Sunday, November 20, 2005

Finally, Ozzie's Sweater Once Again Matches His Heart

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Willie Horton, local boy, hero and forever a Tiger, used to cart the same batting helmet around with him, regardless of what team he played for at the time. He would merely have his current team’s equipment manager paint over it to reflect the proper colors and logo. After he left the Tigers, that meant several coats of paint; Willie played for five teams after being traded from Detroit in 1977. What did NOT have to be painted over, however, was his heart. Willie Horton never really stopped being a Tiger, and he always was sure to remind folks of that fact.

Chris Osgood once again wears a sweater that has the winged wheel adorning its chest, and it fits like a hockey glove.

"This is where I’ve always wanted to be," goaltender Ozzie said during training camp. "In a way it seems like I never left."

It’s funny that Osgood should say it like that, because for at least one season, the fans in Detroit seemed to have dropped him like a bad habit. In fact, some couldn’t get Chris Osgood out of their heads fast enough.

Osgood, in the only sweater that truly matters to him

Osgood, in my mind, never got a fair shake in this town. The Red Wings won a Stanley Cup with him as a backup (1997), and as a starter (1998), and he got about as much credit for the latter as he did for the former. He was the goalie the Wings won a championship "despite of", as if he never made a big stop in his life. It was just that the goals he let in seemed to be even bigger, because from where they came -- which was near the center red line.

If you polled 100 supposedly die-hard Red Wings fans, and asked them what they remember about Chris Osgood during that ’98 Cup run, I bet you 90 of them, or more, would point to two goals specifically: the overtime loser against Dallas in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, and a game-tying goal in Game 3 of the conference semis against the Blues (the Wings won in overtime). Both were on the road, and both were fired from center ice. And both caused Red Wings fans to want to chew through a puck, after saying a word that rhymes with it.

What fans don’t remember is how Chris Osgood responded after those ugly incidents. In both occasions, he rebounded to play fabulous goal, leading his team to victory in the following game. And what they also might not recall is how Osgood sat at his locker, lights and cameras and microphones surrounding him, and bravely answered reporters, who are paid good money to watch what transpires and then ask marvelous questions like, "Hey, what happened?" He simply explained that, yeah, he’d like to have the shot back, but it wouldn’t bother him in preparation for the next game. And he was absolutely right.

It was a stark contrast to the first time in his career that he faced the media music. That would be the 1994 playoffs and the Game 7, first round stunning heartbreaker, when the Red Wings lost to the San Jose Sharks, largely because of Osgood’s error. His failed attempt at a clearing pass led directly to the series-clinching goal with about seven minutes remaining. After the game, Osgood, all of 21 years old, sat before reporters and wept openly, blaming himself for losing the series to the third-year Sharks. It was a delicate yet powerful scene.

You can’t win with Chris Osgood as your goaltender. But yet the Red Wings had won with Chris Osgood as their goaltender. Funny, eh?

But in 1998, what he was displaying, for anyone who cared to notice, was remarkable moxie and mental toughness that is so very required of your netminder if you wish to hoist that tall Cup. Problem was, hardly anyone cared to notice. Instead, Osgood was vilified for those goals -- skewered and sliced and diced -- and the feeling was that the Red Wings would somehow have to go about winning the whole enchilada without him, even though he just happened to play perhaps the most important position on the ice. They did, of course, win in 1998, and Osgood bashers thought it was a paper Cup for the netminder.

There wasn’t anything really close to a Stanley Cup in 1999, 2000 and 2001, so when the Red Wings had a chance to trade for Dominik Hasek in the summer of ‘01, they did it, pulling the trigger to obtain a goalie who will certainly be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And before the fax machine in the league office could stop whirring after receiving notice of the deal, Osgood was being verbally and mentally tossed aside by his public in Detroit.

There wasn’t room for him here, once Hasek was aboard, and even though Ozzie would have stayed on as the backup -- he said he would, if asked -- he was released. His heart broken, he found himself with the New York Islanders, of all teams. Within two years, the St. Louis Blues acquired him.

While this was all going on, the Red Wings, with Hasek minding the net, were on their way to their third Cup in six seasons. Images of that run were of Dominik Hasek making big saves, especially in that triple overtime thriller in Carolina in Game 3 of the Finals. Chris Osgood was a bad headache that had finally gone away. So unfair.

So Osgood piddled around with the Blues for a season and some change, unable to lead them very far in the postseason, and that fact wasn’t lost on Red Wings fans, many of whom smiled knowingly from afar. To them, it was confirmation of what they long believed: You can’t win with Chris Osgood as your goaltender. But yet the Red Wings had won with Chris Osgood as their goaltender. Funny, eh? What isn’t funny is Osgood’s career numbers: 2.44 GAA, 41 shutouts, 2.24 GAA in the postseason. And you cannot win with that?

The Red Wings tried another hotshot goalie after Hasek’s first retirement -- Curtis Joseph. They paid a lot of money, if you ask me, to not go beyond the second round of the playoffs in two seasons of Joseph in goal in Detroit.

Now here we are, post-lockout in 2005, and Chris Osgood, signed on the cheap as a free agent last summer, once again is a Red Wing. You’d think that, after the way he’d been treated the first go-around, he’d have stayed away from Detroit as if the place was contaminated with Bird Flu. But when the Red Wings came calling, Ozzie couldn’t whip out his pen fast enough to sign a contract. If you think that is strange behavior, indeed, to want to return to the belly of the beast, you are allowed. But Osgood wouldn’t have it any other way.

"It feels so good to be a Red Wing again," Osgood has said. He is a backup now, playing second fiddle to Manny Legace. Once, Legace had Osgood’s back. But the role reversal is fine with Osgood; he’s just happy to wear the Red Wings sweater again.

Take that, Osgood bashers. Your team is just going to have to try to win another Cup with #30 in goal from time to time. So deal with it.

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