I did not go to the Red Wings game Tuesday night because they were in first place. I went because . . . I love hockey. Yeah. That’s it.

“How about that Greg Stefan?” I said to a familiar-looking face in the press box elevator. “He’s looking awful sharp, don’t you think?”

“Who are you?” came the answer.

What a kidder. Yes, the Wings are something, aren’t they? Bounding back from that embarrassment of a season last year, and now, under coach Jacques Demers, playing a different kind of hockey, the kind with effort, the kind with heart.

As a person who sees a fair dose of sports, I appreciate those qualities. And that’s why I went to the game. Besides, they are in fir—

. . . firm control. Yeah. They are in firm control out there. That’s it.

“How about that John Ogrodnick?” I asked the man at the entrance. “He’s hot, eh?”

“You got a pass?” he said. Is this the real thing? Now, I confess a certain hockey innocence. It is an occupational hazard. The NHL season begins during the World Series, runs through the Super Bowl, and finishes up just as baseball is getting started again. It is all I can do to see a goal scored and remember it counts for one point, not seven, and no one gets an RBI.

And I can’t skate.

But excitement is excitement, and it was clear when I walked into Joe Louis Arena last night that this was exciting sports action. I wanted to see that. And I wanted to see a team in fi–

. . . fine form. Yeah. That’s it. It takes a keen eye to appreciate the fine form of hockey.

“What a shot!” I screamed when the puck went in off the stick of Gerard Gallant.

“This is warm-ups,” someone said.

I knew that. Just testing. Like other enthused fans inside Joe Louis, I could barely wait for the game to start. I looked around. The arena was filled to the rafters. No fair-weather fans in Detroit. No fair weather, either.

And when the game began, those fans roared whenever the puck got within 30 feet of the goal. I mean roared! The only time Lions fans roar like that is when you tell them they can go home early.

Stefan made some excellent saves and Allan Bester, the goalie for Toronto, made some too, and I noted their accomplishments on my pad, along with the other hard-working journalists there.

By the way, there’s a great camaraderie between us hockey writers. A certain, shall we say, warmth, that comes from our work. I felt that almost immediately.

And then I spotted Keith Gave, the Free Press’ hockey writer.

“Yo! Yo! Keith!” I said, waving my hands up and down. “Yo! Keith!”

“Down the hall and to the left, bud,” he said. And then they went wrong Now, I should explain something here. It is true, when I left for the Rose Bowl in California, the Red Wings were tied for last in the Norris Division. And when I returned they were all alone in first.

Never mind that these days, being No. 1 in the Norris division is like being the smartest kid in the Little Rascals. I am not the type to be lured by such simple attractions anyhow.

No, sir. I go for the art of sports, the finer points. There’s nothing like seeing two great rivals, Detroit and Toronto, mix it up out on the ice. And there’s nothing like being in f–

. . . front of a great crowd.

Yeah.

“That was a terrific first quarter,” I said to a veteran colleague. “I can hardly wait for the second half. Can you?”

“Are you lost, sonny?” he said.

OK. The truth is, I haven’t had a chance to attend all the Wings games I should. My New Year’s resolution is to attend more. I promised to be diligent on this. In fact, as the night went on, and I got into the flow of the game more and more, I began checking the calendar. I was already planning on at least a half-dozen games this month.

And then Toronto scored.

And then Toronto scored again.

And then the game was over.

It was the first time this season the Wings went into the third period with a lead and lost. It was the first time I was there to watch them.

And it occurred to me that there might be a relationship here.

Which is why, when the game was over, I immediately called my boss.

“Listen,” I said, “when you sent me to California for a week, the Wings went from last place to first place. Well, I’ve been thinking. Can you imagine if I went out there for, let’s say, a month? Can you imagine how well the Wings would play?”

“Do I know you?” he said.

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