RANFORD OOZES CALM AMID SUDDEN STORM

THE LOCKER ROOM door opened and it was Bill Ranford’s turn with the buffalo herd. He leaned against a wall and took it on headfirst, with all the excitement of a tired old sheepdog.

“Are you going to start?” the first reporter asked.

“Have you been officially told?” said the second.

“Are you ready for the challenge?” asked the third.

Ranford scrunched his lips, rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders. He gave pleasant, noncommittal answers, with body language as casual as his rumpled gray T-shirt and tousled, bark-colored hair. He looked like a man tolerating boredom. At one point, I thought he might yawn.

I like that.

It’s exactly what the Red Wings need.

“I’m not going to kill myself over it,” said the 14-year veteran, when asked about possibly replacing Chris Osgood as the Wings’ starting goalie Friday.
“I’ve been prepared for this ever since the playoffs started.”

Ranford is in one of those weird moments in sports, where you go from pushing through a crowd of reporters to being the reason they are gathered in the first place. Acquired just before the trade deadline from lowly Tampa Bay for nothing more than a conditional draft pick, Ranford was barely a stocking stuffer compared to Chris Chelios, Wendel Clark and Ulf Samuelsson, who also arrived that day. Fan reaction went like this: “Wow! We got Chelios and Clark! Oh …and even Samuelsson!”

Ranford was the one overlooked. The last guest on “The Tonight Show” couch. Few expected him to play often, and nobody expected him in the playoffs. Osgood started every game in last year’s playoffs, and the Wings won it all. Why mess with that?

Then, injury struck.

And all of a sudden, Ranford looks like the steal of the litter.

Will Ozzie really sit out?

Now the truth is, nobody knows if Ranford, 32, will even see a minute of playing time. Osgood’s mysterious knee injury — he supposedly sprained it in Game 4 of the Mighty Ducks series, although he played the whole game and won
— might keep him out of Friday’s Round 2 opener against Colorado.

Then again, when Scotty Bowman is your coach, you never know. It could be Ranford with a knee injury and Osgood as a decoy.

But can we assume, for a moment, that Ranford does indeed get the nod, against an Avalanche team that Red Wings fans liken to the devil’s army? Then, my friends, we are talking about a novel-like moment, something out of “The Natural.”

After all, Ranford is a kid who stunned the world and a man who puzzled it. At 23, he stepped into Grant Fuhr’s shadow in Edmonton and promptly won it all, a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP — and a reputation.

There was all the good: a world championship, a Canada Cup, a stretch when he was “Bill Ranford, the best in the NHL.”

And then there was, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story. He had losing records his last four years in Edmonton, had an arbitration nightmare in Boston, got shipped to Washington, lost his job to Olaf Kolzig, and got traded to Tampa Bay, where this year he won only three of the 32 games he played.

Then, on trading-deadline day, he goes from one of the worst teams in the NHL to the best.

You see the screenplay?

“Coming here was a big kick in the butt,” Ranford said. “It was a way to maybe get my career back on track, get things going, you know?”

We know. Friday night in Denver could be a really big “we know.”

Does anyone recognize him?

How strange sports is. Ranford has been in Detroit only six weeks. His wife and daughters remain in Florida, where he took red-eye flights to see them last weekend. He is still largely a stranger to this town, this team, this Stanley Cup chase. But he might take over the most important spot in the most hated sports rivalry in Detroit.

Remember, the Wings’ last two starting playoff goalies have had punch-out sessions with Colorado’s Patrick Roy. Goalies?

Judy Garland in “A Star Is Born” has nothing on Ranford.

“Does it strike you as funny that half the people in Detroit wouldn’t recognize you if you walked out down the street,” he was asked, “yet you could be their biggest hero come Friday night?”

He shrugged. “I’ve played 14 years in the league. Whether people recognize me or not doesn’t affect me.”

Either he’s very aloof, or very confident. Hope for the latter. You want confident. You want relaxed. You want a guy who is slightly bemused at the reporters. It means he has been there.

And it’s the reason Bowman loves veterans. You can count on them for the things you can’t teach. If Bowman had this scenario in mind when he picked up Ranford, then — and this is hard to imagine — he’s even smarter than we think.

Or maybe he just knows this: Inside every aged champion, there lurks one more moment of glory. It has been a long time since destiny sang in Bill Ranford’s key. But leaning confidently against his locker, he looked like a man who’d surely recognize the tune if he heard it.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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