EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Some sat on bridge chairs. Some sat on the blue carpet. Some just leaned against the wall and sighed. This was awful. They weren’t even in uniform. Shawn Burr dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Darren McCarty crossed his legs, one sneaker over the other. Reporters filed past, looking them over, moving on.
“It’s like being doggies in the window,” McCarty mumbled. “We might as well be in a pet shop.”
He was right. The Wings decided not to practice Friday. But they were still obligated to meet the media. Someone had the bright idea to set up a hotel conference room with chairs against the walls. This way, the press could walk past, picking out whom they wanted.
So here were the Detroit Red Wings, who, just a week ago, were considered the best team in hockey and were favored to win the Stanley Cup, now in street clothes, line up against a hotel wall, like girls nobody wants to dance with. Without their pads and skates, they were smaller, shorter, seemingly younger. Most bit their lips and said nothing. Paul Coffey rubbed the back of his neck. Vladimir Konstantinov got a paper and pen and acted as if he were interviewing someone, mocking the whole process.
This was awful. But this is what it’s like when the favored team goes splat. The night before there had still been hope. The Wings were down, two games to none, but those were close losses, squeakers. And besides, the players had vowed to correct the problem. They would come out fighting. That’s what they said. Then the puck dropped, and they turned to mush. Detroit missed two easy chances, then the Devils scored. Then the Devils scored again. Then the game was a rout. It ended in a rugby scrum, players not even knowing whom they were shoving, just anybody, anything.
Afterward, under the hot lights in the basement of Byrne Arena, Scotty Bowman delivered the nastiest public tongue- lashing he has ever given the Red Wings.
“In all my years in hockey, I’ve never been as humiliated and embarrassed as I was tonight. . . . The entire group has to take responsibility. . . . It was an embarrassment to the NHL. . . . This is a showcase, the finals. . . . We didn’t compete. . . .
“There are guys on our team who don’t even need a shower.” Why did the Wings panic?
The words hung over the room Friday, like a damp ceiling, making some nod and others snap in disgust.
“We just bleeping panicked,” Burr said. “We did the same thing in Game 2 after they tied us. We bleeping panicked. We changed everything we did. We just need to bleeping play our game, not go changing everything.”
Others privately agreed. If the Wings were as good as they felt, why did Bowman switch lines around in Game 3? Why did things spin so quickly away from the game plan? And if the team came out flat, isn’t that on the coach’s tab? Isn’t he supposed to have the players ready?
Bowman entered the room, in a red cotton shirt, and the microphones found him quickly. He was stoic now. His eyes thin, revealing nothing.
Did he mean the things he said the night before, someone asked.
“I thought they were realistic,” he said. “The players have to know what they did wrong. . . . You know, in a way they’re lucky. In some sports, players wait their whole career for a game like that, then they blow it and they go home wishing they had another chance. We at least have one more game to make it right. . . .
“If this happened in Game 4, the next time they could correct it would be next year.”
Bowman jutted out his jaw and took another question. How could things collapse so fast? How could a team that talked all the right talk walk such a bad walk? They went from sure, to pretty sure, to shaken, to shell-shocked.
And here, in the ground floor of an Embassy Suites hotel, was the awful consequence: waiting a whole day for a game that, in their hearts, they know won’t make a difference. They know because they inflicted this punishment themselves to three teams in these playoffs, pushed them to 3-0 in a series, made them suffer, waiting for the blade. Now the Wings were seeing how it felt.
Awful. Wings waited for trouble; it came
Steve Yzerman sat in the farthest corner of the room, wearing a plaid shirt, his hair still damp from a shower. He didn’t like what Bowman had said about embarrassing the league. But he didn’t disagree. “We were on TV throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an embarrassment. It’s not that we didn’t try. It’s just the way we played.
“We were totally dominated in the Stanley Cup finals. We’re supposed to be one of the top clubs in the league, and we looked like we didn’t belong out on the ice.”
He sighed. What are Wing fans supposed to feel? Sympathy? That’s been earned. Criticism? That’s been earned as well. The Wings had talked forever about how to play Game 3, the fire in their belly, whipping control from the Devils, and then what? They came out dazed, like a hayseed stepping off the bus in New York City.
“We weren’t aggressive,” Yzerman said. “I don’t know why. . . . It’s like we were holding our breath waiting for something bad to happen. And it did.”
A TV reporter put a microphone in his face and asked about leadership, asked if this was a time when the captain should call the troops together, a special team meeting. Yzerman had to stifle a laugh.
“We’re meeting to death,” he said.
Words would not do it. Chalkboards would not do it. Whatever happens tonight will come from the deepest part of the players who wear Red Wing uniforms. They are smart enough to know the other team is too good, this series is done, and all they can do is shape their final footprint before the waves wash it away. In the meantime, they are seeing it from the worst angle, the waiting room, doggies in a window, sitting there and wondering how they fell so far so fast.