Zetterberg admits his back problems began a decade ago
Henrik Zetterberg on how long he had back problems: “I wasn’t completely honest with everyone.”
Now that he’s retired, Henrik Zetterberg has been talking about just how big a role his back issues have played in his career.
In fact, they actually began to affect him more than 10 years ago.
“As a pro athlete, we keep a lot of stuff from the media,” the former Red Wings captain recently told the Detroit News. “So I wasn’t completely honest with everyone.”
He first began experiencing back spasms in 2006. But ultimately, he said his playing career ended when a degenerating disc eventually caused a nerve problem and a malfunction of a muscle that controlled ankle movement.
On a certain level, he knew for some time that the 2017-18 season would be his last.
“For me, I think even with the way that everything went down with the (Sept. 14 retirement) announcement in Traverse City and all that, deep inside I knew, pretty much, last year,” he said.
The nerve problem affecting his ankle was discovered after back surgery in 2014, in which part of a disc was removed because it was rubbing on a nerve.
When he skated for the first time after the surgery, he tried to push off with a skate on his first crossover to the left. But he couldn’t feel anything, and he went down.
“That’s when we noticed the nerve that had shut down the small muscle down there, and that it couldn’t control the ankle,” he said.
Zetterberg said he played two 2014 playoff games against the Boston Bruins with the ankle taped to prevent almost any movement. The Wings lost the series, 4-1.
“I played,” he said, “but I could not skate. At least we knew what to work on then.”
The condition is called foot drop.
"At each level of the spinal cord, nerves come out through the vertebrae, and each nerve innervates sensory and motor functions," said Dr. Nick Moore, a sports doctor at the Detroit Medical Center. "And so, if the nerve is getting compressed, it can cause problems on down the line.
"It's not uncommon. It can be from a degenerative change, or it can happen acutely in an athlete if they have a stress fracture, or a herniated disc."
Despite that issue, Zetterberg missed only five games in 2014-15 and did not miss any in his final three seasons. But he did stop practicing late last January and only played games for the rest of the season.
It wasn’t Zetterberg’s only fight. As he battled his back issues, he also at times battled Mike Babcock, the Red Wings’ coach for 10 seasons from 2005-06 until 2014-15.
“Maybe people think that we hated each other, sometimes,” Zetterberg said. “I won’t say we did that. But there were times when we weren’t that friendly ...
“We always had an honest relationship.”
Babcock, now the bench boss of the Toronto Maple Leafs, won more games than any other coach in Detroit’s franchise history. But what made him an outstanding coach is the same thing that grated on some players: He never let up driving, them, pushing them to be the absolute best they could be.
Even Scotty Bowman, who led the Red Wings to three of his nine Stanley Cups as a coach and who was one of the most tyrannical coaches in NHL history, gave his players a break from time to time.
“Any coach for 10 years would be hard,” Zetterberg said. “But then you add Mike into it. He puts a lot of pressure on guys. He wants you involved. He wants you to buy in.”
Zetterberg gave some specifics on how Babcock, who also won two Olympic gold medals as the coach of Team Canada, affected him.
“He found a way to push me into an 'I’m going to show you’ kind of thing,” said Zetterberg, who played for Babcock for seven seasons. “Not everyone, I think, can handle it.”
Zetterberg had other issues to handle with Babcock. In 2013, he was named Detroit’s captain after Nicklas Lidstrom retired. And one of the main duties of a captain is to be a main line of communication between the players and the coach. If players see things differently than the coach, it is usually the captain’s responsibility to bring those concerns to the coach.
That must have kept this captain busy for the three years before Babcock moved on. But at least Zetterberg knew what he was getting into.
“I think he knew he could tell me whatever he wanted,” Zetterberg said. “And I knew I could tell him whatever I wanted.”
So how is Zetterberg adjusting to retirement? As far as his back problems go, he’s walking without problems but must work out regularly to maintain his mobility.
And he and his family – wife Emma Andersson and three-year-old son Love – plan to stay in the Detroit area for now.
“I think it’s been good so far, you know?” he said.