Ranking the 5 Best European Players in Detroit Red Wings History
European players have become the norm in the NHL since Borje Salming became the first superstar in the 1970s, proving that “Euros” could succeed in the NHL. Salming did play one season with Detroit, scoring 19 points in 49 games in 1989-90.
A prime example of Detroit’s European influence would be this year’s roster that is sending 10 players to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, eight of which are from European countries. The exceptions are Jimmy Howard with Team USA and Pavel Datsyuk with Team Russia.
For Europeans to be among the best in a North American league, they have to endure a lot of changes. The size of the playing surface, a more physical style of play and the culture of a new country are some examples of what players have to adjust to outside of the game.
Learning a new language, handling North American media and settling in with new teammates add a tremendous amount of pressure for players to undertake.
Making up this list are players who have found a way to do all of the aforementioned while playing an extraordinary level of hockey, they've left an impression off the ice and some have even redefined the game. Here are the five best European players in Detroit Red Wings history.
Honorable Mention: Pavel Datsyuk
I know I may get ripped for not including Pavel Datsyuk on this list, but I promise there is a method to my madness.
Datsyuk, one of the best players in the world, is most certainly deserving of a spot on this list. His birthplace is Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia which lies just on the Asian side of Russia’s transcontinental border with Europe. Therefore, yes, it is a technicality, but Datsyuk is from the part of Russia in the continent of Asia, not Europe.
It kind of kills the whole “Euro-twin” fun, doesn’t it? Let’s give him the love he deserves anyway.
Sitting on 799 career points, Datsyuk is second among Russian-born players and sixth overall in points in team history. If it isn’t too obvious to say, his next point will make him the sixth Red Wing to eclipse the 800-point plateau.
With two Stanley Cups under his belt, there isn’t a whole lot left for the “Magic Man” to accomplish at the NHL level. His love for the game is written all over his face on every shift, and his ability to embarrass the most professional of players is stupefying.
He is without a doubt one of the best players in Detroit history from outside of North America, so it was necessary to include him, although with proper geographical accuracy.
5. Dominik Hasek
Acquired by Detroit in the summer of 2001 after a disappointing playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Dominik Hasek was an integral piece to Detroit’s 2002 Stanley Cup championship.
The Red Wings traded winger Vyacheslav Kozlov and a first-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in return for “the Dominator.” Hasek went on to total a career-high and NHL-leading 41 wins in 65 games and backstopped Detroit to its third Stanley Cup in six years.
In the playoffs, Hasek added a then NHL-record six postseason shutouts, broken by Martin Brodeur with seven the following year. Hasek retired following Detroit’s Stanley Cup title but would return to Detroit multiple times totaling four scattered seasons.
His career totals with the Red Wings are nothing to scoff at. He won 64.7 percent of the games he played totaling 114 wins in 176 starts. His 20 shutouts are tied with Roger Crozier for fourth in team history—in 173 less games. His 2.13 goals-against average is second and .911 save percentage ranks third among Detroit goalies with 100 or more starts.
Selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 10th round of the 1983 NHL draft, Hasek was already 25 when he made his first appearance for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1990-91 season. He didn’t get his first opportunity to start regularly until the 1993-94 campaign with the Buffalo Sabres.
The six-time Vezina Trophy winner is the only goaltender in NHL history to win two Hart Trophies as league MVP, and he won his only two Stanley Cups as a Red Wing at the tender ages of 37 and 43.
Coming in at No. 5, Hasek is one of the most successful goaltenders in Detroit and one of the most decorated in NHL history.
4. Igor Larionov
Igor Larionov left his impact on Detroit and the NHL in a much different capacity than Dominik Hasek, one that transcends the sport while simultaneously contributing to its evolution.
His hometown of Voskresensk lies to the west of Russia’s transcontinental border, making him from the European portion of Russia.
Larionov overcame a lengthy conflict with the Soviet regime to gain his release and head to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in 1989 at 29 years old. He was one of the first Russians, along with Red Wing teammate Slava Fetisov, to have success in the NHL and paved the way for generations to come. Teammate Kirk Maltby expressed to mlive.com’s Ansar Khan:
I thought it was the worst of times when we had practice at 6 in the morning in minor hockey and your feet got cold. To go through what those guys went through, the dictatorship—not just government, but hockey—you're very thankful. For a lot of the younger Russian guys that are over here now, or even over there, these guys (Larionov and Fetisov) paved the way for a better life, especially in the hockey world.
Larionov recorded 397 points in 539 games with the Detroit Red Wings, and he won three Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He amassed 644 career points between Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Florida and New Jersey.
He was best known for his contributions on Russia’s famed “KLM” line with Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov in the 1980s and as a member of Detroit’s famed “Russian Five” line in the 1990s. Larionov was a slick, puck-moving center with incredible vision. His knowledge of the game inside and out earned him the nickname “The Professor.”
The respect he received from his teammates, peers and the league was recognized when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008. He was an essential part of Detroit’s success on the ice as well as the growth of the organization throughout the ‘90s.
Though he doesn’t have dominant statistics, he is a world-class player and the ultimate professional. What Larionov accomplished off the ice will always be remembered; the way he helped make hockey everyone’s game settles him in at No. 4.
3. Henrik Zetterberg
Detroit captain and current team scoring leader Henrik Zetterberg lands in the median on the list.
At No. 3, Zetterberg sits ahead of two tremendous Red Wings and behind two historic ones. What Zetterberg has accomplished in his career so far is more than impressive, and it will be exciting to witness what comes next.
In his 11th season with Detroit, Zetterberg has 42 points in 39 games and is leading a depleted Red Wings lineup in most offensive categories. He has 714 career points, just 14 away from tying Ted Lindsay for eighth in team history. He won the 2008 Stanley Cup as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Zetterberg was named Detroit’s 36th captain after Nick Lidstrom’s retirement in the summer of 2012. He’s been one of Detroit’s steadiest regular-season talents but has the unique ability to turn his game up a level come playoff time.
Zetterberg is fifth in club history with 114 playoff points in 123 games. His playoff points per game (0.92) are only bettered by Gordie Howe (1.03), Sergei Fedorov (1.01) and Steve Yzerman (0.94).
A supreme professional, Zetterberg contributes to the surrounding Detroit community as well. He and his wife, Swedish model and actress Emma Andersson, welcome patients and families from local children's charities to the Zetterberg Foundation Suite for each regular-season home game. The Foundation was funded by gifts of money they received from their wedding in 2010.
Henrik Zetterberg’s example in the community, leadership in the locker room as well as his accolades on the ice to date make him the perfect representative of this spot on the list.
2. Sergei Fedorov
There’s no doubt that Sergei Fedorov, whose birthplace also lies in Europe, would make this list.
Fedorov was a special talent throughout his career, one distinct enough that in the days of “Super Mario,” “The Golden Brett” and “The Great One,” it lent no nickname. Like a lot of Russian stars in the early ‘90s, getting Fedorov to the United States was no easy task.
Drafted by Detroit the year before, Fedorov was with the Soviets when they came to the U.S. for a tournament in 1990. Detroit devised a plan to pack up his belongings from his hotel, sneak him to a limousine after exiting the team bus and hop aboard Mike Ilitch’s private jet destined for Detroit.
Fedorov had successfully defected from the Soviet Union to play in the NHL, and his masterful career with Detroit was underway. He would play 13 seasons with the Red Wings, winning three Stanley Cups, accumulating 954 points, two Selke Trophies, a Lester Pearson award and Hart Trophy for league MVP.
He signed a free-agent contract with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim following the 2002-03 season, leaving a bitter taste in the collective mouth of Detroit fans. He was booed whenever he returned to Joe Louis Arena in another uniform, but for fans, it was more out of hurt than hate.
The city’s love for nostalgia and all Fedorov had done for the club was made evident in his return during the Hockeytown Winter Festival Alumni game in which he participated.
His efforts to make his way to Detroit were certainly welcomed, and the city embraced its superstar with all the love a community can share for a sports franchise. Both his effort to play the sport in Detroit and his spectacular career on the ice lock Fedorov in at No. 2 on this list.
1. Nicklas Lidstrom
There is a reason that Nicklas Lidstrom has been nicknamed “The Perfect Human.”
It’s not exactly fair for this writer to come up with enough superlatives to express the way one of the greatest defenseman to ever play did what he did. Instead, the great Bobby Orr offered it to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:
I don't think there's any question he's in that conversation, no question. I mean, you talk about longevity, he [was] 40, and putting the numbers that he puts up. The success that team has had is mainly because of his play; it's been incredible. He's a class individual. Never heard a bad word about the man. And he plays the way he plays. What else can you ask for?
His remarkable ability lies on the foundation of consistency. He always made the smart play, never overexerted himself and was constantly in the right position. Over the course of his career, his mistakes could be counted on two hands without ever referring to toes.
Seven Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, 11-time NHL All Star and gold-medal winner, Lidstrom is also the NHL’s first European captain to win a Stanley Cup.
With all of the hardware, the recognition and the fame, he remains one of the most humble professional athletes ever. He always kept such a low profile, and it led to others throughout the locker room adopting the same approach.
High-profile talents like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have taken from Lidstrom’s lead and press on in their careers with the same flawless contour. Professionals, both on and off the ice, who let their game do the talking and their example do the walking.
It takes an impeccable amount of integrity to have the career that Nick Lidstrom did while maintaining such a strong moral character alongside the elite performance. It’s the impression he left on the team, the city and the sport that makes No. 5 our No. 1.