ST. JAMES: Red Wings’ Holmstrom to retire after earning every shift

Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom scores against Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith on Dec. 8, 2011. Holmstrom, who will retire after 15 NHL seasons, made a living in front of the net. (Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)


MCT Columnist

Scotty Bowman has coached a thousand players, but no one quite like Tomas Holmstrom. Here was a guy who came over from Sweden with none of the usual skills of a European forward, but something else: Determination so immense it was tangible.

Holmstrom’s willingness to go where no one else would go — the front of the net— earned him a distinguished career with the Red Wings, but one that he’s ready to call over. He informed the club Monday afternoon that he’s done playing. The announcement will be made formal later this week, a person familiar with the situation told the Detroit Free Press.

A news conference will be held the day before training camp opens or the day camp begins. The problem is that the new collective bargaining agreement has to be ratified before any such dates are announced, and that may not come until later this week. The other problem is finding a venue for the announcement: Joe Louis Arena, Holmstrom’s home for 15 seasons, has been rented out to Ford Motor Company until the middle of next week.

Holmstrom, who turns 40 on Jan. 23, hangs up his skates after 1,026 games, during which he scored 243 goals among 530 points. He won four Stanley Cups, the first as a reserve in ‘97, and another in ‘98 as a full-fledged member of the team. During the 2002 championship run, he was part of one of the best fourth lines ever, next to Igor Larionov and Luc Robitaille. The last Cup came in ‘08.

Many of Holmstrom’s goals are legendary: Teammates often joked no one scored more often with his back to the net, and best friend and former teammate Nicklas Lidstrom used to delightfully chide Holmstrom about all the goals he had stolen from Lidstrom thanks to a slick tip of the stick.

Holmstrom, drafted in the last round in 1994, broke into the league during the ‘96-97 season, prompting him to wear the No. 96. His first coach was Bowman, who recently reminisced about their beginnings. Known originally by the moniker he’d picked up in his native Sweden, “Demolition Man,” Holmstrom fought for every shift he got during his rookie season.

“He never played a lot of minutes like some guys; he scrapped for his ice time,” Bowman said. “That’s the thing I like the best about him; he never complained. He was a terrific player because he accepted his role. That’s why he’s going to go down as such a solid player. He’s had a great career.”

Bowman recalled how he encouraged Holmstrom, a thickly built 6-footer, to be a pest along the lines of Dino Ciccarelli, but without the proneness to penalties. Holmstrom responded by absorbing abuse from opposing defensemen — like Chris Pronger — and opposing goaltenders — like Ed Belfour — without retaliating.

“We were hopeful he could replace Dino — he sure enough did that,” Bowman said. “He scored the tough goals, learned how to play in the crease, and just outside the crease, and didn’t lose many goals that way.”

Unlike his friend Lidstrom, whom coach Mike Babcock has described perfectly as being “touched by the hand of God” in talent, Holmstrom showed what hard work could do for the more mortal of players. He didn’t care that he didn’t have any ligament in one of his knees, or that he had to wear more padding than any other skater. “There weren’t many guys tougher than him that I ever had that could play,” Bowman said. “If he missed a game, I knew he was really badly injured.”

Holmstrom worked his way up from reserve to valued role player and power-play specialist. On and off in his career, he’d see time on a top line, playing next to superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Why? Because Holmstrom was the guy who’d go into corners and get the puck to them, who’d go to the net and set screens or provide tips. He became so good at his job he was selected as part of Sweden’s 2010 Olympic hockey team, although he ended up not playing after suffering a knee injury.

Years of grueling work made last season hard on Holmstrom, and he has been widely expected to retire since last summer. His departure will leave a void his first NHL coach doesn’t easily see replaced.

“They’ll miss his spirit,” Bowman said.

Holmstrom became a beloved figure in the locker room over the years — his origins in northern Sweden inevitably brought on accusations that he was or worked for Santa Claus every Christmas. His heavily accented English was dubbed “Swenglish.” Asked what the locker room will be like without Holmstrom, Daniel Cleary said: “Quiet and boring.”

When he played in his 1,000th game last February, teammates bought him a snowmobile and gave it to him after a practice. He drove it around the ice at the Joe, grinning and laughing, as if it were his backyard. It was a reward, and a feeling, he’d richly earned.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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