From now until late next week, if you see someone from St. Louis, I think it only fitting that you immediately lower your shoulder and slam him into the nearest wall. In the interest of team spirit, of course.
We are talking hockey. We are talking playoffs. We are talking the key to the Detroit Red Wings-St. Louis Blues series, which begins tonight.
“Checking,” the players predict.
“Checking,” the coaches predict.
Now, I must admit, I have never been very good at checking. Or savings, for that matter. The people at my bank will vouch for that. If they’re still speaking to me. After I jammed up the cash machine.
When I check, I bounce. Especially when I forget to deposit. But there is no bounce in hockey. There is crunch. There is whooomph. There is splat. The Red Wings are good at checking. They are good at splat.
So be it. Good fans get behind their team’s strength. Whatever it is. Remember the Twins fans and their Homer Hankies? Remember the Redskins fans and their Hogs costumes?
Checking is the Red Wings’ trademark. Checking must be our goal. I see us checking at least three times a day. At work. At home. Wherever there is a wall. And someone from St. Louis.
Support the home team, right?
So I went to Red Wings practice.
I mean, how hard can it be? Showing and telling — oomph!
I say to Joey Kocur: “Show me a good check.”
“Petr Klima,” he says. “Over there, by the–.”
“The other kind of Czech, er, check.”
“Oh. Well, my ideal check is to get a guy behind the net, meet him head on, slam him into the wall, and break the glass.”
“Break glass,” I write in my notepad. “And have you ever done it?”
“No. But I can dream, can’t I?”
We should explain here that you can actually check a guy anywhere — against the boards, behind the net, in the middle of the ice. And you can do it with your stick or your body. And the point is to get the puck away from him. Or, barring that, make him fit into a Federal Express envelope.
“What is you favorite technique?” I ask Gilbert Delorme, one of the Wings’ best checkers. “What is the fine art of checking?”
“Well, you don’t want him to see you coming,” he says. “Otherwise, he can spin away.”
“Spin away . . . ” I write.
“You have to angle it out. Cut him off. Use your shoulder. Aim for the chest.”
“Shoulder . . . chest. . . .
“Or else, just forget everything and ram him.”
“How do you know you’ve made a good hit?” I ask Shawn Burr, another specialist in the craft.
“Oh, you hear the air go out of him,” he says. “You know, like whooooosh!”
“Whooooosh! . . . ” I write.
“And then he goes down.”
“Goes down. . . . “
He smiles. “That’s good.”
This is a little rougher than I thought. This is not going to be easy on the corner of Lafayette and Cass. This is —.
This is Mel Bridgman slamming me with his hip.
“My dream check is to meet a guy at center ice like this,” he says, demonstrating the technique in the middle of the locker room, “hip-check him perfectly and lift him up and watch him go flying. I’ve been trying for 13 years.”
“Go flying . . . ” I write, trying not to. “And how . . . uh . . . many times have you tried this?”
“About 100,” he says. “No luck yet. Here. Lemme show you again. . . . ” An original way to fly
Now don’t get me wrong. These players are artists. Check masters. But when I write down the nicknames for checking — “Slam” “Crunch” “Cream” — I envision the whole city of Detroit chasing after four people in St. Louis T-shirts. It is not a pretty picture.
“Remember, you like the guy three feet from the boards,” says Burr, “so when you slam him, he’s got a long way to fly.”
“And ideally he’s flat-footed,” adds Bridgman.
“Then it’s like hitting a baseball,” says Delorme, grinning. “You’ll know when you’ve clobbered one. It’ll feel good, and –.
Hold it. Hold it. A baseball? Flat-footed? We can’t be doing this to the nice people from St Louis. I mean, think about it. They’d have to walk in the middle of the street. When they weren’t in the hospital. Besides, there are so few of them here, we’d all be fighting over the chance to slam one into the wall.
WINGS FAN: Sorry to interrupt lunch. May I?
BLUES FAN: Well I . . . urrrphlyp!
No. Bad idea. Forget I said anything. Go to the game tonight and have a good, peaceful time. There must be some other tradition we can practice. Something a little less dangerous.
When I find it I will let you know. I can’t think of anything right now. But that’s the great thing about hockey.
I’m sure something will hit me.
As long as it’s not Kocur.