FANS’ DILEMMA: RED ON, OR LIGHTS OUT

We find you tonight, wearing a Red Wings jersey and pajama bottoms, half in bed, half-out, one eye open, one eye closed.

“I can’t make up my mind,” you moan.

“About what?” we ask.

“Should I watch — or shouldn’t I watch?”

What’s it going to be? On one side of the bed is a warm glass of milk. On the other side is a nice cold beer. On one side is a good book. On the other is a remote control.

“It’s so hard to decide,” you say, lifting two coffee mugs.

“Decide?” we ask.

“Decaf or regular?”

What’s it going to be? Stay up worrying? Go to sleep perplexed? Keep awake rooting? Nod off confidently?

Tonight, the most important game of the Detroit hockey season will be played 2,000 miles away, in Los Angeles, face-off 10:30 p.m. Detroit time, and all across the city, just when heartbeats should be slowing and breathing should relax, you will hear a noticeable thumpity-thump and a desperate pant-pant.

“I don’t want to send the wrong signal,” you say, plugging, then unplugging, the TV.

“Wrong signal?” we ask.

“I mean, I’d love to watch if they win — but what if they lose?”

What if they lose? What a question this is! Here we are, still in April, and we are looking at the sudden and abrupt end of springtime sports. The Pistons are already history (they were history long before April) but now the Red Wings, often good enough to drag hockey season into 80-degree weather, could be done playing before the leaves return to the trees. What gives?

“Oh this is a tough one,” you say, holding two items in your hands.

“A tough one?” we ask.

“Onion rings — or toothpaste?”

A quick descent

Remind us again. How exactly did we get here? The Wings, less than two weeks ago, were gunning their engines. They were ripe as July peaches, as ready as a Marine after basic training. They carried a near-healthy roster and a perfect-for-2001 home record into the playoffs.

As the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, the Red Wings taking on the Kings in this first round was supposed to be little more than a clearing of the throat.

Instead, the Wings are gagging. In five games, they have lost their captain, Steve Yzerman; their sharpshooter, Brendan Shanahan; their home streak; their concentration and their confidence. The horrific last 7 minutes of Game 4 seemed to hover through all of Game 5, and perhaps, like that creature in
“Alien,” hides now in the fuselage of Red Bird One.

How bad is it? Well, if this were the NBA, the Wings would be done already. They have lost three of five. The old standbys are out the window. Home ice means nothing. Better record means nothing. The return of an injured player means nothing. (Shanahan tried playing on a broken foot Saturday, and the Wings still lost.)

And now, to make matters worse, we have this nightmarish scenario for Game 6, something out of a Stephen King novel, in which the wee hours of the morning could hold the ugliest news.

“Pillow or seat cushion?” you ask, holding one of each.

“Well …”

“Club soda or mouthwash?”

“Well …”

“Teddy Bear or octopus?”

Octopus?

The end of an era?

Now, don’t misunderstand. Red Wings fans do not feel entitled. After all, it has been three years since Detroit won the Cup.

On the other hand, it has been seven years since they lost in the first round. We are not talking Nashville Predators here. This is Detroit. Hockeytown. One of the original six.

We expect to make a dent — even if we don’t win it all.

Instead, this team from, from …Hollywood — where the only natural ice is between studios and writers — is threatening to end the greatest era in Detroit hockey since Gordie Howe was lacing them up.

And make no mistake. If the Wings are knocked out tonight, things will have to change. You don’t pay this kind of money to these kinds of players for this kind of a result.

Ziggy Palffy? We’re letting some guy named Ziggy Palffy threaten this tradition? Felix Potvin? A suspect goalie at best? We’re letting Felix Potvin stop the Red Wings’ potent offense? Andy Murray? We’re letting someone named Andy Murray out-coach the legendary Scotty Bowman? Who is Andy Murray? Isn’t he that guy who used to sit next to Conan O’Brien?

Andy Murray?

“OK,” you sigh, as the hour grows near. “It’s time to commit.”

You look to the left. You have pretzels, chips, a noisemaking horn and a large bottle of Jolt Cola.

You look to the right. You have a comforter, two pillows and a Russian novel.

The question you must ask yourself is, as Clint Eastwood says, are you feeling lucky?

“Tell me the Wings will win, and I’ll watch,” you finally say. “Tell me the hockey season won’t be over in the morning. Tell me we won’t be stuck with just Tiger baseball come tomorrow.

“Tell me this team has enough moxie to beat back these California upstarts and win this game. Tell me. Right now! TELL ME THEY’LL WIN TONIGHT!”

“OK,” we say. “They’ll win tonight.”

You smile. You say yessss. You grab your hat and your sweater and you put your red on.

“Of course,” we say, “we can’t guarantee Wednesday night.”

You gulp.

“Wednesday night?” you ask.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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