This is his first hockey game. He is very excited. He hands his ticket to the attendant at Joe Louis Arena, who hands it back and looks up, and up, and up.
“Aren’t you . . .?” the attendant asks.
“Wayne Gretzky?” says John Salley.
And so we begin. Slam dunk meets slap shot. I am keeping a promise I made to Salley, the Pistons’ 7-foot forward, who has never seen a hockey game, does not understand the rules, and hasn’t been on skates since he was 12 years old. The promise was that one night we would all go to a Red Wings game — Salley, I and our friend, George Baier — and teach him the game firsthand.
This is the night.
“These guys hit each other and everything?” Salley asks as he catches his first glimpse of the ice.
“Right out there in front of everybody?”
“And they don’t get fined $5,000?”
“Damn. Rick Mahorn would love this game.”
Now, there are several key differences between hockey and basketball, such as: 1) Basketball players have most of their teeth. But I figure this stuff will be obvious to Salley. If we ever get to the game. “Let’s get pizza first,” he says.
So we order from a stand in the hallway. It takes five minutes. Seven minutes. Nine minutes. The game starts without us.
“HEY, YO!” Salley yells. “YOU FLYIN’ THIS PIZZA IN FROM NEW JERSEY?”
And the pizza people ask for his autograph. Everyone who passes asks him for his autograph. I mean everyone. You’d think he was the only 7-foot basketball player in the . . .
Well, OK, maybe he is.
Pizza in hand, we go to our seats. They are not good. They are upstairs and in the corner. Salley doesn’t mind. He squeezes his long legs in front.
“SIT DOWN!” somebody yells.
“I AM!” he answers.
And we watch. The Red Wings and the North Stars race up and down the ice. A new line comes in, leaping over the boards. Then another, over the boards.
“I don’t get it,” Salley says. “You mean they “What desk?” I say.
He watches Gilbert Delorme check his opponent into the boards. Thud. Crunch. He watches Jim Pavese check an opponent into the boards. Thud. Crunch.
“Holy bleep,” he mumbles.
Hard to argue with that.
George tries to explain icing. He tries to explain offsides. Salley nods.
And a fight breaks out. Joey Kocur is going at it with some Minnesota player. The gloves are off. Fists are flying. Salley rises to his feet, mesmerized. “LOOK AT THAT! CAN HE DO THAT?”
Finally, the linesmen step in, break it up and send the fighters off the ice — for five minutes.
“Unbelievable,” Salley says, taking his seat. “I gotta tell Rickey about this stuff.”
In between periods we move down to closer seats, so that Salley can witness the game from a different angle. Now we are seven rows from the ice. Salley appears nervous.
“What if the puck comes and hits me in the face?” he says. “I need my face, man. . . . Couldn’t they raise the glass a little? Maybe 20 feet?”
(By the way, all the time this is going on, people are still asking Salley for autographs. They stick tickets in front of his face, programs, hats, pictures of Petr Klima, you name it. He signs them all, and is never at a loss for words:
“Hey, John, you remember that Georgia Tech game where you guys won, 130-66? I was there, man.”
“Yeah, I think I remember you. Fourteenth row?”)
Anyhow, the game goes on. Salley is getting the hang of it. He comments on the pace (“It’s 20 minutes on ice, 20 minutes to talk to women, 20 minutes on ice . . .”), the boisterous crowd (“We should tape these people, and play it up at the Palace”) and Dave Barr (“He’s gotta be good. He wears my number — 22.”).
And Dave Barr scores a goal.
“Told you,” Salley says.
The Red Wings win, 5-4. Not long before the final horn, Salley reaches to retrieve his jacket from under the seat.
It is covered in beer.
“What the . . .?” he says.
“Welcome to hockey,” I say, shrugging.
When the game ends, we go into the Red Wings’ locker room. Salley meets coach Jacques Demers. (“How come you wear those dark glasses, Jacques? You sleepin’ out there and don’t want people to know?”) He meets Steve Yzerman, the captain. (“You’re baaad, man. How much they paying you?”) He meets Dave Barr, toothless in front. (“Hey, Barr. I used to have a smile like you — when I was three years old.”)
Barr gives him his hockey stick. The equipment man gives him a puck. Salley marvels at the size of these players, and, more impressive, the size of their bruises. Shawn Burr says hello. His calf is swollen like a softball, red and purple.
“Aw, some idiot stepped on me,” Burr says.
Salley watches him walk away. “These guys,” he whispers, “are some crazy bleeps. . . . “
And we leave. Slam dunk meets slap shot. As we walk down the corridor, we pass a goalie net. Salley drops the puck and tries a few shots. They roll. They bounce. Hey. At least he doesn’t swing and miss.
“Hockey is great, man,” he declares, passing more fans, who yell for autographs. “I’m coming back. Is the crowd like this all the time? . . . Yo, baby, what’s your name?”
Well. No one ever accused John Salley of being shy. Still, it is nice to see a big-name athlete go to a game and sit among the fans, expecting no free food, no executive suite. We get outside, reach the car, and Salley leans over, taps my knee, and whispers, in typical disarming fashion: “Hey, thanks for taking me.”
And off he drives, with his new stick and puck — all dressed up and no place to goal. I don’t know how much Salley understands hockey now. I do know he’s got some interesting things to tell Rick Mahorn. And if I were Mahorn’s next opponent?
I’d wear a helmet.
Mitch Albom’s sports-talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” can be heard Sundays, 9 to 11 p.m., on WLLZ 98.7-FM. Guests this week are Bill Laimbeer, Billy Sims and Tony Mandarich. CUTLINE John Salley of the Pistons has a perfect view for his first hockey game.