HOCKEYTOWN!

“Obviously, the Euros knew it and the Canadians had no idea what we were singing. It was something about winning and being champions.”KRIS DRAPER, on the song the Wings sung in the locker room

PITTSBURGH -“Hey,” Kris Draper yelled, “is the Cup down there?”

“Yep,” came the answer. “In the middle of the room.”

Draper, surrounded by his family, put an arm on one of his children.

“Let’s go.”

Down the noisy corridor they edged, around a doorwall and into a cramped, champagne-soaked gathering. The bathroom was too small, so the beards stayed on for now, and the Igloo arena seats were pretty much empty, since the Pittsburgh fans had gone home to nurse their sorrows. No problem. The Red Wings made their own party, in a single room in the visitors’ dressing area, and, as they’d done all season, employed a laser-like focus toward getting their hands on the Stanley Cup.

Whatever it takes.

“Make room for Nick!” someone yelled as Nicklas Lidstrom bounced off bodies on his way toward the Holy Grail.

“Heart and soul!” someone yelled at the captain.

“More champagne!” yelled someone else.

Only hockey celebrates this way, bearded players, still in pads and pants, hoisting kids, hugging wives, dousing themselves in bubbly and drinking – or guzzling – from a silver cup on which their names soon will be engraved.

“Ozzie wants more!” someone yelled, as Chris Osgood took one chug and then another.

“He hasn’t had a drink in eight weeks!”

One by one, they squeezed into this small space, as if coming to the throne room, as if paying soaking respect. They wore their sweat, they wore their equipment, they wore the smiles of 104 games played and more victories than any team in the NHL, including the most important victory – the last one of the season.

“God, what a feeling, you know?” Dan Cleary said, still marveling at the surroundings. “Everything has come to fruition now. Holding that Cup is an amazing feeling.”

Cleary is one of a dozen headshaking stories on this team: the first NHL player from Newfoundland to win a Stanley Cup. Back home, his province was fairly draped in red and white – houses, storefronts, even a grounded ship in his hometown’s main harbor. And one day soon, Cleary will take the chalice home and carry with it a single message about how a kid from there can get all the way to here:

Whatever it takes. A last chance at glory

“My legs were shaking,” Dallas Drake, 39, said of the moment he finally lifted the Cup. Here was another great back-story: Drake, a guy who was released last summer, who contemplated retirement, then got a call from his old employer, the Wings, and decided to make one more run at it. Wednesday night, after Lidstrom, the captain, took his traditional first skate with the trophy, he could have handed it to anyone. The choice is significant. It usually signifies someone who captures the spirit and heart of the team.

Drake felt hands on his back, shoving him forward. Then Nick looked him in the eye and held out the keys to the kingdom.

“I’ve never touched that Cup before,” Drake said. “I dreamed of holding it over my head like every other kid growing up in Canada. But I’ve been in the same building and I’d never go near the thing. I refused to touch it. If it was rolling down the street, I’d probably have let it keep rolling. That’s kind of a hockey superstition. If you want to touch it you better get your name on it. …

“For me to put my hands on it for all the right reasons – it made my whole career worthwhile.”

Sixteen years in the NHL. Perhaps his very last game.

Whatever it takes.

That was a season-long philosophy for these Red Wings, and part of what makes them so special. When Johan Franzen, their leading scorer in the playoffs, suddenly disappeared with concussion-like symptoms, and they went on without him, using Cleary and others to take his place? Whatever it takes.

When Dominik Hasek couldn’t find his magic in the first round and he skated to the bench, and Chris Osgood skated in – and he stayed for the next 18 games? Whatever it takes.

When Tomas Holstrom suffered a hamstring injury, out he went and in came Darren McCarty. When Chris Chelios was asked to sit down, down he sat, without complaint. When the Wings lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker, at home, having been 35 seconds from the championship, they didn’t grouse, they didn’t mourn. Mike Babcock kept them focused. Lidstrom kept them calm.

Two nights later, against an angry crowd in an unfriendly building, they finished what they started – surviving a power-play goal in the last 90 seconds and a near-miss as the horn sounded.

And now here they were, in a tiny, windowless room, taking champagne-soaked pictures and screaming “Dally!” And “Malts!” and “Drapes!” Half of them still walking on skates, the rest of them walking on air.

Whatever it takes. The next generation

“What’s the single biggest difference between this team and the other three you played for that won the Cup?” I asked McCarty, who made a courageous journey through personal trouble to get back to another championship roster.

“You know,” he said, looking around at his teammates, “there’s just so many similarities. You learn from the Stevie Yzermans. Before him we learned from Mike Vernon. It just passes down.

“It says something that Gordie Howe’s around a lot and Ted Lindsay’s around a lot and Stevie is in the front office and Larry Murphy’s around. You pick up on that as a young guy. You learn what it’s about. And I felt that way walking into the dressing room again this year. That’s just part of what the Detroit Red Wings are about.”

He smiled.

“I mean, four Cups in 11 years.”

Indeed. What had once been zero Cups in 42 years became two in two years, three in six years, now four in 11 years. It is truly impressive. And McCarty is dead on. There is more going on here than just hockey talent. It’s an aura. A philosophy. An expectation. Yzerman, the onetime Conn Smythe Trophy winner, was there Wednesday night as well, wearing a dark suit, his hair dry, his face clear of cuts and bruises – but he was there, not far from the bearded, soaking version of this year’s Conn Smythe winner, Henrik Zetterberg, the heir apparent to Yzerman’s perch. It’s like a passing of the torch, the dry Red Wing to the wet Red Wing. But they are all still under the tent.

And that’s what matters. That’s what creates what the Boston Celtics had in their best eras, what the New York Yankees had in theirs, what the Edmonton Oilers had in theirs – an expectation of excellence, as if it’s in the DNA – of the city, the uniform and the locker room.

Or in this case, someone else’s locker room.

“More champagne!” someone yelled.

Whatever it takes. The sounds of success

Long after the guzzling session ended, when the media had gone and the well-wishers exited, the Wings actually gathered with their trainers and coaches in an even smaller area, the medical room, and found space against the wall. And they sang. They sang? Yes. A European soccer song.

“Obviously, the Euros knew it and the Canadians had no idea what we were singing,” Draper said Thursday. “It was something about winning and being champions.”

Then, he explained, they sprayed more champagne. And then, as a team, shoulder to shoulder, they passed the Cup around one more time. And each time someone held it, his name was chanted, or his nickname, or something. When Chelios got it, it was “Cheli! Cheli!” When Lidstrom got it, it was “Swede! Swede! Swede!”

And finally, with one last feel of the silver, one last pinch to that prove no, they weren’t dreaming, they hit the showers and headed for the plane back to Detroit.

“To be honest with you,” Draper admitted, “the reason we had to pack up was there was no more champagne and no more beer.”

He laughed.

“So that was the end of that.”

Whatever it takes. Today there will be a parade, and over the next week, you’ll see the Stanley Cup showing up in hospitals, schools, banks, parties. When a Cup is won, it’s not just the team that wins it, it’s the whole city, which is why it is the best trophy in sports, and why you cherish the chances to see it.

Detroit gets more than most. It is because of talent, like that of Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, because of toughness like that of Franzen, Draper, Holmstrom and Kirk Maltby, because of perseverance, like that of Chelios and Hasek and Osgood, because of role players, like Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Mikael Samuelsson, Andreas Lilja, because of leadership, like Lidstrom and Babcock.

And because of tradition, the kind that keeps old warriors around, nodding approvingly when the young guns get it right, the kind that allows an owner to spend his money and always feel it’s worth it, the kind that allows a team of mostly millionaires to sit, sweaty and smelly, in a tiny room, singing a song, passing a cup, and not feel one ounce of corniness or embarrassment.

Heart is a beautiful thing to watch.

And today we’ll watch a parade.

And a lot of guys’ faces you haven’t seen in a while.

“As soon as I woke up in the morning, the beard came off,” Draper said, laughing. “I hadn’t shaved in two months. I had to use a John Deere lawnmower.”

Whatever it takes.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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