Believe it or not, they get Detroit TV on the Winnipeg cable system, so Tim Cheveldae woke up in his hotel room Wednesday to pictures of the Lodge Freeway traffic flickering across the screen. It was enough, for a drowsy moment, to make him think it was all a dream, he was still a Red Wing, he was still home. Then he glanced out the window, saw the dusting of snow, the motels, signs for planes. There was no noise. “Winnipeg is not,” he said dryly, “a real busy airport.”
When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way, that’s what the song says, but it’s going to take Tim Cheveldae some time. He was always a Wing, this was the first trade of his hockey life, and he went through it as if part of the textbook “Why Pro Sports Is a Coldhearted Business.”
First came the knock Tuesday morning. Cheveldae mumbled, “Who is it?” The answer came, “Brian,” and he thought it was a friend, so he croaked, “I’ll meet you downstairs in 10 minutes.” Only afterward did his roommate, Terry Carkner, say, “Chevy, I think that was Bryan Murray.”
It was, of course. Murray broke the news with no emotion. “I’ve traded you to Winnipeg.” A minute later, the meeting was done. Cheveldae was someone else’s property, and he began the most squeamish hour of a traded player’s existence, accepting condolences from now ex-teammates and calling his wife, telling her to pack up the house.
Then, on the way to Winnipeg, he read a newspaper that described his new team, the last-place Jets, as having a “Swiss cheese” defense. After this, the jetway door opened, and a cluster of TV cameras awaited.
Tim Cheveldae, a lifted goalie, forced a smile and said how happy he was to be with his, uh, new team. Murray’s parting shot stings
Tim Cheveldae is anything but happy. If you dug inside his belly, you would unleash a primal scream that could rattle windows in Australia — that’s how much he has held inside. He is a capable goalie, many would say good, some would say terrific, his numbers were impressive, and he is young. He knows all this.
And yet he was traded — for goalie Bob Essensa — for one real reason: He’d been tagged a Not Ready For Playoff Player, it hung on him like wet clothes, and his home fans turned. They booed. They called for his head. Management kept answering the same question. “What can you get for him?”
To his credit, Cheveldae always took the high road, he bit his tongue, never lashed out. Even though management rarely defended him. Even though his wife stopped coming to the games — partially because of the fans. Even though he heard the boos, and they got so bad he was listening for them after the first shot. “I shouldn’t have let them get to me like that,” he admitted.
He kept it inside. He swallowed. Even after the trade, he said, “Well, it’s probably the best thing.”
Then, he read Wednesday’s paper and saw Murray quoted as saying,
“Unfortunately for Tim, (Felix) Potvin (of Toronto) came in and outplayed him and we lost last spring. . . . ”
And Cheveldae felt a small explosion inside.
“That showed a lack of class,” Cheveldae said. “He could have just said,
‘We wanted to make a change,’ left it at that.
“What good does it do to get down to specifics, like saying Potvin outplayed me? Like I’m the only reason we lost that playoff series? Why bring it up? It’s like kicking dirt on the grave.”
Cheveldae said this, by the way, with a half-swallowed voice, clipping his anger. You could hear, in the rise and fall of his words, a quiet torment.
And you have to wonder: Is this fair? He’s reluctant to express anger
It wasn’t all that long ago that Cheveldae was a rising star in Detroit, an unflappable goalie who once wore the world’s ugliest sport coat, mustard yellow — he looked as if he belonged on a lunch counter — but he kept wearing it because it was lucky, and the Red Wings were winning.
Suddenly, he is the reason they lost in the playoffs? This is untrue. Also unfair. Also typical. Hockey goalies are like football quarterbacks. Too much credit. Too much blame.
But never, in Cheveldae’s case, too many words. He took heat. He kept his head up. He figures now he was destined to be traded, because “if Tim goes on and performs well in this year’s playoffs, who takes the rap for last year?”
His unspoken answer is Bryan Murray.
Cheveldae suggests this, then clips his sentence again, and you can see he is just not comfortable with accusations, no matter how many have come his way. He is angry, depressed, slightly resentful.
He has been traded.
Time will tell if this was a good move, or merely a long- awaited one. But there are trades for skill, and trades for other reasons, and this was the latter.
A moment then, for a fellow whose job is to take shots, but who just suffered the hardest one of all, the one to his pride. Tim Cheveldae, lifted goalie, always felt if he could just get back to the playoffs, he could erase all these black marks as a Red Wing. He got within six weeks. Now he wakes up in Winnipeg, watching Detroit traffic, and has to tell himself it doesn’t matter anymore.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Fab Five” and “Live Albom III” at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble in Rochester, at noon Saturday at Dean Book Center in Port Huron.