Sunday, May 13, 2007

Chelios, Hasek Keep Sipping From That Fountain Of Youth

Maybe they keep it in the training room, out of sight from the interlopers and ink-stained wretches. Maybe its elixir is blended in with the Gatorade and water bottles, to be surreptitiously consumed without causing a stir.

All I know is, I couldn’t find any sort of fountain of youth inside the Red Wings dressing room Friday night after their 2-1, Game 1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals. Nor could I find it in the second round against San Jose, or in the first round against Calgary.

But surely something must be being sipped from somewhere, for the Red Wings are now off on a deep playoff run that is being led by a 45-year-old defenseman and a 42-year-old goaltender. The two of them were the best players on the ice for Detroit against the Ducks, and now that I think about it, you can pretty much say that for just about every one of the 13 playoff games the Red Wings have played this spring.

Dominik Hasek, the 42-year-old goalie, has been described with such unflattering words as “strange” and “weird.” The most friendly has been “quirky.” And I’d like to use those words, too – as in, Don’t you find it strange and weird that a goaltender of his age can be playing as if he’s trying to get the Vezina Trophy renamed after himself?

Chris Chelios, the 45-year-old defenseman, has been described with such unflattering words as “grouchy” and “abrasive.” And that’s by his own teammates. So how about this? The Red Wings’ opponents have been made grouchy by Chelios’ abrasive play this postseason.

Will these 2002 scenes be repeated this June?

Friday night against the Ducks, it was Hasek stonewalling the Anaheim shooters, and Chelios thwacking the puck away, sacrificing his sauna-rejuvenated body for the good of the team.

You want numbers instead of prose? Hasek gave up a goal in Game 1, early in the third period. It was the only puck he’s let by in his last 175 minutes of work. I’ll save you the calculations. That’s a goals-against average that looks more like a carpenter’s measurement: 0.34. That puts Georges Vezina, after whom the NHL’s best goalie award is named, to shame.

You want examples instead of words? Chelios got crunched at the blue line in a vicious collision with a Duck player. For a moment he was still, on the ice. Then he was up, readjusting his helmet, and was ready to stay out there, except it was time for a line change. On another occasion, there was a rough scrum in front of the Detroit net. Bodies spilled and piled on top of each other like a bag of toy soldiers being dumped onto the floor. It took several moments to break everything up. The man on the bottom of the pile? Chelios. He readjusted his helmet and stayed out there. No line change this time.

“He looks real fresh out there,” captain Nick Lidstrom, a mere child at age 36, said when I asked him if this playoff performance was some of the best hockey he’s seen Chris Chelios play in recent memory. “He doesn’t look tired at all. He’s playing a lot more minutes than he did during the regular season. And he’s playing well.

“He’s a warrior. I think everyone feeds off him, the [way he plays on the ice].”

I used to say that the job that should have been performed with a mask and a gun was that of running backs coach when Barry Sanders played for the Lions. I’d like to update that. The Red Wings actually have a goaltenders coach. But I saw no mask and gun in sight when I tracked down Jim Bedard and asked him, basically, “How do you coach this Dom Hasek guy?”

“You know, I get that question about three times per day,” Bedard told me, and for his sake I hope it’s never his bosses who are asking him that. “You really don’t coach these guys at this level. My job is to keep them game-ready and to keep them comfortable, so that I know what kind of workload he (Hasek) wants at certain times of the season.”

Bedard was the goalie coach in 2002, when Hasek led the Wings to the Stanley Cup. Is he as locked in now as he was then?

“I think Dom is just really enjoying the game,” Bedard said. “He enjoys this team, he enjoys this room. And you have guys like [Chelios] who’s 45 and who’s just battling his rear end off day after day. I think Dom is just having fun.

“When he gets scored on, he takes it personally.”

With one goal allowed in almost three games’ worth of minutes, then I suppose Hasek hasn’t felt offended much lately.

The Ducks’ game plan appears to be to be physical, particularly in creating traffic in front of the net and occasionally taking liberties with Hasek.

“I think they were a little dirty sometimes. Twice I get an elbow. But I didn’t pay attention to it. All I was focused on was the puck and stopping the puck and that’s what I did pretty good today.”

Right now, hearing Dominik Hasek saying he’s playing “pretty good” is like having Albert Einstein tell you he was “pretty clever” when he came up with that theory of relativity thing.

And there’s a reason there aren’t any quotes from Chelios here. He likes to take saunas after every game, and was awash in steam long after the locker room had cleared out. Jerry Green of the Detroit News and I waited for him. And waited. Finally I spotted Chelios walking from the weight room to the training room.

“Chelly! When are you coming out?,” I called.


What was that about grouchy and abrasive?

Maybe he just wanted some more time in the fountain, er, sauna of youth.

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