They walked down a long, empty corridor in Metro Airport. It was dawn. It was cold. They were home, but not feeling welcome.
“What you gonna do about your hair?”
“Dunno. Maybe dye it black.”
“Or shave my head.”
“You don’t wanna be seen with red and white for a while.”
“I know. It’s like, don’t tell anybody you’re with the Red Wings.”
“Some difference from last year, huh?”
They spoke softly, their faces were long, sad, tired. They were done, their season was over, a season in which they had climbed to the ledge of a Stanley Cup final before losing their grip. The Detroit Red Wings should have been content. How many teams get this far? But the last 48 hours had been brutal, a lackluster final game against Edmonton, an embarrassing incident in which six players had been caught drinking past curfew. The mood was dark, somber, they were walking through an empty airport, bags on their shoulders, feeling very unheroic.
“See ya around.”
“OK. Take care.”
They don’t deserve this.
Let us go back a few days, before the loss, before Bob Probert was discovered in that Edmonton bar, before the team turned on Petr Klima, who foolishly brought Probert there, before coach Jacques Demers told two Free Press reporters that the incident, which took place the night before the biggest game of the season, had “broken my heart.”
Let’s go back to a hot, steamy, half-mad Joe Louis Arena Monday night, when a thumping rock song blasted over the speakers and the Red Wings skated out for an overtime period, tied, 3-3, still alive, still hungry for the Cup. Can you remember? Can you forget? “That,” Steve Yzerman said on the plane ride home Wednesday night, “was my favorite moment of the season. . . . We were so sure we were going to win.”
Where did all those Red Wings go — those spirited, confident underdogs who scared the slick off the Oilers in the Game 4 war? Where is that wacky combination of mustached veterans and crew-cut kids who laughed and grunted and played no-give hockey until Detroit had no choice but to fall in love with them?
Where did they go? Nowhere. They’re still here, underneath this mountain of dirt that a few misguided players shoveled on top of them. Dumb. Stupid. Use all the words you want for Probert and Klima and the others who went drinking Tuesday night. But Yzerman, the captain, with more raw talent than any other of them, was in his room, asleep. And Gerard Gallant, the captain in Yzerman’s absence, was in his room, asleep. And Mel Bridgman and Gilbert Delorme, who had taken a long walk around the hotel parking lot — big night out, huh? — were in their room, asleep.
And Shawn Burr, young and injured, with every excuse to be out drinking with the others, was in his room, asleep; he had been since 8:30. After the final defeat Wednesday night, I saw Burr sitting in the locker room, dressed in his suit, his head in his hands. The loss was killing him. He looked as if
he were going to cry. And he hadn’t even played.
There are your Red Wings, Detroit. Where they always were. A foolish act by a few players doesn’t kill a team.
“I don’t think people are going to be too happy to see us,” Yzerman had said with a sad grin, upon arriving at the airport Thursday morning.
Nonsense. Enough of this.
There was a moment this hockey season when the Wings poured champagne, after beating St. Louis for the Norris Division playoff championship. There was a moment when Glen Hanlon, who had been hit in the groin by a puck during a playoff game against Toronto, came to the airport in the middle of the night to greet his teammates.
“How you feeeeel-in’?” someone said in a mock, high squeaky voice. And Hanlon had to laugh.
There was the night in Edmonton when I walked into the Westin Hotel and Harold Snepsts said: “See the haircuts?” A dozen Red Wings had dyed their hair red and white, a show of nutty solidarity.
And there was a moment, in Game 3 against the Oilers, when the words
“STEVE YZERMAN . . . ” rang over the PA system in Joe Louis Arena and the walls shook, the crowd was delirious — the captain had returned! — nine weeks after a crippling knee injury that made every Detroit hockey fan shiver.
“That ovation for Stevie,” cooed Demers after the Detroit victory that evening, “oooh. . . . It gave me goose chills.”
Well. OK. The point is, the memories were there. The goose chills were there. The coach was there. Last year Demers was a newcomer, a French-speaking
genie with a twinkle in his eye and a mustache over his lip. This year the genie has a mortgage and TV commercials. But, to his credit, the man beneath remains the same: unspoiled, honest, straightforward.
And his English? Same as unusual. Chop, chop. Even during this recent scandal, with his eyes welling up with disappointment, he said: “How could those players go drinking? To play against Edmonton, a player must have all his facilities!”
“Faculties,” I corrected.
So the coach, the team — the Wings — as Detroit has come to know and love them, are not dead. They played some incredible hockey this season, and they did it with an injury list that read like Army roll call. How long was Yzerman out? And what about the playoffs? Remember goalie-go-round? Greg Stefan, out with flu. Hanlon, out with the groin shot. Sam St. Laurent, fresh off the bus, out after 10 minutes with a torn knee.
Klima’s thumb is broken. Burr whacks into a teammate. Burr gets concussion and separates his shoulder. Joe Kocur goes out. Steve Chiasson goes out. And yet the Wings held together, spit and glue, a player here or there — Snepsts on a scoring line? — and they got by, they reached the NHL semifinals, same as last year, against the best team in hockey. Only because it is no longer new are fans feeling a bit, well, unsatisfied.
“I understand it,” said Adam Oates, who had an excellent season. “‘Last year we came up here to take any game we could get. This year we came to play hockey. We came to win.”
It was not to be. Had Detroit won Game 4, the overtime war, it might have been different. But when Jari Kurri put that final wrist shot past Hanlon — Edmonton wins! — well, the series really had ended. You could smell it in the locker room.
“They are just a great team,” the Wings said.
Translation: better than us.
So the final game Wednesday was a burial, really. When it ended, Edmonton 8, Detroit 4, Delorme skated over and patted Stefan on the head with his glove, the way a grizzly bear might pat a cub, the way hockey players say:
“Nice going, good try.” He was joined by a circle of his teammates, players who, just two years ago, were the laughingstocks of the league.
The NHL semfinals.
They shook hands and skated off.
Which brings us back to the airport, the long, quiet walk Thursday morning, where the players were suddenly talking about hiding their colored hair, because somehow, a certain innocence had been lost at a bar called Goose Loonies.
Look. Let’s be honest here. The Wings have all been to bars before. They went last year. They went this year. They have missed curfews before, too. This time was more foolish and more thoughtless, because of the timing.
But the only real tragedy of this affair was Probert, a man- child alcoholic too weak to be trusted. In drinking Tuesday night, he made a stupid, tragic mistake. Klima’s was worse. Klima accompanied Probert to the bar. In so doing, he betrayed the team, because every Red Wing knows what Probert’s going to do if he gets to a bar.
But the problems with Probert did not begin Tuesday; they were just as serious last year, when everybody was in love with the Wings. The fact is, Probert has been drinking on and off for the last few months, despite promises that he wouldn’t.
The kid can break your heart. Last week, I was with him and Demers in the tunnel outside the Northlands Coliseum locker room, where players work on their sticks. Probert popped a cigaret in his mouth. He reached for a small blowtorch to light it.
“Probie! What are you doing!” Demers said.
“Probie! Come on.”
He grinned, but didn’t stop. The flame shot high. Finally, the cigaret was lit.
Demers sighed. “You shouldn’t do that, Probie.”
The player nodded.
“Next year, Probie, I’m not letting you smoke.”
“I’m gonna quit,” he answered.
“No smoking for you. Really. I mean that.”
“I know. I’m gonna quit.”
“Are you ready?” Demers asked him. “Are you ready to play tonight?”
“I’m ready,” he said.
Demers smiled at me, an embarrassed smile, as if to say, “What am I gonna do? You’ve seen him play. He says he’s ready.”
He wasn’t ready Wednesday.
He’s not gonna quit, either.
So the Wings’ management must take care of the Probert problem. That is a blemish. And punishments will come soon enough for the others involved in the late-night mishap. But let’s not kid ourselves. The Wings weren’t going to beat Edmonton simply because they avoided a bar. And the whole team didn’t let down the fans, a few players did.
So you can choose to remember Probert’s problems; or Klima, who may be gone soon; or Darren Veitch, who probably will be gone because of the drinking episode. You know what I remember?
I remember Burr, skating out to practice with his ears still ringing from a concussion. I remember Tim Higgins, Mr. Stone Hands, scoring the goal of his life in winning the Norris playoff championship.
I remember Snepsts, the oldest guy on the team, nicknaming the new trio of Bridgman, Jim Nill and himself — all 30 or older — the “Cocoon Line,” after the movie.
“You know, in the end of that movie,” I reminded him, “the old guys get to sail away and live forever.”
“Hey,” he said, “put a championship ring on my finger, and I’ll sail away and live forever, too.”
There is a fan in Detroit named Joe Diroff — nicknamed “the Brow” — an odd-looking man with a large forehead and glasses, who comes to countless hockey games and waves construction-paper signs. On the loneliest of mornings, he is there at the airport to welcome home the team.
“What do you think?” a Red Wing player will say, just before entering the door to the gate. “Will the Brow be here this morning?”
“Nah, no way!” someone will answer.
And there he is.
Maybe the players feared that, with all this controversy, he really wouldn’t show.
He was there. He was singing a cheer, as usual. I think it went something like “Welcome Red Wings, Say it Loud! Welcome Red Wings, say it proud!” Yet many of the players slinked past, heads down, as if they were ashamed.
No need for that. The fact is, we got a damn good hockey season out of these guys, stupid acts aside. And I’ll bet money there’ll be plenty more. Demers. Yzerman. Gallant. Brent Ashton. Burr. Hey! Wings! Heads up! It’s the season that’s finished.
You’re just getting started.