DETROIT – Goaltenders rejoice!
It was dirty work, but for 15 seasons Tomas Holmstrom did it better than anyone in the history of the sport. In more than 1,000 regular-season games, the Swedish forward was a thorn in the side of goalies throughout the NHL, parking in front of the crease where he made it tough for opposing netminders, who couldn’t see around the winger’s 6-foot, 202-pound frame.
“He took it to an art form,” said Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi. “There are guys that can stand in front of the net and screen, but there aren’t guys that can actually tip 100-mile per hour slap shots coming from every angle. He just took it to a whole new level.”
After 15 punishing season, Holmstrom contemplated retirement last summer. His decision didn’t come easy, but after 1,026 career games and four Stanley Cup championships, the man known by legions of Red Wings’ fans as Demolition Man, announced his decision to retire, which comes eight-months after his best friend Nicklas Lidstrom, retired after 20 seasons.
Holmstrom is the last of five Red Wings to have played on all four of Detroit’s Stanley Cup championship teams in the Ilitch era. The others are Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty.
There isn’t a player in the NHL who hasn’t played through pain. But Holmstrom’s career was filled with years of prolonged discomfort that he carries around in both knees, something that he learned to deal with since his playing days back home in northern Sweden. He had two series of Synvisc injections last season meant to lubricate and cushion his knee joints.
Teammates marveled at his demeanor; how he could play though debilitating pain, yet maintain such an upbeat personality, which was only surpassed by his unique sense of humor.
“Before the games, in the locker room, how he prepared and got the team fired up before games with his Swedlish, mixing his Swedish and English,” newly anointed Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “I think when you look back it was a lot of laughs before big games. He was the guy that got us ready in his kind of way. If you take away the hockey part on the ice that’s the biggest thing that I will miss.”
Holmstrom, who will turn 40-years-old on Wednesday, scored 243 goals with 287 assists. He also produced 46 goals and 51 assists in 180 playoff games.
Holmstrom started a trend throughout the league, and over time teams have realized the importance of developing strong, agile net-front players, who can screen in front of the crease and battle for rebounds.
Yet, even during the off-seasons he had days where he coped with the pain and discomfort of grinding knee joints, which often had him deliberating his playing future. But once the season came around, Holmstrom fought through adversity in order to achieve team success.
“He didn’t feel pain, he couldn’t feel pain,” Zetterberg said. “Especially back when the rules were different it was a free-for-all on him every game, night in and night out. It’s amazing that he could keep his body together for this long.”
Over the last two season, Holmstrom’s ice-time had dwindled as he was moved to the fourth line and saw less and less time on the power play. The decreased playing time made it difficult to enter a game cold.
“Homer will be missed for sure,” forward Mikael Samuelsson said.
“Homer was a star at what he did. The best in the National Hockey League in my opinion,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “But Mule, net-front, is as good as anybody. Mule has been waiting to be out on the first unit since he got here. He thinks he should be. We think he should be too. So it’s a natural fit.”
For all of the dirty work that Holmstrom did, he may likely be missed most as a tremendous colleague, who set a wonderful example for all in the Red Wings’ locker room.
“He’s just a good dude, great guy and great teammate,” Bertuzzi said. “If you can hand one compliment out, it would be that he was an outstanding teammate. He never complained. Always went out there and played probably the hardest 1,000 games ever played. He left with four Stanley Cups and was able to walk out of the rink.”
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