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

The last time the Red Wings went this far, his hair was dyed, it was red, white and brown. Looked like a half-gallon of supermarket ice cream. I felt like pouring hot fudge on his head.

“We only did that because someone said, ‘Let’s grow playoff beards,’ ” Shawn Burr now admits, “and I didn’t have enough facial hair to grow one.”

Today, seven years later, Burr has facial hair. Not a lot. Enough for a blond mustache, which, thickness-wise, is somewhere between Larry Bird and Rik Smits. In other words, not completely finished.

But then, neither is Burr.

Just the same, at 28, he is — are you ready? — the reigning Detroit veteran as the Wings start their Western Conference final Thursday against Chicago.

Burr? The veteran? Mr. Fuzzy Face?

I kid you not. He and Steve Yzerman are all that remain from the team that played Edmonton seven years ago for the right to go to the Stanley Cup finals. It was another time. Another place.

Another color head.

“You know, the woman who dyed our hair still works in that Edmonton hotel,” Burr says. “I say hello whenever we go up there.”

And if she asks, “How’s the old team?” Burr must answer, “Gone.” Because, outside of Yzerman, everyone down to the trainer is history.

Can you remember that crazy season? Jacques Demers was running the show and butchering the English language. Greg Stefan was minding the net. A wiry brute named Harold Snepsts was the tough guy. The only foreigner on the roster was Petr Klima. And Bob Probert was about to cause the biggest disruption in franchise history — by going to a bar named Goose Loonies and getting smashed.

Truth be told, the Wings are only now fully recovered from that gong, finally back to the ledge they fell off. Of course, the coach is gone. The GM is different. Names like Oates, Kocur, Hanlon, Gallant, Chiasson and Chabot have all moved on — some out of the game for good.

But Burr is still here, still talking, his voice cracking to remind you that no matter how much the exterior changes, inside there always will be a teenager.

Not that the exterior has changed that much.

“I’m not built like a race car,” Burr says, looking down at his body, “more

like a station wagon. You know. Good for the long haul.” Talk, talk, talk

Now, as a sports writer, I appreciate a guy like Burr. Year after year, I walk into the Red Wings’ locker room, and it’s nice to at least recognize one face. Especially when it is making jokes. Burr, as always, is the locker room chatterbox — I once called him “WBUR, 24-hour talk radio” — but he is also the emotional aorta of the team. When it is happy, he is the happiest. When it is broken, he is a mess. I can still see him at the end of that failed Edmonton series in 1988, wearing a suit as they waited for the plane, his face even redder than the streak in his hair, tears running madly down his cheeks.

I ask about that team and this one.

“Back then, we knew we were over our heads. We couldn’t keep up with Gretzky and Messier. But we played on emotion. We dumped it in, we dove in front of pucks. The whole game was different, the thinking was you hang out with the guys, have a few beers, bond together, then go out and give your best effort.

“Nowadays, it’s like a calculated science.”

He nods to the expanded exercise room, and its rows of Stairmasters and stationary bicycles. “We probably do more time on the bikes in one night now than we did in a week back then. Guys today complain if the ‘flow’ of the practice isn’t strenuous enough.

“Back when Jacques was here, we would skate for 10 minutes, then he talked for five, then we skated for 10.

“We didn’t even know what flow was.” Work, work, work

In those early years, Burr was the youngest member of the team. The Wings roomed him with the oldest player, Mel Bridgman, who was almost old enough to be his father. “He’ll calm me down, I guess,” Burr said back then.

Over the years, he has gone from the molded to the molder. When Sergei Fedorov first came to America, the Wings put him with Burr. And naturally, Shawn taught him the finer things, such as cartoons and room service. He also helped with the language barrier.

“One day Sergei was walking around going, ‘I need love, I need love.’ I said, ‘Sergei, I can help you with your hockey, but I can’t help you with that.’

“Finally I gave him the dictionary, and he pointed to a picture. It was a glove. He needed a glove.”

Stories like that just happen with Burr. True, his teammates sometimes challenge his taller tales, they say “that’s a five aces story, Shawn,” but the fact is, you don’t care whether they’re true. They’re part of Burr, a most likable guy who, in 11 years with this team, has never embarrassed it, never held it up for money, and never failed to give every ounce on the ice.

“Maybe I just haven’t been enough trouble to get rid of,” he says.

Or maybe he was simply worth keeping. This is a watershed moment for the Red Wings franchise, and it’s hard for those of us who remember the dyed hair, the squeaky voice, or the time he said, “I’ve had a lot of crummy goals, but that was the best of the crummiest” — to think of Burr as a torch bearer.

But Thursday night, with Yzerman injured, it will be Burr alone who skates out with a story woven into his uniform, the memory of the last time the Detroit Red Wings reached so high a level.

You know what? They could do a lot worse.


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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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