The man was hunched over the bar, his back to the crowd. A blond woman kept coming up to him. He would smile, then look down at his glass, until finally she went away.

“You know who he is,” someone said.

“Who?”

“That guy. That’s Harold Snepsts.”

I looked again. It was Harold Snepsts. This was last summer, a week or so after hockey season ended. I walked over.

I said, “Hey.”

He looked up wearily. Then, upon recognizing a familiar face, he smiled.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

“What news?”

He made a thumbs-down motion. “I’m out. They let me go.”

I did a double take. In all the time I had been covering sports, I don’t think I ever had encountered an athlete on the day he was fired. Usually, by the time you find out, the guy is halfway across the country.

But here was Snepsts, alone, nursing a beer, taking it in stride. He said he knew it was coming. The Red Wings had young players who deserved a chance. He was, after all, almost 34.

“Nothing is forever,” he said. “I’ve had some great times in Detroit. Maybe I’ll come back here to live if no other team wants me.”

He sighed. I thought about all the people around the country who hated Snepsts, called him dirty, figured he was nothing more than a brute on skates. Here he was, by himself, in a restaurant bar, talking gently about the end of the line.

He offered to buy me a beer.

I wished him well and left. Success leads to pressure

Snepsts was part of a Red Wing spirit that made us fall in love with them. Those first two years under Jacques Demers were magnetic, anyone with a dream could relate to them. Out of the basement the Wings rose, suddenly winning, suddenly proud, suddenly crawling around the attics of teams like the Edmonton Oilers. They were young. They were hungry. They were electric.

But nothing is forever. So the Wings, with pockets full of success, began this season aspiring to a Stanley Cup. And then came trouble. No longer sparkling, no longer the innocent darlings of a hockey-starved city, they were erratic, they lost concentration, and as the mediocre results mounted, they became the object of criticism. Happy talk shifted to groans about trades and shake-ups. Players were cut. Bob Probert is on the trading block.

“Where is that lost spirit?” people wonder. “What happened?”

It was in the midst of all this, that I spoke again with Snepsts. He was back in town Friday, playing hockey, but in a different uniform. He had found work with the Vancouver Canucks, where he had played for 10 years before coming to Detroit.

“They like me up there,” he said, in his hotel room at the Westin. “It’s a young team. But this will be my last year. I’m sure of that.”

I had not seen him since that night in the restaurant. I asked whether he had been following the Wings since his departure.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m disappointed. Wherever you go around the country, the only news you hear about Detroit is how good Yzerman is, or how much trouble Probert and Petr Klima are causing. It’s a shame.

“What I always loved about playing here was how close we were as a team. We did everything together. There wasn’t a person who disliked anyone else on our team.”

He paused. “I guess you get successful and there’s more pressure. The first year we were just happy to turn it around. The second year we were after first place. This year everyone expected more.” Another time, another uniform

Talking to Snepsts was reassuring, like seeing someone from your old neighborhood. I remember how the crowds in Toronto and Chicago used to howl his name in the now infamous “HAARRRR- OLLLD!” chant, and how he’d just grin with a sinister look and smash somebody, and the younger players on the Wings would look at him after the game, wide-eyed. “That Snepsy,” they’d say. “He’s unbelievable.”

It was a different time. And now Snepsts is in a different uniform. But while his reputation has always been of a nasty player, anyone who knows him knows he is a gentleman, well- spoken, easygoing, with good character for a hockey team. The Canucks have him rooming with Trevor Linden, their star rookie, figuring Snepsts can teach him about NHL life.

“I’m doing fine, I’m happy,” Snepsts said.

I thought back to that night when he was cut, sitting with his beer, alone. Somehow, even then, he seemed OK.

Why not? A hockey coach once said, “Success is fleeting, fame is a vapor, and in the end, all that endures is character.” Snepsts has that character. And if the Red Wings have as much as we once thought, they will rise through their current woes and return to form.

“You know I always wanted to ask you,” I said, “what did you do that night after I left the bar?”

“I finished my beer and went home,” he said, shrugging. “Why? What did you think?”

I said that was exactly what I thought.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ 98.7-FM. Guests: Jacques Demers and Leroy Hoard.

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