by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It is not his favorite subject. When you remind Kris Draper that this blood-feud rivalry between Detroit and Colorado really began with him, six years ago, when he was cheap-shotted into the boards by Claude Lemieux and an all-out hockey war was declared, he gives a rare sarcastic response.

“Yeah, lucky me,” he says. “I got to have my face rearranged to start a rivalry.”

The wounds have healed. The scars long since passed. And Draper would rather be singled out for something else these days. He has worked hard to make that so.

I remember talking to coach Scotty Bowman at the end of the regular season and asking what was different about this group of Red Wings. And he said, “Kris Draper has had a really good year.”

Coming from Scotty, that’s a papal blessing.

Draper did indeed jump the growth chart — oddly enough, at age 30 — largely because he was promoted from his traditional Grind Line to a partnership with Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov. Draper flourished, putting up career-high numbers in goals (15), points (30), games (82) and plus-minus rating

But in the playoffs, he has been popped back and forth, sometimes grinding with the old gang, sometimes flying with others, sometimes a center, sometimes on the right wing. Meanwhile, he waits for a shining moment against Colorado
— one that doesn’t involve blood.

The odds, you would figure, are in his favor. After all, fellow Grind Liner Kirk Maltby, traditionally overlooked, has already had a glorious moment this postseason, when he lost his stick yet stopped two shots, and the crowd screamed “Malt-by! Malt-by! Malt-by!”

And fellow grinder Darren McCarty? Well, he had a career afternoon Saturday in Game 1. Three goals in less than 15 minutes? Hats flying onto the ice?

“You heard of the Apocalypse?” McCarty joked.

Not quite. But let’s be honest. When Darren gets a hat trick, anything is possible.

Big value for one dollar

So Draper waits. And works. And sweats. And drives. And checks. And pokes away pucks. And starts a breakaway. And comes tantalizingly close to scoring hockey’s equivalent of a fast-break lay-up, only to be thwarted at the last instant by a defender’s stick, or a goalie’s blocker. When that happens, he doesn’t pout. He actually accelerates, ducking his head, driving his legs, heading back the other way.

Draper does all kinds of little things — as he did in Game 1, leading the team in winning face-offs, delivering five hits, playing more shifts than any forward except Fedorov. You don’t notice a lot of it. That’s OK. He’s used to that.

Draper and Fedorov are the fastest skaters on the team. But while Sergei was overly endowed by the hockey gods, Draper had his speed, and, well, his speed.
“I realized that when I was a teenager,” he says. “When guys who are 14 or 15 years old already outweigh you by 40 pounds, you’d better be fast.”

Even so, for a stretch, Draper, at 5-feet-11 and 190 pounds, wondered if he would find a home in the NHL, which “was always looking for big guys.” He was acquired for one dollar in 1993 from the Winnipeg Jets. “I got lucky with this special team,” he says.

Some say it was the other way around.

When Bowman notched him up this year, Draper was so thrilled, he raced home and told his wife, “I’m going to be on the right side with Brendan and Sergei”
— then proceeded to work twice as hard off the ice as on it. He got stronger. He did more conditioning. He had a career year — because he knew a chance when he saw one.

Now, in the playoffs, he awaits another.

A true-blue Canadian

It’s easy to overlook a guy like Draper, who has one goal and two assists in these playoffs. He’s not big, he’s not loud, he’s not flashy, he has that David Caruso-like red hair and red beard thing going. And for years, by his own description, “I was on the fourth line, mostly killing penalties.”

But these playoffs already have proved to be a multi-spotlighted concert for the Wings, with someone new stepping up every game or two. Fedorov shone early. Brett Hull was quiet, until his hat trick in Game 6 against Vancouver. Shanahan finally erupted against St. Louis. And McCarty was having his most disappointing season in years — until Saturday.

So Draper, whose wired jaw, black eye and seething anger were once the gasoline that fueled this rivalry, is hoping for a new signature on the Detroit-Colorado series — from the right, from the center, from this line, from that line. Doesn’t matter. He has proved that, even mid-career, he can raise his game when given the chance.

“You know, Brendan became a U.S. citizen last week,” someone mentions, “and Sergei has already done that.”

“That’s right,” Draper, the Canadian, says. “Two Americans. Is that my next step?”

Nah. Something tells me he’s already taken that.

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


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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