CHICAGO — They died slowly, inevitably, much to the delight of the howling Chicago crowd. The magic was deserting Greg Stefan, the magic was deserting Steve Yzerman, the magic was deserting Jacques Demers. The Red Wings were losing badly in the first round of the playoffs, and suddenly, trying hard was not enough, believing was not enough. The deafening fog horn that is the signature of this rickety stadium blew strong and loud after every wild Chicago goal and finally, at 11:29 Thursday night, it sounded the good-bye moan, almost mercifully, for this most difficult Detroit hockey season.
They go home now? They go home.
“What day is it, April 15 or something?” Yzerman would sigh after the Wings lost, 7-1, surrendering this playoff in six games. “Last year we were still playing on May 15. I don’t think we’re going to realize what happened here for a few days.”
When they do, they will not forget it. It was sad, and perhaps an unavoidable end to a season that was star-crossed from Day 1. They had come to this city clinging to their confidence, reminding themselves who they were and what they had once done. But three goals in the second period suddenly choked their last hope, threw dirt on them, left them gasping for air. Chicago? They were being blown out by Chicago? In the first round? Really? Chicago?
Yes. Chicago. And the snapshots of defeat were all over the place. Here was Steve Chiasson lying flat on the ice, injured, after a vicious check to the boards. Here was Yzerman giving his stick to Gilbert Delorme (who had broken his) and trying desperately to play naked, slapping the puck away with his hand, only to see Chicago come back moments later and score anyhow. Here was the Blackhawks’ Steve Larmer flipping a goal between Stefan’s legs — 2-1 Chicago — and then, just 26 agonizing seconds later, Wayne Presley, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, for Pete’s sake, backhanding the puck past Stefan, 3-1. Before the night was over, Presley would have three goals, the hat trick, and the Wings would be buried in black hats, flying onto the ice like bullets.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” said Stefan afterward, “and not very much fun.”
They go home now?
They go home.
In a way, this is a stunning upset — the full effect may not be realized for days, maybe weeks. Yet in other ways, you could almost feel it coming. Wasn’t this a dark-side season from the start for Detroit? Didn’t you hear whispers and mumbles about this team all winter long: “I don’t know about them. . . . They’re not the same. . . . All that off-ice controversy. . . . “
Demers had been worried about this team much earlier than Thursday night. Two months ago, two weeks ago, he repeated the same theme; we’re not playing defense the way we should. I am concerned. He tried to give the appropriate pep talks. He rallied the team before the final period of Game 5 Tuesday, telling them, “You don’t want to go home and play golf now. . . . Nobody in Detroit will want to talk to you anyhow.” It worked.
“Are you surprised with this defeat?” Demers was asked Thursday after the game.
“No,” he said, “disappointed, yes. Surprised, no. We never had the right chemistry, not from the very start. This was a team that was never at peace with itself.”
It has five months to rest now. And so be it, because the truth is, this was a season that needed to be completely erased to be overcome. Sure, the Bob Probert and Petr Klima problems had been wrapped up by the playoffs. But their effects lingered. The unhappiness of the regular season — “There were times when you really didn’t feel like coming down to the arena,” admitted Stefan — had slowed the Wings like a sore hamstring, and they were trying to run anyway.
“There are a lot of guys in here,” Chiasson said, glancing around the locker room, “who are going ‘Whew!’ right now. We can use the summer to regroup.”
Still, how sad for the guys on this team, who tried so hard all year to overcome the bad news, to rise above the antics of Probert, whose arrest at the border for alleged cocaine smuggling in March ended a sordid saga that had hung around the Wings’ necks, heavy as a tombstone. How sad for the likes of Yzerman, who had a career year, bouncing back from a knee injury. And for Adam Oates, who stepped out of Yzerman’s shadow to play starring hockey. And for Chiasson, who has developed into a bright young star. And for Rick Zombo and Dave Barr and Gerard Gallant and for Stefan and Glen Hanlon, who had to handle the onslaught of offense without a strong defense — or a Probert — to protect them.
They deserved better, if only for effort, if only for the fact that they did win the Norris Division. Instead, here is what they got: Klima ejected in the third period for high sticking. Stefan benched for the third period, with Hanlon unable to deliver any miracles. A Chicago defense that limited them to only 19 shots on goal. The Chicago fans were unmerciful, they tossed hats, trash, even a big black balloon was tossed on the ice. At one point, a Chicago fan knocked a beer over into the open press box — dousing Mike Ilitch, the Wings’ owner.
We go home now.
What will come of all this? Changes, for sure. “Certain players will be traded,” Demers admitted. “Certain guys have gotten complacent here in Detroit. It’s a great place to work. But we need to start from the beginning next year. We need to open training camp on a different note with some different people.”
Exit finesse and one-dimensional players. Enter tougher players with better defense.
Here to stay: the memories of a first-round defeat.
How did it happen, people will ask? How could they lose to Chicago, a team with only 66 points during the regular season? People will point to the loss of Probert, and yes, the lack of toughness helped take the Wings down in this series. Chicago played as if the class bully was suddenly absent from school. The Wings played, at times, like the kid who realized he was outnumbered and a long way from home. Combine that with a hot goalie (Alain Chevrier), one overtime heartache (Game 2), two bad games (3 and 6) and presto. You’ve got a series.
“Chicago reminded me,” Oates added glumly, “a little bit of us two years ago.”
That about says it all.
Thus ends the season of our discontent, a tumble off the rainbow for this once-Cinderella team that began, really, with a drinking incident last May in Edmonton and ended with that deathly horn Thursday night. In between there has been disillusion, disfavor, discord and disgust. Good guys were ignored, bad guys were overplayed, and it seemed the lights were always glaring on this team. They could never escape their shadows.
And in the end, that was all they had left to look at as the time ran out on the Chicago Stadium scoreboard. Three. Two. One. The announcer talked about Chicago playoff tickets. The fans were singing “NA-NA-NA-NA. . . .” And here came that sound, no doubts, no questions. We go home now. That fog horn means someone else’s ship has just come in.