Paul Coffey, one of the most prolific blueliners to ever play in the NHL, once perfectly described the intrinsic quality that makes for a great leader in the game of hockey:
Leadership is one of sports’ intangibles. Guys can score, guys can fight, guys can skate faster than anybody else. But not everybody can say, ‘Follow me.’
Henrik Zetterberg, the captain of the Detroit Red Wings, embodies Coffey’s quote to a T. Even at age 37, and amidst offseason talk of early retirement, the Swedish-born forward is showing no signs of being ready to pass the torch. With his team off to a 4-1 start in his 15th NHL season, “Hank” continues to earn every single stitch that affixes his captain’s patch to his iconic sweater.
Fresh off his team’s first set of back-to-back games in 2017-18 against the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights, Zetterberg is once again defying his age while simultaneously willing the Red Wings to victory. With a lineup consisting of several young and dynamic players looking to make their mark in the NHL along with aging veterans who struggled to produce in 2016-17, Detroit’s humble leader continues to bridge the gap between youthful inexperience and journeymen who know what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
Zetterberg Sets the Victorious Course
Zetterberg’s performance against both the Coyotes and Golden Knights was nothing short of impressive. With his team trailing and struggling to generate quality scoring chances in both contests, Zetterberg took hold of the wheel and steered his squad to consecutive thrilling comeback victories.
Thursday night, the Wings were down 2-1 against a young Arizona team hungry for its first win of the season. With 42 seconds left in the second period, he tipped in the game-tying goal, igniting the numerous Detroit faithful in attendance at Gila River Arena. In the third and final period, the team never looked back, scoring two more goals in the final four minutes of play.
Friday night’s tilt in Vegas was the Red Wings’ most thrilling game of the season to date. Despite his beautiful backhand goal near the end of the second and only being down by one goal heading into the third, the Knights had Detroit on the ropes for much of the first 40 minutes of competition. Being bested by the NHL’s newest expansion team seemed an unavoidable fate at the time, and one the captain wasn’t willing to accept.
Once again, a fire was lit inside Zetterberg during the second intermission and he re-entered the game with guns blazing. He assisted on the next two Detroit goals and the rest of the team continued to feed off of the momentum. Anthony Mantha’s equalizer was made possible by a slick backhand pass that only a crafty veteran like Zetterberg could execute.
“You guys saw it, he’s just a great player,” Wings’ coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s been a great player for a long time in this league. When I say great player, he’s a great winner.”
Without Zetterberg leading the charge over the last two games, it’s fairly safe to assume that the outcomes would have been heartbreakingly different. The confidence and resolve that his recent play has instilled in his team will go a long way as Detroit prepares to square off against three tough Eastern Conference opponents (Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington) next week.
Taking the Kids Under His Wings
Detroit’s two most promising young forwards, Mantha and Dylan Larkin, have both benefited from playing alongside Zetterberg, as most of his linemates tend to do. As the season progresses and the competition becomes more challenging, it would be in the best interest of the two youngsters to soak up as much knowledge as they can from their bearded leader.
It’s no secret that Mantha and Larkin will someday be entrusted with carrying on the historic legacy of the Red Wings when Zetterberg does indeed decide to hang up his skates for good. Either of the young players could very well challenge the captain to lead the team in scoring this season, that is if he doesn’t repeat as Detroit’s points leader once again.
Young players who score a lot of goals at the junior level, such as Mantha, usually have to adjust to the speed of the game once they reach the NHL and can often have their confidence rattled. Getting to share the ice with notoriously generous players like Zetterberg will help establish both good habits and confidence.
It’s not only the on-ice lessons that Detroit’s youth can learn from their captain, it’s also the locker room/behind-the-scenes qualities they need to absorb as well—the aforementioned “intangibles” that Coffey spoke of. Zetterberg had the benefit of learning from Red Wings legends such as Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, and now that wisdom will begin to be passed down to the next generation of Hockeytown superstars.