I have to admit the Red Wings perplex me. I walk into their locker room feeling partly like an old friend and partly like a parole officer. Hockey players have always been, in my mind, the nicest athletes to deal with; maybe that’s why, when bad news rises, you sort of feel like the only sober guy at a great party.

Tuesday night was my first Wings game this season — but not my first Wings

column. I had already written about Petr Klima, when he was charged again with drunken driving. I had already covered the press conference in which Jacques Demers and Jimmy Devellano announced, unenthusiastically, the return of troubled Bob Probert.

Over the weekend, right wing Joe Kocur was charged with assault on a Boston woman he met in a bar. I know Kocur, like him, always got along with him. On Tuesday I had to ask him what the story was, and he had to tell me his lawyer had advised him against speaking.

You may not believe this, but muckraking isn’t every journalist’s idea of a good time. Personally, I’d much rather yack about music, politics, or the occasional flying octopus. It beats questions like, “Did you really do it?”
“Are you sorry?” and “How much time do you think you’ll get in jail?”

And yet I entered the locker room Tuesday aware that Probert was again a tinderbox, and that Klima faces two separate court hearings on Friday, and, of course, the Kocur deal, and so I was ready for serious talk. I was ready for controversy. I put my bag down and made the rounds.

On my way out, I picked up my bag and slung it over my shoulder. Several players and the physical therapist, Jim Pengelly, were standing nearby, smiling.

“Pretty heavy?” Pengelly asked.

“I think I’m just getting weaker,” I said.

“Nah, it’s probably getting heavier,” he said.

I didn’t think much about it. And an hour later, up in the press box, when I opened the bag to search for a notebook, I found seven hockey pucks stuffed inside. Someone had slipped them in when I wasn’t looking.

Now, how can you get mad at a team like that? Real trouble; good hockey

Here are some scenes from Tuesday night:
* Probert, who is back after his alcohol problems — but supposedly not talking to the press — decides, for his own purposes, to do a TV interview with Channel 9 from Windsor. The regular writers and TV guys, who have been snubbed by Probert constantly, shake their heads and walk away.
* Steve Yzerman breaks away and sizzles a shot into the corner of the net. The crowd roars.
* Kocur, who does not dress for the game, watches from the Wings’ suite, his lawyer with him. He is mum about the assault charges but admits that he is bothered and pledges to change his social life.
* Gerard Gallant, after a night of near-misses, slaps the clinching goal into an empty net with 25 seconds left. The crowd roars.

This is the emotional ricochet you get with the Red Wings. If you want trouble, you can find trouble; if you want good hockey, wonderful, inspiring personalities, you can find that, too.

The other night, when Probert returned to the ice, the home crowd cheered
— even though the last time Probert played, he and five teammates were recovering from a night of drinking that soiled the Red Wings’ reputation.

Cheering? I thought about Dick Young, the old New York sports writer who, last year, wrote a column the day Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden was to return from cocaine rehab. The headline read: “Stand up and boo.” “If I could choreograph things tonight,” Young wrote, “I would do it this way: Enter Dwight Gooden. . . . 50,000 people boo loudly. That’s to let him know how society feels . . . about the damage he committed to millions of kids who worshiped him. . . . “

Nobody listened, of course. They cheered Gooden anyway. Dick Young died not long after that. I don’t know if his ideas were right or wrong. I guess it depends on what you want from sports.

Somewhere in the first period Tuesday, I went out for some food. In line, I glanced at the TV screen and saw Gallant flat on the ice with New York’s Jeff Norton draped over him, fighting, swinging — the referees just standing there. It looked almost comical. A man in a red cap was watching the screen alongside me.

“Great game, huh!” he shrieked. “Wow!” A terrific, imperfect team

So I confess a certain dichotomy now to the whole hockey experience. There was a time, a couple of years ago, when I drove new coach Jacques Demers to a playoff game, and the Wings won, and we did it again, and they won again, and it became a good luck thing and we had a blast and they kept winning all the way to the semifinals.

It seemed so simple then. It doesn’t anymore. Detroit’s hockey fun is laced with fire now, its good times haunted by bad shadows. Demers is no longer as happy-go-lucky — he can’t be — and the players speak freely on some subjects, and on others, reply: “Don’t talk to me about that; get somebody else.”

Here is the sad truth: The Red Wings are a terrific bunch, but they’re not all perfect. Some may be real trouble, and you can’t call them Cinderella anymore. But you keep going back, I guess, because you hope the good moments will outweigh the bad. And in these heavy news times, it’s about all you can do.

By the way, whoever put the pucks in my bag. . . .

Very funny.

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