Long time Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has officially retired, leaving a void both for the Red Wings and in hockey which could prove impossible to replace.

Lidstrom ranks among the all-time greats.

On May 31, 2012, the day Detroit Red Wings fans dreaded finally came to pass, as Wings captain and long-time defense stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement after twenty NHL seasons.

Without question, Lidstrom wasn’t just one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history (certainly the greatest in Red Wings history), but he was also among its greatest players.

The list of accomplishments are testaments to that greatness:

-Seven Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman, tied for second to the legendary Bobby Orr (8) with another legend, Doug Harvey, as well as the first European to win the Norris, and the oldest player (41) to win the award, in 2011.

-A ten-time first team all-star, and two-time second team all-star.

-Winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in 2002, as well as the first European player to win the award.

-Member of four Stanley Cup championship teams in Detroit, including becoming the first European NHL captain to lead his team to a Cup championship (2008).

-Member of hockey’s “Triple Gold Club” (winning a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, and World Hockey Championship).

-Most regular season games (1, 564) played for one NHL team.

-Holds most Red Wings offensive records for a defenseman, plus most career post-season assists (129) and games (258).

Not only was Lidstrom a great player, but he was also among the most respected in NHL history. Few serious hockey fans uttered an unkind word about him. One would be hard-pressed to find a blog post or media report slamming Lidstrom’s performance, let alone his conduct on and off the ice.

When it comes to class and dignity, Lidstrom was on the same level as Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau.

Hockey fans will engage in good-natured, perhaps spirited debate over where Lidstrom places among the greatest NHL defensemen. Many Red Wings fans consider him the greatest of all time. Most fans, bloggers and pundits (including myself) rank him second only to Orr.

Lidstrom was certainly a player whose skills, intelligence and vision were rare gifts.. His style of play appears to be a dying art in today’s NHL.

Sure, top defensemen are expected to have tremendous skills and hockey savvy, but they’re also expected to be big, physical guys capable of laying out big hits as well as springing teammates on breakouts or anchoring a power-play.

Don’t even bother googling “top ten hits+Nicklas Lidstrom”, because that video doesn’t exist.

It’s not as though Lidstrom wasn’t a physical player, but at 6-1, 190 lbs, his game was more about intelligence and skill, of using the ice and his teammates to his advantage, of finding the open man, or knowing the right moment to block a shot, or when to best ride an opponent off the puck. He almost never took a “bad” penalty, nor was ever singled out for undisciplined play.

What won’t be in dispute is how important Lidstrom was to the Red Wings throughout most of his career, and how difficult – if not impossible – it’ll be to replace him.

Sure, the easy answer is “sign Ryan Suter” if he doesn’t re-sign with the Nashville Predators, and it’s possible the Wings may very well land him, but while Suter’s a very good defenseman, certainly among the best in the league right now, he’s no Lidstrom.

Yes, his game is comparable to Lidstrom’s, but it’s still lacking the aforementioned qualities that made Lidstrom one of the all-time greats.

Don’t overlook the pressure Suter would face having to step into those big skates in a very demanding hockey market. He would always be compared to his predecessor, and if he comes up short, would be pilloried by the fans and press.

That’s not to suggest the Wings shouldn’t try to land Suter, or perhaps scour the trade market for a Suter-like player. Of course they should.

But Lidstrom’s departure, however, brings to a close an era of greatness in Detroit. He and teammate Tomas Holmstrom (who is also expected to retire this summer) were the last remaining links to the great Detroit teams of the 1990s, including the 1997 and 1998 Cup champions, the last team to win consecutive championships. The rest either retired or are playing in Europe.

If Holmstrom follows Lidstrom into retirement, that’ll leave Pavel Datsyuk as the sole link to the Wings’ 2002 Cup championship, which was one of the most talented teams in NHL history.

Nicklas Lidstrom will always be remembered as a great Red Wing, a great, well-respected player, and a lock to be a first ballot Hockey Hall of Fame inductee.

Hockey fans who watched Lidstrom play throughout his career should cherish the memories. We may not see his like anytime soon.