by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TORONTO — The goalie sat in a darkened corner high above the ice, and whenever a Toronto player fired a shot he instinctively inched forward as if to stop it, then, remembering where he was, what he had done, why he was here, he sat back.

No saving tonight. Here was Greg Stefan, a healthy Greg Stefan, there was nothing physically wrong with him, and yet he was up here, next to the Maple Leaf Gardens organ player, wearing a charcoal suit with a pink tie and black shoes, while the Red Wings were sweating through their uniforms on the ice below. He wasn’t playing in this critical playoff game. He wasn’t dressing. No mask. No pads. No saving tonight.

“Why are you doing this?” someone asked. “Don’t you want to help the team?”

“I’m doing this for the team,” he said. “I don’t want to be a negative influence on everybody.”

“Don’t you think it’s a negative for you to be sitting up here in such a big game?”

“If they’re not gonna use me I don’t really want to be sitting there,” he said. “I don’t think it makes any difference if I sit here or down there.”

He looked at his feet. Out on the ice, the Wings were skating to their toughest loss of the season, a 3-2 overtime defeat by the Leafs. He should have been part of it. Instead, he sat on a folding chair beneath a steel girder. Behind him was a giant metal spotlight. The noise whipped around the rafters. This was cobweb corner. You couldn’t get any farther from the ice.

“You’re hurt. That’s mostly it, isn’t it?”

“I’m . . . well . . . yeah . . . I am,” he said.

Demers’ words linger

What had happened here? Stefan had been the Wings’ No. 1 goalie all season, a man coach Jacques Demers hailed as “a reason for us being here in the playoffs.” And yet the coach had replaced Stefan with Glen Hanlon after Stefan struggled in the first two games of this series.

“I could understand that,” Stefan said. “I wasn’t doing well, Glen was playing good. I didn’t expect to start this game (Game 4). Oh, no. Not after the way Glen has played.”

What he also didn’t expect was a statement by Demers in the press on Sunday: “Greg Stefan won’t see the Leafs any more in this series.” After that, Stefan told Demers he “wouldn’t be comfortable” sitting on the bench as Hanlon’s backup.

It was a decision Demers had made. It was a statement that, in retrospect, he probably wishes he had not. Demers said his intention was to go with his best goalie of the moment (Hanlon) while sparing Stefan any more embarrassment against the Leafs, who appeared to have him psyched out. But the words backfired, they made Stefan feel unwanted, perhaps a bit betrayed, and this is a guy, remember, whose personality is a sheet in the wind to the wrong kind of criticism.

“I don’t know why Jacques would say that,” Stefan said, his eyes darting from the ice to the questioner. “Maybe it just slipped out. No, he said it, so it didn’t just slip out.

“Maybe he was trying to get me going, or something, I don’t know. . . . I’m feeling pretty down right now. I just have to work this out myself.”

And so he sat up there, next to the organist, alongside the other Wings extras. When Mel Bridgman scored the first goal for the Wings, Stefan watched from 75 feet above. And when Wendel Clark punched in a goal to tie it, 1-1, Stefan stood beneath the steel girder, his hands dug deep in his suit pockets.

And when that final heartbreaking goal was scored by Toronto’s Mike Allison 9:31 in to the overtime, he sat with his hands locked around his knee, motionless and emotionless.

No saving tonight. Shouldn’t team come first?

Who’s wrong? The whole thing is wrong. This Red Wings game was so big, nothing should have detracted from it. The Wings deserved Stefan’s presence and his support.

But it is tough to take sides. Why did Demers need to make that statement? And if Stefan is really a team player — and he is — why couldn’t he swallow it in the interest of team harmony?

The principles are simple. So is this: Words hurt. They always have. And on this night, apparently, the words hurt too much for Stefan to worry about the implications.

So he sat there, as Glen Hanlon did an admirable job in the net, and by game’s end most fans had forgotten his absence. In the end, people are always more interested in who wins games than who wins arguments.

In his suit and tie and long blond hair curling down his back, Stefan looked like a kid in his birthday suit being forced to wait outside the party. But he chose to sit out. What happens next is largely up to him.

No saving tonight. No telling tomorrow.

“I need some time to get myself together,” he said. “I have to do it by myself.” He sat back down, and clasped his hands. The giant spotlight pointed right over his shoulder to the ice below.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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