SO LONG, STANLEYHEY, WE STILL HAVE THOSE MEMORIES

SUMMER melted.

The icy joy that for two years has been Detroit hockey nirvana dissolved Tuesday night into a soggy puddle, splashed by a Colorado team bus heading happily out of town. It was ugly. It was decisive. It was a night to forget for a team to remember.

And it was solid defeat. Four straight losses. Despite a last-minute gasp of proud Detroit effort, here is the only image you need from The End Of The Kingdom: Chris Osgood, the Red Wings goalie, on his back, helpless as a newborn, with the Avalanche’s Joe Sakic pecking at him like a vulture on a corpse. Sakic dug and poked — amazingly untouched by any Red Wing — until he unearthed the puck and shoved it into an open net.

On the Detroit bench, the heads dropped, the breath was exhaled and the word
“champion” began to transform from a feeling to a memory.

So long, Stanley.

“You can look at it as we underachieved, or you can look at it as we got beat by a great team,” said a sighing Steve Yzerman, after the Wings exited the playoffs in the second round with a 5-2 loss to Colorado in Game 6. “I choose to look at it as Colorado played fantastic.”

The Wings were hoping to make history with a third straight Stanley Cup. Instead they came undone faster than a schoolkid’s fib. The Avs scored first, they scored second, they even scored when they were one man down.

Detroit, meanwhile, took countless shots at Colorado’s Patrick Roy — clearly the MVP of the series — with all the success of a kid throwing rocks at a barn. The defining sound of this series was the thud of Detroit puck against Roy’s pad and stick, shot after shot, night after night. Roy — who stopped every shot he faced from late in Game 4 until it was too late in Game 6 — nearly killed the Wings all by himself.

By the time Detroit put a goal past him Tuesday, the travel reservations had been made for Colorado’s conference finals. And the flying carpet that has, for two years, carried Wings fans into a glorious June parade had crashed on the banks of the Detroit River.

And it’s only the middle of May.

“I’ve noticed over the years that teams who win championships get stronger as they go on,” Yzerman said. “That’s what Colorado did and that’s what we didn’t.”

Oh, for a brief stretch Tuesday night, hope glimmered. The Wings closed the gap from 4-0 to 4-2 within 29 productive seconds late in the second period.

But that ember was doused in the third period, with 6 1/2 minutes left, when Peter Forsberg, the goat of the first two games, came charging down the ice on a breakaway, with only Igor Larionov giving chase. Larionov, the symbol of the older, wiser Red Wings, is 13 years Forsberg’s senior. It showed. Igor clung to him, poked him with his stick, desperately tried to throw him off rhythm.

But Forsberg sped on, drew Osgood down and beat him with the kind of shot the Wings never got on Roy.

Forsberg slid into the net for extra measure. And as the crowd went silent, he emerged with his arms raised, yowling like a banshee. If you drove to Joe Louis Arena this morning, you could probably still hear his voice echoing off the water.

So long, Stanley.

Four straight defeats

It was a sad moment for guys like Yzerman, the captain who was all heart all playoffs, and Osgood, who played gamely with a bad knee, and Larionov, who was fighting a hand injury, and Scotty Bowman, who was bidding for history as the only coach to win nine cups, and, well, it was sad for the whole roster. All of them.

What happened to the Wings from a week ago, who came to Detroit with a 2-0 series lead and a chance to shut it down without taking another airplane?

What happened was Colorado winning four straight, in a stunning turnaround, one that may take some time to analyze. In the end, one team was playing hockey and the other team was playing history. The Wings skated as if the weight of their legacy was strapped to their ankles. Colorado skated as if it had, well, wings on its feet.

No one will deny that Detroit is a great team. But their only “great” Tuesday night was the great opportunities that never materialized. Wendel Clark taking a perfect pass from Sergei Fedorov and flicking it uselessly over the net. Nick Lidstrom with a point-blank bead on the goal, hitting the post. Larionov with a sweet feed to Todd Gill, right in front, who put no mustard on a wide-open shot.

It died in Roy’s glove.

This was simply not to be. When it counted, the Avalanche looked as if it were taking a first-grade spelling test, while the Wings looked as if they were trying to pass the bar. Making clean passes seemed as difficult for Detroit as threading a needle with frayed thread. Shots came as easily as kidney stones.

This was surely a result of trying too hard, and you can’t fault the Wings for that. But if you can’t win when you don’t try enough, and you can’t win when you try too hard, well, you can’t win.

Colorado simply held the emotional strings on this series, and played them marvelously. The Avs did what the Wings could not do, kept the opponent down when they had it down. That’s how you win championships. You kill the snake when you get it in your grip.

Let’s be honest, folks. If you beat the Stanley Cup champions four straight times in the playoffs, nobody can say anything to you except, “Enjoy the next round.”

The Wings were beaten, fair, square, and bare.

A difficult regular season

Now, this exit comes as a shock to Wings fans, who may feel this morning as if they lost their best friend. But in the cold light of a few weeks’ time, it may not seem so shocking.

First, remember, this team had struggled all year. Many analysts said they
“didn’t have it” for much of the regular season. Sure, they surged at the trade deadline — when other teams were slacking off — mostly because of new blood and heightened anticipation.

And then the Wings inflated expectations when they swept Anaheim in the first-round playoff series. But they match up well with that team, and have had Anaheim’s number before (remember the four-game sweep of the Ducks in 1997?). In short, Anaheim was not much of a test.

Colorado was. Detroit’s Game 1 victory, you recall, came in overtime on an unlikely goal from Kirk Maltby. Could have gone either way. Game 2 was all Wings, it’s true, but the rest of the way, they were smothered.

Goaltending. Defense. Offense. Smarts.

They were simply outdone.

And looking back, there is nothing that says it couldn’t have happened, nothing that says the Wings were as mighty as we imagined them — except our nostalgic memories. The truth is, this season, their record against “good” teams was pretty sad (four victories, eight losses against Colorado, Dallas and Phoenix.)

It could be the Avalanche was simply the piper the Wings had to pay.

As for the “trading day miracle” that was supposed to make the Wings invincible — the March 23 acquisition of Chris Chelios, Ulf Samuelsson, Bill Ranford and Clark? — well, it certainly lit the room for a while. But in the end, it was more like a splash of lighter fluid on old coals than it was a new fire.

Let’s be honest. Samuelsson came with an injury, and finished with an injury. Ranford won two meaningful playoff games, then lost at least one and didn’t help in the other. Clark’s legs and arms seemed to turn to stone as the postseason wore on, and his slowness showed badly on Tuesday night. Only Chelios made notable contributions from his arrival, but even he showed his age.

In short, the “miracle trades” did not yield four new, vital players. More like one significant one, one declining one and two spot guys. A help, for sure. But not a miracle cure. (To back this up statistically, Chelios had no goals and was minus-8 for the Colorado series; Clark had one goal and was minus-3; Ranford won two and lost two; and Samuelsson was in street clothes at the end.)

“Do you know now why it’s hard to win three cups in a row?” someone asked Brendan Shanahan in the locker room after the game.

“Hey, it was hard to win two,” he said. “It was hard to win one.”

Summer, melted.

But what a two-year run

When the final horn sounded, one by one, the Wings shook hands with the Avalanche, and curled into an exit, skating off the ice, stepping over the threshold, disappearing down the tunnel. It seemed as if they should have come back out, waving and smiling. But those moves are a memory now. The dynasty closed the same way it began, with a standing ovation for the disappearing red-and-white clad players.

And with that it ends, this wonderful stretch of Detroit hockey dominance that made ice a symbol of summer, and missing teeth a symbol of a smile. It seems like everyone around these parts became a skater since 1997, everyone knew what a check was, how to find the five hole, knew the blue line from the red line. Hockey became more than sport in Michigan; it was pride, clothing, car flags, fantasy games, charity auction items. The Wings were never arrogant in their kingdom. On the contrary, they spread it around. And in so doing, they did their hometown proud.

Nothing that happened Tuesday night erases that, mind you.

Nothing that happened Tuesday erases the 42 years of frustration that gloriously ended when Steve Yzerman hoisted the cup over his head in 1997. Nothing that happened Tuesday night erases the snapshot of Vladimir Konstantinov, smiling from his wheelchair, a cigar in his mouth, as the team mugged for a photo at center ice last June.

Nothing that happened Tuesday erases the sun-soaked parades of the last two summers, when we gathered to celebrate victory, but also a rebirth of pride in a downtown happening.

Nothing that happened Tuesday brings down those banners that hang in the Joe Louis rafters.

What’s done is done and can’t be undone; not the bad, but not the good either. Real winners treat victory and defeat the same, with a wise humility. That’s the real mark of champions. We hope that’s how the Wings define themselves now.

There is, as the expression goes, always a next year, and as eyes turn toward that, we turn away from the final snapshot of 1999, the Wings stepping into the tunnel, the final cheers dying into quiet.

“It’s going to be hard to see the cup go to another town,” Shanahan said, his playoff beard freshly shaved, the skin smooth but still sweating. “Before I came here, I used to watch it every year, see the players take it home and enjoy it. But I won’t be able to watch that. It feels like it’s ours.”

Understandable, but not true; the cup belongs to hockey. And every year someone else gets a chance.

So, see ya, Stanley. Enjoy that new town, the new champagne bath, the new team kiss, the new parade. Make some other players feel like starry-eyed kids, and make some other starry-eyed kids feel like players.

But remember this. The beauty of sports is that, no matter how lousy everyone feels today, the whole thing starts over in a few months. The Wings will be back.

Which means, one day, Stanley, so will you.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and the “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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