WINGS COME OUT SMOKING

Steve Yzerman wore a charcoal suit and a dark tie and he sat way up in the highest row in Joe Louis Arena. From here, you’ll note, it is impossible to cast a shadow.

“It’s their team now,” he said.

And down on the ice, indeed it was. The Red Wings began their real season Thursday night, the only one anyone around here cares about, the playoffs, the opener, and if you haven’t watched them since Yzerman was wearing the “C,” well, they looked different.

Different options. Different approach. A looseness from some players who seemed bottled up in previous seasons. A confidence from others once caught in the back draft of future Hall of Famers.

The first goal was scored by a new kid named Valterri Filppula. That was a good sign. Pavel Datsyuk, often criticized for shrinking in the playoffs, had a goal and an assist. Another good sign. Johan Franzen opened his game and his body and was banging all over the place. The old guys (Mathieu Schneider and Nicklas Lidstrom) had goals, the young guys (Brett Ledba, Jiri Hudler) had assists, and the ageless guy (Dominik Hasek) had a near-shutout.

What more can you ask for?

“The younger guys are hardened now,” Yzerman said. “They know what to expect. They’re more comfortable in my absence or Brendan’s (Shanahan) absence. …

“They control the locker room now.”

And Thursday they controlled the ice. They had a lead over the Calgary Flames less than five minutes into the game and a few hours later, they had a 46-20 advantage in shots and a 4-1 victory on the scoreboard.

There have been years where the Wings, as the No. 1 seed, seemed to skate out there with the weight of an entire city on their backs. And early on they found themselves in a hole.

Thursday night, no such weight was apparent. They skated as if on an air hockey board. It might have been all the empty seats in the upper bowl (and there’s something we’re not used to). But more likely, it was the change in roster, approach and history.

“We have more diversity now,” Yzerman said.

He’s right. When was the last “Filppula” on the roster?

The Euro Twins grow up

In the locker room after the game, there was a breezy sense of a quick start, and a joy over no questions about “digging themselves a hole” or “trying too hard.”

“This is a big difference from last year,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said in the locker room after the victory. “We weren’t happy at all with how it ended last year. We are really looking forward” to these playoffs.

“Do you and Pavel want to make a statement about this being your team now?” I asked Zetterberg. “Do you two talk about having more freedom or confidence now that some of the older stars are off the roster?”

He made a face.

“I don’t think we have the language to talk those nice words,” he said. “We just want to play good, solid hockey.”

That’ll do.

This was a night when the Wings hit harder, shot better, skated more intensely and drew more power-play chances. Sure, the Wings were the No. 1 seed and Calgary was No. 8.

Since when has that meant anything?

“We were the better team for 60 minutes,” Hasek said.

That’ll do, too.

Detroit’s new era

Meanwhile, seeing Yzerman in the upper seats – where several of the Wings staff members sit – was both nostalgic and new. He looked fresh and at least a year younger than last season. No stitches. No new scars. He tapped a BlackBerry and wore dress shoes and looked every bit the hockey executive.

“My urge to play is gone,” he said, smiling. “I miss the atmosphere and knowing what the guys are going through. But the playoffs don’t make me miss it. I have more than accepted that my playing career is over. And I don’t think for one minute that I could go out there and help.”

I asked Yzerman, 41, now officially a Wings vice president, the last time he skated. He had to think about it.

“I put my skates on for like 20 minutes last November,” he said, “for a clinic in Lansing. That’s it.”

No desire, I asked?

“Too busy,” he said. “If my daughters wanted to go out and skate I’d do it. But …”

He shrugged. And you realize, sitting there, this really is a franchise in transition. One of its greatest players is now dressed like a magazine cover and up near the rafters, and the guys sweating through their sweaters are trying to grow up before our eyes.

Thursday was all they could ask for. No shadows. No problems. Just red lights and white ice and an early perfect record in the only season that matters.

“We were the better team for 60 minutes.”Dominik Hasek, Wings goalie

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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