Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. — long before the other players would arrive — Mike Ramsey entered the Red Wings’ locker room. It was empty, freshly vacuumed, the music playing softly over the stereo. Ramsey went to his locker, grabbed his two pairs of skates, his pads and his helmet. The only other thing he had brought with him three weeks ago were his sticks. He decided to leave them behind.

As he headed for the door, he stopped at the blackboard. He picked up the chalk and squeaked out a message.

“Thanks guys. Good luck, (signed) Rammer.”

Then he went to the parking lot, got in his rented car, drove back to his rented apartment and booked a plane back to his old life, the one he had left for this experiment in every athlete’s fantasy: to return after retirement for one last championship season.

In most cases, it is the athlete who begs the team for another chance — and the team that must tell him he is no longer what he used to be.

In this case, it was the team that begged Ramsey to return. And it was Ramsey who told the team the hourglass was empty.

“I knew it after the Colorado game Sunday,” he said Tuesday night. “And I wasn’t even playing. I could just see the pace they were going. I’ve been around long enough to know that’s the pace you have to go at in the playoffs. And I couldn’t do it anymore.”

So Ramsey — who was pleasing Detroit coaches with his progress — did something extremely rare in sports these days. He walked away from a lot of money and told his bosses, if they acted quickly, maybe they could get another player before the trading deadline.

They did. The Wings acquired defenseman Larry Murphy from Toronto on Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Ramsey was packing his bags for his return flight to the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Minn., where he owns a sporting goods store.

“By Thursday morning,” he said, “I’ll be back in the back room, sharpening skates.”

Hello again, good-bye.

In retirement, life was good

“Which time was harder to say good-bye,” I asked him, “last time or this time?”

“This time,” he said. “Last year, I had planned my retirement. Everyone knew it. When the last game of the year was played, it wasn’t just me going home, it was the whole team going home.

“But this time, I was leaving and the rest of the guys were staying. That’s why I left early in the morning. I didn’t feel right saying good-bye to everybody all over again.”

How hard this must have been for Ramsey, a 17-year NHL veteran defenseman. Remember that he had not returned to the team without considerable thought. He was happy in his retirement. The store was going well. Customers enjoyed seeing photos of Mike on the wall, from his days with the Wings all the way back to his glorious winter of 1980, with the U.S. Olympic hockey team in Lake Placid.

Unlike many retired athletes, Ramsey found a nice life after pro sports. He had lost weight, gotten into a routine with his wife and family, had made new friends in the community.

When Scotty Bowman called and asked him to return for the stretch run — and possibly another shot at a Stanley Cup — it took a lot of soul-searching to come back to Joe Louis Arena.

Just as it did to say good-bye.

“I wrestled with this; I really did. I thought about what other players might say, what people might say. But I spoke to my wife four times a day. And it’s like she said, ‘What can anyone say to you?’

“She’s right. I’m glad I tried it. If I had turned Scotty down, I would have always been second-guessing myself. But for me, now, I know I left at the

right time.”

So the Wings played Wednesday night without Ramsey on the rsoter. And this morning, as they wake up and go to practice, Ramsey is in the back of the store, sharpening the skates.

He could have stayed. He could have collected those nice, fat paychecks. He walked away from, by his estimation, more than $150,000. He could have stayed . . .

“Yeah, and a pitcher with a 13.00 ERA can still take the mound,” Ramsey said. “But is he helping his team?”

Hello again, good-bye.

No doubts now — and no regrets

For the record, his comeback was eight games. He played in only two. One was against Anaheim; one was against San Jose. He almost scored a goal, got a few shots on net, but mostly, as he joked, “It was like one of those baseball boxscores — no runs, no hits, no errors, no RBIs.”

Ramsey, 36, said a hockey player knows when he can’t do it anymore. You don’t feel the pop in your skates. You can’t see the whole ice as quickly as the other guys.

“My skills have just deteriorated,” he said. “I have no doubts now.”

And no regrets.

It isn’t every day a man knows when he’s done in sports. Too often he has to be shoved out, kicking and screaming. Ramsey got to retire on his own terms not once, but twice. He gave the Wings a gift by doing so before the trading deadline. He did it, he says, because he owed them something.

“Why did you leave you sticks behind?” I asked.

“They’re old and heavy and in pretty bad shape,” he said, laughing.
“They’ll probably just sit there, taking up space.”

Ramsey himself had too much pride for that.

Hello again, good-bye.

Rarely has a farewell been so honorable.

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