When the final buzzer sounded, Jacques Demers slumped over like a man who’d had his prayers turned down by God. This was really the end? He reached across the glass and limply shook the hand of Rick Dudley, a guy who played for him years ago in the WHA and now was coach of the Buffalo Sabres, the team that had just snuffed out Detroit’s last hope. Dudley whispered “Keep your head up, Jacques,” and Demers, who is suffering from walking pneumonia, coughed and nodded and bit down hard on his gum. His players had their eyes on the floor as they walked into the tunnel. A worker took their sticks and put them in a roller, one at a time, for the last time this season. Within five minutes, the arena was quiet and empty and ready for summer.

The Red Wings lost; they will stay home for the playoffs. And you know what? Forget it. This game, this desperate 6-5 loss to Buffalo, was no more indicative of this team than its season record — which, quite frankly, stinks. But if you’re a Detroit hockey fan, now is the time to prove it. Because despite their guaranteed cellar finish, despite their earliest summer vacation since Demers took over four years ago, believe it or not, this is — and I know it’s a funny time to say it — a pretty decent team.

So hold the shovels.

Yes, they were handed the ultimate embarrassment: missing the NHL playoffs, which is like missing the floor when you dribble a basketball. But this group, on the ice right now, is good enough to play with almost anyone in the playoffs. Here is the real lesson learned Tuesday night: they all count the same. Even the games you can’t remember now, such as the season opener on a freezing night in Calgary, where Greg Stefan sat on the bench and Glen Hanlon allowed 10 goals, or the game a few weeks later where, with one second left, Pittsburgh’s Phil Bourque scored to tie them up, or that night against Hartford where Ray Ferraro put one in with 96 seconds to go and they lost again. Every lousy game, every “we’ll get better tomorrow” — they all count. The sin of the Wings Tuesday night wasn’t so much surrendering the game that mathematically eliminated them from the playoffs, but for coming in with such a lopsided record in the first place.

“We’re paying for November,” Demers rasped.

And he was right.

Dazed with disbelief

Outside his office, the players sat in quiet disbelief. Steve Yzerman, the captain, had his hands clenched between his knees. Jimmy Carson stripped silently out of his pads. John Chabot, who had come in on crutches to be with his teammates, blew a pink chewing gum bubble and you could hear it pop.

Demers himself had sat in the weight room, alone, for 10 minutes, until the reporters came in. “I just had to be by myself,” he said now. “What could I say to the team?”

Nothing that could make the moment lighter. For some of these players, it will be the first NHL spring without a playoff. Demers and the Wings’ front office must take the blame for letting a beautiful blueprint turn into an inky mess. And yet, if you fault them for breaking it — the goalie situation, the Probert-Klima disaster, the aging roster — then give them credit for repairs. For even looking around the somber locker room Tuesday, there was reason for a few drops of optimism.

Remember, there were really two Red Wings teams this season. The first was a dismal and aged group that found no spark in the words of their coach, a team that won but four of its first 20 games. The second was a peppy, eager ensemble that figured it can play with anybody, and wanted to prove it.

The transition would make Pygmalion look twice. Take a look from October to March. The goaltending has gone from old and injured (Stefan) to young and hungry (Cheveldae). The fowards have switched from slow and sorry (McKegney, Nill, Adams) to fast and improving (McKay, Kennedy, Shank). The Wings added a potential superstar (Jimmy Carson), got rid of one perennial troublemaker
(Klima), and may have turned another around (Probert).

No, they are not Calgary or Boston. But the new group has something the old group didn’t: promise.

“The kids give us hope,” Demers said. It’s taps — but only for now

For now, that will have to be enough. This type of ending, if you’re a player, hits you right in the pride. “I’m not proud to be captain of this team right now,” said an obviously frustrated Yzerman. “It’s embarrassing, not making the playoffs.” The sad thing is, the Wings — who have actually been a winning team since that horrible losing streak back in November — might actually have done OK in the playoffs. With Bob Probert’s resurgence and Tim Cheveldae now the man in the net, they are not some fraidy-cat group that would kiss the ice in gratitude and then roll over. Quite frankly, it would not have shocked me if they had made the playoffs and wound up capturing the Norris Division.

That won’t happen now. Slowly, the players made their way to the showers. Demers sat in his office, his voice a whisper. Shawn Burr sat by his locker, his face red, and talked about that final minute Tuesday, when the Wings pulled the goalie and tried desperately to prolong the season one more game.
“I was ready to stop the puck with my head,” he said.

Next year, Shawn. This is a lousy good-bye. But it is not a funeral. When the hurt ends, the Wings may find that comforting.

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