Halfway to Stanley harder than it seems
May 9, 2007
BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Mike Babcock sat alone in a windowless space in the bowels of the Sharks' arena. Because reporters were rushing to file stories, there were mostly empty chairs before him. He spoke about victory, the sense of pride and relief.
But it felt too small, like a presidential candidate talking at a bus stop. So we should take a moment here to appreciate how damn hard it is to do what the Red Wings have just done: reach the conference finals as a favored team.
"It's like the weight of the world," Babcock said of the "upset" nature of the opening two rounds. "It's almost like you're better off if you finished eighth."
Let's face it. Playoff hockey, in recent seasons, has been an obstacle course through a funhouse of mirrors. Top seeds stumble. Low seeds reach glory. The Wings have had excellent teams over the last five years, star-studded teams, teams that made opposing players gape when they skated out in warm-ups.
Yet since 2002, none of these teams got as far as this season's did. They were upset by upstarts. Tripped by trouble. Each spring there was a somber locker room with players shaking their heads in disbelief.
Not this group.
Said Babcock: "We're trying to win it all and rebuild at the same time. Normally ... you gotta fall off the face of the earth to rebuild."
The faces of victory
Down the hall from Babcock's lonely news conference, the visitors' locker room was nearly empty as well. Nicklas Lidstrom entered, his gray undershirt soaked with sweat. He passed Dominik Hasek, hunkered over in a chair, arms on his knees, still in uniform, perspiration dripping. Maybe at 42 it takes longer to get undressed. Or maybe, like Lidstrom, Dom was enjoying a quiet moment to reflect.
Now the two were alone, and Dom made a small joke about doing too many interviews and Nick said "I know what you mean."
Hasek. Lidstrom. A roomful of tape, towels and wet clothes. The moment was symbolic, because these two men are now the cornerstones of this team, Nick and Dom, almost 80 years old if you add them together. Last year Dom wasn't here and Nick played the quiet Beatle (George?) behind the flashier Yzerman and Shanahan. The locker room had a different feel -- not better, not worse, just different.
Now this is Lidstrom's team, with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as the lightning bolts and Hasek as the dam that holds back opposing floods.
"I feel good to be here, and good for the guys who I've been battling with in the past," Lidstrom said. "Cheli, Drapes, guys that have been through the winning seasons and the upsets, too. It's just nice to be back in this position."
Time to love the team
Hockey has endured a lot since the Wings last won a Stanley Cup. It suffered a long lockout. It rewrote many rules. It fell off the map of the TV world. Crowds dwindled. Coverage lessened. It seemed to shrink before our eyes.
But the Wings back in the Western Conference finals, that's good news. I believe many Detroit fans have been holding back on embracing this team, wary that a first- or second-round exit was inevitable, and why put your heart on the ice just to get it stomped.
That should change now. Only four teams are left. It's safe to come out. Safe to fly that flag from your car window. This Wings team lacks the self-consciousness that previous versions did, always looking to make a perfect play, carrying the weight of its reputations as it skated. This team grinds down and does things, and if it falls behind it grinds down even more. With Hasek, all things are possible, there's magic in the net and destiny on the calendar.
We go so fast. We cheer, question and bury teams in a week. So a moment here to appreciate the minefield the Wings just navigated, the one full of disappointments and blank stares like the Sharks had after Game 6, slumping bodies that don't want to leave the locker room.
Lidstrom and Hasek, for a few stolen minutes, weren't leaving the locker room, either, not because there was emptiness waiting outside, but because, when you're older and wiser and you're on the road to greatness, you take a quiet moment when you can.
And then you go out and make more noise.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at email@example.com
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