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He stayed as long as he could, and would’ve liked to stay even longer. But Henrik Zetterberg knew for a while this day was coming, and when the Red Wings opened training camp Friday, he did something rare for him. He finally stopped pushing.

His degenerative back condition started aching again in January, so he couldn’t practice anymore. But even as the Wings struggled through a rough rebuild, Zetterberg pushed on, playing all 82 games — remarkably, all 82 games the past three seasons — as reality beckoned with every wince.

When Steve Yzerman retired, we said there’d never be another leader like him. When Nicklas Lidstrom retired, we said there’d never be another leader like him. We say it again now, as Zetterberg, 37, retires, the last in a line, the end of yet another era.

“I got to know my body pretty well the last couple years, and I know when it’s bad,” Zetterberg told reporters in Traverse City. “And I don’t have that many more solutions to do with my back. So it’s time.”

Ultimately, it was an easy decision for Zetterberg, who couldn’t train all summer because of the pain. He went to New York last week for one more doctor’s opinion, and now will be placed on long-term injured reserve. It’s an outcome the Wings expected, and accepted, for a while. Even as Zetterberg spoke Friday and called his retirement “surreal,” the emotions remained bottled up. He said his only real regret was not getting to play in a playoff game at Little Caesars Arena.

More: Loss of Zetterberg means major issues loom for Red Wings

More: Wings teammates recall Zetterberg's leadership, ability

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Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg looks back on his long career after announcing his retirement due to a bad back. David Guralnick, The Detroit News

'Sad day for hockey'

Of course, you can’t regret leaving when your body won’t let you stay. Zetterberg never touted his toughness or his leadership, he merely showed it, for 15 seasons here, the last six as captain. Like those before him, he was unexceptionally exceptional, soft-spoken in his Swedish accent, hard-driven in all the important areas on the ice. He long ago cemented his standing as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, finishing fifth on the Wings’ career list both in points (960) and goals (337).

“I think it’s a sad day for hockey, for the NHL, for Detroit, for Detroit sports,” said Dylan Larkin, 22, who now must grow into a larger role. “We’re losing an icon, someone who’s given the fans a Stanley Cup. He’s played through a lot of injuries and pain, he’s put his heart and soul into the city, he’s someone I think is very deserving to be up in the rafters with the legends of the Red Wings.”

When Zetterberg raised the Conn Smythe Trophy after the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, fans in Detroit rejoiced, including one youngster growing up in Waterford.

“That was my favorite moment, seeing how he humbly accepted it,” Larkin said. “I can’t remember even watching the Red Wings without Z out there. What makes him so good? His poise. I don’t think there’s many players like that left, with his vision. You don’t even have to call for the puck, he knows where you are at all times. He’s a field general. He’s not the fastest guy, but he controls the pace of the game.”

He controlled the pace of the dressing room too, and left his imprint in a lot of places, not just on the Stanley Cup. With his nicknames, Zetterberg was far more workmanlike “Hank,” drafted in the seventh round in 1999, than flashy “Z.” Larkin observed for three years, admitted he was initially starstruck, and now says Zetterberg was the most impactful person in his young career.

The Wings are deep into their rebuild, and there are hungry, talented players, from Larkin to Anthony Mantha to first-round pick Filip Zadina, eager to seize opportunities. Last year was especially tough for Zetterberg, trying to push young guys to be better while he could barely push himself to skate.

Yet he was always there, second on the team in minutes among forwards, second in points to Larkin. He still played in crucial situations and assumed any role necessary. That effort can be lost in a losing season, but it wasn’t lost on those around him. Game after game, Jeff Blashill would talk about the process of learning and growing. Game after game, Zetterberg would stand in front of the cameras and calmly, sometimes sternly, explain what the youngsters needed to do.

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"We still have high hopes and high expectations as a team," said Larkin David Guralnick, The Detroit News

'No better role model'

He’s one of the all-time stand-up guys, always willing to face the questions after an ugly loss, offering no excuses. Zetterberg wouldn’t rip teammates, but when he said something forcefully, you knew it mattered. It certainly mattered to the team.

“He leaves a massive hole for a lot of reasons,” GM Ken Holland said. “Not only all those minutes (played), but when you’re trying to go younger, you need role models, and there was no better role model than Henrik Zetterberg. ... On one hand, obviously it’s a massive downer. But on the other hand, as we move forward, there’s an opportunity for somebody in that locker room, from a leadership standpoint and time on the ice, to grab it.”

To grab it, you have to earn it, and that was what Zetterberg represented. No, he wasn’t as smooth as Lidstrom, or as gifted as Pavel Datsyuk, or as fast as others. Zetterberg had to work harder, as time passed and injuries mounted, to keep playing, and he did.

The Wings’ next captain might indeed be Larkin, although maybe not right away. He said he’s eager to take on more responsibilities but doesn’t need the “C” to do so, a mature stance in itself. Niklas Kronwall and Justin Abdelkader wear the “A” as alternate captains, and perhaps another will be added. Holland said he’d discuss it with Blashill, but it sounds like there might not be a captain this season, a symbol of how hard it is to earn, and how difficult Zetterberg will be to replace.

Lots of players endure pain, but Zetterberg also endured a pressure no Wings captain had for 25 years, missing the playoffs during a difficult (but necessary) rebuild.

“Words can’t express how much he means to this organization,” Kronwall said. “He’s always been the backbone of the team, and losing a guy like that, it’s gonna be different, it’s gonna be weird. This is what it comes down to with Hank — he was always best when he needed to be. That’s what stands out among the great players, Stevie and Nick the same way. … In a perfect world, you’d have four Henrik Zetterbergs on the team and everyone gets a chance to play with him. Guys like that don’t come around too often.”

That’s why it’s so unfortunate when they’re forced to depart, betrayed by the body, not by the heart.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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