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

The phone rang around 3:30 Wednesday afternoon. Paul Boyer, the equipment man, picked it up.

“Who wears No. 14 for us?” asked Scotty Bowman, the Red Wings coach.

“Aaron Ward,” Boyer said.

“Make a new No. 14 with the name ‘Shanahan.’ Give Ward No. 27. You think he’ll mind?”

“No,” Boyer said, smiling, “I don’t think he’ll mind.”

This is how Opening Day of hockey in Detroit began: with a phone call, and a new number. Boyer called East Side Sports, where the uniforms are made, and two hours later, it was in his hands. He took a roll of two-sided tape, and stuck a red “A” onto the sweater’s chest.

They come and they go. That’s a famous line about athletes — and it sure held true Wednesday. In the morning, Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey were still Red Wings. By the afternoon, they belonged to Hartford, and Brendan Shanahan, 27, the much- coveted forward with the physical reputation, was on a fast plane to center ice in his new home, the Motor City.

They come and they go.

“It’s been a pretty hectic day,” Shanahan said, after his first night was over and the Wings had defeated Edmonton, 2-0. “I was really nervous when I got here. But the first thing someone said when I got to the locker room was they were waiting for me, so we could all skate out for warmups as a team. That was nice.

That was just the start. Shanahan was introduced to the crowd, and his very

name brought an explosion of noise — “AT FORWARD, NO. 14 BRENDAN SHANAHAN”
— and as he skated out, the anticipation had to be burning inside. Anyone who has played in the lifeless Hartford Civic Center would think he died and went to heaven waking up in the hysterics of Joe Louis. “I was thrilled,” Shanahan admitted.

And just a few minutes later, he was skating up the ice alongside Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the “A” on his sweater, stuck on with Boyer’s two-sided tape — only in hockey can you be the alternate captain on a team before you even know your teammates’ names — and before five minutes had passed, Shanahan was in a fight, and he went to the penalty box.

Hmm. Feels like he’s been here a lifetime.

They come and they go. A piece of the puzzle

“Are you ready for the pressure of the expectations?” someone asked Shanahan after the game. “Some people see you as the missing piece of the puzzle.”

“Well, I am that . . . a piece,” he said. “But just a piece. I’m not the guy who’s going to change things.”

Maybe so, maybe no. The Wings expect big noise from this young man, and they gave up a lot to get him. Granted, Primeau didn’t want to play in this town anymore, and Coffey is 35, but not so long ago, we mentioned those guys near the top of the Detroit “stars” list. Don’t be too quick to discount their value.

Of course, Shanahan brings value as well. A powerful left winger who could score 50 or more goals with an offense like Detroit’s, he’s a guy who has been waiting for a team like this all his life.

“When I heard the crowd cheering tonight, I looked around, and I felt great,” he said. “Compared to the events of the last few days (he was booed in Hartford when he let it be known he wanted out), this was the feeling I wanted.”

They come and they go. Coffey will be missed

Speaking of the events of the last few days, a moment here for Coffey, who for the second straight game showed up for work and got sent someplace else. Last Saturday, before the season opener in New Jersey, Bowman told him he could go home, thank you, go wait for a trade. When that trade never came, Coffey had to return to practice. For two days, he endured the embarrassing looks, like a man doomed to execution. Then, Wednesday night, he drove to work again, only to be told he could leave once more, thank you, the deal was done.

“I was only there a few minutes, and I saw the trainers’ faces and I knew something had happened,” Coffey said from his Birmingham home Wednesday night. This was 9 p.m. He was watching TV. Not the hockey game. The baseball game.
“I figure I’ll get away from hockey for a night.”

You have to feel for Coffey. A week ago, he was a star on arguably the league’s best team. Now he is the property of one of its most dismal. It’s not that Coffey got bad all of a sudden. It’s not that he lost his skills. He was two things management frets about today: he was old, and he was well-paid.

So now he’s gone. “Forget about it, it’s over, it was great, but it’s done, that’s all you can say, it’s time to move on, you know, what can you do?” Coffey said this in that staccato tone that he uses when his thoughts are rambling, and he sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. In his 20 minutes at the rink, he only got to say good-bye to handful of players.

He didn’t bother to talk to Bowman.

“On my way out, someone said Scotty wanted to talk to me. What for? It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what had happened.”

“Besides,” Coffey added, his voice bitter now, “if he wanted to talk to me, he should have talked to me at 1:15 in the afternoon.”

He’s right. That’s when the deal was done. I know Bowman still resents the way Coffey played in the championship and conference finals the last two years, but come on, the man gave his all here, he played in pain, he played when his back was so stiff he walked around with an ice pack tucked in his belt. He gave an air of experience to the Detroit locker room, and while it’s true, these current Wings didn’t win the Stanley Cup with him here, it’s also true they didn’t get to a Cup final until he arrived.

They come and they go. No guarantees

Now, Red Wings fans may be giddy this morning — “We got Shanahan” — but no one should figure this is anything more than a smart risk. Don’t tell me Brendan Shanahan, who in nine years has never played on a team that even made a conference final, is a guarantee of success. I don’t mean to spoil the party, but if Wayne Gretzky joining Brett Hull didn’t work, nothing is guaranteed.

Having said that, you must admit on paper, this looks good. But on paper, the Wings should have won it all last year.

“The Red Wings’ game is to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s my game, too,” Shanahan said. “I don’t look at this as the end of something, I look at it as the beginning.”

That’s a good approach. The Wings see it that way, too. They gave away old, they gave away unhappy, they got young and hungry. Most of the time that works.

Meanwhile, you have to marvel at the quick-changing fortunes of pro sports, where a veteran, in one night, goes from playing hockey to watching baseball, while another guy slaps a sticky- taped “A” on his uniform and gets a standing ovation.

They come and they go, they come and they go. It’s the start of a long parade, this hockey season. From the look of it, we’d better buckle up.


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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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