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

Millions of years from now, when all that is left of mankind are some dusty ruins and a tape of the Red Wings’ 2004 playoffs, aliens will assume that the closing ritual of every NHL game was to have an opposing player skate toward the goalie, and casually — some might even say matter-of-factly — ram an elbow into his head.

Which pretty much sums up Ville Nieminen’s last few seconds Thursday night.

In what can only be described as “an NHL moment,” Ville — you’ll notice the spelling is just one letter away from “Vile” — apparently decided that since the Red Wings were taking home a 4-2 victory, it was OK for him to take something home, too: a piece of Curtis Joseph’s face.

“I was going behind the net and — I don’t know — my arm kind of got stuck,” Nieminen told the Calgary media.

Yes. And I’m Donald Trump. And you’re fired.

By the way, this would be a perfectly legitimate explanation by Ville, were it not a total lie. For one thing, if you want to go behind the net, you usually don’t go through the goalie. Not when he’s standing in front of it.

And this thing about getting his arm stuck? I’ve had my arm stuck. Got it stuck in a car door once. Got it stuck in a vending machine trying to get a bag of pretzels.

I never got it stuck in a goalie’s face. I don’t actually think that’s possible. A nice try from Mr. Vile — who is Finnish by birth, and therefore ought to know a big fish story when he tells one — but no cigar.

What really happened is this: He behaved like a punk.

End of explanation.

A few seconds of stupidity

What really happened also can be explained by what I call the “Twilight Zone” theory of hockey’s final seconds. Somehow, in the NHL, once a game is decided — as Game 4 was when Nieminen lost his marbles — everything you do suddenly isn’t really part of the game. You’re in another dimension. Glaring penalties that your coach would kill you over suddenly become acceptable. Things you would never try during an important stretch of the game are now not only OK, they are expected.

So certain hockey players throw punches and swing elbows “to send a message.” I keep wondering what “message” is being sent.

Is it, “Watch out, we’re coming to play you in Detroit.” Yeah? So? We know. It’s on the schedule. Today at 3.

Is it, “Remember me, buddy. I’ll be here next game.” So? How could we forget? We’ve been playing the same team for a week.

Like a lot of Detroiters, I was watching those final seconds on TV, and when Nieminen ran into Joseph, I thought Mickey Redmond, the color analyst, was going to leap out of the booth and push Joseph into the middle of the ice, like the guy who shoves Russell Crowe out to the killers in “Gladiator.”

“I don’t care what you say,” Redmond gushed to his partner, Ken Daniels, “I’d prefer Joseph takes that goal stick like a British Columbia two-hander and just labels him! You got no choice . . . ! You put the lumber on him like never before!”

“You’re saying when he was coming to the net?” Daniels offered.

“Well, that too,” Redmond said.

The ruling from the top

I spoke to Mickey on Friday and while he admitted he went a little over the top — a “British Columbia two-hander,” by the way, is basically an old-fashioned baseball swing — he holds in principle to what he was saying.

“That guy was trying to hurt Curtis Joseph,” Mickey said. “He should be suspended.”

He was. The NHL suspended him for today’s Game 5. If the league hadn’t, Calgary should have, because he hurt the Flames far more than he hurt Joseph. A guy like him — who played for Colorado and Chicago — should know the Red Wings thrive on this kind of stuff. They eat it up.

True, they often find it hard to get worked up over an “opponent” when the opponent is a shapeless collection of players wearing the same uniform. But give them a human being to hate — hello, Claude Lemieux — and they suddenly play as if the last lights of their life are in those nets.

In the first round, against Nashville, the Wings didn’t really wake up until Nashville goalie Tomas Vokoun made some silly statements about the Wings being annoying and whiny.

Boom! Say good night, Tommy boy. The Wings smacked the Predators two straight games and sent them home for the summer. And all Vokoun did was talk!

So you can imagine today, at Joe Louis Arena, if Nieminen actually had stepped on the ice, the nice friendly reception the players would have had for him, not to mention the warm-and-fuzzy crowd.

Why, he’d be as popular as disco.

As for Joseph? Well. He was positively Gandhi after that play. He didn’t swing. He didn’t chase. He even said, when asked about it, “It’s part of the game.”

Yes, Ville, and today your team will find out how much. You made Joseph a target. But you also gave a target to the Wings. It’s everyone with a Calgary jersey. And they’re likely to attract a lot more than a casual elbow.

Even an alien could tell you that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or”


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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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