I don’t usually go to bat for professional athletes. I figure they are strong enough, rich enough or lucky enough to take care of themselves. But once in awhile, an athlete comes along and hits a tough spot and, well, I don’t know. Something stirs inside you.

I feel that way about Glen Hanlon. Maybe it’s the red hair. Maybe it’s the sense of humor. Maybe it’s the fact that, after a long career in the NHL, he was sent to the minors — the ultimate embarrassment to most athletes — and this was how he responded: He scribbled a sign that read “GONE FISHING” and stuck it on his locker before leaving so, when his teammates came in, they’d at least have a laugh.

Hanlon is special that way. And I’m going to bat for him. I’m asking Bryan Murray to trust me, to keep the guy around now that he’s back, in the Wings’ locker room, where he belongs. Let him have his old seat, right near the door. Let him wear the mask and the pads. Let him be the backup goalie and take the big stick once in awhile and save a game when you need it most. Hanlon was always good at that moment: When you need it most.

“Hey, look who it is!” he yelled at me the other day, as if I were the strange sight in the Wings’ locker room. Me? I thought we had seen the last of Hanlon with the “GONE FISHING” sign. He’d been shipped a million miles away, to a farm team in San Diego, a place that could convince any hockey player to give it up. Melt the ice. Hit the beach.

But now here he was, back again. That same shock of red hair. That same clunky goalie walk. It was like going back to grade school and finding your favorite teacher still there, behind her desk. A frontline backup job

I smiled when I saw him. But that is not important. What is important is that his teammates did, too. Hanlon was supposed to be here for a two-week stint only, while regular backup Alain Chevrier went to San Diego to get in some work. But then, something happened. In Chicago Stadium, against the Blackhawks, Hanlon was given a chance to start. And, although playing that club in that building is like jumping from a foxhole without a helmet, Hanlon, 33, responded. He played great. His teammates rallied. They won, 5-1.

Not long after, Hanlon got another start, in Buffalo, and darn near pulled off another win, settling for a 3-3 tie. And suddenly, coach Murray had a dilemma. The stiff body had come to life; Glen Hanlon was fighting for a job.

And he should get it, it says here, not because Chevrier is deficient. He is a fine goalie. But if sports teaches us anything, it is that chemistry — that delicate balance of heart and muscle — is what makes champions. Chemistry. Forget age. Forget statistics. Rick Mahorn wasn’t about statistics. Kirk Gibson wasn’t about statistics.

Glen Hanlon is not about statistics. He is about getting to the rink first, every day, as he always has. He is about taking a rookie after a bad game and whispering something in his ear. He is about jumping on the training table and doing a crazy dance to loosen up his teammates during a slump. He is about coming in cold, pulling on the mask and taking a puck in the midsection to save a goal.

He is about attitude. The other day, soaked with sweat, Hanlon rose to get himself a pop. And then, instinctively, he turned and asked Chevrier and Tim Cheveldae — the two guys who can put him out of a job — if they wanted one, too. A little class. So, he is about that, too.

“You know,” he told me the other day, “when I was down in San Diego, I did a lot of soul-searching. It’s a whole different league, obviously, but I still liked it. I just love playing hockey. For awhile, I thought maybe I can just play here for a few years. Weather’s warm. San Diego’s like paradise.

“But then I realized that once you’ve been in the NHL and you’ve chased the Stanley Cup, there’s nothing like that feeling. So I . . . He shrugged, then grinned. “Hey, whatever happens, you know?” A throwback: Team player

That’s Hanlon. But because he can so cheerily accept his fate, he deserves a better one. Bryan Murray might not know this, being new to this team, but Hanlon is worth far more than his salary. He is a veteran voice on a young squad. He is a tireless cheerleader. His teammates rally behind him. And, let us not forget, the man can still play goalie.

“It’s so rare to find a guy who really thinks of the team first and then himself,” said defenseman Rick Zombo, one of several players whose eyes got misty when Hanlon was sent to the minors. “(Murray) hasn’t experienced what Glen can do for this team.”

He should. Hanlon can fool you. Last spring, Hanlon was at a charity roast for then-coach Jacques Demers. He sat next to Keith Gave, the Free Press hockey writer, and throughout the evening, Gave noticed Hanlon doodling on his

program. When Hanlon finally rose to speak, Gave peeked and saw the words
“KICK A–” scribbled countless times.

Hanlon was the best roaster by far.

He still can bring the house down now and then, even in the NHL. More important are the nights he brings the house up — with spirit, humor, chemistry. Keep him around, Bryan. The simple truth is, Glen Hanlon is too valuable a catch to be gone fishing. Even in paradise.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Live Albom II” at 7 tonight at B Dalton in Oakland Mall and 1 p.m. Saturday at Little Professor in Union Lake.

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