by | Feb 12, 1986 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The best team in hockey enters the arena just as the worst team in hockey is finishing its practice.

A whistle blows and the worst-team players stop skating to listen to their coach’s instructions. Another whistle. They resume skating. Another whistle. Stop. Another. Skate. The players wear different-colored jerseys, some yellow, some orange, some green. Some look vaguely interested and some just look bored. Practice ends and they go quickly to the showers.

Then the best team in hockey skates out. A small group of spectators rises to its feet; a camera crew, some reporters, a handful of maintenance workers. They stare at the Edmonton Oilers and their neat blue jerseys and their star, Wayne Gretzky.

The best players skate quietly and quickly. They circle each other like neutrons around protons, only they never collide. No whistles. Just the fast sound of skates scratching ice.

One of the players is large and mean-looking, with a sharp forehead and thin eyes. He is chewing gum as he goes by.

“Semenko,” someone coos, “the enforcer.”

Another player whizzes past, his dark hair flying, his boyish face peppered with whiskers.

“Coffey,” someone whispers, “best defenseman in the league.”

Then, suddenly, the best team in hockey breaks into a drill, three players sprinting towards one net, then, in a blink, turning and charging in the other direction, all the while passing the puck among them, three players, then three more, with pucks and sticks and ice shavings flying all over the place, and the onlookers go silent because this is beautiful, really.

Almost unnoticed, a few men wander out through the tunnel. Their hair is wet from the showers. It is not usual for one team to observe another’s practice. But this is the best team in hockey visiting the worst team in hockey and so the Red Wings players take seats in the stands and watch like everyone else. Nothing helps the worst team In the afternoon, there are fans in the hotel lobby, waiting for the best team in hockey.

“Come on, Gretzky, where are you?” mumbles a young man. An Edmonton pennant is tucked under his arm and he has a pen.

The worst-team’s players are already in their homes. They pass the time watching TV, napping, and thinking about the game coming up in a few hours. They have won only 12 games and have lost 37. They have been insulted and teased. They have been racked with changes, because change is the placebo of the over- matched. New coach. New players. It has not helped.

The best team in hockey returns from practice and marches through the lobby of its hotel, the Westin Hotel, a giant maze of glass and concrete. The players are dressed in long trench coats, some blue, some camel-colored. They look straight ahead.

“Can I have your autograph?” a fan asks. One player stops, the others keep going.

A win tonight would help some. A win over the best team in hockey.

Evening comes. Game time. The two teams skate warm-ups around the ice inside Joe Louis Arena. The announcer introduces them and the near-sellout crowd applauds. The worst team in hockey has the most die-hard fans. They would be happy with just a flash of greatness. Maybe tonight. Maybe?

The face-off puck is dropped. One thrill follows another It is a good game. A very good game. Better than anyone imagined. In the first period, the Red Wings have more shots, but every

swing seems to send the puck wide or high. Then an Oiler wiggles free, flicks a shot past the goalie for a score. 1-0. The Red Wings tie it. The Oilers score again. It is 2-1 after two periods.

The final period is frantic. The worst team in hockey is staying in the best team’s shadow. The crowd thunders its approval. And then Reed Larson, the Red Wings defensemen, sends a slap shot to the back of the Oilers net and it is tied and there it is madness. It could happen.

Every moment is edge-of-the-seat now. The Great Gretzky comes down the ice, leading charge after charge. His shots just miss. Or they are thwarted. The Red Wings play with offensive fire. They dive for the puck. They smack bodies against the walls.

For the briefest of stretches there is an electricity, an emotional current that sizzles through the place and causes eruptions of hysteria. It is the reason the fans keep coming out. The reason the players don’t just lie down and die. It is the deliciously intangible sensation that things are finally going to get better.

It does not last.

Edmonton scores. Edmonton wins.

A sign flashes: “Thank You For Coming. Drive Safely.” The arena goes quiet, as if it had been unplugged. What might have been is a vapor. There is only what is. The day ends the way it began, on the arena ice, the best team in hockey passing the worst team in hockey, both going in noticeably different directions.


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