CHICAGO — As if I didn’t love hockey enough. Here were the Detroit Red Wings, a bunch of ’90s kids, eagerly peeling off their tailored suits and silk ties and trying on these uniforms from long ago, striped socks and sweaters with block letters. These were remakes of the clothes the Red Wings wore their very first year of existence, before The Great Depression, when nobody used helmets and they stitched cuts with black thread and a dab of whiskey. It was Opening Night of the 75th year of the National Hockey League, and the original six teams were dressing as in the old days to honor the occasion.
“Pretty nice, eh?” Tim Cheveldae said, fingering the red and white stripes beneath his name.
“Hey, Brad,” cracked Shawn Burr to Brad Marsh, the oldest guy on the team.
“Guess you just brought your uniform in from home, huh?”
Hockey. Let me tell you, when you get sick of Tiger Stadium talk and NBA players fighting over who gets to show off at the Olympics, come back to the ice. Come back to the kids in the blue underwear, taping their sticks before each game, holding them high and flicking a few make-believe wrist shots.
Come back to a game where the millionaire player is still a rarity, where even the stars do interviews between periods, where athletes and coaches smile and shake your hand and ask, “How was your summer?” — a basic courtesy that is amazingly absent in every other professional sport.
Come back to the ice. I do it every October, and after baseball and football and swellheads like Michael Jordan, I find it a breath of cool air, a tough and simple place, where a man might linger awhile, especially when they pull on the sweaters from 1927 and have the innocent temerity to ask, “These are nice, eh? Do we get to keep ’em?” Even superstars are accessible This is hockey. You get your seat in the Chicago Stadium press box — where the walls still have dents from high-flying pucks — and you look over your shoulder, and there are a half-dozen players, scratched from the night’s roster, standing in their suits and ties, right behind you. No fancy private box. No hiding. The game starts, and you can hear these players — Detroit’s and Chicago’s alike — urging their teammates:
“C’mon, Sergie!” “Now, Stevie!”
At one point, I stood next to Steve Chiasson, who is serving a four-game suspension from last season. He was dying to be out there. On a Red Wings surge toward the Chicago net, he lunged — I thought he might jump over the railing for a minute — and said, “Shoot it, Yves!” Moments later, he stepped back, opened and closed his fists, and laughed.
“Looked at my palms,” he said.
They were soaking wet.
What makes this sport so attractive? There is still too much fighting and its president, John Ziegler, often acts as if he’s on another planet, and yet, I don’t know, the game is accessible. You don’t feel these guys are beyond reach, ruined by their egos. You don’t feel as if they are Jose Cansecos. Before the game, the Wings were waiting for the bus, hanging around the hotel lobby, and here was Steve Yzerman sitting on a couch, laughing. Now, Yzerman is a big gun, a superstar, and were he in another sport — football or baseball — he probably would march through the lobby, hidden beneath sunglasses and Walkman headphones. Don’t bother me. I’m big.
Instead, here he sat, out in the open, his feet up on the table like a little kid’s. First thing he said? “Hey, how you doing? How was your summer?”
Hockey. Chicago-Detroit always special Of course, there is more to the attraction than manners and old uniforms. Chicago versus Detroit is bound to be an emotional showdown — be it hockey or basketball — and Thursday was no exception. It took until the second period before the first fight broke out
— Bob Probert, naturally — and about 30 seconds before the crowd started chanting, “DETROIT S—S! DETROIT S—S!”
But there was also a sweet goal by Jimmy Carson, who has endured an unfair
amount of trade talk this summer, and there were terrific saves by Chicago goalie Jimmy Waite. There was Gerard Gallant on the ice for the first time in what seems like forever, his back mended, and Sergei Fedorov, weaving through Blackhawks as if they were standing still.
There was overtime, with Cheveldae making a beautiful save, on his back, preserving a 3-3 tie, a good result, given the opponent and the stadium.
And there was after the game, when these bruising players shrink to size, some barely old enough to drink, others who just look that way.
“It was fun out there, wearing these uniforms,” said Burr, the crew-cut veteran with the teenage voice. “Did you see the refs, wearing those old sweaters and ties? They looked neat.”
He paused. “They still called a crummy game.”
He laughed. A few teammates laughed. Sure, it sounds like “Leave It To Beaver.” But you know what? After the recent garbage on the sports pages, it’s nice to return to a game where ego isn’t the biggest story, where they play hard and root from the press box and still get excited about wearing a uniform from 60 years ago. It’s October. Hockey is back. No argument from me. None at all.