Sunday, March 22, 2009

Draper’s Thousand Games With Red Wings Simply Grand

To get an idea of Kris Draper’s time spent on the ice in a Red Wings uniform, go to the nearest calendar and look ahead ten days. Then add ten hours from the time it is currently.

Now, imagine Draper zooming up and down the ice, forechecking, pestering, winning face-offs, killing penalties, backchecking. Imagine him doing that, 24/7, for those ten days and ten hours. Non-stop.

Draper just played in his 1,000th game as a Red Wing. He’s done so mainly as a fourth-liner, meaning that he plays about a quarter of each game.

So, a little math.

One-thousand games, times sixty minutes per game (not including overtime), equals 60,000 minutes. A quarter of that is 15,000 minutes, or 250 hours. And there’s your ten days, plus ten hours.

It was almost thirteen years ago when it was feared that Draper wouldn’t play another minute in the NHL.

Hockey players aren’t pretty. Their faces are full of scars and crevices and their noses are disjointed and their dentist is on speed dial. Ted Lindsay’s face looks like it’s made of a combination of corduroy and rough-hewn leather, to show you. You half expect to see bolts sticking out from his neck.

Teddy knows he’s not pretty, so I’m not worried about making him angry.

Be aware of the pretty boy hockey player, for he’s probably not worth a hill of beans.

The red-headed Draper isn’t pretty, either. He looks like a Howdy Doody doll that got caught in a garbage disposal. But he’s still playing, thirteen years after they thought it was all over for him.

Hockey is a great sport for those who love to hate the guys who wear the black hats. Lindsay was hated in each of the other five cities that had NHL hockey in his day. They didn’t call him Terrible Ted for nothing. Once, in Toronto, there were death threats during the playoffs.

“We were skating warm-ups, and nobody wanted to be near me,” Teddy recalled once about the threats in Toronto. “I asked Gordie (Howe) why, and he said, ‘What if they’re a bad shot?’”

Well, Teddy scored the game-winning goal in overtime, and he skated around the Maple Leaf Gardens ice, “shooting” the crowd with his hockey stick, as if it was a pretend machine gun.


In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, the black hat was firmly atop the head of Colorado’s Claude Lemieux. The Red Wings were the best team in the NHL during the regular season, but they were having a devil of a time in the playoffs. They struggled to get past the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues before meeting the Avalanche in the conference finals. The NHL’s version of the Final Four.

Lemieux was the worst type of black hatter, because he lacked courage and professional courtesy. He was a drive-by type of bad guy – hitting from behind, jabbing with his stick, sucker-punching.

Draper was against the boards, trying to finagle the puck, his back toward the charging Lemieux. Which meant that Lemieux had Draper just the way he preferred all of his victims: unaware, defenseless.

The resulting hit from Lemieux’s cowardice, which slammed Draper’s face into the boards, rearranged the Red Wing’s facial structure. Lemieux cracked Draper’s face like a walnut, and then skated away. Typical.

They showed photos of Lemieux’s destruction a couple days later, and Draper’s face – the eyes still blackened, the mouth still swollen, the jaw wired shut – reminded me of the famous photo of Tony Conigliaro after he got beaned while with the Red Sox in 1967. Tony C wasn’t the same, and was out of baseball a few years later.

Lemieux attacking Draper in '96 (top); the aftermath, after some healing (above)

Draper, it was speculated, might never play again – or at least, not with the same fervor and energy.

Well, it’s 2009 and he’s still out there, every night, still with the trademark speed and still being a pain in the other team’s keister.

Draper, in typical hockey player fashion, is taking an “Aw, shucks” attitude to having reached his milestone of one-thousand games as a Red Wing. He started listing the others who have done it: Steve Yzerman; Gordie Howe; Alex Delvecchio; Nicklas Lidstrom.

“Geez, to see my name among those guys,” Draper said as he was on the verge of playing Red Wings game No. 1,000. “It’s like, which name doesn’t belong?”

I’m not so sure about that sentiment.

Draper is one of the four-time Stanley Cup winners on Detroit’s roster. That’s one more than Yzerman, by the way. And he’s played those thousand games with the same effort every night. You’ve never had to worry about what you’re going to get from Kris Draper from game-to-game.

He doesn’t score much, and with all due respect, he’s one of those who makes you cringe when he bears down on the goalie with a breakaway. His hockey hands are as soft as granite.

But that’s never been his role, and it’s never been something the Red Wings have expected from him. Basically, you wind Draper up, tell him to check and skate and win face-offs, and that’s pretty much what he does. Night after night. For a thousand games, and counting.

Draper’s face has long since been repaired after Lemieux’s horrific hit. Though there’s a big difference between being repaired and being fixed. Mothers and wives are the only ones who matter, anyway.

Draper’s No. 33 probably won’t go up to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena when he’s done playing, like the others in the 1,000 Game Club (Lidstrom’s No. 5 is sure to be raised). He may not get any consideration at all for such an honor, which is weird, because why not? He’s contributed as much as anyone to bringing four Cups down Woodward Avenue.

Kris Draper, the red-headed stepchild. Literally.

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