Going to a home opener with a new coach in charge is a little like going to class with a new teacher. You’re a bit nervous. A bit tentative. And you listen to the other kids whispering.
“I hear this teacher’s a monster . . .”
“I hear he spanks his students . . .”
“I hear he just got out of prison . . .”
The more you hear, the worse the guy gets. Such was the case with Scotty Bowman, the new Red Wings coach, who came to Detroit with impeccable credentials but a reputation — as far as media were concerned — just shy of Claus von Bulow.
“I hear he hits you with a ruler . . .”
“I hear he calls your parents every night . . .”
Already, the Wings had felt the snap of his whip. Previously optimistic players such as backup goalie Vince Riendeau and baby-faced forward Shawn Burr asked to be traded. Burr, always popular here, was so perplexed at his sudden benching that he looked older than usual Wednesday night. He looked 14.
“I hear this guy carries a weapon . . .”
“I hear he threw a desk out the window . . .”
What could we expect from a coach with such a reputation, a coach who makes writers squirm and players search for the exit? Why, upon arriving at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday, there was an immediate change in policy, courtesy of the new man. Instead of an open locker room where reporters mingle with players before the game, now the locker room was basically off limits, and the talk time was limited to 15 minutes only. Fifteen minutes!
At 5:43 p.m, Steve Yzerman was hooked up to do a live shot with a local TV station. As he spoke, Howard Berlin, the Wings’ assistant PR director, glanced nervously at his watch. Come on, he motioned. Hurry. Your 15 minutes, literally, are up.
“Man,” a colleague said, “life with this Bowman guy is gonna be rough.”
“Yeah,” another said. “And he’s just getting started.”
“I hear he makes you stand in the corner . . .”
“I hear he washes your mouth with soap . . .” Coach can do only so much
So here we were, all wrapped up in the new coach, and his influence, his power, his policies, and all this stuff swirled and swelled and grew bigger and bigger until the game started and the players skated out and less than four minutes passed before St. Louis’ Phil Housley smacked the puck past the Detroit goaltender, Peter (Wild Th) Ing.
And suddenly, you realized something.
The coach doesn’t wear a goalie mask.
And then the Wings took a slew of penalties.
And you realized something else: The coach doesn’t take penalties.
And then the Blues scored again, and again, and again, and you realized, the coach doesn’t play defense either.
And quickly, the truth came down, as clear as the lasers that marked the opening ceremonies of yet another Red Wings season in which a great team on paper tries to make it in real life. This is that truth: The coach doesn’t win the games. The players do.
And these players aren’t.
“We were chaotic,” Steve Chiasson sighed after the 5-2 defeat, the Wings’ third loss in their first four games. “We had no method to our madness.”
“We had nothing out there,” Dallas Drake added.
Nothing? Well. That’s not exactly true. They had 35 shots they allowed on their goal. And Ing — subbing for injured Tim Cheveldae — gave up all five goals, which gives him 15 allowed in three games.
The Wings also had eight penalties, and they all seemed to hurt, especially a combination in the second period that left them playing two men short.
“We’re killing ourselves,” Bowman said.
He said this, by the way, very calmly. Changes count only on the ice
So as openers go, this was a dud. Then again, so was the real opener last week in Dallas. In fact, so far this season, the only bright spot for the Wings was a win over a team that spent most of the summer with Pluto and Goofy.
Does that count?
Wait. One bright spot. The checking line of Bob Probert (heavyweight), Darren McCarty (light-heavyweight) and Micah Aivazoff (middleweight). These are guys who, when not busy skating, could shake down the neighborhood for bad loans. They played well Wednesday.
Then again, if beating the snot out of an opponent is the highlight of your team, well, you’ll probably sell a lot of tickets. Especially at Joe Louis Arena. But you won’t win any championships.
And that’s what this is about, right?
“I think we’re tight,” Bowman said. “You can see that in the way we play.
. . . Yes, we’re without Tim Cheveldae, but they were without Brett Hull. You can’t blame that.”
By the way, for what it’s worth, Bowman, I thought, was a straight-ahead guy. Said hello. Smiled now and then. Answered the questions.
And the Wings still lost.
The simple truth? A coaching change in hockey is simply that. It doesn’t get me excited. You know what gets me excited? Smart play, inspired passing, and a goaltender who stops shots the way Michael Jordan used to make them. Show me that in a Detroit uniform, I’ll show you a new line at the season ticket- holder window. Anything short of that, and we just hold our breath around here, as usual.