WHAT DO THE RED WINGS DO IN THEIR SPARE TIME? PLAY CHESS!WHAT DO THE RED WINGS WANT TO DO TONIGH

Look, I’m not trying to make excuses for these guys. But hockey is rough business. The Red Wings need a release. They need to blow off steam. So, OK, maybe it isn’t “normal” behavior. But they’re big, powerful men. They have to do it. They gotta have it.

They need their chess.

Chess?

“We’re into it,” admits Darren McCarty.

Chess?

“Oh, yeah, every chance we get,” says Brendan Shanahan.

Chess? Chess. On the team plane. In the hotels. In the locker room. Chess. It may be Bobby Orr on the ice, but it’s Bobby Fischer everywhere else.

“Last year it was card games, poker, helicopter, stuff like that” McCarty says. “And for a while this year, it was Balderdash, and Scattergories.”

“And then what?” I say. “Suddenly chess became popular?”

He shrugs. “Brendan brought in a board.”

Brendan brought in a board? That’s it? And now the defending Stanley Cup champions spend their spare time deciding whether the knight should take the rook?

“Sometimes we play two on a side,” McCarty says. “It’s like a war. Other guys line up behind you, trying to figure out the best move.”

I don’t know if we should brag about this, or hush it up. Chess? The Stanley Cup champions? Larry Murphy, Bob Rouse, Slava Fetisov, McCarty, Shanahan — all guys who rely on a certain toughness out on the ice — all are deeply into the little board and the plastic pieces. You ask them about a particularly hard check in last night’s game, and they’re liable to say, “It wasn’t that hard. I just shifted my king and took his bishop. Checkmate.”

Let’s face it. Only hockey gives you this. A bunch of guys with scars and missing teeth gathered around a chess board is either the greatest endorsement ever for the NHL, or a sure sign the players have taken too many blows to the head.

“Who’s the best player on the team?” I ask Shanahan.

“Iggy,” he says.

“Who’s the best player on the team?” I ask McCarty.

“Iggy.”

Let’s go to Iggy.

The Russian grandmaster

“Iggy” is Igor Larionov, the Red Wings center, who always has been more cerebral than your average hockey player. He grew up in Russia, a nation quite fond of chess, and began playing the game when he was 6 years old.

“They say you’re the chess king,” I tell Larionov.

“Well,” he says, coyly, “I am not going to say this.”

“Have you ever lost?” I say.

“One time,” he says.

“Impressive,” I say.

He winces. We look around at his teammates, pulling on jockstraps and throwing towels.

“Consider the competition?” I say.

“Exactly,” he sighs.

So, OK. It may not be Moscow. It may not be IBM’s Big Blue. Maybe some of the Wings still think Boris Spassky is the sidekick to Natasha in “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” But you gotta admit, playing chess is a much preferred pastime to smoking dope, chasing women, fathering children out of wedlock, or making the police blotter — all of which seem to be fairly popular in other sports.

Besides, considering the competitiveness of the Red Wings, you know they throw themselves headfirst into their chess. You just hope no fights break out over who plays black and who plays white.

“Mathieu Dandenault’s surprisingly good,” McCarty says. “Sometimes he teams with Martin Lapointe.”

“Yeah,” adds Joey Kocur, “but then they start speaking French and nobody knows if they’re cheating. That’s not fair.”

“Yeah,” McCarty says, “that’s not fair.”

Chess?

The answer is Bowman

Now we should point out that playing games has a long tradition on this Detroit team. For a while, it was a movie quiz thing, where one player named three actors in a movie, and the others had to guess the movie. This was big, until they ran out of movies.

Then the board games were hot. Balderdash. Pictionary. Scattergories. They all faded, too.

“Somebody throws a game out there and suddenly, we’re all into it,” McCarty says, “but we do it so much, we get sick of it, and then we never want to see it again.”

“You guys were into Monopoly for a while,” someone says.

“Yeah,” McCarty answers, “but that was just because we forgot the Trivial Pursuit box.”

Trivial Pursuit? I still can’t get past the mental picture of Kirk Maltby telling Tomas Holmstrom, “My queen takes your knight.” I still can’t imagine Nick Lidstrom nudging Steve Yzerman on the bench and whispering, “Hey. Up there in the stands. Isn’t that Garry Kasparov? Geez, you think we could meet him?”

I can’t imagine it. But then again, why not? As we said, there are worse pastimes. Chess uses your brain. It passes the time. And as one Wing admitted,
“It’s really hard to lose money on it.”

Then again, chess is only passing through. Already, McCarty says, Trivial Pursuit is beginning to grow in popularity. It could be the Next Official Pastime of the Best Team in the NHL.

“We were playing the other day, and the winning question was, ‘What hockey coach led Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit to the Stanley Cup?’ ” McCarty says.

“That’s convenient,” I say.

“Yeah, but Shanahan said he was going to tell Scotty that I didn’t know the answer.”

Boys will be boys.

Which is the whole point. Boys will be boys. So I am not going to bury this story about chess. I am printing it here, for the whole world to see, because we in Detroit are not embarrassed that our team has both brains and brawn. We are not ashamed that they like little plastic kings and queens. We are proud. We are glad.

Besides, the Dallas Stars play bingo.

Well, that’s what I heard . . .

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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