He’s a twist on an old joke.
“I went to a hockey game and Aaron Downey broke out.”
Some hockey players stay in the NHL because of their soft hands. Downey has hung around because of his calloused fists.
Downey is 36 years old, and he attended Red Wings training camp on a tryout last weekend—probably on his own dime.
Downey is the quintessential “enforcer,” that hockey word for pugilist, goon, tough guy, miscreant. He pounded his way into the league and is trying to scratch and claw to stay in it.
Downey has not a prayer of making the Red Wings, but that isn’t stopping him from trying. The Red Wings forwards are a symphony and Downey is Metallica. He’s the one you circle in those “Which of these things doesn’t belong?” children’s puzzles.
For years, the Red Wings have hemmed and hawed as to whether they need an enforcer type. The organization has been torn between letting the skill players do all the damage, or to inject a bruiser occasionally to, as coach Mike Babcock likes to say, “keep the flies off.”
Downey was the Red Wings enforcer three seasons ago, when the team won the Stanley Cup. He managed to appear in 56 games that season, about 70 percent of the schedule. No one gave him any chance of making that squad, either.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"I know the odds are stacked against me,'' Downey told MLive.com’s Ansar Khan last week about making the Red Wings this season. "But I just turned 36, the odds have been stacked against me my whole life, ever since I was a 16-year-old going to juniors.''
Last year, the Red Wings tabbed longtime enforcer Brad May to keep the flies off, but May was gone by the second half of the season, the team’s will to keep a tough guy having waned, as it usually does.
Yet Downey, who was out of hockey last season, dialed up Red Wings GM Ken Holland in early summer and asked if he could tag along to training camp.
Holland said yes, even though he was out of range of Downey’s right cross.
Downey’s journey back to the NHL would appear to be so ridiculous in its unlikelihood that even Sylvester Stallone would laugh at you if you tried to pitch it as a Hollywood script.
Downey was a borderline NHL player even when he was on a roster, when he was two years younger.
But YOU tell him he should quit and go home.
"I came here as a long shot in '07-08 and made the team because I had a good training camp, brought some energy, brought some toughness,'' Downey told Khan. "For some reason, a spot seemed to keep opening up. I just found a way to keep hanging around and hanging around.
“I love this place,” he said of the Red Wings organization. “I won a (Stanley) Cup here.”
It’s true. Aaron Downey’s name is engraved on hockey’s silver chalice, fair and square.
Detroit has been home to some of hockey’s toughest characters.
Need I mention Terrible Ted Lindsay, who was 5’7” but who played 7’5”?
There was Howie Young in the 1960s, whose colorful life off the ice could have sold out Olympia, too.
The 1970s gave us Dennis Polonich, another shrimp whose fists kept him in the NHL longer than his skill alone would have.
You already know about Bob Probert and Joey Kocur, the first tag team in the NHL.
But as the Red Wings got more skilled and talented, as their forwards acquired the maddening ability to pilfer the puck and keep it to their hearts’ content, the need for a box office draw pugilist—and that’s what a lot of those guys were, let’s face it—lessened.
That’s all well and good, but the other NHL teams didn’t get the memo. They looked at the Red Wings, saw no “tough guys” per se, and started taking liberties.
The fans cried foul. They wanted vengeance.
Hence the hiring of skill-deprived players like Downey, May, and Brad Norton in recent years, though you could tell that management’s heart wasn’t really into it.
So, why does Downey think he can become a Red Wing again? It’s like hamburger asking filet mignon for a tryout.
First, Downey dropped 15 pounds.
"I have no idea why I was even carrying that weight around in the first place,'' he said. "I think it might have been an ego thing, just to say you're 225 because you're a heavyweight in the league. Nowadays, with the training, you don't have to be 225 pounds anymore to fight a guy who's 240. I can be 210 pounds—faster, leaner, and meaner."
Second, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said something to Downey that resonated.
"I remember Mike saying last year… that you don't necessarily have to be a heavyweight to play in the NHL, but you got to be quick,'' Downey said. "It's all about finishing your checks, it's all about getting there first and creating that energy.''
So, Downey kept in shape during his year out of hockey, dropped the weight, and worked on his quickness. Cue the theme from “Rocky”; roll the montage.
"It's not necessarily all about fighting, it's about finishing your body checks with speed and being able to get in on a forecheck and make a first body check, so that defenseman doesn't necessarily put that pass where he wants to put it,'' Downey said. "I can do that better than I have my entire career.''
With the Red Wings deeper than an Olympic swimming pool at forward, Downey’s only possible salvation to resurrect his NHL career is to sign a two-way contract, which would put him with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, and hope to get called up during the season.
Downey played in the Red Wings’ exhibition opener in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
He got into a fight in the first period.