Niyo: Timing was everything for Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — He was important enough that his name became a verb. And yet for Niklas Kronwall, the soft-spoken Swede who became such a big hit in Detroit, the legacy was always going to be harder to define than that.

Because when he was playing at his peak, the Red Wings’ roster always boasted bigger names and flashier stars. And then when it finally was his turn to lead, well, we all know what follows the end of a dynasty.

Frustration, mostly.

Niklas Kronwall speaks to reporters inside the locker room at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday.

Kronwall, like so many others in this proud franchise, felt plenty of that in recent years, as his body began to betray him and the losses became numbingly routine.

Still, he was determined to finish what he’d started. And once he had — a 38-year-old defenseman leading the Red Wings with 79 games played last season in the final year of a contract he’d signed way back in 2011 — he knew it was time.

More: Niklas Kronwall: Playing for Red Wings was 'more than hockey'

“Last year, I felt more like I could still do this,” he admitted Wednesday, choking back his emotions several times in a 20-minute media session a day after he’d made his retirement official.

“And I think that gave me some peace, I guess. Like, ‘You know what? I can do this.'”

He can, and he did, and in the end, that’s the probably where his legacy lies. Not that you’ll get him to admit it, even now as he moves into a front-office role and begins the next chapter of his professional life as a special advisor to general manager Steve Yzerman.

“I think stuff like that is for other people to decide,” Kronwall said, understated as always.

“I think all through the years you just try to be a good teammate and work hard. Regardless of what you do in life, I think everything comes back to that.”

As a player, timing really was everything for Kronwall, and not just in the way he’d line up highlight-reel hits.

A first-round draft pick in 2000, he recalls an early trip to Detroit just as the Red Wings were churning toward another Stanley Cup in 2002.

Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg were in town together — the latter to sign his first NHL contract — and they saw the Wings beat the Colorado Avalanche, 5-3, in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Darren McCarty scored a hat trick that night, and as Kronwall later recalled with a laugh, “It was quite a trip.”

He had no idea, though, the journey that awaited him in a 15-year NHL career that ended just shy of 1,000 games but chock full of accomplishments, if not accolades.

Heavy hitter

Kronwall never made an All-Star team but he finishes his career ranked behind only Hall of Famers (Nicklas Lidstrom, Marcel Pronovost) in games played by a Red Wings defenseman, and he’s among the top five in several other categories.

He’s also one of fewer than 30 hockey players who can claim membership in the exclusive “Triple Gold Club,” having helped Sweden win Olympic and World Championship gold in 2006, then adding a Stanley Cup title in 2008.

More: 'Journey ends here': Niklas Kronwall retires after 15 seasons with Red Wings

And for the better part of a decade, Kronwall probably was one of the 15 or 20 best defensemen in the game.

Of course, he was overshadowed in Detroit by Lidstrom, his mentor and fellow Swede, as well as the tag-team wizardry of Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

And while coaches valued Kronwall's skill as a mobile, puck-moving defenseman, what gets remembered most are all the hip checks. From that ’08 Stanley Cup run alone, there’s the clip of him going boom on Nashville’s Radek Bonk in the first round.

And one of him pinwheeling Antti Miettinen of the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals. Then there’s the hit where he broke Ryan Malone’s nose to set the tone in Game 1 of the final against Pittsburgh.

Ask him to pick a favorite now, though, and he’ll politely decline. That’s the way it always was, really. Fans and media might have reveled in opponents getting “Kronwalled,” but for him, “It was just part of the game.”

“You give some, you take some,” he said. “And then you get up and go back to work.”

All that work finally paid off that night in Pittsburgh in June 2008, when the Wings dispatched with the Penguins in Game 6 and Kronwall’s blueline partner, Brad Stuart, handed him the Cup.

Stuart was a late addition to that team, arriving at the trade deadline and quickly forming an indispensable pairing with Kronwall, who led the Wings with 15 assists that postseason.

And it was that memory that ultimately swayed Kronwall’s thinking more than a decade later, when general manager Ken Holland approached him this past winter and inquired whether he was interested in chasing another Cup with a contending team.

The deadline was approaching and the Wings — mired at the bottom of the standings — were going to be sellers.

“I think if we didn’t win here in ’08 it might’ve been different — I’m sure it would’ve been different,” Kronwall said.

But it wasn’t. And Kronwall, who broke down again Wednesday as he thanked the Wings’ former GM — “I owe Ken Holland so much” he said — had no interest in finding out what he already knew.

“This is an Original Six franchise,” he explained. “And it’s more than hockey. “The people, the fans, there’s just so much around it with this team.

“I wanted to stay. I wanted to see this through. I wanted to play my whole career for this franchise. And I’m happy I got that opportunity.”

'Tough on everybody'

Even through these past few years, when some of the joy was harder to find, thanks to a chronic bad knee and a painful roster reconstruction.

“I think it has been tough on everybody,” he said. “We used to be one of the powerhouses. And we were for so many years, and I got to be a part of some of those years. So yes, it’s been frustrating. There’s been some tough times, there’s no doubt. But it should be tough when you’re losing. You can never be satisfied if you’re losing.”

That’s a message Kronwall kept delivering in lieu of those open-ice hits the past few years. When teammates sought refuge in the training room after losses, Kronwall — an alternate captain dating back to Lidstrom’s retirement in 2011 — often was the veteran who stepped forward to speak to the media. Take that rock-bottom loss at home this past February, for example.

It was an 8-1 loss to Montreal the day after the trade deadline, and Kronwall, who’d decided to stick it out, had no qualms about calling out the Wings’ pathetic effort that night.

“We’re not even trying out there,” he said that night, practically spitting out the words.

“It’s just absolutely embarrassing. … Let’s not walk out of here feeling sorry for ourselves. We should be embarrassed.”

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall walks out of the tunnel for the start of a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, at Little Caesars Arena, in Detroit, October 11, 2018.

He might’ve been a bit embarrassed again Wednesday, strolling into that same dressing room to find a riser set up for him and a bank of TV cameras waiting.

This wasn’t quite the informal setting he’d hoped for, largely because he knew the tears might flow, just as they did after his final game back in April.

“It’s been my profession for the past 20 years, but I’ve been playing hockey my whole life,” he explained. “It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”

But once he worked through some of those emotions, he was usual composed self again.

He’s eager to spend more time with his young family — the eldest of his two sons, Douglas, is 5 1/2 now — but also to “learn a different side of things” in the game.

“I still get to be a part of this," he said, “and I’m excited for the challenge."

Twitter: @johnniyo