It's not often you hear someone choke on air.
On the ice, sure, but simply talking hockey rather than playing it?
Yet that's what happened late last week in Ottawa when the hosts of Team 1200's Healthy Scratches asked Jim Nill, assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, how his team was going to replace Nicklas Lidstrom.
That would be defenceman Nick Lidstrom, 42, seven-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best blueliner, four Stanley Cups, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, first European captain to raise the Cup – not to mention 20 consecutive playoff appearances for the Detroit franchise.
When the classy Lidstrom retired last week, he said he was aware that many in the organization felt he still had it, could still help the Wings win, but he said it was "painfully obvious" to him that he was slipping. As he so forcefully put it: "I can't cheat myself."
Nill, it turns out, was at the NHL combine in Toronto in search of the Wings' next Nicklas Lidstrom among the gifted juniors gathered there for testing and interviews. Don't laugh. Detroit has an uncanny knack for finding the jewels everyone else misses. The Wings took Pavel Datsyuk, the player players say is the best, 171st. They found Henrik Zetterberg at 210. Lidstrom? He was a "painfully obvious" selection at No. 53.
The Red Wings and the 29 other teams will gather June 22-23 in Pittsburgh for the entry draft. Detroit has no first-round selection, but the way the Wings have drafted in the past, that is relatively insignificant. What matters far more this time is not where they pick, but what they pick.
"Our heads are spinning," Nill conceded.
The Detroit Red Wings are hardly alone, given the jaw-dropping gap between the way hockey was played in March and the way it was played in May.
Last weekend, Wings general manager Ken Holland, Nill and the Detroit scouts gathered to discuss what Nill called "The No. 1 topic:" What sort of game will the NHL be playing when the league starts again for the next season?
Puck-possession teams – you know, the ones everyone picked to be in the Stanley Cup final – seem distant history today. The Vancouver Canucks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two eye-candy teams for those fans who prefer speed and skill – fell in the first round. San Jose fell. Detroit fell.
What kind of team do we want to build on? Nill asked. And not only in the draft, but over the summer as Detroit, a team with enviable cap space, looks over the available players in free agency. Bigger? Stronger? And what style of play should we play? Skill? Shot-blocking?
No wonder heads are spinning.
The hockey gods were kind this spring when even they, with their well-known love of mischief, decided it was time to put the New York Rangers out of our misery. But even so, shot-blocking, collapsing around the goaltender, chip-out, dump-in hockey is all the rage in the NHL – and causing rage among fans who naively believe that if NHL hockey is to have a financial value, it should also have an entertainment value.
As well, recent playoffs have argued eloquently that there is one rulebook for the regular season, one for the playoffs, and even one that gets thinner as the playoffs grow longer.
The NHL might argue that penalties were actually up slightly in these playoffs, but that point holds little or no ground against empirical evidence that transgressions, both called and not called, go way up. Officials, to a baffling extent, pop their whistles in and out of pockets, as if they themselves are as confused as the rest of us.
It's not just penalties, but even the definition of something as simple as icing has been lost. And as for what rights goaltenders and players have around and in the crease area, don't even start.
For all the above reasons, it is heartening to know that it is not only executives like Nill and Holland who are concerned, but GMs as a whole. It took a year-long owners lockout in 2004-05 before the NHL decided it might be a good idea to tighten the nuts and bolts of this potentially magnificent game. This time, whether there is a lockout or a strike or labour harmony come fall, they will gather to tweak matters in August.
A magnificent game to play and behold came out of the last such gathering.
Let us all hope that that game can once again be found.
It's there, buried by over-coaching and passive defence tactics, but it's still there, desperately in need of help.