WAITING TO EXHALEHOCKEYTOWN HOLDS ITS BREATH WITH STANLEY CUP HOPES ON THE LINE

Two days ago, in Denver, just hours from what could have been their last night of the season, Scotty Bowman approached Brett Hull.

“Say, Brett,” he said. “I forget. Were you with Dallas in 1999? The year they won the Cup?”

Hull narrowed his eyes. “Uh . . . yeah, Scotty. Remember? I scored the winning goal in overtime of Game 6?”

Bowman nodded. He said, “Umm-hmm.” Then he walked away.

And that, hockey fans, is as close as the Detroit Red Wings come to a pre-game motivational speech.

Work, not words. Pride, not pontification. Bowman was joking with Hull, because he knew a little joke was as much of a pep talk as he or any Red Wing needed. That’s the way it works around here. You can look in every nook and cranny of the Detroit locker room tonight before the Wings’ ultimate showdown, Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals. I promise, you will not find Knute Rockne. Nor George Gipp. Nor Gayle Sayers in
“Brian’s Song” nor Denzel Washington in “Remember the Titans” nor even Russell Crowe in “Mystery, Alaska.”

No speeches. No soliloquies. These are Wings Without Words, Men Without Metaphors, Skaters Without Similes . . .

You get the point. Nothing needs to be said. Besides, at this point, what can you tell them that they don’t already know?

What are you going to say to Hull, for example? He has already scored the ultimate goal in hockey, triple overtime of Game 6 in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. What are you going to say? “Hey, Brett, try to do that again tonight, OK?”

What are you going to say to Dominik Hasek? You know where he was the night Hull scored his miracle? Right in front of him. Hasek was the goalie Hull beat to steal the Cup, sending the Buffalo Sabres home from their last best chance at glory. Hasek already has been on the wrong end of his sport’s ultimate moment.

What are you going to say to him now? “Hey, Dom, you don’t want to feel that way again, do you? So let’s have a great game tonight!”

Come on.

Captain Courageous

What are you going to say to Steve Yzerman, the captain? He waited for 14 long, often tedious seasons before finally winning a Cup in 1997, and again in
’98. Since then, he has battled the hardest stones the devil can throw to get back to that glory — age, injury, a body that screams, “Get off the gas pedal, slow down, how much more can we take?”

Still he churns out there, night after night, grimace after grimace. What would someone say to him at this point? “Steve, let’s make sure your playing on a bum leg doesn’t go to waste, OK?”

I don’t think so.

What would you say to Sergei Fedorov? He has sacrificed his natural offensive one-man show to play tremendous defense, major minutes, powerful penalty killing. Is he doing that for his health? I don’t think so. No more than Tomas Holmstrom is choosing to have the snot knocked out of him every night in front of the net, taking sticks between the legs, sticks across the chest, fists across the face. What could you say to Tomas Holmstrom if you looked him in the eye before tonight’s game? Anything besides “Do you need a bandage for that?” would be inappropriate.

What can you say to Luc Robitaille, who left his family in Los Angeles to spend a year with this team in pursuit of the one thing that counts more than his 600-plus goals — a title. What can you say to Darren McCarty or Kris Draper, whose blood and loyalty were the very ingredients that launched this Colorado-Detroit rivalry more than six years ago?

What can you say to Igor Larionov? He is 41. He has survived the Russian Army. He has endured a battle to play in America. He left behind a country, sacrificed his homeland, his language, his culture, all in pursuit of a hockey dream.

What are you going to inspire him with now? “Hey, Igor, give ’em hell”?

Detroit’s quiet room

The fact is, there have been far more words expended outside the Red Wings locker room than in it. Fans and sports writers and broadcasters and armchair goaltenders all give pep talks about “what the Wings have to do to win.” Almost everyone you meet has a pointer for the offense, a tip for Hasek, a suggestion for Bowman.

But inside the room? It doesn’t work that way. Once in a while, Yzerman will say something. It’s usually short. It’s never scripted. And it wouldn’t sound like much if you played it back with schmaltzy music behind it.

But if you want a clue as to how the emotion really works inside the Red Wings, consider what Yzerman has said publicly over the past six weeks. When Detroit lost the first two games to Vancouver, and everyone was dumping on Hasek, it was Yzerman who said, “Before the series is over, you’re going to say, ‘That Dom, he’s an unbelievable goalie. He played fantastic for Detroit.’

And when the Wings blew home-ice advantage with an overtime loss in Game 2 of this Colorado series, he said, “We think we’re playing well.”

And when they faced elimination in Game 6 on Wednesday night, he said, “Hey, we planned on having to win this game anyhow.”

You get the picture. It’s worth a thousand words. No Knute Rocknes. No “Win One For The Gipper.” The best roster ever assembled didn’t come together to lose tonight, or for that matter, to stop tonight.

You’ll hear that in Game 7, but not with your ears. It will be in every grimace of Yzerman, as he lifts himself up on his stick, and in the hungry eyes of Hasek, who hears retirement calling his name, and the intense gaze of Robitaille, who is closer than he ever dreamed, and in the furrowed brow of Brendan Shanahan, who has always believed he must deliver when it counts.

It will be in the panting chests and the dripping foreheads of every player in a Detroit uniform. A symphony of silence — and all the noise necessary.

They know what they’ve done.

They know what they have to do.

Game on.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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