by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There were bodies all around the net and the clock was down to 1:11 left in overtime — overtime! — and somebody shot, at first nobody was sure who, but suddenly the St. Louis players were leaping into the air and the sellout crowd in Joe Louis Arena rose to its feet desperately looking for the red light, where was the red light, it couldn’t be over without the red light . .
. It was the sort of drama everybody loved but nobody needed. Not in this city. Not where they haven’t had a hockey title in 22 years. One game? It came down to one game? Yes. And the one game came down to one overtime, and the overtime came down to its final two minutes, score tied 2-2, and the Red Wings
— who needed only a tie with St. Louis to capture their first Norris Division ever — were crashing and heaving and defending their turf like gang lords, as if the very lights of their lives would be snuffed out if a a goal were scored.

And then a goal was scored.

“Did you see it?” someone asked Detroit coach Jacques Demers of the final shot by St. Louis’ Rob Ramage, a shot which found its way through a pile of bodies and skimmed meekly off the arm of goalie Greg Stefan. “Did you ever actually see the puck go into the net?”

“I never saw it,” he said, slumping in his chair. “I saw the players around the net, and I waited for the red light.

“When I saw the red light come on, I looked at it and I felt like I had been shot.” They were caught at the wire

It was a bullet through the heart of the entire arena. The thunderous house fell to immediate silence, as if heaven had pulled the plug. Three-to-two. St Louis wins. The Norris Division title — which the Red Wings had been in line for since February 7th, when they moved into first place — had been lifted clean off the plate. In the final game. In the final two minutes.

The red light.

“How often did you look at the clock during that overtime?” Demers was asked.

“I looked a lot,” he said.

Of course he did. For this was the nightmare he’d ben trying to avoid for the last two weeks: Detroit vs. St. Louis? Last game of the season? They might as well skate across his heart. Remember that one year ago, Demers would have been on the other side of the plexiglass divider, coaching the Blues. And their players — Bernie Federko, Doug Gilmour, Rob Ramage, Mark Hunter — are still as dear to him as the Red Wings, maybe more so, because this is a guy who doesn’t forget his friends, and Demers, after all, put three years in at St. Louis, and only one so far in this city.

But Detroit is his team now, his present and his future. “We are going to beat St. Louis,” he told the Wings after their 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday night. “You can do it.”

And for a while Sunday night, it seemed that they would. They skated hard before an electric crowd, and when Dave Barr — whose errant pass ignited a Pittsburgh rally Saturday — slapped in the tying shot with 12:01 to go, Demers folded his arms, and unfolded them, and paced back and forth, and everything was possible. And then overtime started and the Wings has some shots, they had some chances, and all they needed was a tie anyhow, and the clock was on their side . . . They have come a long way

Seventy-one seconds. There is a cruelty in that number. It is too close, don’t you think? It is too tempting. That final red light that signaled Ramage’s goal took what? Four seconds? Five seconds? An eternity?

But it flickered on, and the title flittered away. And all right. So be it. There should be no shame here, no depression. True, the Wings should have taken this thing sometime last week — they lost four of their last five before Sunday. “But from what we were to what we have become is the positive side I want to think about now,” Demers said. And he is right.

The turnaround of this team has been incredible. The playoffs are ahead. That sentence alone was unheard one year ago. So there should not be a lot of crying this morning.

But there will be a little crying. The Red Wings had planned a celebration. There had been champagne in the locker room — the same champagne they had lugged to Pittsburgh Saturday, and then lugged back. Demers did not know where the bottles were stored Sunday. He never found out.

An hour after the final goal, his office began to clear. A reporter from St. Louis shook Demers’ hand and headed out. “Tell the boys congratulations for me?” the coach yelled after him.

The man turned and nodded, and Jacques Demers, just 71 seconds from a miracle, slumped back in the chair and reached for a beer.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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