Detroit — Really, it couldn’t have worked out any better.
Henrik Zetterberg played his 1,000th career NHL game Sunday on the day the Red Wings organization closed out Joe Louis Arena.
Just one more reason for fans to celebrate an already emotional day.
“I couldn’t have picked a better game to have my 1,000th,” said Zetterberg, 36, the Red Wings’ heart-and-soul captain. “A special night in many ways.”
It really was a perfect script, as Zetterberg had a goal and assist — and was named the game’s first star Sunday — as the Red Wings defeated the New Jersey Devils, 4-1.
“To be honest, it’s been a hectic two or three games here,” Zettererg said. “When everything settles in, you’re going to think about that a little more.”
Zetterberg was presented with a watch and golf trips from owner Chris Ilitch and teammates before the game, as the raucous crowd at JLA roared and teammates showed their support.
“It was a nice ceremony,” Zetterberg said. “To have my wife, my son, and my dad on the ice meant a lot, and it’s something I’ll always remember.”
Zetterberg realized in November he would hit the 1,000-game mark Sunday if he remained healthy and play all 82 games.
That’s not necessarily a given for an older player just three years removed from back surgery, and a player who isn’t the biggest or strongest or fastest, but excels on will and determination.
“It’s been a challenge to play all the games,” Zetterberg said.
Zetterberg concluded one of his best seasons, specifically from an offensive standpoint, in several years Sunday, while averaging close to 20 minutes per game.
“At this age, just keep doing it every night is very impressive, his level every night, he’s been our best player every night,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall, Zetterberg’s longtime teammate and friend. “A lot of people say he’s getting older, but that’s just a number on a piece of paper. Hank is still Hank.
“Really this year, what he’s done, is probably the most impressive out of all the years he’s played.”
Zetterberg joined a legendary list of players who have appeared in at least 1,000 games with the Red Wings.
Gordie Howe (1,687), Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564), Alex Delvecchio (1,549). Steve Yzerman (1,514), Kris Draper (1,137) and Tomas Holmstrom (1,026), are ahead of Zetterberg currently.
“When you come into the league, you don’t expect to be around for that long and be blessed enough to be healthy and play for that long,” said Zetterberg, who incredibly was the Red Wings’ seventh-round pick (210th overall) in 1999. “I’m proud of it.”
Coach Jeff Blashill intended this season to cut Zetterberg’s ice time, even if slightly, to try to keep Zetterberg fresher and healthier toward the end of the season.
But the way Zetterberg began the season and the way he was playing, that wasn’t going to happen.
And Blashill found that to be true early on.
“They (players) dictate how much time they get and he’s demanded he plays a lot,” Blashill said. “It speaks to his approach, his competitive level. I don’t think greatness happens by happenstance. It happens by work and he puts in an unbelievable amount of work.
“He’s a great example for a younger player to see how he works in practice, his fierce competitive level.”
Teammates aren’t surprised by the season Zetterberg has had, especially knowing what type of leader he is — and they see that up close — every day.
“He had the back surgery (2014) and there were a lot of questions about who are we going to get back here?” Kronwall said. “But he proved to everyone fairly quick that Hank was going to be Hank regardless of the obstacles in his way and that’s why he’s our leader.
“He’s not the biggest guy or strongest guy or fastest guy, but he’s probably the smartest guy and hardest working guy and that goes a long way.”
Dozens of Red Wings alumni returned to Joe Louis Arena Sunday, many of who were Zetterberg teammates of years past.
“I’ve probably played a lot more with a lot of those (guys) than I’ve done with the guys I’m playing with this year,” Zetterberg said.
“He’s had some great guys to learn under, whether it was Steve Yzerman or Nick Lidstrom, some real professional guys that work hard and bring it every day,” Justin Abdelkader said. “That’s carried over into his game and leadership. He thinks the game at a high level and even as he gets older, everyone is going to slow down a bit. But he seems to stay a step ahead of everyone on the ice.”