Paul Coffey sat by his locker for a long time Saturday night, refusing even to take off his skates. He pushed a fist through his sweaty hair, and when his hair dried he pushed a fist through that, too. He sat. He sat. The coaches left. The other players left.

Now and then, Coffey would talk, then stop, then suddenly look up, as if hearing a heavenly voice. Then he’d lean back, cover his face with his hands, and groan, “Ohhh, man. . . . I can’t believe . . . this . . . (bleep)!”

Welcome to the club. Saturday was a time for shock, a time for sitting next to players like Coffey and nodding silently.

Sunday was for sleeping in, hoping the depression would go away.

Today is Monday.

Time to face the music.

Let me warn the Red Wings right here that they will not enjoy this column, and because their summer is already off to a lousy start, they might want to skip it altogether. Same goes for Scotty Bowman, although I have a feeling he stopped listening to outsiders a long time ago.

In which case, he won’t mind if we start with him. I suggest that Mr. Bowman, with all due respect to his past, return half of his $1-million salary right now.

Or, barring that, offer to work for free for the last year of his contract.

If Bowman were a Japanese business executive, he’d have resigned in shame by now. He was hired to do one thing and one thing only in this town: win in the playoffs. The Red Wings didn’t need someone to rack up points in the regular season. Jacques Demers could do that. Bryan Murray could do that.

Bowman was brought in, and paid a ton of money, because he supposedly had the magic key to the postseason.

Someone changed the locks. Bowman was outcoached

Bowman is a private man. I respect that. But he is not liked by many — I couldn’t find a single player to say anything nice about him, and many of them secretly wished he’d fall down a sewer — but that’s fine if he gets them to win. Last year, you recall, after the first-round loss to Toronto, Detroit fans couldn’t wait for a tough-guy coach.

Enter Bowman.

Now, exit Bowman? Maybe. Whether he’s lost his touch, or he’s just not that interested, he was, amazingly, outcoached by San Jose’s Kevin Constantine, a virtual baby in the NHL postseason, but a guy who at least looked at the team he was facing and devised a strategy, a mucking, meet-’em-at-the-blue- line style that neutralized much of the Detroit attack.

Bowman’s strategy seemed to be: “I do what I do. We’re better than these guys. Let’s beat them.”

He was right about one thing: The Wings were better. On paper. But, as Steve Yzerman said Saturday, “Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean it happens.”

Otherwise, Yzerman would have drawn himself scoring the game winner. The captain, always a stand-up guy, was the first to say he didn’t do his expected job. He’s a star, and he didn’t play like one. True, he missed four games to a knee injury, but sports is full of legends who overcome pain to shine when it counts. In Game 7, Yzerman tried, but he didn’t get it done.

And neither did Sergei Fedorov, who made nice rushes but couldn’t do what he’s famous for doing — score. What did he have? One goal in seven games? That’s not stepping up. That’s stepping out.

Ray Sheppard? Where did he go? And Keith Primeau? How can someone so large evaporate so quickly?

The axiom in sports is this: Big players win big games. When the Chicago Bulls needed a basket to win, they went to Michael Jordan and got it. When the Dallas Cowboys had to have a yard, they went to Emmitt Smith and got it.

When the Red Wings needed one big game, they turned to Fedorov, Yzerman, Sheppard, Primeau — and got nothing. I’m not being cruel here. The facts are.

Goaltending? Well. Anyone who saw Chris Osgood weeping by his locker after the last defeat could only feel sympathy. He’s 21; it’s his first playoff. And, besides, unlike some of his teammates, Osgood was not the best player at his position in Game 7. Matched against Arturs Irbe, I’d say he comes up short by about 3-2, which, coincidentally, was the score Saturday night.

The goaltending problem was not so much how it was played but who was playing. Face it. With Osgood as your man, you’re not winning the Stanley Cup this year. Red Wings management knew this and should have done something about it — and I mean something more than Bob Essensa. How many years do they end their season with “We faced a hot goaltender” without getting one of their own? That’s Murray’s responsibility. Only Fedorov untouchable, maybe

And now it’s his mandate — a goalie, and a defenseman who actually plays defense. Assuming Murray still has his job. Nobody on this team, except maybe Fedorov — and only because of his age and untapped potential — will be off-limits to trade, cut or dismissal. Nobody. Not the GM. Not the coach. Nobody.

“We’re all fair game now,” Yzerman said.

Long after the arena had emptied Saturday night, Coffey, still wearing his skates, recalled a time in Pittsburgh when the season ended too soon, like this. There was a get-together the next night, and toward the end, a player got up to leave and told everyone to have a good summer. Coffey was astounded.

“I said, ‘Have a good summer? Are you (bleeping) kidding me? After what we just did, how the (bleep) can we have a good (bleeping) summer? The
(bleeping) summer’s ruined, for (bleep’s) sakes.”

Took the words right out of my mouth.

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