A CHANCE TO PRAISE THAT LITTLE MUCKER

At long last, the Kirk Maltby column.

It is my first, I admit. For some unknown reasons, in 17 years of covering the Red Wings, I have never made Maltby the subject. I have written countless columns on Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scotty Bowman. I’ve dealt with owner Mike Ilitch, former coach Jacques Demers, the Zamboni driver, the hyperbaric chamber. I have even written about an octopus. More than once.

Never Maltby. On the roster for years, he has gone untapped, like wine in the basement. Until now. Today we fill the gap.

Why today? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way he played in the Wings’ clinching game against St. Louis last weekend, when he lost his stick and had to do a shift with nothing but his body. He threw himself down on the ice not once, not twice, but three times to stop pucks. Two flew into him.

That took guts. Then there’s the fact that Maltby, 29, always seems to be getting whacked in the face. A linesman breaks up a scrum, someone whacks Maltby in the face. A linesman calls icing, someone whacks Maltby in the face. I’m telling you, after a while, it’s nearly a tradition, like kissing the Blarney stone. Skate out, whack Maltby in the face.

Of course, Maltby, a 6-foot, 190-pound winger, gives as good as he gets. He is what you call an “agitator,” a “grinder,” a “mucker.” Which may explain why men keep whacking him in the face.

But Maltby skates away, often with a smile. The overriding image I have is his bouncing off the boards, yanking his helmet out of his eyes or off his ears or off his nose. Never have I seen another player’s helmet more askew. Maltby looks as if he’s emerging from a hurricane.

Rough road to the NHL

But then, you know that about Maltby if you follow the Red Wings. What you might not know is that he has a younger brother who also plays pro hockey, or that he nearly lost an eye a few years ago, or that he wears the same raggedy gloves all season, or that he owes a piece of his career to a kid named Billy Hopper.

“Billy Hopper was the one kid in our ice group who was always a little bigger than the rest of us,” says Maltby, who grew up in Cambridge, Ontario, his father a tool-and-die company man, his mother a machine shop mother. “Every year, Billy Hopper would outgrow his equipment, and I would get it.”

Hey. When you’re a working class kid, new equipment — or even semi-new — is a big deal. In fact, Maltby might have been wearing some of Billy Hopper’s hand-me-downs when he got in his first hockey fight, at age 14. It wasn’t much, he recalls, and he and the other kid got thrown out. But it showed him something. It showed him he wasn’t scared.

And so, as he got older, and the sorting process in developmental hockey proved that not everyone gets to be Wayne Gretzky, Maltby was ready to do what it took. Grind. Muck. Mix it up. Play hard-nosed. Get whacked in the face. Whatever.

“Where you a fighter in school?” I ask.

“Oh, no,” he says. “I never got suspended.”

“I didn’t ask if you got suspended.”

“Well,” he says, smiling, “Everyone serves detention once in a while.”

Actually, you’d be surprised at just how low-key Maltby really is. He doesn’t like arguments. He doesn’t like raised voices. He has a steady girlfriend, a dog, a life that he prefers to be calm, laid-back, copacetic.

When I ask about any new developments in his off-ice life, he thinks for a second. Then he says, “I’ve finally figured out how to burn my own CDs.”

All right!

Better safe than sorry

Do you know why Maltby wears a visor? Years ago, when he was with Edmonton, he took a stick to the left eye, and his retina was ripped. He was in the hospital, and for a while he thought he’d lose his sight.

When he escaped that fate, he made a decision. Nothing was worth that risk. So, going against the mucker’s code, he donned the visor. And every loudmouth who wants a piece of him lets him know what a “bleeping little bleep” he is for wearing it.

“I just tell them, come up with some new material,” Maltby says.

And he laughs.

And then someone whacks him in the face.

No. I made that last one up. But it only shows you Maltby’s positive attitude toward even the ugliest parts of the NHL.

You can lose Stanley Cups if you don’t have an Yzerman, a Lidstrom or a Dominik Hasek. But you can’t win them without a Kirk Maltby. No one reaches hockey nirvana without mud on his shoes and blood on his sweater. Maltby will earn his keep in this series against Colorado.

And when the reporters tumble into the dressing room, once again, they will cluster around the scorers, the future Hall of Famers.

But from here on in, after this column, I promise there’ll be one guy who’ll go straight to Maltby.

Billy Hopper. He wants his stuff back.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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