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and ac­cepted, for a while. Even as Zetter­berg spoke Fri­day and called his re­tire­ment “sur­real,” the emo­tions re­mained bot­tled up. He said his only real re­gret was not get­ting to play in a play­off game at Lit­tle Cae­sars Arena.

Of course, you can’t re­gret leav­ing when your body won’t let you stay. Zetter­berg never touted his tough­ness or his lead­er­ship, he merely showed it, for 15 sea­sons here, the last six as cap­tain. Like those be­fore him, he was un­ex­cep­tion­ally ex­cep­tional, soft­spo­ken in his Swedish ac­cent, hard-driven in all the im­por­tant ar­eas on the ice. He long ago ce­mented his stand­ing as one of the fran­chise’s all-time greats, fin­ish­ing fifth on the Wings’ ca­reer list both in points (960) and goals (337).

“I think it’s a sad day for hockey, for the NHL, for Detroit, for Detroit sports,” said Dy­lan Larkin, 22, who now must grow into a larger role. “We’re los­ing an icon, some­one who’s given the fans a Stan­ley Cup. He’s played through a lot of in­juries and pain, he’s put his heart and soul into the city, he’s some­one I think is very de­serv­ing to be up in the rafters with the leg­ends of the Red Wings.”

When Zetter­berg raised the Conn

Smythe Tro­phy af­ter the Wings won the Stan­ley Cup in 2008, fans in Detroit re­joiced, in­clud­ing one young­ster grow­ing up in Water­ford.

“That was my fa­vorite mo­ment, see­ing how he humbly ac­cepted it,” Larkin said. “I can’t re­mem­ber even watch­ing the Red Wings with­out Z out there. What makes him so good? His poise. I don’t think there’s many play­ers like that left, with his vi­sion. You don’t even have to call for the puck, he knows where you are at all times. He’s a field gen­eral. He’s not the fastest guy, but he con­trols the pace of the game.”

He con­trolled the pace of the dress­ing room too, and left his im­print in a lot of places, not just on the Stan­ley Cup. With his nick­names, Zetter­berg was far more work­man­like “Hank,” drafted in the sev­enth round in 1999, than flashy “Z.” Larkin ob­served for three years, ad­mit­ted he was ini­tially star-struck, and now says Zetter­berg was the most im­pact­ful per­son in his young ca­reer.

The Wings are deep into their re­build, and there are hun­gry, ta­lented play­ers, from Larkin to An­thony Man­tha to first-round pick Filip Zad­ina, ea­ger to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties. Last year was es­pe­cially tough for Zetter­berg, try­ing to push young guys to be bet­ter while he could barely push him­self to skate.

Yet he was al­ways there, sec­ond on the team in min­utes among for­wards, sec­ond in points to Larkin. He still played in cru­cial sit­u­a­tions and as­sumed any role nec­es­sary. That ef­fort can be lost in a los­ing sea­son, but it wasn’t lost on those around him. Game af­ter game, Wings coach Jeff Blashill would talk about the process of learn­ing and grow­ing. Game af­ter game, Zetter­berg would stand in front of the cam­eras and calmly, some­times sternly, ex­plain what the young­sters needed to do.

He’s one of the all-time standup guys, al­ways will­ing to face the ques­tions af­ter an ugly loss, of­fer­ing no ex­cuses. Zetter­berg wouldn’t rip team­mates, but when he said some­thing force­fully, you knew it mat­tered. It cer­tainly mat­tered to the team.

“He leaves a mas­sive hole for a lot of rea­sons,” GM Ken Hol­land said. “Not only all those min­utes (played), but when you’re try­ing to go younger, you need role mod­els, and there was no bet­ter role model than Hen­rik Zetter­berg ... On one hand, ob­vi­ously it’s a mas­sive downer. But on the other hand, as we move for­ward, there’s an op­por­tu­nity for some­body in that locker room, from a lead­er­ship stand­point and time on the ice, to grab it.”

To grab it, you have to earn it, and that was what Zetter­berg rep­re­sented. No, he wasn’t as smooth as Lid­strom, or as gifted as Pavel Dat­syuk, or as fast as oth­ers. Zetter­berg had to work harder, as time passed and in­juries mounted, to keep play­ing, and he did.

The Wings’ next cap­tain might in­deed be Larkin, although maybe not right away. He said he’s ea­ger to take on more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties but doesn’t need the “C” to do so, a ma­ture stance in it­self. Nik­las Kron­wall and Justin Ab­delka­der wear the “A” as al­ter­nate cap­tains, and per­haps an­other will be added. Hol­land said he’d dis­cuss it with Blashill, but it sounds like there might not be a cap­tain this sea­son, a sym­bol of how hard it is to earn, and how dif­fi­cult Zetter­berg will be to re­place.

Lots of play­ers en­dure pain, but Zetter­berg also en­dured a pres­sure no Wings cap­tain had for 25 years, miss­ing the play­offs dur­ing a dif­fi­cult (but nec­es­sary) re­build.

“Words can’t ex­press how much he means to this or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Kron­wall said. “He’s al­ways been the back­bone of the team, and los­ing a guy like that, it’s gonna be dif­fer­ent, it’s gonna be weird. This is what it comes down to with Hank – he was al­ways best when he needed to be. That’s what stands out among the great play­ers, Ste­vie and Nick the same way. … In a per­fect world, you’d have four Hen­rik Zet­ter­bergs on the team and ev­ery­one gets a chance to play with him. Guys like that don’t come around too of­ten.”

That’s why it’s so un­for­tu­nate when they’re forced to de­part, be­trayed by the body, not by the heart.

The Detroit News

Hen­rik Zetter­berg won the Conn Smythe tro­phy in 2008 as the play­offs MVP.

John T. Greil­ick / The Detroit News

Zetter­berg lifts the Stan­ley Cup in 2008, the last time the Wings won the tro­phy.

BOB WO­JNOWSKI

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