MANNY THANKS! HE SITS GRACEFULLY AGAIN

It was halfway through Tuesday’s practice, and 31-year-old Manny Legace was fishing pucks out of the net. Dave Lewis, his coach, skated over and gave him the news.

“I’m gonna start Cujo on Thursday,” Lewis said.

Legace nodded. And that was that.

Manny Moves Over.

Can someone get me a medal? I want to hang it around Legace’s neck. He has the most games, the best record, and the best goals-against average of any Red Wings goaltender this year — but he is stuck with the worst locker in hockey.

A few years ago, that locker was next to Dominik Hasek, widely considered tops in the business. This meant that every night, Legace got dressed knowing full well that the guy beside him was going to start.

Then Hasek retired, but instead of getting his chance, Legace saw Curtis Joseph brought in from Toronto. And once again, his locker was next to the starter.

Then, this year, it really got weird. Hasek came out of retirement, Cujo was still here, and for a while, Legace’s locker was the only thing between two resentful, multimillion-dollar goaltenders. Legace was like a moderator on
“Crossfire,” or Ringo stuck between Paul and John.

Manny In The Middle.

“There were times where it was uncomfortable sitting between them, yeah,” Legace admits.

Did they ever ask you to “ask the other guy” something?

“No, no, not that bad,” he said laughing. “But let’s put it this way, there weren’t a lot of words exchanged.”

No. 2 better than No. 3

Only from a situation like that can returning to “backup” be considered an improvement. Legace is happier with Hasek done for the season. He likes
“starter and backup” better than the “starter-starter-backup.”

Problem is, with Cujo’s returning from an ankle injury Thursday night at Columbus, there are some who question which goalie should get which role. In the last two weeks, the Wings, behind Legace, have beaten playoff-bound Philadelphia, Vancouver and Calgary (twice). In those four games, Manny gave up a total of five goals. Monday night, against the top-ranked team in hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Legace stopped 37 shots in a 1-1 tie.

And he’s the one sitting down?

“Aw, I consider Cujo one of the best goalies in the world, so it’s no big deal for me to back him up,” Legace says. “If I were coach, I’d be playing Cujo, too. I mean, it’s like with Dom. You gotta play him. He’s got the experience, he’s the big-money guy.”

What do you have to do to be that guy?

He laughs. “Get them both to retire.”

Legace laughs a lot. As a veteran of hockey’s alphabet soup — he’s played in the OHL, IHL, AHL and ECHL — he boasts a certain delight just being in the National Hockey League. He is a bit of a locker-room clown, a free spirit who might ride his Harley to work. During the recent All-Star Game break, he went downhill skiing.

“Weren’t you worried about injuring yourself?” I ask him.

“Nah, I just go down the bunny hills and straight to the t-bar,” he says.
“Besides, we have insurance and stuff.”

A bargain between the pipes

The Wings might refer to Legace that way: “insurance and stuff.” But the fact is, he could start for many NHL teams. He has done a pretty fine job of it for this franchise for four seasons, and this team is loaded at goalie.

In another city, not only would Legace be a star — his goals-against average of 1.94 is fourth best in the league — but at $1.1 million for this season, he’d be a bargain.

Yet he takes a seat now. He works behind “the big-name guy.” He admits time is running short. If Cujo retires and they bring in another big-name goalie, he might finally ask to be let go.

In the meantime, he soldiers on, and somebody needs to get him a medal, because in today’s world of “gimme mine, right here, right now,” this is a guy who desperately wants to play yet who still takes the news of his benching with grace.

“Did Lewis apologize or say thanks for how you’ve played, anything like that?” he is asked.

“No, no,” he says, laughing again. “That would be inappropriate. I’m just doing my job. There’s no thank you required. And no apologies needed. Not when you have one of the best goalies in the game ready to play.”

Someday, if there’s any justice, they’ll be saying that about Legace. The truth is, some already are. Manny Moves Over. Sometimes, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s who your locker is next to.

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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