'One of the best': Wings teammates recall Zetterberg's leadership, ability

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall skates with his teammates during Friday's practice.

Traverse City — Dylan Larkin’s first encounter with Henrik Zetterberg was Larkin’s first day at informal skates three years ago.

Being from Waterford and having been a Red Wings fan, Larkin followed and admired Zetterberg’s career.

For a young player in the area, to make it to the NHL then get to meet one of the players you followed and revered, it was pretty memorable.

“I happened to sit next to him in the locker room,” Larkin said after Friday’s first day of practice. “It was the only open seat. I was so nervous I didn’t say a word.

“I was starstruck at first. He introduced himself right away. Now I can say we’re friends.”

Zetterberg announcing he was being forced to end his playing career because of a degenerative back condition was the dominant story on the first day of training camp at Centre ICE Arena.

After a summer of speculation Zetterberg wasn’t getting any better and his career was jeopardy, there wasn’t absolute shock regarding Friday’s development.

But it was impactful, nonetheless.

“He’s not coming back,” said Niklas Kronwall, Zetterberg’s longtime teammate and friend. “His back is not in great shape. I guess we all had some type of hope maybe he could get through this, but it is what it is.

“It’ll be different. It’ll be weird, even.”

Kronwall saw the pain Zetterberg was going through, specifically when Zetterberg stopped practicing the second half of last season so he could save himself for games.

“I don’t think people realize what he’s gone through to still play,” Kronwall said. “It really is incredible.”

Thomas Vanek remembers playing against, and with, Zetterberg.

“What stands out is he’s not the fastest, but his hockey IQ is off the charts,” said Vanek, whose playing style is similar to Zetterberg’s. “His last two seasons, he was still one of the best players. The way he protected the puck and made his linemates better, to me that’s the sign of a very good player if you can make players around you better.

“Z did that with many, many guys next to him.

“In his prime, in my era the last 14 years I’ve played, he was one of the best. He was still playing at a very high level and I’m sure he’d be playing at a high level this year.”

Spirited start

Zetterberg’s announcement hung over the first day of camp, but there was plenty of work to do nonetheless.

What impressed Wings coach Jeff Blashill was the intensity of the drills and scrimmages.

“The competitive level was extremely high,” Blashill said. “In each group there were guys who really competed. It was a good start.”

The Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina line received a good lesson overall Friday, scrimmaging after a rigorous 60-minute workout.

More: Wings will showcase kid line of Rasmussen, Veleno, Zadina

“It’s a hard scrimmage for those guys. They had practiced and there was a ton of battle stuff,” Blashill said. “But it’s a good lesson. You have to keep grinding, and they grounded it out and continued to do stuff. “

Two players, Martin Frk and Veleno, left the ice early and didn’t finish the practice session. Blashill had no immediate update, though he didn’t think either was serious.

“It wasn’t anything major but you never know,” Blashill said. “It’s the time of year where you have nagging stuff and you don’t want the nagging stuff to then turn into a long-term thing.”

Ice chips

General manager Ken Holland said defenseman Mike Green (neck) has been cleared and will get into several preseason games, though Green might be limited in camp.

Defenseman Jared McIsaac, a second-round draft pick in June, sprained his shoulder during the prospects tournament and will miss approximately a month upon his return to junior hockey.

... Justin Abdelkader returned to Detroit to be with his wife and the birth of their child.