Wings' hard-hitting Kronwall shuns spotlight
A reporter from Sweden visited the Red Wings this season and asked Mike Babcock what he liked about Niklas Kronwall.
Babcock walked him over to the stick rack and pointed to a shovel leaning there. The Red Wings award it to players who have worked their tails off in games.
"That's what I like about Nick Kronwall," Babcock said in his assertive way. "He works real hard. He digs right in.
"And when you ask him about how things are going, it's always about the team. It's never about Nick Kronwall."
In truth, too little is about Kronwall. He is passing through his career with comparatively spare notice for his considerable, essential contributions.
The ultimate nice guy, who defines reality for his young teammates, assumes vast responsibilities and shoulders blame as a matter of establishing accountability, is often nonchalantly appraised by observers.
Three seasons after the departure of Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings have the top power play in the NHL, with Kronwall replacing him as the first-string quarterback.
For most of this season, the Red Wings have allowed goals at a rate slower than the previous two, with the 34-year-old Kronwall playing against the top scorers.
A roster chock full of developing talent was eight points inside the group of playoff qualifiers in the Eastern Conference beginning play Wednesday, despite a recent stumble.
Begin a question with the words, "Your two big stars," in reference to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and Babcock is quick with a correction.
"Well, there's three."
Kronwall, the unflappable, personable guy, with the easy, unassuming manner on the back end gets his due.
Kronwall's leadership style is soft and firm.
Rarely if ever agitated, approachable and even kind, loyalty envelopes him because the guys around the room like him so much.
But the direction is clear: Work hard, every day. Stay in the moment. Dispatch responsibilities and play the game right.
And he starts with himself.
One Saturday night in Toronto a few seasons ago, after scoring earlier in the game on a rush that evoked Bobby Orr, Kronwall had an unusually bad moment.
With the score 3-3, he retrieved the puck just below the Red Wings goal line. Trying to move the puck to the other side of the rink to start a rush, he whiffed.
The puck went directly to Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who took two strides and scored.
The Leafs won 4-3.
Afterward, Kronwall was the first of the Red Wings to emerge and take questions from the media.
"I was going to rim it around the boards," he said, clearly upset, "and it just never really made it anywhere."
When a leader demanding accountability makes no less demand of himself, it breeds loyalty to the cause.
And teammates guys say they get that and more from Kronwall.
"I think Kronner's really good at staying mellow," defenseman Brendan Smith said. "That's what helps some of the young guys around the room, to see that from a mentor.
"He's very personable. You can go to him. He's very easy to go and talk to when you have questions."
For forward Gustav Nyquist, the relationship has not only helped ground him in his game, it is personal.
"The first time I got called up, he called me right away and told me to pack my bags and move in with him instead of going to the hotel," Nyquist said.
"He's been a mentor to me. He's always taking care of me," said Nyquist, who reckons he spent six months living with Kronwall and his girlfriend Katinka, going back-and-forth from Grand Rapids.
"If you ask anyone, I don't think you've met a nicer guy than Nick Kronwall. He never thinks about himself. It's always about the team. He is an every-dayer, in every fashion."
An "every-dayer" is the player the young Red Wings must be, Babcock tells them. In the NHL, it is necessary to work every day.
And if Babcock ever needs an example, he can point to the trio.
"Kronner, you could see him watching Nick (Lidstrom), just taking in a lot of the same characteristics of how Nick carried himself, the way he was with the younger guys," said Kris Draper, the former teammate and special assistant to the general manager.
"I think Kronner's even gone above and beyond that with the way he's done it."
At the start, as the Red Wings director of European scouting, Hakan Andersson, has said, Kronwall was "a 5-feet-11, Swedish defenseman," and not exactly a conversation starter with a lot of NHL teams. But Kronwall played well early.
A coincidence of injuries might have stymied him. In retrospect, they might have helped.
"The rehab part was a challenge," he said.
"Having a goal pretty much every day and going through the process is something you don't wish for anybody. But I think you learn a lot about yourself, and what it takes to get through things.
"It's really easy to get too far ahead here. You have to do the things today to prepare yourself for tomorrow."
Those trials polished a career that has roots in the training of the Swedish clubs, Jarfalla and Djurgården, both in his native Stockholm, where he learned the demands on time and discipline required of an elite athlete.
In Sweden, Kronwall is known as one of the best players the country has produced in the NHL and, of course, for the violent, open-ice hits that have made a verb of his surname: "Kronwalled."
As for the leadership, Kronwall said accountability is essential to win. The assertiveness, he said, comes from within.
"You've just got to do the right things out there, and holding each other accountable is going to make your team so much better," he said, sitting on a stool in the nearly empty dressing room late after practice one day.
"You can't have a roomful of guys who are pointing fingers, saying it was someone else's fault. It doesn't work like that.
"Probably when things started, I wanted to be involved in things. I guess I had this need of being in control. You like to make your voice heard and to have a say in things. And I just like that part of it.
"It comes naturally, I think. I never thought too much about it."
He carries the memories of 2008 and 2009.
He compares winning the Stanley Cup, "an all-time high," to experiencing the birth of his son, Douglas, 101/2 months ago.
He talks about the Game 7 loss the next year as "everything is empty."
Mostly, though, he likes what he does. He loves the culture and the history of the Red Wings.
"For me, I'm happy to be a part of this," he said. "I'm happy where I am at.
"Other people have a right to their opinion, whether I'm overvalued or undervalued, that's not for me.
"But to come here and see what this organization does year in and year out, it is the right person in the right place.
"The fan base, the people here in Michigan, are amazing. And I think that's something me and my girlfriend have really taken to heart, and we're proud to be a part of this."