Wednesday in a 4-2 victory over the Oilers at Joe Louis Arena. On Friday, barring injury or illness or some sort of personal epiphany, he'll become the 47th player in NHL history to play 1,000 games with the same team — and the sixth to do so for the Red Wings.

But ask the 39-year-old Holmstrom, whose deteriorating knees might be in worse shape than Steve Yzerman's were at the end of his career, if his body feels like it has played 1,000 games and he just laughs.

"More like 1,500," he says.

Still, he admits, "You start thinking about it and — wow — 1,000 regular-season games. That's a big honor."

An even bigger surprise, too. Just about everybody can agree on that.

Never mind that he arrived in Detroit without a medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Or that the biannual Synvisc injections — to help alleviate the pain in both knees that might finally end his career this summer — have been as routine as dental appointments the last three or four years. (A bad reaction to the most recent shot over the All-Star break forced him to miss a game at Calgary.)

Stubborn champion

Holmstrom, the 257th overall pick from the 1994 draft, also arrived in the NHL without much of a clue.

"I think his first shift in training camp he tried to run over Stevie and someone kind of had to grab him and say, 'Whoa, you don't do that,'" longtime teammate Kris Draper recalled with a laugh Wednesday. "Never mind seeing 1,000 games, you won't see Game 1."

Just thinking about all the punishment Holmstrom has absorbed since — all the hacks and whacks, all the cross-checks and cheap shots, not to mention goalie interference calls like the one he drew Wednesday — is enough to make even his teammates cringe.

He remembers his concussions — at least four, but likely more — by the names of the defensemen who delivered them. "(Chris) Pronger was one, two from Rob Blake," he says, and so on.)

"He's probably always in pain," said captain Nick Lidstrom, Holmstrom's best friend on the team and one of the five grand Red Wings he'll join in the 1,000-game club. "But he's gonna do whatever it takes. When he gets knocked down, he gets right back up and he goes right in front of the net again. You just see it on the ice that he's really not going to accept it. His stubbornness comes out. And I think that's why he's still playing."

Stubborn is being polite, of course. Opponents tend to use more colorful descriptions for Holmstrom, especially now that the rules strongly discourage decapitation. But as one of his contemporaries — Edmonton's Ryan Smyth, another renowned net-front presence noted, "What's he got, four Cups? Self-explanatory right there."

Explaining himself never has been Holmstrom's greatest strength, mind you. From the beginning, his mangled English — even his Swedish teammates mock him — has been a source of comedy in the dressing room.

Like the time he came into the sauna all upset and said, "Geez, how do you get out of the coach's dogyard? I'm in it and I can't get out." Draper eventually corrected him, telling him the proper slang word was "doghouse." To which, Holmstrom replied dismissively, "Doghouse, dogyard, whatever — I'm in it!" For months afterward, teammates would joke about being in Scotty Bowman's "dogyard," which as we all know was a pretty crowded place.

'I get there'

The early years were full of scenes like that. Bowman rode Holmstrom hard, in large part because he knew what a rare asset he had. A pest who'd set up shop in front of the crease, screen goalies, tip pucks and create the kind of chaos that literally drove opponents mad? That's playoff gold right there.

And it has been. Forget the 45 career playoff goals to Holmstrom's credit. Or the 240 he has scored in the regular season, for that matter. Just think about all the goals he didn't get credit for over the years.

You watch him staying after practice every day for the last 15 years and you see it's more than just an uncanny hand-eye coordination or an unhealthy pain tolerance that has kept him coming back for more. It's a stubborn dedication to his craft that allows him to see the play and move the way the opposing goaltender does. And it's that same dedication that has allowed him to keep up, even in a post-lockout NHL where skating — not exactly Holmstrom's strong suit — is emphasized.

Holmstrom readily admits he's not a good skater. "But," he says, "I get there." And once he gets there, good luck trying to get him to leave.

Which brings to mind another story about Bowman and Holmstrom, who actually began his career in Detroit wearing No. 15.

He handed that number to Dmitri Mironov when he joined the Red Wings at the trade deadline in 1998 and decided to pick No. 96.

Why? Because '96 was "the year I came to the NHL." Bowman suggested he should pick No. 98 instead. Why? Because that was "the year I was going to leave the NHL." As always, Holmstrom, who was finishing up his initial two-year contract, wasn't quite sure if the Hall of Fame coach was joking or not.

But, he adds with a smile, "I'm still here."

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Tomas Holmstrom poses with a snowmobile given to him as a gift to mark his 1,000th NHL game on Feb. 10, 2012. / Courtesy Detroit Red Wings