Nobody asks about friendship. Players are traded, they come and they go, and who they’ll send postcards to is of no concern to management. Rick Zombo and Adam Oates were inseparable last year. Drove in together. Drove home together. You wanted to reach one and he wasn’t home, you called the other one’s house.
“I’m not the kind of guy who makes people laugh first, you know?” Zombo said before the Red Wings’ home opener Thursday against Winnipeg. “Oatsie would do that. He’d make you laugh. He’d make me laugh all the time.”
And then he was gone. Traded to St. Louis, this summer, and Zombo had to find a new ride in, and a new guy to make him laugh. Such is life in the pro sports world. Everyone knows it. And it still hurts. Zombo admitted that much before he went out and became a hero Thursday night.
“It’s tough to get used to,” he said.
He managed. Score one to Mr. Solo. It was Rick Zombo who whacked in the tying goal midway through the opening-night madness Thursday, and, in so doing, may have saved the Wings from a cancerous slump that could have tripped their year before it even started.
Here they were, fresh home after three losses on the road to start the season — the one that was supposed to stress character and solidarity, remember? “No more divisiveness,” coach Jacques Demers had promised. But in the first period, the Wings looked anything but together. They allowed three goals. They played as if their concentration was butter and their heads were hot pancakes.
This was the new spirit? They were sprawling, arriving late, hacking and whiffing as the Jets went through their defense they way a bull goes through a fence. It took less than 20 minutes before the fans — who applauded wildly before the game as the Norris Division championship banner was raised to the rafters — began to boo.
Unmercifully. Like Lions fans.
The Red Wings? Yzerman began the comeback
“This is a joke,” said captain Steve Yzerman in the locker room between periods. He didn’t need to say anymore. Lose this one, and there’s no telling how many more they could blow. It’s one thing to be crunched by Calgary. It’s another thing to be walloped by Winnipeg.
Out they came. Yzerman began the comeback with a slapper for his fourth goal of the season. And then it was Zombo’s turn. Rick Zombo, who scored one goal last year. All year. The whole season. One goal? What do you want? He’s a defenseman, a grinder, he has a hardened look that goes well with black leather jackets and could scare the life out of you if you didn’t know that privately, he is gentle, soft-spoken and — I’m not making this up — likes to paint western scenes, cowboys and horses. And he’s damn good at it.
The closet artiste let a whizzer fly from the point that wound up in the net, courtesy of a Gerard Gallant deflection. That made it 3-2. Then, just 12 seconds later, Zombo did a little ice dance, set up, and whomped the puck in for the tying score.
The place went nuts.
“It wasn’t just me,” he said afterwards. But it was him. He ignited the team, they scored four goals in the second period, and Zombo was the one who got them to pound on their chests and say “This is our arena! Our home opener! We don’t lose this!”
And good thing, too. Because if the Red Wings are going to have any hope this season, it’s going to come from guys like No. 4 — not just No. 19 — the guys whose effort can be measured by the sweat that soaks through their jerseys.
Let’s face it. Steve Yzerman is a brilliant player. But he was brilliant last year. The difference between above average and terrific for these Red Wings will be the difference in the less-than-superstars. Lee Norwood. Dave Barr. Steve Chiasson.
Rick Zombo. The trade is tough getting used to
“Whew,” said Demers, breathing easy afterwards, “with all the pressure, and the three losses, start of the season. . . . You could say that this was a big win. We needed this.”
And outside, in the middle of the locker room, Zombo got dressed. Alone. This is the first time in five years he hasn’t had Oates to drive home with. I never realized until Thursday that their lockers weren’t next to each other. It seemed like they were always sitting together.
“I talked to him, he likes it down there,” Zombo said. “He still misses Detroit, though. We had a place together here. I look after it now. It’s tough getting used to, it is. Nobody could make me laugh like him.”
He shook his head. Fans don’t think about this sort of thing. We just cheer for whoever is on the club. But the first games of the season, for players, are much like the first days of school, when kids sort through their friendships and see who’s in their class. And who’s not.
“It was funny, we played St. Louis in the exhibition season,” Zombo said,
“and I was really wondering what it would be like the first time Oatsie had to check me. He came right up on me — and stole the puck.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I chased him.”
You do what you gotta do. And here, on a night that will long be forgotten by the fans, Zombo did something that may go a long way towards the season’s success. Score one for Mr. Solo. You might say he did the work of two men.