RIGHT AT HOME CHRIS OSGOOD

When Chris Osgood was a kid in Edmonton, Alberta, his dad was principal of his grade school. One day, the class was asked to write about their fathers. Young Chris turned in his paper, which surprised the teacher.

“My father,” Osgood wrote, “is a fireman.”

A fireman?

“I didn’t want the other kids to know,” he says now. “I thought it was embarrassing that he worked in the school.”

It’s a long way from hiding your first-grade identity to being the most scrutinized player in the march to a Stanley Cup. But you can’t duck the spotlight in Osgood’s current classroom – the Red Wings’ net – although if he could, he might. Years ago, when he still was painfully shy, Osgood would scurry to shed his goalie equipment before the media entered the locker room, but there was always so much stuff – gloves, mask, leg pads, skates – that it took too long.

So he kept his head down and he mumbled short answers and at times it was almost agonizing, as if the words were yanked by pliers. Today, there is still a shyness to Osgood, even at 35, even after winning the Cup, even after starting the All-Star Game, even after sitting behind Dominik Hasek despite better numbers, even after winning his last six playoff games and entering tonight’s Western Conference finals as secure in his job as the CEO of a family business.

His words are still, at times, halting. He is easy to embarrass. But what you may not know about Chris Osgood is that his shyness is matched only by his doggedness. He is tough and stubborn about the important things. And for every sentence he doesn’t speak, there may be a thought that howls inside his brain.

This, after all, is a guy who never developed a backup plan to hockey – even though his father was an educator. Chris told his folks from grade school on that he was going to the NHL. He said it so often, that instead of warning him, “You need something to fall back on,” they eventually said, “You better make it in hockey.”

This is a guy who, during the lockout, began to reinvent himself, because he saw younger goalies with more efficient styles. So he worked and reworked and he taught his old dog new tricks, and he is arguably now at the highest level in his career.

This is a guy, who, even when they told him they didn’t want him in Detroit anymore, refused to accept a departure. Instead, he kept a home here, never sold it, and viewed his time in New York and St. Louis as an exile. Eventually, Detroit signed him on as a free agent for less than a million bucks, and he now has the longest-term deal (three more years, $4.5 million) of any of the Red Wings’ goalies.

“I always knew I’d be back,” he says.

Even if he was the only one.

Life as an Islander and a Blue

I will never forget an interview I did with Osgood shortly after his life was upended by the Wings in 2001. The team had acquired Hasek, making it obvious that Osgood, who had been drafted by the Wings and had never played anywhere else, was out.

It was a perfect time to trash the franchise. Call it ungrateful. After all, hadn’t he done all the Wings had asked? Hadn’t he led them to a Cup just three years earlier?

Instead, Osgood spoke glowingly about the team and the city and how he would one day return here, maybe as a free agent, maybe even waiting it out if Hasek only wanted to play one season.

“Right now, he’s a little better than me,” Osgood said (the kind of thing no athlete ever says about another), “… but things happen in sports.”

They sure do. Osgood was eventually acquired in the waiver draft by the Islanders. He played for them nearly two seasons, was traded late in the 2003 campaign to St. Louis and played a year there. When the lockout came in 2004-05, he was a man without a team.

You know that if you’re a hockey fan. What you don’t know is that all during that time (his “exile” from Detroit) Osgood would play golf with general manager Ken Holland in the summers in western Canada. They’d hang out on a lake. They’d have meals. And the voice in Ozzie’s head was screaming, “Ask if he wants you back!”

But he never said a word.

“I didn’t want to put him in an awkward situation and ruin our relationship,” Osgood says. “I wanted to think, if I came back, it was meant to be. That he’d ask me.”

So he waited. He waited like that lovesick kid in “Cinema Paradiso,” standing in the rain outside his sweetheart’s apartment. He waited with that doggedness that belies his boyish demeanor. He waited until finally, in August 2005, he signed an offer that Holland authorized.

And Ozzie was a Wing again.

As he always knew he would be.

Changing with the times

The thing is, all during that time, Osgood wasn’t resting on his laurels. Quietly (and let’s face it, what doesn’t he do quietly?), he began to rework his fundamentals. The truth is, he says, when he was growing up, they made you goaltender because you were a good defenseman or you fit the net. They didn’t really teach you a lot.

“In those days, they just said, ‘Stop the puck. We don’t care how you do it.’ You were expected to stand up. ‘Stand up. Stay in front of your net!’ they’d yell. If you went down, it wasn’t good.

“Nowadays, your first instinct is to go down. I spend most of my time on my knees.

“But we never had goalie coaches back then. My first real goalie coach was when I was 21 or 22. Today, they start with goalie gurus when they’re 10 years old.

“So a few years ago, I kinda had to change my game, reinvent myself a little bit. I learned that from Mike Vernon because he did it at the same age I am now. Older goalies tend to reach a lot. Younger goalies now use their whole bodies in front of the puck. They can really move around on their knees.

“So I started working more on that. Making sure I have my chest and shoulders in front of the puck, instead of maybe my glove and my stick. Little things. Not flailing around so much.”

Outsiders have noticed the improvement. Osgood seems steadier now. Less flappable. His numbers reflect it. This season, he had the lowest goals-against mark of his career (2.09) and has mirrored that with a career best in the playoffs (1.52).

“He’s a position goaltender who plays his position,” said Don Cherry of “Hockey Night in Canada” fame. “He doesn’t run around. He looks unexciting. He just stops pucks. … He’s the calmest guy I think I’ve ever seen. I mean, nothing rattles him.”

Well, he was born in a place called Peace River, Alberta. And he has been stopping pucks – even the tape-ball kind – since he played in the basement with his younger brother between periods of TV games.

But the calm exterior can hide a fiery heart, and his fiery face is hidden behind a mask. Teammates will tell you there is nothing sweet or boyish about Osgood in the net. He will yell. He will curse. He will anger. He admits that, earlier in his career, he was angry much of the time when he was a backup.

“I remember times when Vernie was playing or Manny (Legace) was playing and I was ticked off that I wasn’t,” he says. “I was mad. I was pouting in practice. And when you’re mad, you forget to use that time to get ready. And there were times when I probably wasn’t ready because of that.

“Today, I’ve taken all the negative things out of my head. I want to play. I want to play all the time. But I’m not going to be angry if I don’t.

“I know I’ve got to play well. If I don’t, there is no reason for Babs (Mike Babcock) not to go back to Dom. Dom’s played some great games. And he’s a great goalie. So I just have to be ready to play every night.

“Ever since I’ve been back, I never thought of this as being about me.”

He sighs.

“I’m kind of over myself. I just want to win.” Living the good life

Osgood cannot help the fact that he looks, at 35, like he’s still in high school. His cherubic features and full blond hair have always shaded him more Ricky Schroder than Gump Worsley. For this interview, he arrives with sunglasses on, but even the shades look too mature, as if he were a kid borrowing his dad’s sunglasses to play grown-up.

Osgood lives in Plymouth, a family town, in a family house on a family street with his family; wife Jenna and daughters Mackenzie and Sydney. His backyard contains a hockey oval that in the winter is frozen over with ice. He even has a small dressing cabin with lockers and a TV set.

And to the casual observer, watching him carouse with his two young daughters or the neighborhood kids who regularly stop by to play, this 5-foot-10, 175-pound blond kid might be the camp counselor, not the millionaire homeowner and 14-year NHL veteran.

I ask Osgood if he’s paid a price for looking like the eternal teenager.

“I think so. I think when I was younger, they thought I was just passive and just happy to be here. But I take the game really seriously. I have nights, if we don’t win or I don’t play well, that I don’t sleep until five in the morning. I get mad. I think about the game all the time. I’m an intense player. If I wouldn’t have been intense and competitive, I wouldn’t be playing still.”

Nor would he be playing this well. He may not have wrinkles to show for it, but he’s got everything else. The stats. The trades. The injuries. The ups and downs. And through it all, while everyone has tried to make Osgood fit the profile of his profile, he has been stubbornly consistent:

1) He wants to play for Detroit. 2) He wants to play goalie. 3) He wants to win. 4) He wants to play for Detroit.

“I’ve had like three stages of my career,” he says. “I was here, then I went away, then I was back. I’ve had the best of both worlds. The first time I was here, I didn’t even know other guys in the league. Then you get out and you see how other organizations work, you meet different players, different people. Then you think, ‘I had it pretty damn good before.’ “

And so he is back to his pretty damn good – back to where he belongs, Detroit, where he says he will live for the rest of his life.

When they yell players’ names at hockey games, it can be a fad, a spontaneous eruption. When they yell “Ozzie” at Joe Louis Arena, it’s more like a career cheer, a hometown familiarity, the thing he has wanted more than anything else: to be a key part of this franchise, to hopefully retire in this jersey.

Seven years ago, when the Wings let him go, this is what he told me, before hanging up the phone:

“Make sure nobody takes my number.”

Eight more playoff victories and the kid from Peace River – who, yes, still wears No. 30 – will have made it all the way back to the top of his dreams. And his kids, when asked in school, can proudly brag that their daddy stops pucks, not fires.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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