The game was lost, the season was over, the plane was taking the Red Wings home. It was after midnight. I glanced around. Here was Gilbert Delorme, the defenseman, sitting behind me, saying nothing. Here was Shawn Burr, the center, sitting in front of me, his eyes red from weeping. Here were Dave Lewis, Glen Hanlon, Mike O’Connell and Adam Oates, sitting across from me, dealing cards in a silent game.

For a moment, a brief moment, I wondered whether this loss to Edmonton in the Campbell Conference finals, the last nail in an incredible Detroit hockey season, would hang over the team like a damp rag. They had come so far, played so long. Would depression set in? Would it last the whole flight, maybe longer? No smiles until next season? No forgiving? No forgetting?

“NO BEER?’ yelled a player suddenly.

No beer?

“YEAH, STEWARDESS. HOW ‘BOUT ONE?”

“Me, too!”

“Over here.”

“Gimme six!”

“SIX?”

“Yeah.”

“SIX?”

“We’re sharing.”

“YO! . . .

Well, I said “a moment.”

Can I confess something right now?

I am really going to miss these guys.

“What was the highlight of this year?” I asked Steve Yzerman, the 22-year-old captain who had scored a goal Wednesday night in the Wings’ 6-3 final defeat. “This year has been so crazy, it’s seen so many changes. What was the single best moment of all?”

“For me, the best part was the final minute of Game 7 against Toronto,” he said. “The crowd at Joe Louis was going crazy. It was so loud!

“It was so great to be on the ice for that. That one minute alone made the whole season worthwhile.”

It was a beautiful moment in a season of moments that are now freshly pasted in a scrapbook marked “1986-87.” Is there anyone out there who didn’t start collecting memories somewhere along this magic carpet ride? Wasn’t this a one-of-a-kind season? The Red Wings? The doormat of the NHL last year? Did you ever think this team would dance with first place? This team would sweep Chicago in Round 1 of the playoffs? This team would come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Toronto in the Norris Division finals?

Did you ever think this team would take the first game against Edmonton, mighty Edmonton, and would play rock-hard the rest of the way, would scare the Oilers every time, would come within a crossbar here, a freak shot there, of winning this whole thing, not just hanging on, but winning? Advancing to the Stanley Cup finals?

“We really felt we could do it,” Yzerman said. “We weren’t pretending.” So how heartbreaking was Wednesday night, when it all ended, when the Wings came out on fire and still could not burn enough distance between them and the omnipotent Oilers? The game was like a tightly edited nightmare: the bizarre Edmonton goal pushed in by the skate of Detroit’s Greg Stefan; the wicked slap shot by Gerard Gallant that rose toward Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, struck him, lifted him in the air, knocked his stick from his hands — yet he stopped the shot; he always seemed to stop the shot.

And that final, crazy clearing pass by Kent Nilsson with the score 4-3 Oilers, and the clock down to seconds. Did you see that? Could you watch that? It was not meant as a shot, not really, but the puck hit the wall, and slid toward Detroit’s open net, and the whole Red Wings team stared helplessly as Delorme gave chase, man against rubber — “I needed five more feet,” he said later. “I would have dove, anything, but just five more feet” — and instead it skittered in, gave the win to Edmonton for certain. Delorme buried his head in his hands and slumped over the net.

Back on the Wings’ bench, coach Jacques Demers looked at his players, and they looked back, and then away.

The goodby look.

“What were you thinking as you watched that puck slide?” I asked Demers on the plane.

“Hit the post,” he said. “I just wanted it to hit the post. Please hit the post.” I n the locker room following the game, Demers had sat on the trainer’s table,

holding a beer, his eyes watery, his legs dangling like a child’s. He carried the wear and tear of the season, in his eyes, in his scratchy throat. But mostly in his stomach. By playoff time, Demers’ suit jackets no longer buttoned. He had taken to patting his waist and saying, “When the season is over, boy . . . ” And yet you could look at Demers’ growing profile and see the team’s accomplishments therein. Somehow it seems fitting that he should grow, well, larger from all he has done.

This is the coach of the year in hockey, a shoo-in, no question, a Svengali of ice play who knows talent and alchemy, how to mix skills and personalities. So you have a Mel Bridgman, 32, and a Burr, 20, as playoff roommates. You have goalie Hanlon, as stable as a board, and Bob Probert, a tinder box both on the ice and off. You have guys who only want to stay out late and guys who will make sure they don’t. And somehow it all works. You have a team.

Demers is the reason. I cannot remember the last time a coach caused so much commotion in a major city. I do remember driving him to playoff games in Rounds 1 and 2, a tradition that became somewhat overblown when the Wings suddenly won every game we car-pooled and lost every one we didn’t. By the sixth ride — Game 7 against Toronto — the superstition was getting a bit too much attention, and when I picked up Demers at the Windsor Hilton I suggested this would be the last time, and he said, “Ooops. Wait a minute.” And he ran back in the hotel lobby and grabbed an apple off a fruit basket when nobody was looking and gave it to me. “Here,” he said, “it’s all I can get right now. I just want to say thank you for the rides.”

An apple?

Yeah. Well. Why not?

I have often written fondly about Demers’ butchering of the English language (his native tongue, as most people know, is French). Wednesday night, in speaking about the Oilers, he said: “Great players come true, that’s all. Great teams come true.”

He meant to say “through.” Great teams come “through.” But it sounded like true. And I kind of like that better.

Great teams come true, Detroit.

Was that not his season’s greeting, all season long? H ere is what I will miss most about this team. They are regular guys. No big shots. No super egos. I think the reason Detroit fell so deeply in love with the Red Wings is that they reflect the workingman’s image of the city itself.

But such is ice hockey. It is, as far as I know, the only major sport in this continent where players do interviews between periods. It is also the only major sport in this continent where common courtesy is still the norm rather than the exception.

So it was that Wayne Gretzky, the incomparable Oilers center, was standing near the exit of the Northlands Coliseum, by himself, shaking the hands of Detroit players as they left.

And so it was that Joe Diroff got his plane ticket paid for. Diroff is a fanatic booster, a 64-year-old retired schoolteacher who waits at the airports when the Wings come in, and who cuts out construction-paper signs and leads cheers. He is odd- looking, with a large forehead and prominent eyebrows that have earned him the nickname “The Brow.”

On other teams he might be ignored, shunted aside as an embarrassment. But Diroff paid to fly to Edmonton for Game 5, to support his team, and when the Wings found out they invited him on the charter home. And a few hours into the flight, when the players were finally relaxing, having some farewell fun, right in the middle of that, Hanlon came around collecting $10 per player.

“Let’s chip in and pay for Brow’s ticket up here,” was all he said. And instantly the players stopped their games and boozy laughter and dug into their pockets. Dave Barr pulled down his garment bag and began fishing around for his wallet. Jeff Sharples, called up to the team only a few days ago, came back to his seat for his jacket.

They got the money in a matter of minutes, somewhere around $300, and gave it to Diroff. And then, to really make his night, one of them said,
“Brow! Let’s do the Strawberry Shortcake cheer!” And right there, at 30,000 feet, this unlikely group of hockey players broke into one of the dumbest cheers you have ever heard:

Strawberry shortcake

Gooseberry pie,

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y

Amazing. Here were these bruising, scarred, often toothless men, on the night of their season-ending loss, singing a high school cheer. Simply because it made the old guy happy.

Many people will remember goals and saves and slap shots from this Red Wings season. I hope I never forget that cheer. I think it says something. S o there goes the hockey season. With the whir of a horn in Edmonton we are let off the hook of this roller coaster ride, thrilled and tired and curious about the next run. Is a Stanley Cup possible? Does it ever get better than this?

“Later,” Demers said as he exited the plane. “Right now I’m going to just take time with my wife.”

“I’m going to Mexico,” Burr said.

“LA,” Bridgman said.

“Hey, tomorrow night, 7:30!” Yzerman yelled. “Team dinner. Wives and girlfriends. Don’t forget.”

The Red Wings nodded.

And that was that. This season is history.

I caught a ride home with Yzerman and Brent Ashton. It was about 6 a.m. We drove over the Windsor bridge and along the nearly deserted highways. Neither player was talking much, and I figured maybe the pain of the loss was finally hitting, so I kept quiet, too. We rolled along in the morning light of Detroit. The radio played softly. And suddenly Ashton turned to Yzerman and looked him square in the eye.

“You know,” he said, “Edmonton ain’t so hot.”

Uh-oh.

CUTLINE:

Jacques Demers hangs his head after losing Game 5.

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