March 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Nicklas Lidstrom's grace a reminder of how it once was in Hockeytown

Detroit — The reminders were everywhere Thursday night.

They were up there in the rafters, where Nicklas Lidstrom’s No. 5 jersey rose to the occasion the way he always seemed to as a player.

Gracefully, of course.

They were there on the ice, too, where a parade of champions in shirts and ties and old, familiar jerseys sat in folding chairs, laughing and reminiscing. They were introduced to an appreciative crowd of 20,000-plus at Joe Louis Arena, one roar after the next, from Vladimir Konstantinov to the Grind Line, and all of the Hall of Famers in between.

Then out came the current Red Wings, lining the red carpet, each of them wearing No. 5 in tribute, as the greatest NHL defenseman of his era made his final, grand entrance with his family.

“It’s just not my name,” he’d remind us all later, near the end of a flawless, tape-to-tape farewell speech. “It’s our name on the back of my sweater.”

Pitch-perfect to the end, this was Nick Lidstrom’s night, honoring the quiet legend who was so underappreciated for so long — in this city and in this league.

But now, well …

“Boy, do I miss watching No. 5 play,” general manager Ken Holland said, almost sighing, as he stood at the podium Thursday and spoke for everyone in the building.

They all miss him, dearly, and on a night where the Red Wings hosted the Colorado Avalanche, with Patrick Roy behind the bench and Joe Sakic upstairs as an executive, it was impossible not to think about what was missing.

The Red Wings of the late-1990s and early-aughts might not have been Detroit’s “Greatest Generation,” but it sure feels like it may have been the “Last Generation” for this place they dubbed Hockeytown.

And if so, who better to usher out that era than the “Perfect Human,” as Lidstrom’s teammates came to call him over time, the sublime defenseman who anchored four Stanley Cup champions and won the Norris Trophy seven times in a 20-year career.

Owner Mike Ilitch called him “our Rock of Gibraltar” the day Lidstrom officially announced his retirement in the summer of 2012.

“I hate to say this,” Ilitch said then, “but we’re not gonna see anybody like him again.”

Mike and Marian Ilitch weren’t seen Thursday night, either, an expected absence they’d announced in a news release the day before while acknowledging the 84-year-old owner’s health issues that have kept him out of the public eye the past year or more.

It was son Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, who did the honors in their place, proclaiming, “No one will ever wear No. 5 again, because no one could wear it like Nick Lidstrom.”

Lidstrom’s the seventh Red Wings player to have his jersey retired here, and he certainly won’t be the last for this storied franchise.

But watching a hobbled Henrik Zetterberg, two weeks removed from back surgery, and a gimpy Pavel Datsyuk, a one-legged star since Christmas, in the pregame ceremony Thursday was another jarring reminder. So was the sight of David Legwand, Mr. Predator, taking the opening draw against the Avs. Ditto the standings, as the Wings — and their precious postseason streak — began the night a point out of the playoff picture and ended it by letting another slip away.

“It’s a totally different program we have going here right now, obviously, than what we had when Nick was here,” said coach Mike Babcock, who enjoyed seven consecutive 100-point seasons with Lidstrom on the blue line. “Maybe not so much the last couple years, but especially the first five or six years (of Babcock’s tenure in Detroit) we were as good as any team in hockey or better. Nick was a big part of that. But there was a whole crew of ‘em, too.”

Much of that crew was on the ice Thursday. They just weren’t in the lineup. They were taking snapshots instead of slap shots.

Scotty Bowman pulled out his iPhone to capture the moment. Darren McCarty took a selfie with Tomas Holmstrom and Igor Larionov. They all had a ball, reliving old times as they honored a seemingly ageless friend.

And why not? As Ted Lindsay joked before the game, “Anytime you play your profession and you end up hung — not by the neck, but by the rafters — it’s a great honor.”

A well-deserved one, at that. Lidstrom’s career accomplishments have been well-documented – the Cups, the Conn Smythe, the gold medals and all those games — but words simply can’t do it justice now.

McCarty marveled at how “easy” Lidstrom made it all look. Shanahan did, too. (”We always say it’s a game of mistakes,” he chuckled, “and Nick always sort of proved us all wrong.”) Bowman, who called Lidstrom the best defenseman he ever saw, talked about his humility and his “sixth sense” as a hockey player.

“And that’s something you can’t teach,” the Hall of Fame coach added. “You just have it.”

For two remarkable decades, the Wings had it, all right. And for so many years — “some really amazing years,” Shanahan said — they had something truly special.

Now, they have something else, a point driven home again late Thursday night when the Avs scored in overtime to silence both the crowd and the Wings’ postgame dressing room.

As easy as Lidstrom and his generation made it seem at times, it’s so hard to relate to what we’re seeing now. What once was a given can be taken for granted no longer.

“Anything in life, in sports, in business, it’s dynamic and you need to keep reinventing yourselves,” Chris Ilitch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “And I think it’s no different for the Detroit Red Wings. … We have to honor our legends — the Stevie Yzermans, the Nick Lidstroms, the Brendan Shanahans, and all the great players we’ve had for decades — and look to the future. … It’s a work in progress, but that’s the way it goes, and I think our guys are gonna get there.”

Maybe so, but they won’t get to where they were. Those days are gone, cherished memories that come rushing back only on nights like these.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo

The Lidstrom family, including Adam, 18; Kevin, 19; Samuel, 13; Lucas, 10; wife Annika and Nicklas Lidstrom. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News