The light behind Greg Stefan was flashing red all night, like blood. How fitting for a man who had suddenly become human target practice. “Kick off the net!” some fan yelled, after the fourth puck went past the Red Wings’ goalie.
“Go ahead! Just kick off the net! That’ll work better than you!”

And this was a home game.

Gruesome. They were showering the ice with boos. Forget about victory. That went out the window the minute Stefan skated out on the ice Thursday night, after Glen Hanlon pulled a groin and hobbled off. Not because Stefan is the worst goalie in the league, which he is not, although Thursday he did a pretty good impersonation, but because, right now, on the Confidence Meter, he is somewhere between “Wallflower” and “Death Row Convict.”

And the same goes for the rest of this sorry team, which has gone 12 games without a victory. Hey. How confident would you be when your fans start cheering for the opponents’ goals? It’s easy to kick the Wings when they’re down. The question is, what for? And what’s left to kick? The offense is a sputter. The defense is a flop. The goaltending is nothing that couldn’t be fixed by turning the net around.

And I like these guys. Little life left in Wings

But I can’t save them. They were snowed under by a chorus of disapproval Thursday in the ugliest display I have seen in Joe Louis Arena since the team was nicknamed the Dead Wings. In fact, it was worse. Back in those days, fans just shrugged. There was an excuse. No talent. No coaching.

No such luck this time. On paper the Wings should be much better. Maybe they should play on paper. It’s gotta be better than ice.

“There’s a right way to lose and a wrong way to lose,” said Shawn Burr, after the Wings dropped their seventh straight, 7-2, to the St. Louis Blues.
“The right way is to at least make them know they played you. Make them work. Check them hard. We’re not doing that.”

In fact, after the game, the Blues looked ready for a night at the opera. While the Wings — and their fans — began another fruitless search for a theory. Maybe it’s the defense. Maybe it’s the lack of offense. Maybe it’s the new guys. Maybe it’s the old guys. Maybe it’s the water.

Oh, sure, there were plenty who saw Adam Oates (four assists) and Paul MacLean (two goals) skating freely for St. Louis, while Bernie Federko flailed and Tony McKegney sat for Detroit. And they said, “Ah ha. That trade! That’s what sunk us!”

But that’s too easy. The trade didn’t make four of the first five shots Stefan faced go zipping past him. The trade didn’t make Burr miss goalie, net and post on a wide-open breakaway. The trade didn’t cause Brent Fedyk to miss a shot within spitting distance of the St. Louis goal, only to be upstaged seconds later by Doug Houda, who raced in inches from the net and somehow sent the puck to the wall. Hey. Guys. It’s hockey, not handball.

But they know that. And they’re better than this. “I still think the Wings will win the Norris Division,” Oates said of his former teammates. Geez. Maybe Jacques Demers should get this guy back — then put him in charge of Assertiveness Training.

Because the Wings need help desperately — especially with Hanlon gone, perhaps for weeks. They are as brittle as china now; not their bodies, their minds. Watch them play. They will come out hard, get a bad break — a quick goal by the opposition — and they’ll heave with the breath of resignation. You can see them sag. Suddenly, hard shots seem destined for goalies pads. The checking dies. Effort turns to smoke and blows away. Who will lead the pack?

“If it’s one man’s fault, and I’m the man, then maybe management should do something about me,” sighed Demers, who loves this team so much he is willing to fall on the sword for it. Sadly, this team needs leadership, not martyrdom. What it mostly needs is confidence, which is the opposite of calories: easy to lose and hard to put back on. Ending this streak will take more than a victory. It will take some real goaltending. It will take some hard defense. It will take shots that do not specialize in hitting the glass. And it will take all that happening at least four or five times in victory, until it becomes a habit again, not a special occasion.

I honestly believe it will happen. Sooner or later. The roster can’t lie that much.

Until then, however, it gets uglier down at the rink. Thursday night, one Red Wing took a shot and the puck landed in the seats. A fan threw it back on the ice.

The way things are going, Stefan as lucky it didn’t roll through his legs.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Bo,” co-authored with Bo Schembechler, and “Decade of Champions,” the Free Press’s new collection, today at Little Professor Bookstore in Ann Arbor, 5 to 6 p.m., and Borders in Novi, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

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