WHAT SMITH AND LEWIS DID WAS BEYOND BELIEF

The move itself will be small, only a few inches. One man will move to the right, one will move to the left, the puck will drop, and the war will go on as usual. A few inches, that’s all, just enough to squeeze in the old boss between them. But for Barry Smith and Dave Lewis, they might as well be stepping out of the clouds and falling to Earth.

For five short games, they had realized a dream, they were in charge of the best team in hockey. Theirs was one of the strangest experiments in NHL coaching history: two men, sitting in for a legend, sharing equally the load of leadership …but for how long? They never knew. A week? A month? The rest of the season?

Scotty Bowman, arguably the best hockey coach in history, was a few hundred miles away, recovering from heart surgery, knee surgery and the death of his younger brother. Who could put a timetable on that? It was like Daddy going off to war, telling his sons, “You’re the men of the house until I come back.” The unspoken question was always, “What if you don’t come back?”

Smith and Lewis faced that uncertainty all summer. They faced it through training camp. They faced it through exhibition games. And they faced it through the first few weeks of this young season. All told, they were “co-head coaches” for nearly four months. They “retire” from their two-headed experiment with a record of four victories, one loss in the regular season. Not bad for a couple of substitutes, huh?

Now comes the unfair ending: neither Smith nor Lewis will be credited with anything.

That’s right. For some strange reason, according to the NHL, the five games they coached will not be counted on Bowman’s record, nor on theirs. The games will go down as “team victories,” whatever that means.

In other words, nowhere in the history books will it register that Dave Lewis and Barry Smith, two men who have always dreamed of being head coaches in the NHL, actually pulled it off for a brief but satisfying stretch, winning four out of five times. It’s like that magical village in “Brigadoon,” here for a moment, then disappearing into the mist.

“I don’t know if it’s purgatory or limbo,” Lewis said Thursday, the day Bowman officially returned. “What we did is just gone. Dust in the wind.”

Dust in the wind?

Bowman’s kind of guys

Well, before the dust settles, a word on behalf of these two men. You have no idea how unusual their accomplishment was. This is professional sports, where assistant coaches often badmouth their bosses, where they use whatever chance they get to boost themselves with media, front office, fans. It is not beyond assistant coaches to spread a damaging rumor about the head guy. It is not even beyond them to take swings at each other — or have we forgotten Buddy Ryan and Kevin Gilbride?

To have two men, who both dream of head-coaching in the NHL — and who are both qualified to do so — not only agree to share leadership of the team, but to do it without ego, without bickering, and then to willingly move over when the big boss comes back — folks, that is major league character in today’s world.

And they won’t even get credit for it.

“What they did for me was very big,” Bowman said. “It shows how the Red Wings are a team, a real team. A player goes down, another picks it up. A coach goes down, another picks it up.”

Or in this case, two men pick it up. How unusual was that? How many successful companies are run by two equal bosses? Smith, 47, and Lewis, 44, would meet in the film room at Joe Louis Arena every day before practice. They would discuss strategy. They would discuss players. Behind the bench, one would call the line changes for forwards, the other for the defensemen. If they disagreed, they never let it show.

And they never once used Bowman’s office.

“Never put our feet on his desk,” Smith joked.

This is rare. Although both men downplay the idea, you know that at times, especially during those five games, they stood behind the Wings’ bench, made the line calls, and said to themselves, “This is how it feels. This is what it would be like if I were head coach.”

Wouldn’t you?

Bowman’s turn to shine

And yet they never got drunk on that emotion. There was no Al Haig-like, “I’m in charge around here” speeches. Bowman came back, and they handed over the team, in first place, thank you, with a new line featuring Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman that is more productive than a slot machine stuck on cherries.

And tonight, Bowman is re-introduced as the head coach. Are Smith and Lewis saddened at the switch back? Are they bitter? Jealous?

“Hey, Scotty is the master,” Smith said. “He deserves his chance to three-peat. Anything less would be selfish on our part.”

Smith has been an assistant with three NHL teams. He has four Stanley Cup rings, two with Pittsburgh, two with Detroit. Lewis went from Red Wings player to assistant coach. He has been here for 11 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and now Bowman.

Don’t you think, at some point, their inner voices said, “Hey, how about me?”

But still they wait.

“I got closer to Dave through this thing,” Smith said.

“I have more respect for Barry than ever,” Lewis said.

Maybe what they did, on paper, disappears now. Maybe, as Lewis says, it’s dust in the wind. But it was a pretty rare dust. They move over tonight, just a few inches, which is no indication of how big a mountain they just finished climbing.

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

A decade on the air

Ten years ago, Kirk Gibson belted one of the most dramatic home runs in World Series history. Soon after, he was the first guest on a new weekly talk show,
“Sunday Sports Albom.”

The show, hosted by Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, celebrates its 10th anniversary at 9-11 p.m. this Sunday on WJR-AM (760).

When the show debuted, on WLLZ, it was the country’s first sports talk show on an FM rock station. It moved to WJR in 1994 and is now syndicated across Michigan and Ohio. Through the years, “Sunday Sports Albom” consistently has been at the top of the ratings. And only WJR’s “Sportswrap” has been a longer-running sports show in the Detroit market.

Sunday’s anniversary show will feature studio guests Steve Yzerman and Barry Sanders — and plenty of flashbacks and surprises.

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