Nicklas Lidstrom retired last week at age 42—prematurely. As Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland says, "He continued to be maybe our most valuable player right up until the day that he retired." Perhaps that's the best place to start in assessing Lidstrom's place in history.
Lidstrom had the greatest career of any defenseman ever. That statement might cause Canada to set itself on fire, but hold those matches, friends, and understand: This doesn't mean the Swede was a better player than Ontario-born Bobby Orr. It means he had a better career.
To explain: Knee injuries limited Orr to 731 games. Lidstrom played in 1,827. At his peak with the Bruins, Orr was clearly more dominant than Lidstrom, albeit in a very different league. Orr's numbers look like a misprint: From 1969--70 through '74--75 he averaged 122 points per season. In that span he had a higher plus-minus rating (+484) than Lidstrom had for his career (+450).
But from his first game in 1991 until last week, Lidstrom may have been the most consistently excellent athlete in any sport. In his first season he was +36; in his 19th he won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. He played in 97% of the Red Wings' regular-season games and in 263 of their 265 playoff games; he missed two because he was speared in the testicles, perhaps the most legitimate reason to miss a game in history.
Lidstrom's greatest gift was his mind. His teammates marveled at his ability to anticipate plays. That's why he so rarely got hurt, or hit: He foresaw calamities and avoided them.
The most famous photo in hockey history is of Orr flying through the air and celebrating after a Stanley Cup finals goal. He was tripped, but never mind—the image perfectly captured the man. Lidstrom never flew like Bobby Orr. But he also never crashed, and that is what made him special.