JUST LIKE OLD TIMES

So there I was, walking the bowels of Joe Louis Arena, an hour before the first Red Wings game in 17 months, and here came this figure shuffling my way. And he was blond. And baby-faced. And he was wearing a suit. And he looked a lot like … yes, that’s Chris Osgood, the goalie.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Taking laps,” he said.

“Laps?”

“New rule. Injured players can’t go in the locker room during the pregame meetings. So I’m walking.”

“You’re walking around the building?”

“Yeah. I’ve been here since 5.”

“How many laps have you done?”

“Three.”

“Wow.”

“Umm-hmm.”

He shrugged. I shrugged. Then we both sort of laughed.

“Glad to be back?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said.

Hockey.

What did you miss the most? Was it the walk from the parking garage, a parade of red and white jerseys? Was it the wintry chill as you stepped inside the arena? Was it the hallway’s blended odors of pizza, beer, hot dogs and pretzels? Was it the blinding flash of ice when you first step through the curtains?

Was it the foghorn – the one that sounds when the Red Wings score a goal, the one that blasted early Wednesday night, for the first time since the spring of 2004, when Pavel Datsyuk took a cobbled pass and fired it past St. Louis’ Patrick Lalime for the first point of The Year Of Living Forgivingly?

“I was a little worried when the cheering didn’t sound as loud as usual during introductions,” goalie Manny Legace would say later, when a 5-1 Detroit victory was in the books. “But once that first goal was scored, things got back to usual.”

Back to usual.

What did you miss the most?

All your favorite moments

Did you miss the pomp and circumstance that accompanies every Wings opener? On Wednesday, it was trumpeted through specially made motorcycles, and video footage, and messages flashed like a movie on the ice, and words like “We missed you, too!”

Did you miss that celebration?

Did you miss the introduction of the players, who skated, in numeric order, out to the blue line? Did you miss Karen Newman doing the national anthem? Did you miss that Hockeytown song? Did you miss the Zamboni and its methodical, hypnotic pattern?

Did you miss the players doing interviews between periods, Mathieu Schneider dripping all over the microphone, talking about his first goal, another moment that involved Datsyuk? Did you miss the “Dragnet” theme they play whenever the opposing team draws a penalty? Did you miss “Hit the Road Jack?” Did you miss the countless replays of the Wings’ winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002?

Did you miss an apology? Were you waiting for one? All during the lockout, players were quoted as saying that when they got back, they had a lot of making up to do with the fans, as if they were husbands who had worked late on their anniversary.

“As far as apologizing goes,” Brendan Shanahan told me earlier in the day, “I think the fans here know that if it were up to the Detroit players or the Detroit management, we wouldn’t have gone through all this. …

“I’ve been saying for a while, rather than apologizing, when we come back, we should fix the game, make it more entertaining.”

Well, there were three goals in the first 12 minutes. And six in the first two periods. And the guys did seem to move up and down the ice more freely. And we did notice players couldn’t ice the puck and then take a seat. And the nets are indeed closer to the boards.

And the Wings, at one point, were outshooting St. Louis, 30-9.

Did you miss that shots-on-goal board?

Did you miss Mo Cheese?

He was there, by the way, Mo Cheese. Same song. Same dance moves. He didn’t have the Cup on his head.

Maybe it was in the shop.

If only Yzerman were there

Did you miss the violence? Did you miss the players squaring off, and the crowd rising to its feet with a roar, as it did in the third period when Shanahan and Jamal Mayers clutched and grabbed and pounded on each other, before their banishment to the penalty box?

“Obviously, physical play still exists,” Shanahan would say afterward, a cut beneath his right eye. “My face is proof of that.”

Did you miss Steve Yzerman? I can answer that. You did. Everyone did. It’s one thing not to hear Darren McCarty introduced anymore. But when you don’t hear “No. 19, the Captain …” it’s like coming back to school and finding your best buddy missing from his desk.

Fortunately, Yzerman is still on the roster, just nursing an injury. Presumably, he, too, had to stay outside the locker room in the hour before the game.

“I don’t think he’s taking laps,” Osgood said.

“Nah,” I agreed.

“Not Stevie.”

“Nah.”

He was serious. I was smiling.

And I’ll tell you what. You can miss the slap shots and the red light and the flags on your car windows. I missed the players – who, despite a 16-month lockout over labor and salaries and hundreds of millions of dollars, are still the most decent, normal, quirky and amusing athletes of the four major sports that capture our attention.

They’re paid less now and their salaries are capped and they’re an indoor sport on an outdoor life network that was previously best known for rodeo shows.

But the boys are back.

And when you find the goalie walking laps in the hallway, it feels like they never left.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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