EDMONTON — The word we are looking for is not “experienced,” although he is experienced. It is not “veteran,” although, in hockey, you are a veteran at 32. If you can still walk. But no. The word we are looking for is neither
“veteran” nor “experienced,” nor “ripe,” nor “graybeard,” nor “grandpappy” . .
Well. Yes. That word fits him nicely. If the Detroit Red Wings — in the Stanley Cup semifinals and suddenly the hottest story in sports — were cast as a big, happy, gap-toothed family, then Mel Bridgman would be the uncle.
“No!” he groaned. “Don’t say that. Uncle Mel? Oh, God. All right. Mel. But not Melvin. Don’t say Melvin. Just leave it Mel. OK? OK? Not Melvin.”
OK. Mel. Uncle Mel. Whatever. Here is a big reason the Red Wings are in the playoffs, and he becomes more valuable the longer this gloriously unlikely season continues. Bridgman may be older and slower than the Yzermans and Kocurs and Burrs with whom he skates, but he can teach those peach-fuzzers a few things about the tricks of the trade. And besides, he can gather them around the dinner table for tales of the glory days.
“The feeling on this team is just like it was in Philadelphia when we went to the finals. . . . “
Shawn, Joey, Stevie. Have a cookie.
Listen to your Uncle Mel.
A great addition “I saw the similarity as soon as I got here,” said Bridgman, who joined the team two months ago, after 12 years in the NHL, six with the “Broad Street Bullies” of the late 70’s. “The guys here, like there, were really close, the management was good. And the excitement was contagious.”
The Wings and coach Jacques Demers had coveted Bridgman for months. Now you see why. He is a perfect wing on the house that Jacques built. “The way he plays, and his attitude,” said Demers, “it rubs off. That’s very, very important.”
When the playoffs began, Demers assigned Bridgman to room with Burr, the 20-year-old whirlwind center. And the mix has worked well. True, when the two of them arrive for breakfast, it is like watching Billy Idol walk in with Billy Carter. Burr is adorned in the latest shimmer-rock sports coat, complete with patterned tie and baggy slacks. Bridgman wears a blue jacket over corduroy pants with a yellow button shirt that probably has “J.C. Penney” in the back.
“Why do you think Demers put you with Mel?” Burr was asked. “Calm me down, I guess,” he said.
Bridgman smirked. “He goes to call me the old man, and I say, ‘Shawn, don’t you say it. Don’t you dare say it.’ “
But if he thinks it, and if some of the other young Red Wings players do, well, fine. Because experience is respected on this team, and what they see in Bridgman is a forward who’ll fight for the puck, who’ll take a hit to make a pass, who’ll bang the boards, who’ll grind and churn and kick and find his way to a goal or two as well. Graceful? Well, no. If Wayne Gretzky is Baryshnikov, then Bridgman is Barney the Plumber. But, hey, can Baryshnikov fix a toilet?
Besides, Bridgman may be funnier than Gretzky. The night before Game 1, a reporter called his room, and asked whether he and Burr were talking about how to defend Gretzky and Mark Messier, the Oilers’ stars.
“Oh, yeah,” Bridgman said, “we talk about it non-stop. It’s 100 percent hockey.
“Hey Shawn, turn that movie down, OK?” Cookie jar monster
Outside of his thing with the name “Melvin,” there is little fear in Bridgman. As a child, he suffered with osteomyelitis, a bone disease that struck both legs. He endured. He came back.
“He was headstrong from the day he was born,” said his mother, Mary, who with his father, Dick, had breakfast with Bridgman Wednesday.
“Yeah, I was driving through town once when he was about seven or eight,” said his dad, “and I saw him walking into a store. Turns out he’d taken coins from a cookie jar we kept in the kitchen. He was going to buy himself some candy.”
“They hid the cookie jar after that,” Mel added.
So, OK. He had a mind of his own even then. He’s on his way to a business degree from Penn’s esteemed Wharton School. He’s enjoying his newfound role as a Detroit elder statesman. And he’s playing terrific hockey. Now we know everything about Mel Bridgman, except. . . .
“Was he named after anyone in particular?” someone asked his mother.
“Why yes,” she said. “His father’s brother.”
“He was named after his . . . uncle?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, “his Uncle Melvin.”
Don’t worry, Mel. No one has to know.