CHICAGO –As he climbed the steps, he heard the national anthem — and a jolt went through him that left him numb. They were starting the game. And he wasn’t out there.

When he took his seat, far from the action, they dropped the puck — and another jolt. He wasn’t out there.

And when Chicago scored the first goal, and then another, putting the Red Wings in a deep hole on this suddenly critical playoff series game, the sensation was the same. A jolt, and then–

“Empty,” he sighed.

He wasn’t out there. His heart was on the ice, but his body was stuck in this cramped metal booth high in the second balcony of Chicago Stadium. And that was the problem. Paul Ysebaert, wearing a blue suit with black leather shoes, twisted toward the Zenith television that was attached to a concrete girder, and ran a fist through his hair.

“I can’t even look at the ice,” he said. “When I do I get too, too . . . I don’t know. I can’t watch.”

“It hurts?” I said.

“Bleepin’ right, it hurts.”

Scratched, like a racehorse. Only hockey does this. Takes a perfectly healthy player and puts him in the seats for a night, maybe two. It is one of the oddities of a sport in which teeth are considered an accessory. But it usually involves injured players, or marginal players.

It does not often involve your third highest scorer.

It does not often involve the NHL leader in plus-minus ratio.

It does not often happen this way in the playoffs.

Here is what Ysebaert told himself when they gave him the dreaded yellow practice jersey Tuesday, usually reserved for the players on the bubble: “It’s just a motivational thing. I can handle it.” After all, he was a star player. Sure, he’d been in a scoring slump during the playoffs. So had the whole team. Nothing to worry about. He’d get it back.

But on Wednesday morning, during breakfast, when associate coach Doug MacLean tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You’re out tonight,” Ysebaert could only stand and leave the table. He had that sinking feeling you get when the cop in your rear view mirror suddenly flips on his flashing lights and pulls behind you.

They were . . . serious.

Scratched, like a racehorse.

A scorer who isn’t scoring

“Jeez, this hurts,” Ysebaert said now, as down below, the Wings tried desperately to come back against the Blackhawks. His expression was pained. He looked like a man being stuck with needles. “I know I hadn’t scored in a while. But I was accountable for every game I played. I made sure I played defense. That’s what they teach you in juniors, for pete’s sake. The goals will come. But make sure you don’t let up in your end.

“I played good defense in the Minnesota series. That’s what we needed against them. It was my line that scored the winning goal in Game 6. I mean, come on . . .

“And then, this.”

Ysebaert hadn’t missed a game since being injured during the winter. He hadn’t been scratched since last year, playing for New Jersey. Other Wings are not living up to their abilities in these surprisingly difficult early rounds of the playoffs. But for whatever reason, coach Bryan Murray has narrowed his gaze on Ysebaert and sent him to the doghouse — “Paul’s role is to score goals, and he’s not scoring goals,” Murray snapped Wednesday — and so here he was, up in the booth, watching the Zenith under a string of thin fluorescent lights.

You should know this about Paul Ysebaert: This is killing him. He was playing his dream in Detroit. He’d wanted to be a Red Wing since he first laced up skates across the river in Sarnia. He had a whale of a season this year.

Now, he was in street clothes. And a no-win situation. If the Wings won the game, “no way they change their lineup.” And if they lost and fell behind, 3-0, in this best-of-seven series, well, let’s be honest. Even if he returned, he’d be skating for exercise.

“I was accountable for every game,” Ysebaert muttered. “I was accountable.
. . .”

Scratched, like a racehorse. A difficult lesson

Under such agony did the first period pass. And the second. Ysebaert watched the Zenith as the Wings scored to tie the game. He let out a small,
“All right!” He is not the type to ever root against his team. He is not the type to badmouth management.

And yet, earlier in the day, Ysebaert had to ask the rules of being scratched. He was told not to come around the locker room before the game, and to wait in the hallway after it was over.

Not to come in the locker room? How strange. How humiliating for a good player. Could you imagine Joe Dumars, perfectly healthy, sitting in street clothes during a playoff game because his shooting had gone cold? A lot of folks questioned the wisdom of such a shake-up at this point in the series.

“Hey, this is hockey,” Ysebaert sighed. And he’s right. But some things are universal. The Red Wings lost the game, 5-4. They are on the brink of saying good-bye to the 1992 season. And they feel awful. But you know that expression: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”

It goes for playing, too.

In a tiny booth, high above the ice, one Red Wing was learning that the hard way.

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