THANKS A MILLIONRED WINGS CLIMB MOUNTAIN;CROWD TAKES THEM EVEN HIGHER

After all these years, they finally got to play outdoors.

The Red Wings, Detroit’s boys of winter, left a small miracle on their way into summer Tuesday, one that ranks right up there with the championship they won Saturday night. Having already moved this city emotionally, they actually moved it physically, playing Pied Piper to a million — yes, a million — cheering fans, leading them down Woodward into a sea of humanity at Hart Plaza. Hundreds of thousands fell into line behind the final car that carried Steve Yzerman, the captain, who held the Stanley Cup over his head like a warrior carrying the crown of the vanquished king.

“I didn’t think anything could top Saturday night,” Yzerman told the crowd, standing on a podium with the rest of his team, “but this is the icing on the cake. It’s blown the players away. It’s taken our breath away. We expected a lot of people, but we never expected this.”

The crowd roared. To an outsider, it might have seemed like just another sports rally. But it was more than that here. It was making peace with a team and a city. It was making a connection between people of all ages and races.

And it was making a memory. Parents took their kids out of school and drove them downtown saying, “You need to see this. We want you to remember this years from now, and tell your children when you’re grown.”

Take me to the river. That’s the way the song goes. And by gathering a million people in peaceful celebration near the Detroit River, the Wings may have inadvertently done more for the city than many of their owner’s expensive investments. People all over Michigan saw a safe and happy gathering. People all over the world saw that Detroit can celebrate not one night, not two nights, but three days and nights — with a million people in a single place
— without incident, without fire, without ugliness. Where’s the CNN special report? Where’s the New York Times feature story?

Never mind. If the rest of the nation is only interested in painting this town with one brush, we’ll simply use another. And paint it red.

Take me to the river.

A mobile cup

“Those who could sing, sang, those who could dance, danced,” said coach Scotty Bowman when asked to explain why this team, of all his Red Wings squads, won the cup.

Those who could sing, sang, those who could dance, danced. It’s as good — and as cryptic — an explanation of teamwork as I have ever heard. And if you ever doubted the sense of camaraderie of this unit, you haven’t been watching these guys the last few days, as they try to dance together, as they laugh at each other’s speeches, and one turns to the other and says, on the verge of tears, “Is this unbelievable, or what?”

Hockey players. People have been asking why these Red Wings have such a grip on their fans, more, it seems, than baseball, football or basketball players. And I suppose it’s the boyish nature of the guys involved. They don’t think a whole lot of themselves. There’s nobody trying to be above it all.

It’s more about guys like Kevin Hodson, the backup-backup goalie, joking with the crowd Tuesday that he was “jobbed” on the Conn Smythe Trophy, and saying that, given how little he actually played, he “planned on renewing my season tickets.”

It’s guys like Mike Vernon, who actually won the Conn Smythe Trophy, accidentally leaving it in the locker room Saturday night.

“I forgot about it,” he admitted Monday. “I figured somebody else had it.”

“What if somebody took it?” he was asked.

“Ahh, nobody’ll take it. It’s too heavy.”

It’s guys like Kris Draper, who, after a full night of partying, stopped in a Ram’s Horn at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday — and brought the Stanley Cup in with him for breakfast.

“Everybody was touching it and everything,” Draper said, laughing. “One of the waitresses there called her son at home to tell him, and the kid said,
‘Mom, I’m tired, stop playing jokes.’ “

That’s the thing. They never stop playing jokes. They never get to the haughty place so many other big-time athletes do. Brendan Shanahan brought the cup with him to a radio interview Monday. And tonight he takes it on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The night before Yzerman took the cup home and gave it a shower, because it smelled so bad from all the drinks that had been poured in it.

They go to parties with it, they go to restaurants with it, they stop and play with kids and they honk at people who wave. They are as happy winning a title as most of us imagine we would be — and that’s where the connection begins. Remember that most hockey players don’t win Final Fours or Rose Bowls in college. This is, for many, the first big national title they have ever won.

And for some Wings, that national thing means even more. Was there a more moving moment than Monday night, in the rally at Joe Louis Arena, when Igor Larionov, the 36-year-old Russian center who speaks like a poet and skates like a tactician, lowered his head and bit his lip, fighting back the tears, as the crowd yelled, “One more year! One more year!”

“I never expected so much love from the fans,” Larionov later admitted. “I am fighting my emotions inside.”

“Do they have parades like this in Russia?” he was asked.

“We have a long history of parades,” he said slyly. “Many are for revolutions, where attendance is mandatory.”

There was no mandatory attendance Tuesday. Just a million people who wanted to say thanks, and a few dozen payers who wanted to say you’re welcome.

Take us to the river.

What a run

After the parade and rally, the players gathered at Joe Louis Arena for the official championship team photo. And for the last time, they donned their uniforms and skates and stood proudly on the ice, in an empty arena, and posed for posterity. There were bloodshot eyes and some tired shoulders, but the facial hair was mostly gone and the boys looked liked boys.

“I think it’s all the smiling,” forward Doug Brown said. “We wake up smiling and we go to bed smiling.”

That’s pretty much how the city has felt since Saturday, isn’t it? The sun has never dropped from the daytime sky, and the moon seems extra-bright. If there has been a happier, more unified, better-weathered three-day stretch in recent Detroit history, I can’t think of it.

Now, a moment for perspective. None of the Wings has saved any lives here. And it is true, every day, in hospitals, schools, and fire and police departments, there are more true acts of heroism than anything that involves putting a puck in a net.

But pro sports don’t exist to provide water, build roads or protect citizens. They exist because deep down, people want to be drawn together by something, they want to feel unified and territorial, they want to witness excellence and take pride in that excellence because they live here.

The Wings are ours because we live here. And if they can’t cure urban ills, they can show us that the energy of a city united is a magnificent thing to behold. If we could do what we did Tuesday for a parade, just imagine what we could do if we harnessed that energy for other purposes.

That is the final gift of this hockey club. As the sun began to set Tuesday, Yzerman, who has been celebrated like a god these last few days, finished a late interview and said good- bye. He went to go back in the locker room, turned the door handle and found it locked. All his teammates had left.

“I knew this would happen,” he said.

He banged a few times, and a woman who works in catering shouted from behind the door.

“Who is it?”

“Leslie, it’s Steve. Can you open the door, please?”

“OK.”

And thanks to catering, the most celebrated man in the city was given entrance to his workplace.

Isn’t that perfect? What a run. What a season. There will be good days and good years ahead, we hope, but it will be hard to top this happy stretch of 1997, when the boys of winter became the joys of spring, and Detroit just couldn’t stop smiling.

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