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

The sticks played taps. Twenty-three sticks, lightly banging a wooden applause, as the banner began to rise to the rafters. This is how hockey players show respect and admiration. Tap the sticks. Curved wood against frozen ice. Louder now. Tap-tap-tap-tap.

Down by the Zamboni end of the rink, three current Red Wings captains, dressed in uniform, heard the taps as they stood beside the Stanley Cup, their eyes lifted skyward. With them were two legends from the last time a championship banner was raised for this franchise, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and people had bomb shelters in their backyards.

Applause filled the air. Up rose the red-and-white flag — “Detroit Red Wings, 1996-97 Stanley Cup Champions” — past the lower level, past the first balcony. The crowd was on its feet, its noise at fever pitch. Music played. Swirling violins and royal trumpets. Lights flashed. Horns sounded. For a moment, they all watched the ascent of their accomplishment, the players tapping their sticks, the captains, the old-timers. Finally, Steve Yzerman burst into a smile and gave an arm hug to white-haired Gordie Howe.

“Thanks for coming,” Yzerman whispered.

Thanks for coming. That’s what Wednesday was all about, this final candle on a championship cake. It was a handshake at the bus station, a wave at the airport, a last tug of affection before a long and emotional journey. A few minutes after this ceremony ended, the ref dropped the puck and the new season was officially under way in Detroit, and the Red Wings were 80 regular-season games and 16 playoff victories away from a championship, just like every other team in the NHL.

But for a moment, one more last-year candle flickered. The banner went higher, hoisted on cables, heading for a space just below the seven banners from earlier teams. This was fitting. It deserved a private space. What happened last June was not just another title, it was the end of a curse, a hallelujah, 42 years of thirst ended with one satisfying gulp.

The cables stopped and the banner rested beneath the others. Nothing to the right. Nothing to the left.

A row of its own.

Thanks for coming.

The missing numbers

“So many times, during breaks in a game last year, or at practice, I would look up and see those old banners and say, ‘Man, it’d be nice to put one up there for ourselves,’ ” said Doug Brown, after this night was over and the Wings had beaten Dallas, 3-1. “Now, whenever we stretch on the ice, I’ll look up and see our banner. It’ll be something special.”

And something unique. For as the Wings got their seasonal introductions, you couldn’t help but notice the numbers that were not called.

Nobody called No. 29, Mike Vernon, who at the end of last season was getting the second-loudest applause, behind Yzerman. Vernon, the playoff MVP, is gone now, he’s in San Jose, a victim of money and age and contracts and all the other things that ruin sports for the fans.

Nobody called No. 91, Sergei Fedorov, traditionally the highest number and thus the last player usually introduced. Fedorov, the Wings’ highest scorer in the playoffs, is absent, without a contract, stuck in the limbo of negotiations, another thing that ruins sports for fans.

And, of course, nobody called No. 16, Vladimir Konstantinov, the Wings’ most significant defenseman, who watched the ceremony from a hospital bed in Royal Oak, still unable to speak or walk, still a long way from where he was that Friday night in June, a few days after the Wings won, before that limousine crashed into that tree on Woodward Avenue and the party really ended for this franchise.

“Come back soon, we love you, we believe,” said an emotional Mickey Redmond, the emcee for the ceremony, sending a broadcast message out to Konstantinov and his fellow victim, team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. The Wings all wore patches saying “we believe” honoring their fallen comrades. Konstantinov’s wife, Irina, and Mnatsakanov’s wife, Yelena, were on hand for the ceremony. They stepped out onto the ice with the players when the banner went up.

It was a wonderful gesture and a painful reminder. And if you don’t think those two things can meld together, you haven’t spent much time here this past summer.

And yet, you must believe in time, and in healing. So here, on this same night of nostalgic tears, was Slava Fetisov, the dear friend of those two men, a guy who survived that night in the limo, taking a sweet feed from Igor Larionov and poking a shot past the Dallas goaltender.

“We say that goal was for Vladdie,” Larionov said. “He is very much missed. And tonight was very strange skating without him.”

Something gained, something lost.

One more time

During the banner-raising ceremony, Bruce Martyn, the longtime voice of the Red Wings, was brought out for a few words.

“Of all the things I’ve seen over the years,” he bellowed, “nothing matched the sight of this team, in this building, holding that cup over their heads.”

The crowd roared again. It was a perfect summation. This team. This building. That cup. These players. Those banners. Those legends. There was such a tremendous familiarity Wednesday night inside Joe Louis Arena that everyone mentioned and everyone featured seemed like old friends. There were new players, old players, new announcers, old announcers, new fans, old fans, a feel-good sea of red and white. For years, they used to say there were 19,000 seats at Joe Louis Arena and 19,001 hockey fans in Detroit.

Today, the numbers have obviously swelled, but it still feels like the same small group. Doesn’t it?

That’s what hockey can do in the right town. This is the right town, and this is what it does: Pulls us all together, in celebration, in grief, in a tap-along at home with 23 tapping sticks on the ice Wednesday night, tapping for all that this team won, all that it lost, all that has been done, and all that it is left to do.

Thanks for coming.

“When you saw that banner raised,” someone asked Gordie Howe, “did you feel that something was finally ended for you, because there’s now a newer championship team than yours?”

“Nah,” Howe said, laughing. “They still have three to go to catch us.”

Well, then. Let’s get started, shall we?

Mitch Albom will sign his new book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 tonight at Barnes and Noble, Telegraph and Maple, Bloomfield Hills. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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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