EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Down the hall you could hear the noise, the screams and cheers of a championship party. Bright lights beamed for TV reporters as champagne-soaked players hugged wives, parents, pretty much anyone who passed by. NHL officials raced back and forth, using walkie-talkies to monitor the location of the large silver cup, the Stanley Cup, which was bouncing happily from one New Jersey Devil to another. Security guards loosened their ties, wiped away the sweat and high-fived guests.
“Unbelievable!” one of them yelled over the din. “Is this unbelievable, or what?”

Up the hall, Steve Yzerman, dressed in a gray suit, stepped out from behind a big steel door and stood there, all alone. He crossed his arms and looked down. Yzerman is not usually alone after a hockey game, not for long, so this was one of those accidental moments when he almost didn’t know what to do. He listened to the party noise for a moment. As usual, it was someone else’s party.

“You know what I was thinking tonight?” he said. “All during the third period, when the fans started their cheer and there was all that excitement in the building? I kept wishing I was in their shoes.”

He sighed. “Right now, I don’t feel much like a Stanley Cup finalist.”

Six months of heaven, seven days of hell. This will be the last sad hockey column in a tornado of sad hockey columns lately, which is strange, because Detroit didn’t start writing sad hockey columns until last week. Until then, things were happy and fresh, full of miracle and wonder. The best team in the business. Home ice advantage. Big bold predictions. The end of Lord Stanley’s 40-year curse.

Then came the puck drop, 8:20 p.m June 17, and from that Saturday night until the next Saturday night, the bad news didn’t stop. It was like a broken pipe in the basement.

Six months of heaven, seven days of hell.

“We were on the top of the world,” Yzerman said wistfully, as if talking about high school. Someone asked whether what Paul Coffey had said was true: That losing in the finals hurts just as much as losing in the first round.

Yzerman nodded. “Maybe more.”

Around the corner, standing by the bus, Coffey was dressed for the trip home. Someone asked his thoughts right after the sweep.

“In American sports,” he said, tapping his shoe on the concrete floor,
“one day you’re on top, the next day, you’re a piece of bleep.”

He coughed. “Pardon my French.” The good ol’ days

Six months of heaven, seven days of hell. It might be therapeutic to give a moment to the highs: The quick work made of the Dallas Stars. The splendid retribution against the San Jose Sharks. The nail-biting overtimes against the Chicago Blackhawks. The feeling during those first three playoff rounds was invincibility, a bulletproof chest. The Wings could pile on the goals, but they could also bruise and bump. When they needed heroes, they just took turns, Nicklas Lidstrom whacking a 58-foot slap shot to win it, or Slava Kozlov poking in a breakaway in double overtime. Injuries didn’t stop them. Enemy crowds didn’t stop them. They were good and lucky.

And next thing you knew, Yzerman was shaking the Western Conference trophy over his head at Joe Louis Arena, and we had the wildest hockey moment ever in that building.

Remember? This was when Mike Vernon was saying, “Aw, shucks, no big deal,”

instead of ducking reporters who questioned his big-game nerve in the finals. This was when Shawn Burr was laughing through his playoff goatee, instead of looking down, in tears, his face clean-shaven, having been benched for the first time in his playoff career.

Remember? This was when Coffey was the Socrates of the locker room, instead of the guy who didn’t come up big, who was lying on the ice, in pain from a puck, when the winning goal was scored in Game 2.

“What would you change if you could do this series over?” Coffey was asked.

“For starters,” he said, “I wouldn’t go down to block that shot.”

What would they change? Vernon could have played much better. The defense could have played much better. The offensive stars, Yzerman, Kozlov, Ray Sheppard, Sergei Fedorov, could have played much better. The coaches could have done better.

You know what? It might not have mattered. Detroit fans forget there was another team here, and its players also wanted the Cup desperately. The Devils had talent. The Devils had motivation. They grabbed this series early, like a wrestler making a quick takedown. After that, it was just a question of the pin. Wait till next year

As the bus coughed out exhaust fumes, Keith Primeau made his way down the tunnel. The party noise grew more distant.

“I had wanted to watch them get the Cup,” Primeau said. “I wanted it to hurt as long as it could. That way I never forget it.”

“Why didn’t you?” he was asked.

“Because my team went off the ice. We came on the ice as a team, we go off the ice as a team.”

Credit them for that, for sticking together through this collapse, for not pointing fingers, not calling names. Credit them for beating first-round jinxes, for sacrificing stardom for team play, for going further than the 28 Wings teams before them.

Six months of heaven, seven days of hell. This the last sad hockey column. In a few weeks, the bitterness will be gone, and some of the Wings will begin to work out, break a sweat and think, as athletes must do — as good fans do, too — about a new season, when the end will be better than the beginning, and the final party will not be down the hall.

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