In honor of Markus Näslund getting his number retired, I'm posting up a blog that I'd written when he announced his retirement from the NHL. This was originally published May 5, 2009, on my personal hockey blog. I grew up in the greater Seattle area, and went to college in Bellingham, Washington, so I watched the Vancouver Canucks for years before moving to Tampa, Florida, and then on to other parts of the US.
Markus Näslund retired from the New York Rangers about a week ago, and I've been struggling with trying to write a blog about it. Not because I don't know what to say, but because I have too much to say. I could probably write a book and still not do the man any justice.
I don't think professional athletes really understand what they mean to the average fan. And I'm not talking about in a stalkerish kind of way, either. I'm talking about as a fan in regards to their favorite players and their team. Male, female - doesn't matter because it's all about the same.
Let me see if I can explain this.... It's sort of like the apartment building cliché. Everyone has their schedules, and you end up seeing the same four or five people most days. Sometimes you talk to them, and sometimes you don't. Maybe you know their kids' names and what they do - if you even talk to them at all - but that's about it. You get used to seeing them all the time, so when one of the regulars moves out, you realize that you knew absolutely nothing about them. And, weirdly, you miss them even tho you were only the most casual of acquaintances.
That's how it is for fans. Athletes are the people they see all the time, but never really get to know. But it's comfortable and reliable - almost like a real friendship, but without all of the work. And then when they get traded or retire, you suddenly realize that you genuinely miss them and that the team will never really be the same without them.
If they're traded, you can at least take consolation that you'll still get to see them sometimes on another team. If they retire, you hope they come back somehow doing TV or radio or something so they're not really gone. And we know that it's weird - it's weird to us, too - but it's also true.
So I found myself last week pretty upset that Näslund had retired. Genuinely saddened, in fact. It was like an old friend had moved out of the apartment building. I had hoped to watch him play last season, but wasn't able to, so I was hoping he'd stick around for another year so I could get another chance.
I watched Näslund play in Vancouver for a long, long time. I could go over his list of accomplishments, but if you're interested in that, you can look them up on your own. What you'll find if you do, though, is that he has only one individual NHL award to his name. His peers voted to award him with the Lester B. Pearson Award, which is the league MVP as voted on by the players. He didn't win any other awards NOT because he wasn't good - he had a fantastic career despite not winning the Stanley Cup - but because he was a team guy first and always.
With Näslund, it was never about individual accomplishments. It was always team first, no matter what. He rarely talked about himself, and he always did what was in the best interest of his teammates. Which is probably why he's such an underrated player. He never put himself forward over his team, so he was constantly overlooked.
I've talked to a few hockey fans of other NHL teams over the last week, and every one has said pretty much the same things. They're all sad to see him go as well, and they all think that he still has something more to offer any NHL team. They all respected him greatly as a player, despite none of them ever being a Canucks fan.
He could've been as big a name as his friend Peter Forsberg if he'd wanted to, but Näslund preferred to keep a low profile and work behind the scenes. He didn't want the spotlight. You never heard about his charity work, though he was very involved in the community in Vancouver. You never heard about any side projects or businesses he may or may not have had going on. Unless it had something to do with being on the ice and in an NHL uniform, he didn't talk about it publicly. He played in Vancouver for 11 or so seasons and was captain of the Canucks for eight years, and for all of that time, that was all anyone needed to know.
So the announcement of Näslund's retirement from the NHL was no different. Few athletes realize on their own that it's time to go and leave gracefully at a moment of their own choosing. Usually, they desperately hang on to their career until they're finally kicked out of it - which often makes them look a bit foolish in some regard. And Näslund rarely put himself in a position where he could look foolish. As one would expect, there were no press conferences, no dragging out his decision to retire all summer and for half the next season, and no lengthy goodbyes. Just a simple thank you.
"I would like to sincerely thank Glen Sather and the New York Rangers for giving me the opportunity this past season in New York," said Naslund. "I would also like to thank the Vancouver Canucks and all of their fans for their support over the 11-plus seasons I was a part of their organization, as well as to the Pittsburgh Penguins where I began my NHL career."
Well, I'd like to thank you on behalf of the fans, Markus. Thank you for your hard work and dedication to every team you've ever been on. It's been a priviledge and a joy to have watched you play hockey. Best of luck in whatever it is you decide to do. And don't be a stranger, okay?