EDMONTON, Alberta — “Hey, how does this machine work?” Greg Stefan hollered. He was with several teammates inside a subway station Tuesday morning, heading to practice at Northlands Coliseum. Except the ticket box kept spitting back Stefan’s quarters.
“Drop them a little slower,” suggested Mel Bridgman. “Like this. See? Give it a chance to settle, and it works.”
Stefan let the coins drop more slowly. And out came his ticket. He grabbed it, marched ahead to his teammates, and fell into their pace.
Give it a chance to settle, and it works. Fitting words, no? Here was the Red Wings’ No. 1 goalie, a sometimes brilliant player who’d been demoted during the Toronto playoff series, where he was awful, and who’d reacted like an angry child. He refused to dress. He sat up in the organ loft. His replacement, Glen Hanlon, was simply All-World, and largely because of him, the Red Wings won the series. They advanced.
Now, the day of the opening game against Edmonton, the semifinal round, the biggest game of the year in a season where every game is now the biggest game of the year — and Greg Stefan was back. The anger? The resentment? The harsh words? Give him a chance to settle . . .
“You starting tonight?” asked a commuter.
“Yep,” said Stefan.
. . . and he works.
AND HE WORKED. Ooh, how he worked! He gave up but one goal all night, the Red Wings won, 3-1, to take the early lead in this series, and shock everybody in this lonely northern town, where championship expectations are as high as the sun.
It was a brave performance, and the playoffs are the time for that quality. Words and off-ice distractions are for losers. So there was no thought of Stefan’s childish behavior when the heat came down Tuesday night. And it came down often:
Like in the second period, when he stood firm in the net with none other than Wayne Gretzky hovering behind him, puck in possession. This was a goalie’s nightmare — Gretzky? Help me, Lord — and the Great One came spinning around and . . . shot! Save! Rebound shot! Save! . . .
Like later that period, when Mark Messier wound up with a clear shot to the left of the net — Messier? Great. A second nightmare — and the puck came screaming in and Stefan got himself in front of it, somehow, someway, and batted it away. . . .
Like all night long, when the Edmonton players came streaking down the ice at that speed that seems to be a notch above everyone else in hockey, and the crowd rose and you could smell the blood and yet nothing, they came away with nothing, and you can blame their rustiness and you can blame their overconfidence, but the results were the same and the goalie’s name who goes on this game remains.
Give him a chance to settle and he works.
Red Wings lead the series, 1-0.
“What about all that happened in the Toronto series?” Stefan had been asked after that morning practice. “Have you just forgotten all that now?”
“I want to,” he said. “If I could go back and change it I would. I would do things differently. I would have just gone right to Jacques (Demers) and told him how I felt. No newspapers or anything. And I would have dressed.
“I was upset, I was very upset. What can I do? I don’t regret what I was feeling. I regret what happened. But I can’t change that, right? . . . “
Right. But Demers can.
AT LEAST HE tried to Tuesday night. Here was the latest chapter in Men Without Nets. Goalie, goalie, who plays goalie? Why Stefan? Here is one explanation: Hanlon was tired. He’d started five games in nine days. Had he started Tuesday night and gotten racked, the Wings would be down, 1-0, and the “ace” everyone was talking about would be proved mortal.
On the other hand, Demers starts Stefan in Game 1; and if he shines, well, great, now there are two worthy goaltenders. And if he collapses, OK, Demers can start Hanlon next game.
Except he didn’t collapse. He held tough. And the Wings and Demers are now in the enviable if puzzling position: Who starts next?
Who knows? Demers game of herky-jerky with his goalies has been like watching a crap table player on a hot streak; there is fascination and fear at the same time. How long does the magic go on? Who knows? For now, however, he cannot be faulted:
Give it a chance to settle, and it works. Demers knows goalies, like the machines at that subway station, can be your ticket in the playoffs. All it takes is the right touch. Red Wings lead, 1-0.
You gonna argue?