NHL AND NFL CONNECTED BY A HIGHWAY FROM HELL

Can I tell you something about the NFL draft? It starts early. Can I tell you something about the NHL playoffs? They end late. So only a complete fool would try to cover the latter in Canada and the former in the United States within an eight-hour span, right? Only an absolute idiot?

Hey. I had a plan.

This was my plan: I would fly to Toronto Monday evening, watch the Red Wings play the Maple Leafs, write a column, fly back with the Wings on their chartered plane, land in Windsor around 1 a.m., drive home, and be at the Pontiac Silverdome by 8, in time for the Lions’ first draft pick.

What’s the big deal?

So I flew to Toronto, I watched the game, and when it ended, I began typing away at the column. Did I mention that sometimes I take longer to write this column than others? I should mention that. It may explain what I saw when I finally got down to the Red Wings’ locker room.

I saw a janitor, sweeping up.

They had left without me. I had taken too long. Now, being a professional, and knowing there were no other flights from Toronto to Detroit until mid-morning, I thought for a moment. And then I did the logical thing. I began to kick over every trash can in Maple Leaf Gardens.

Just then I saw Jimmy Devellano, the Wings’ general manager, walking down the deserted hallway. He was upset, naturally, because his Wings had lost in overtime. He was so upset, he said, he was going to drive all the way home from Toronto to Detroit to blow off some steam.

Drive? . . .

The game that wouldn’t end

“Thanks for the company,” Jimmy D. said as we pulled out of Toronto.
“Usually I make this trip alone. Boy, that was a tough loss, wasn’t it?”

“You’ll get ’em Wednesday,” I mumbled. It was midnight. With luck, we would make Windsor by 4 a.m. Maybe I could grab a few hours sleep in the car. I closed my eyes. I began to nod off. . . . “DAMN! WE WERE CLOSE!” Jimmy D. screamed.

When I peeled my head off the car roof, I replied, “Uh, yes. It was a tough defeat.”

We drove on, mile after mile of deserted Canadian highway. I knew I would need sleep to be ready for the draft. I thought about the Lions’ offense. That made me very sleepy. My eyes closed, my head drooped . . .

“IF ONLY YZERMAN HAD SCORED!”

When I climbed back in through the car window, I said, “Yes, Jimmy. It would have been better had he scored. . . . Can you really steer while banging on the wheel like that?”

I cannot remember much of the rest of the ride, because I had my hands over my face. I do remember stopping at an all-night McDonald’s where Jimmy D. got a chicken sandwich and a coffee, and afterward, around 3 in the morning, he said: “I feel better now, I really do.”

And that was good, I thought. I was glad he was feeling better. And my eyes closed and . . .

“GOD! THAT SHOT WAS SO CLOSE!” The dawn of the dead

Anyhow, somewhere around 4 a.m., Jimmy D. — who really is a safe driver — dropped me at the Windsor airport parking lot, where I had left my car with an attendant late Monday afternoon. Did I mention the parking lot closed at midnight?

Neither did the attendant.

So there, in the wee cold hours of morning, was my car, surrounded by an empty lot, surrounded by locked fences. As I shivered, I thought about driving right through one of those fences, just mowing one down. I also thought about rotting away in some Canadian prison.

I crawled into my backseat.

There I stayed, until 6 a.m., when the attendant showed to let me out. I did not tip him. I drove through the tunnel, through customs, onto the Detroit highways, and finally into my driveway.

It was 7:30 a.m. I showered, jumped back in the car, and sped to the Lions’ offices, burst through the door, and found myself in a room full of reporters eating doughnuts and reading the newspapers. Because the offices had no cable TV, you couldn’t even watch the draft on ESPN.

“Where are you coming from?” someone smirked. “Another country?”

Very funny.

One hour later, the Lions chose Reggie Rogers from Washington in the first round. And I was there for the big moment, just as I planned all along. So now, with what’s left of this column, I will tell you the only thing any reporter can really tell you about a draft pick anyway:

He is big and strong and will be a great addition if he plays well. And if he doesn’t, you can blame the front office.

I will say this. When Rogers, who hails from California, walked into the Lions’ offices less than five hours after he was drafted, I was immediately impressed by his speed.

He got here faster than I did.

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