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Henrik Zetterberg staying upbeat as he leads the Red Wings through a frustrating year

Amid the toughest season of his career, the Red Wings captain is focusing on the positives and trying to make sure the team is playing to the franchise’s lofty standards by the time he walks away.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ask about the horses, his agent said.

As a kid, Henrik Zetterberg spent many Saturday afternoons with his family watching harness racing, also known as trotting, a popular sport back home in Sweden. It was tradition to hold off dinner until the last race had finished. For his grandfather and father, it also meant plenty of gambling.

Once Zetterberg became old enough, and once he had earned enough money by playing hockey for the Red Wings, and once he had met the right trainers in the trotting industry, he eventually bought stake in four horses. “It was a pretty easy sell for me,” he says. Two grew into particularly successful racers, though one named Alex A encountered some stomach problems and died. The other three are retired, some recovering from injuries suffered on the track, but still alive.

Ask about the horses? Zetterberg lights up.

“The one thing you do, you really create a bond with them,” he says. “You go to the races, go to the stable, and you spend time with them. It’s hard to see when you can’t compete anymore, but still have a pretty good life afterwards. They’re just hanging in the stable, eating, and having good time with the...”

He pauses. He’s thinking about, you know, horses having Good Time. Instead, he settles for a roaring laugh that endures for roughly 10 full seconds. He still visits the stallions over the summer, still stays in touch with their trainers and drivers, but has taken a step back in ownership over recent years. There is a reason for this. “You don’t have that much time,” he says. “Once my career is over, I’ll probably pick it up again.”

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He has thought about the future. Talked about it, too, not long ago with Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, a fellow Swede. Together, Zetterberg and Kronwall have played 1,744 regular season games for Detroit, appeared in 246 more in the playoffs and hoisted the 2008 Stanley Cup. Born three months apart, both are now 36 years old, elder statesmen on the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. About what all this portends, Zetterberg is steadfastly honest.

“It’s getting end of the road here for us, and you’ve just got to enjoy it as much as you can,” he says. “And not be as down as you’ve probably been before when you haven’t played as good enough. Or, when the team’s not doing well, you’ve got to find the good things and the happy things and try to keep your head up.”

He’s standing in the visiting locker room at Verizon Center, cradling a hockey stick in his hands. He motions around. The good, happy things can be found here. When Henrik was younger, his father, Goran Zetterberg, suited up for several Swedish professional teams. Funny thing is, Henrik doesn’t remember attending any specific games. But the behind-the-scenes experiences constantly come back. “You always had fun,” he says. “Never a bad moment. The memories that stick out are just that time you had with the team, basically just following them around.

“That’s probably one thing that you will miss the most when you’re done, too, that everyday stuff you had in the locker room. The battles, the joy ... that’s probably what you will miss the most. But it’s still fun, even if some days are tougher to come to the rink. Mostly you leave with a smile on your face.”

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Don’t be mistaken. Cheer and optimism alone haven’t helped Zetterberg navigate perhaps the toughest season of his career. Despite his age, the Red Wings’ captain has remained remarkably productive. Last weekend, as back-to-back losses in Columbus and Minnesota sank his team to the bottom of the conference, Zetterberg formed a club all by himself. Among the NHL’s 35-and-older crowd, 42 of whom had played at least one game this season through Monday, Zetterberg is the only one with at least 10 goals (he has 13) and 40 points (41).

“He’s got a lot of fire in him,” says Dan Cleary. “He’s just willing the team right now.” A former Red Wings forward who signed after the ’04–05 lockout and spent a decade there, Cleary now helps with Detroit’s minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids but still finds time to watch plenty of NHL games on TV. In paying attention to Zetterberg, Cleary is reminded of the ’12–13 season. NicklasLidstrom had just retired, and the captaincy was passed down to Zetterberg. With four games left, on April 20, the Wings were one point out of the playoff picture.

“He went on an absolute tear,” Cleary says. Three points, two points, two points, three points—all wins. Then, five more points total in Games 6 and 7 against Anaheim in the first round. Similar to what he sees today, Cleary describes Zetterberg’s attitude then like this: “Not on my watch.”

Sheer will from one person can only tug a team so far, though. Injuries have ransacked the Wings, from goalie Jimmy Howard (knee) to leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek (ankle) to defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, recently lost for the season with a broken wrist suffered against the Capitals. They rank 26th in both goals for (2.41) and against (3.02) per game. With the trade deadline looming March 1, the odds have grown almost microscopically slim—analyst Micah Blake McCurdy pegs them at 2%—that Detroit will extend its record postseason streak to 26 years.

“We’re not playing bad because we want to play bad,” Zetterberg says. “That’s been the frustrating part this year. When we’re good, we’re playing really well. But we make it hard for ourselves sometimes. It’s not easy to do that night in and night out, especially with a young team. It’s a tough schedule. It’s tough mentally. It’s tough to be on it all the time. But the more you play and the more time you spend in the league, that’s what you learn, and that’s what you have to get better at.”

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The doors shut closed but the cameras stayed.

In mid-December, leading up to their Centennial Classic outdoor game against Toronto, the Red Wings opened a five-game homestand with four straight losses. After the third defeat, 4–1 to Arizona, the documentary crew from EPIX that had been trailing the team captured the scene in the locker room of Joe Louis Arena: Everyone else seated, listening as Zetterberg speaks in a firm but sincere tone, delivering what sounded far more like a plea than a tirade.

“That first period could’ve been the worst first period in a long, long time,” he says. “And that’s the effort. That’s the f---ing battles. It’s nothing to do with passing, or receiving passing. It’s just the f---ing…”

He slaps his chest. “…heart. We have to f---ing go out and play better.”

Eventually, Zetterberg sits down but continues talking. “It’s going to be too late soon. We all know it. But we have to stick together.”

When Lidstrom retired in May 2012, longtime Wings general manager Ken Holland did not lack for options for his next captain; either Kronwall or Pavel Datsyuk would’ve been a fine choice. Even so, Holland says, it was considered “a very easy decision. We just felt like Z was the natural.” Zetterberg’s peers, for what it’s worth, agreed. Cleary remembers being asked by management and replying, “Zetterberg, no debate.”

Why? “Z learned from the best,” Cleary says. In the locker room, Zetterberg often sat next to Steve Yzerman, who wore the C before Lidstrom. And Lidstrom, well, was alternatively nicknamed The Perfect Human or Mr. Perfect for a few reasons. “You couldn’t have a better role model than Nick,” says Zetterberg’s agent, Marc Levine.

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Now he has taken the reins, leading in many ways. He continues to fund high school hockey scholarships for two local players each year, one boy and one girl, and won the NHL’s King Clancy Trophy for leadership and humanitarianism in 2015. Since his agent, Levine, also represents Frans Nielsen, Zetterberg put in a call during the interview period last summer and eventually helped lure the free-agent center to Detroit. (“A very strong reason why Frans came there was because of Henrik,” Levine says.) He continues to center the team’s top trio, often drawing its hardest matchup assignments at home, and leads all forwards with 19:25 ice time per game, ever mindful of mentoring young Wings like Anthony Mantha, one of his usual linemates.

“There’s no secret that when I came in, I came into a really good team and a really good group of guys, and they formed me into the player I am right now,” says Zetterberg. (Granted, the former seventh-round pick had also already appeared in two world championships and the 2002 Winter Olympics with Sweden before his rookie NHL season.) “So you just try to leave this place for other guys in the same way as when I came. Obviously it’s different times, but when you’re done, you want to leave this place for the young kids who are going to take over, in a good spot.”

Much of this is accomplished by performing with the same intensity, day after day. Teammates still marvel at how fast Zetterberg returned from back surgery after getting hurt at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, even appearing in two playoff games against Boston. “He got guys flying in to give him all kinds of treatment,” Cleary says. “He’s going above and beyond the call, because he knows what his body needs.” All that talk about getting back into the trotting world? Zetterberg’s contract won’t expire until July 2021. “You can never count him out,” says Daniel Alfredsson, a longtime teammate on the Swedish national squad and, for one season, a fellow Red Wing. “He was never the fastest guy, but I don’t think the brain’s going to get old for him very quick. He can play as long as he’s motivated.”

But different times also call for different decisions, like delivering the rare postgame speech. After the EPIX episode aired, Cleary remembers calling up the clip on YouTube and telling several friends, “I don’t know when the last time I’ve ever heard Hank close the door and address the team. I could count on one hand the number of times he’s had to do that.”

But it’s also about keeping those good, happy vibes. Once, Cleary had the wheels of his car replaced by neon green rims, and he figures Zetterberg at least partially masterminded the switch. The morning of the Washington game, asked for the most common current target of his gags, Zetterberg points to Gustav Nyquist, his other winger opposite Mantha.

“It’s pretty much on a daily basis,” Nyquist begins. Through a side door, in another room, an indiscernible voice pipes up. “I’m trying to come up with a good example to throw you under the bus,” Nyquist hollers back. He continues. “It’s tough to give you an example, to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t want to give you too much, because that might come back to haunt me.”

The voice from the other room is clear this time.

“Good answer.”