by | May 3, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Let’s make this simple: If you’re a hockey player, being a Red Wing is a pretty good job. Tonight, 20 men will show how badly they want to keep it.

Because the Red Wings will be torn apart if they are defeated. And sad to say, that is how it should be. Their rosters for the last four years may be as great as any ever assembled. But collecting talent is different from utilizing it, and a loss tonight, in the second round, to a No. 6 seed, would mark three too-early exits in the last four years. In sports, you are measured by what you bring home. And if the Wings were fishermen, their pouches would contain one trophy catch — a 2002 Stanley Cup — and a lot of empty hooks.

You may think these harsh words in the shadow of the puck that felled Steve Yzerman during Saturday’s Game 5, but that only shows you have a heart. Calgary doesn’t. The Flames feel no sympathy for Detroit or its beloved franchise. They will try to knock it out of the playoffs tonight with all they’ve got.

The question is whether the Wings, while licking their wounds, want to shut their eyes and take it, or whether they want to fight back.

They didn’t show enough fight Saturday. When Yzerman fell in that terrible, one-in-a-million moment, the entire city gasped. That’s OK. That’s what fans do. They get emotional. They feel lost.

But players can’t afford that. The Wings seemed to fog up after Yzerman’s accident; they surrendered a goal and couldn’t muster a single one themselves. In sports, that’s a sign of weakness. The best teams absorb a loss like that and surge to avenge it.

Let’s be brutally honest, Detroit: If the Red Wings’ postseason was hanging on Steve Yzerman alone, it wasn’t going to end in a championship anyhow.

And he’d be the first to say so.

Where are the young stars?

“The final story isn’t written yet,” Brendan Shanahan warned Sunday, and of course, he is right. But this paragraph is written and needs to be heard: It is time for youth to lead this team. Yzerman, 38, was sixth on the team in goals this year. That’s great for a guy his age, but there’s a reason he wasn’t first. Pavel Datsyuk was. He’s 25. And Henrik Zetterberg had one of the best assist-per-game averages on the team. He’s 23.

The postseason is not just the time of year when veterans show their poise. It’s the time for young guns to make a name for themselves. Colorado’s Peter Forsberg did it at age 22, when he had 21 points in 22 playoff games. Scott Niedermayer did it at 21, with the Cup-winning 1995 Devils. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, at 25, almost single-handedly led Anaheim to the finals last year.

But in Detroit, young Datsyuk, with no goals in 11 games, made a bad defensive play that allowed the winning goal in Game 3. And young Jiri Fischer made a similar bad play that allowed the single goal in Game 5. Face it. Chris Chelios is hurt. Brett Hull is ailing. That’s what happens with older guys. Youth will determine how far Detroit’s ship will sail.

And it may sink tonight in Calgary.

At which point, you cannot blame management for pulling the tablecloth and letting the plates smash. Next year, by most accounts, is a lost season, with a labor stoppage deemed unavoidable. Owners would rather close their doors then hemorrhage money — as most claim they’re doing — and if the players don’t accept a hard salary cap the standoff could be long and painful.

Translation: By the time hockey resumes, the old Red Wings will be that much older, and the expensive ones, under a cap, will seem that much more expensive. The days of stockpiling high-priced talent will be done, and the Wings’ management will have to make tough choices.

To be honest, some of those choices are coming, win or lose. But they will be more easily justified if this current group surrenders the flag to Calgary.

Best- and worst-case scenarios

By the end of Game 5, it seemed as if the Wings were hoping Kirk Maltby or Kris Draper would save them with a goal. No offense, but that’s no offense. Those guys are grinders, defenders, meant to shut down the other team’s best players.

It is Datsyuk who needs to score, or Shanahan (one goal in the playoffs) or Ray Whitney (one) or Zetterberg (two). For too many games and too many years, we keep hearing about how well the other team’s goalie is playing, or how intense playoff defense is.

Yes, yes, and so what? Jarome Iginla, the Flames’ best player, is being draped wherever he goes. But he has figured in critical plays nonetheless, a goal here, a setup there. Great players find a way. Getting shut out at home, in a critical game, is a “no way” for the Red Wings. Unacceptable.

No injury absolves it. No emotion negates it.

Detroit loves its hockey. It loves its hockey team. And because Detroit is composed of decent, blue-collar people who appreciate the low-key, humble nature of hockey stars, it has been willing to adopt an “Aw, we’ll get ’em next year” approach to these early exits.

That’s nice. That’s sweet. But it’s no longer helpful. This is a near magical franchise in a prime environment, a best-case scenario for a hockey player, let alone well-paid players used to first-class treatment. Tonight — and if they’re lucky, Wednesday night — the Red Wings must play as if that best-case scenario could be taken away forever.

Because if they lose, it will be.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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