CALGARY, Alberta — What is it about hockey losses that melts the hardened heart? Here was Brendan Shanahan, head slumped, sitting in a visitors’ dressing room that looked as if a hurricane had just blown through it, gloves and socks and tape strewn across the floor. It was noticeably devoid of players, most of them preferring not to discuss what had just happened out there on the Saddledome ice, a stunning 1-0 overtime loss that ended the Red Wings’ top-ranked season and in all likelihood, their roster as we know it.

Shanahan was still in his uniform, from top to bottom, the white sweater, the red pants, the pads, as if hoping someone might call him to play a few more minutes, maybe change the final score. Then a reporter asked if this early playoff exit was different from previous ones, and his voice began to choke and he bit his lip and he whispered, “More emotional.”

And someone asked, “Did you say more emotional?”

Shanahan is a tough, strapping guy, and I have known him since he joined the Wings in 1996. In that time I have seen him clown, joke, snarl, snap, eat, drink, fight and burst out laughing. I have never seen him cry.

Suddenly he was crying. He tried pushing it back, holding it back, willing it back, squeezing his eyes, biting on his lip, but like the unhappy ending he had just endured on the ice, these tears were going to come, like it or not.

“There’s a lot of guys . . .,” he said softly, “who wondered, this whole season . . . if there’d be a night when we took this uniform off for the last time . . .”

He swallowed hard. His eyes were wet. Tears for the years.

“Nobody can question our desire,” he whispered. Then his jaw tightened and he added, “At least they better not to me.”

Tears for the years.

A time for change

Breaking up is hard to do, and what Shanahan was feeling beneath his valiant attempt at eloquence was that the last chance was indeed gone, the All-Star experiment was finished, the sterling collection of talent that had brought the Red Wings countless victories and three Stanley Cups in the last seven years was going to be disassembled, partly because of age, partly because of money, partly because of the expected labor stoppage, and yes, partly because of the results.

Shanahan is right. Some Wings are taking off that uniform for the last time. This was like having your worst day of high school on your last day of high school. There will be no making up for it. And no going back. Brett Hull, 39, played poorly in Game 6, and that will be his last as a Red Wing. Chris Chelios, 42, had to sit out with an injury, and that will likely be his last, as well. Shanahan, 35, who fired and fired but scored only one goal in the playoffs, has an option year that is expensive, and while the Wings should keep him for leadership and effort, they might well let him go for economics.

And Steve Yzerman, 38, the heart and soul of this franchise, watched Monday’s game from home, his swollen left eye still recovering from four-plus hours of surgery. His last game as a Red Wing might have come and gone as well — not because his skills will falter, but because his sport will. Who knows when hockey will resume and in what form?

“A lot of things are gonna change,” Kirk Maltby said glumly, standing in a small group across the room. “Time will tell how much. But getting knocked out in the first round like last year was no good. And getting knocked out in the second round this year? It’s unacceptable.”

The latest playoff trend

Unacceptable. When 33-year-old Martin Gelinas — referred to as an “old man” on Calgary’s squad — swatted that puck into Curtis Joseph’s net late Monday night, and the stadium exploded in a flash of fire and the music blasted and the Flames’ bench emptied into a happy, exultant pile, it cemented a second label for this Red Wings group:

The first is “All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.”

The second is “underachievers.”

They could have been much more.

If you break the Red Wings of the last 10 years into three waves, it’ll go this way: the group that finally ended the 42-year championship drought (remember Vladdie Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and Mike Vernon?), the group that rallied around a tragic limousine accident to win the Cup again (remember Chris Osgood, Larry Murphy?) and the last group that featured more future Hall of Famers than any before it (remember Dominik Hasek, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille?).

Monday night marked the unraveling of that third group, whose threads loosened the last few years with the loss of Fedorov and Larionov to free agency, Hasek to an injury, and coach Scotty Bowman to retirement. Monday’s 1-0 overtime loss, after a previous 1-0 loss in Game 5, continued a more recent Detroit playoff tradition than hoisting the Cup: getting outhustled, outskated, out-defensed and out-goaltended.

Yes, Joseph did his part. Yes, the referees were no help. But for all the morning-after talk of “if we’d only gotten one goal, it would all be different” think about what is being said: If only, if only, then the Wings might have dragged a series back across the country just to get a chance to maybe win a game to maybe advance beyond the second round against a No. 6 seed that hadn’t gone this far in 15 years!

That’s not the talk of a dynasty.

That’s wishful spinning.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the last eight years,” Shanahan said, “but this franchise plays to win its last game of the year, every year.”

Which is why the Wings will be overhauled.

And should be.

Heartbreaking conclusions

They need to be overhauled not only because they are too old and too slow for today’s playoff challenges, but for a bigger, albeit understandable, reason: because you can’t tell them anything anymore.

You can’t tell them they need a new coach because they’ve come to think of themselves as self-motivated. You can’t tell them they need to score more because they are, on paper, as good an offense as there is in the NHL. You can’t tell them they need more magical goaltending because they have purchased the best goalies money can buy. And you can’t tell them they have to raise their game in the playoffs because they think they already are raising their game — even though three times in four years an inferior team has found something they have not.

And still they break your heart. Here was Kris Draper, who had a career season, facing a group of reporters and saying, “We’re stunned. We’re not able to score a goal in two games? The guys that we have here, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

But then, moments later, when asked if he wanted to stay a Red Wing — he’s a free agent this summer — he nearly whipped out a pen to sign. “Absolutely I want to stay here,” he said. “Absolutely. I don’t want to go anywhere. Detroit has been my home for 11 years. I have so many great memories with the Detroit Red Wings. I’d love to be back.”

How can you get angry at that?

They’ve lost their edge

You think of Yzerman, sitting at home Monday night, watching that final game, and you know the awful writhing that was going on inside him. You know he was thinking, “If I were out there, I could dig that puck from the corner, I could win the face-off. I could save us . . .”

Maybe Chelios thought the same thing. Maybe Hasek, wherever he was watching, felt a similar twinge. Maybe Bowman, too. Who knows?

But the fact is, they weren’t out there. They aren’t who they were. The dilemma of the Red Wings in Detroit is simply — and bluntly — this:

They are special to us. But they are no longer that special.

And the regular season doesn’t mean a damn thing.

So wave good-bye to the senior class and thank it all for the goose-bump memories. The Red Wings might retain many names on their roster — Nicklas Lidstrom, Robert Lang, Darren McCarty — but older marquee ones will be gone, and if Yzerman does indeed hang up his skates, the locker room will have to set a new mood, find a new leader — maybe even get a new coach who can impose his will the way Darryl Sutter did with Calgary.

Meanwhile, the Wings can only hope their young talent like Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Fischer and Henrik Zetterberg develops more than just fast skates and flashy passes. Remember, Yzerman once excelled at those things, too. He only became a champion when he found his grit.

“Is an era over?” a TV reporter asked Shanahan.

The big guy bit his lip again. “I don’t . . . come on . . . I mean, we were just on the ice 15 minutes ago . . .”

Breaks your heart. Breaks your stride. Breaks your team up. Tears for the years. Hockey’s over in Detroit, and for who knows how long.

Why does it feel as if we’re heading into a long, dark tunnel?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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