WE CAN ALL BE PROUD OF HOW RED WINGS WORE THE CROWN

ISHOULD SAY, from the start of this particular column, that it is not for outsiders. If you aren’t from Michigan, you probably won’t get it.

And if you’re not a hockey fan, you probably won’t get it.

And if you’re a journalistic wise guy, one who thinks the only good use of newspaper space is critical and negative use of newspaper space, then you, too, will probably not get it.

But most of you will. Because most of you saw what I saw these past few years, a hockey team that lifted the level of expectations in this city and then, remarkably, exceeded them.

When the Red Wings’ two-time Stanley Cup championship finally ended late Tuesday night, with a 5-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, fans rose to their feet at Joe Louis Arena, showering the team with wild applause — not in celebration this time, but in appreciation.

It was fitting. So may I take a moment here — before the boys of winter head too deeply into summer — to do the same?

An appreciation. First for a man like Steve Yzerman, who in humility showed how greatness is really served. For years I watched him suffer at the end of losing seasons, looking like a man who had just been shut out of heaven. When the long drought finally ended two years ago, and he held the Cup in his arms, I remember how his eyes got moist and his voice quivered when he said, “No matter what happens now, they’ll never be able to say, ‘He couldn’t win it.’ They can never say that ever again.”

They still can’t. Yzerman inspired us with his winning, he inspired us by improving his game — it may be the best it’s ever been, and he’s 34 years old
— and he inspired us, most notably, by putting it all into proper perspective. To me, the most worthwhile thing he did in these playoffs was announce that whenever his third baby was born, he would be there, even if he had to miss a crucial game.

That’s a leader.

That deserves thanks.

From Iggy to Ozzie to Shanny

So, too, do guys like Igor Larionov and Nick Lidstrom. How many years are they going to come out, play like wizards and leave without seeking a pat on the back? Larionov, the chess-loving Russian, and Lidstrom, the family-loving Swede, never chase headlines. They seem to draw pleasure from their own productivity, like a watchmaker huddling over his tiny creation. Do you know how important a tone they set in the locker room?

That deserves thanks. More often than it’s given.

An appreciation here also for Scotty Bowman, who, while being the scourge of many media folk, still did a remarkable thing this season, came back from heart surgery and the death of his brother. And an appreciation for his assistants, Barry Smith and Dave Lewis, who took over in his absence, won most of the games, then slid back — without complaint — into the supporting cast. There aren’t many guys who would do that.

Believe me. There aren’t.

An appreciation for Chris Osgood, who played through the pain of a bum knee in the last two games, limping around the net in between breaks, so badly that his teammates whispered, “Ozzie’s hurt, he might have to come out” — and then play resumed and somehow he went back to his flopping, diving, kick-saving self. Osgood is no longer the timid, looks-like-a-schoolkid goalie. His quiet now is more smarts than shyness.

And, while we’re on quiet, a nod here to the guys who aren’t. Guys like Brendan Shanahan, Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby. These guys talk without

bragging, they give quotes without casting aspersions. On every team there are always media-friendly types — but often they come at the expense of someone else. I can’t recall hearing any of those guys badmouth a teammate. Not ever.

And along those lines, in their two years of being the the best team — and therefore the highest-profile team — in the NHL, how often did you hear about a Red Wing breaking the law, abusing a woman, hitting a fan?

The Wings were as much a dynasty as

the recent Dallas Cowboys; they just behaved better.

Thanks for the memories

A thanks for the way the joy of winning was a community thing, not a private deal for the athletes.

A thanks for how the Stanley Cup was shared with restaurants, bank lobbies, children’s hospitals.

A thanks for the countless signed jerseys, team photos, sticks, hats and pucks that were worth so much with the Stanley Cup aura, and therefore raised so much for charity.

A thanks for two parades that were among the most fun days in this city, and did more for encouraging mass gather

ings in downtown Detroit than any previous 10 events combined.

A thanks for the good that can come from tragedy, the loving attention given to Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov, the awareness they indirectly gave to accident victims, wheelchair-bound citizens, closed-head injuries and even traffic safety.

A thanks for the way the Wings never forgot them.

Mostly a thanks for showing a city pride without arrogance, victory without taunting and defeat without sniping. I’ve seen a lot of winners come and go — in this town and elsewhere. I cannot recall a better example of how a crown should be worn.

When the Wings threatened to come back Tuesday night, pulling quickly to within two goals, I switched momentarily from my story about their de

feat, to a lead paragraph in case they won. I am looking at that paragraph now. It reads:

They were as down as a team can be, in a pit, under bones, dirt being thrown on top of them. The fans were like guests at a funeral. Sports writers were tapping out eulogies. Even the hockey angels were swooping down to pluck the crown off the Red Wings’ heads.

Not so fast, Gabriel …

Funny. I wrote it for a victory, but it sort of fits defeat. Yes, they are out of the playoffs. Yes, someone else gets the Cup. Yes, someone else gets to wear the crown.

But not so fast, Gabriel. Everything that happened here, we keep. And the memories of that are worth a great deal to us. More than any outsider can imagine.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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