In the movies, directors use a trick called “timepieces.” A dog, for example, will enter the film as a puppy. Next time you see it, its legs and ears are longer. Next time you see it, it’s shaggy and full grown. This lets you know that years are passing, quietly, quickly.
Paul Coffey, who has been in hockey long enough to do a movie and a sequel, has a timepiece of his own: his nephew, who came into the world about a dozen years ago, when Coffey was just starting his NHL career as an Edmonton Oiler. Coffey remembers holding the child in his arms. And he remembers walking him as a 2-year-old on Maple Leaf Gardens ice. He remembers the schoolboy visiting him in Pittsburgh. And he remembers the budding teenager who came to Detroit recently and laced ’em up, and they hit the ice and the kid tried to skate past his Uncle Paul, to outshoot him, to steal the puck.
“They grow up so fast,” Coffey sighs, like a grandmother looking out her porch window. Then, as if to remind himself, he adds, “Hey, I can’t wait to have kids of my own.”
Such is the curious blend of Paul Coffey, old enough to be nostalgic, young enough to be optimistic, savvy enough to combine the two on the eve of the playoffs and feel as if he is doing the same thing for the first time. How many 31-year- old bachelors are at the top of their game, can hang with Wayne Gretzky, can say they’ve won four Stanley Cups with two teams and are about to try to lead a new favorite to another one?
Get it? Coffey can?
That was a joke. A bad one. Coffey is bad at jokes, too. “Can’t tell ’em to save my life,” he says. Because of this, and because of his heavy whiskers, soulful stare, and tendency to listen first, talk second, people sometimes accuse him of being too serious. They say, “Lighten up, Paul!” or,
“Why aren’t you smiling, Paul?”
Here’s the secret of Coffey: Beneath all the years, the trades and the whiskers, this guy is having the time of his life. He never tires of winning
“You know, when you’re 20 or 21, I don’t care what they say, you want to make a name for yourself,” Coffey says, slouching deep in a couch in a back room at Joe Louis Arena. His black hair is mussed, his whiskers thick as usual. He wears a gray T-shirt and shorts and an ice bag. He looks as if he just came from a grad school pickup game.
“At that age, you want to reach this certain plateau so you can make some money.
“If you do that, then you want to join a great team, a great organization.
“And if you do that, then you want to win it all.”
Well, I say. You’ve done all three.
“Yeah,” he says.
So what’s left?
But you’ve already won.
He grins when he says this. Grinning, he can do. Smiling just won’t come naturally. Sometimes, he says, he thinks he’s smiling, and he checks a mirror and he isn’t. “I don’t have one of those faces, I guess,” he says. “I’m smiling inside.” And he does have a fine sense of humor. He also has a raging passion for his sport. He says his only plans for life after hockey are — and this is a direct quote — “hockey.”
“I just can’t imagine doing anything else,” he admits. Thirteen years, four teams and more than 1,000 games have not soured him on the pro game. Neither has the fact that, despite his All-Star credentials, his five seasons of more than 100 points — and he’s a defenseman, don’t forget — Coffey has been let go by several successful teams.
“You know what I do the moment I find out I’ve been traded?” asks the man who was sent from Edmonton to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to LA, and LA to Detroit. “I immediately think of all the bad things about the place that traded me and all the good things about the place I’m going to. I put all the negative on the past and all the positive on the future.”
Age has its wisdom, you know. His work ethic never rests
Coffey grew up in Ontario, the son of an airplane factory worker who would take his boy to work, show him the hard life, and say, “I want better than this for you.” The father had a compact philosophy: “Work hard, have fun.” Living up to the former was more difficult than the latter. Now and then, when the Coffeys drove to see Paul play in a tournament, and the boy didn’t give his full effort, the usually laid-back father would let his kid have it.
“You think we drove all the way up here just to watch you not try?”
The words stuck in Coffey’s head. And so, even today, with all those photos of him holding the Stanley Cup somewhere in his closet, he still pushes his body to the limit, showering himself in sweaty workouts, doing extra repetitions on the StairMaster or the bike, driving in practice, pushing, pushing. Even during the summer, when he escapes to a cottage on Lake Joseph, he hangs out with lumber workers and forest types. These people scale trees. They live off barges. Coffey admires that type of existence, he enjoys the draining pleasure of pushing your body. “Relaxing” means playing baseball, golf, or waterskiing. Not surprisingly, his favorite singer is workmanlike Bruce Springsteen, he of the four-hour concerts.
“If I could trade places with anyone for a day, that’s who I’d pick,” Coffey says.
“Yeah. I love that guy.”
You’d be him during a concert?
“Oh, yeah. That’s the only time to do it.” New places, new friends
And remember, it’s not as if Coffey is lacking for big- name friends. Until last season, he was chumming around with Mario Lemieux. And his best buddy is Gretzky, with whom he shared the ice for several years in Edmonton and a season-and- a-half in LA. They were so close, Coffey woke Gretzky at 7 a.m. when he learned of the trade to Detroit, just so Gretzky wouldn’t hear it from someone else. Gretzky was devastated.
“That’s the hardest part of this business, making friends and then leaving,” Coffey admits. “But I think of it this way: If they’re really your friends, they’re your friends forever, right?”
Coffey has added an unusual best buddy in his brief time with the Wings: Bob Probert. The unlikely pairing of the savvy, veteran defenseman and the once-wild, still-feared forward is one of those sports relationships that makes you shake your head. At a recent radio broadcast, Probert asked to introduce Coffey, then moved over when he was brought onstage, deferring to him, saying Paul should talk, and Probert would listen. That was about respect.
Other times, it’s about laughs.
“We were golfing down in Tampa and we laughed our heads off,” Coffey says.
“We bet on anything. Sergei (Fedorov) was in a sand trap and Probie said,
‘Ten bucks it takes him three shots to get out!’ We bet. It did. And he won.
“I dunno. Stuff like that just cracks us up.” Oh, the stories he could tell
Now maybe you figure Coffey, having been around, should be taking life more seriously, thinking about the future, clucking his tongue at childish antics. But wait a second. Weren’t we just telling him to “lighten up” a few minutes ago?
Such is Coffey’s touch. A little young, a little old. It is not just those thread-the-needle passes he gets to his teammates for all those assists; Coffey is also deft in handling humans. Bryan Murray, the Wings’ coach, says, in addition to Coffey’s obvious skills on the ice, his presence in the locker room “has made a huge difference in team chemistry. It could be the thing we’ve needed.”
Coffey says he is just following an example by Gretzky, who despite his status as a living legend, always had time for the kid who just arrived from the minors. Gretzky even organized team get-togethers every day on the road, for a beer or a quick bite, to keep camaraderie high.
“That was great,” Coffey says. “I never forget it. That was one of the ways Wayne led.
“You know, when I first got here, Stevie (Yzerman) asked me about Gretzky, about his leadership, what he was like. I told him, ‘Steve, he’s just like you. He does his job. He works hard. And he’s very approachable.’ “
Yzerman’s inquiry was one of the few times in Coffey’s 10 weeks with the Wings that anyone has pumped him for stories. Contrary to popular belief, hockey players don’t sit at a veteran’s knee, their eyes all aflutter, as he waxes on about the good old days.
Or, as Coffey puts it, “Nobody wants to hear that bleep.”
But if they did ask about Gretzky and Lemieux, he’d tell them nobody works harder. And if they did ask about championships, he’d say there’s no feeling like it. And if they did ask about winning, he’d say that once you get a Stanley Cup, you feel like you should have it every year, and every year you don’t there’s something wrong.
“When you win the first one, you’re not sure what to do. It’s like someone’s been telling you about this great movie, over and over, so when you finally see it, you’re like, ‘That wasn’t that great.’
“All the buildup to the cup, when you win it, it’s like, ‘Now what? Do I do a cartwheel? Do I stand on my head? What?’ Only after a couple weeks, when sit down with your teammates and talk about it, do you realize what you’ve done.
“And it’s bleeping great.”
That’s what Coffey is looking for now. That’s what he wants. One more kiss on the cup. One more notch on the tree. He doesn’t think about age and he doesn’t think about uniforms and he doesn’t think about what used to be. He thinks about winning, he thinks about a final victorious buzzer. He thinks about one more notch on his timepiece, and another smile you can’t see.
MONEY PLAYER Red Wings defenseman Paul Coffey, right, has compiled Hall of Fame numbers in his 13-year career: 330 goals, 871 assists and 1,201 points. He surpassed 100 points five times, including 138 for Edmonton in 1985-86. His name was inscribed on the Stanley Cup four times: with Pittsburgh in 1990-91 and Edmonton in ’86-87, ’84-85 and ’83-84. Here are his playoff numbers: TEAM YEAR GP G A PTS Oilers 1981 9 4 3 7 Oilers 1982 5 1 1 2 Oilers 1983 16 7 7 14 Oilers 1984 19 8 14 22 Oilers 1985 18 12 25 37 Oilers 1986 10 1 9 10 Oilers 1987 17 3 8 11 Penguins 1989 11 2 13 15 Penguins 1991 12 2 9 11 Kings 1992 6 4 3 7 TOTAL 123 44 92 136