Sunday, April 17, 2011

Wings Expected Modano in Uniform, Not Suit, During Playoffs

It’s easy to spot the scratched hockey player at the arena. He’s the one in the loose-fitting suit, with hair that looks like it’s still damp from the shower. The face has clearly avoided the razor. There’s no necktie. He walks down the corridors looking like he jumped off the cover of GQ magazine. The only thing worse than being a scratched hockey player, especially in the playoffs, is being a healthy scratched hockey player. The healthy scratches can’t blame mysterious upper or lower body injuries for their absence. There’s not a cotton-picking thing wrong with them, physically. And yet, the feet are in wing tipped shoes, not skates. There isn’t a helmet in sight. The hands are gloveless. The healthy scratch isn’t in the lineup because, frankly, the coach found 20 other guys he’d rather have available that night. You can be kind and call the scratched player a victim of “the numbers game,” but that’s just a nice way of saying he’s 21st out of 20 for that evening. Healthy scratches aren’t Hall of Famers, as a rule. They’re guys who have been benchwarmers throughout the season, or have been back and forth from the minor leagues ad infinitum, shuttled more than businessmen commuters at O’Hare Airport. But then you look at Mike Modano and it’s OK to do a double-take, or even a spit take, if you like your humor more slapstick than subtle. Mike Modano: sure-fire Hall of Famer, a veteran of the NHL playoff wars since the George H.W. Bush administration, a healthy scratch—for a playoff game? This is like hiring Michael Caine for your movie and making him an extra. But there Modano was, healthy as a horse but sitting in the press box on Wednesday night, dressed in a suit and not a uniform as the Red Wings were battling the Phoenix Coyotes on the ice surface three stories below. Modano is 40, sure, but this is his time of the year. Coming into this season, Modano had suited up for 174 post-season games, popping in 58 goals and amassing 145 points. He hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 when the Red Wings signed him last summer, but that wasn’t his fault—he played for the Dallas Stars, who have recently become allergic to the playoffs. Suddenly, last summer. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Modano had turned 40 and was considering hanging up the skates, the Stars electing not to offer him another contract. He was born in Livonia and grew up in Westland, and the Red Wings are always looking for veteran depth. Maybe they could coerce the center man to give it another whirl. So the Red Wings took a moderate risk and inked Modano after a brief courtship. He showed up to the press conference at Joe Louis Arena to announce the signing tanned, looking fresh, and still with those boyish good looks he had when he entered the NHL as an 18-year-old in 1989. I wrote that Modano was defying the proper look for a 40-year-old hockey player. His face wasn’t stapled on, for one. Modano looked good, felt good, and when he perused the Red Wings roster, he had high hopes that Detroit would be a fitting place to end his career with his second Stanley Cup (he won it in 1999 with the Stars). For the Red Wings’ part, they saw in Modano a veteran playmaker and puck handler who could also win some face-offsand maybe net 15-20 goals, too. His signing meant some eager kids would have to wait their turn, but in Detroit, it’s always about winning now; there’s as much patience in Hockeytown as there is in a two-year-old in a car. Both sides were thrilled. It was a marriage of convenience, but also with some endearment. Modano got off to a slow start, although he did score a goal on opening night. After that, he struggled to get acclimated to his new teammates, and probably to wearing red after 21 years of wearing green and black. It was starting to come together in November, but then came a nasty wrist injury late in the month, when a skate in Columbus gashed him. The injury set Modano back three months; he returned in late-February, any momentum and chemistry that had been built flushed down the toilet. It was like going back to the drawing board. But time wasn’t on Modano’s side; it never is for the 40-year-old athlete. The season was furiously marching to the finish line, and Modano was the guy chasing the bus, clutching his briefcase and holding his hat on his head, yelling for the driver to stop. The production after the injury was about the same as that of before the injury: it dripped out, like an IV. Modano got into 40 games in the regular season, scoring four goals. No one had to tell him that his was a disappointing signing. Then, in a flash, it seemed, the playoffs arrived, and when coach Mike Babcock and his staff sat down to fill out the lineup card for Game One, it was with great consternation that they left Modano’s name off it. Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game. Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back to Detroit. Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him. “I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.” Modano says that he abides by the coach’s decision to not play him, and he vows to be ready at a moment’s notice. What else would you expect him to say? Here’s the cruel irony: Modano came to Detroit to help the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup. Yet the more often his team wins in the playoffs, the less likely Modano is to crack the lineup, barring injury to a teammate. “This is probably my last chance,” he said of chasing hockey’s Holy Grail. How’s this? Modano might not even see the ice again this post-season. The mentality during hockey playoffs is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix iti.e. lineups. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mike Modano, Hall of Famer, was supposed to be in uniform for the playoffs, not in a suit. One of the reasons the Red Wings signed him was for this time of the year, specifically. I feel bad for the guy, don’t you?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

NHL Playoffs: Pain Don't Hurt This Time of Year

The ankle inside Bob Baun’s skating boot was broken. It is the hockey player’s creed to never be helped from the ice unless amputation is on tap, but that’s what happened to Baun on April 23, 1964 at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium—he was the wounded warrior and his Toronto Maple Leaf teammates were his platoon members carrying him off the battlefield. This was Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings led the Leafs, 3 games to 2, and were poised to win the Cup on their home ice. As Baun, one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensemen, was being removed from action, it looked like the hockey gods were smiling down on the Red Wings. But this is hockey, and it was the Stanley Cup Finals, and Bob Baun’s ankle was broken, not missing, so Baun did what the hockey player does, as much as his body is willing—he returned to the game, his boot taped to his ankle like a tourniquet. The game went into overtime, with every rush up the ice by the Red Wings being potentially the one that could lead to the Cup-winning goal. The old red barn on Grand River and McGraw shook every time the vulcanized rubber disc would be flipped into the Toronto zone. Overtime hockey is heart-stopping, gut-churning stuff. Never has a term been so aptly coined as “sudden death.” If the winning goal comes from the visitors, the air is sucked out of the arena like crumbs into a vacuum cleaner. Baun, skating on his wobbly, broken ankle, stopped the puck just inside the Red Wings’ blue line and slapped a shot toward the Detroit net. It was hardly a rocket, but the puck had eyes and it found the twine behind goalie Terry Sawchuk. The Maple Leafs celebrated like mad on the Olympia ice, the Detroit crowd dazed and silent. Baun could barely stand as his teammates mobbed him. The series was tied, a decisive Game 7 necessary. The Maple Leafs won Game 7 in Toronto, 4-0, and snatched the Stanley Cup from under the Red Wings’ noses—thanks largely to the one-legged Bob Baun. The Red Wings’ Brent Gilchrist wasn’t one-legged in 1998; he was no-groined. It was another example of the playoff hockey player gone mad. Gilchrist was 31 years old, in his 10th NHL season, and his first with the Red Wings as the 1998 playoffs dawned. Late in the season an old groin injury flared up inside Gilchrist, which didn’t hurt him unless he moved or breathed. Other than that, he was fine. The pain was excruciating. To a hockey player, a bad groin injury is like a sore throat for a giraffe, to borrow an old, weary joke. And Gilchrist had a bad one, alright. With every stride he took on skates, the groin screamed at him to stop. But these were the playoffs. Gilchrist had himself injected, in his groin, before every playoff game he played in that year with needles as long as Pinocchio’s nose in a game of liar’s poker. Even his fellow hockey warriors didn’t care to look when Gilchrist went into the trainer’s room for his pre-game treatment. Sometimes the shots would wear off and Gilchrist would have them done again between periods. He played in 15 of the Red Wings’ 22 playoff games in 1998, his groin on fire. His injury was so severe that Gilchrist only played in five games the following season. But the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998, so the pain was worth it to Brent Gilchrist, who’d never won the Cup before. Steve Yzerman, on the other hand, was already a two-time Stanley Cup winner when he went into the 2002 playoffs on one good leg. Yzerman hurt his knee during the 2001-02 season, missing 30 games. When the playoffs arrived, Yzerman was in great pain but as is usual with the playoff hockey player, Yzerman played the “mind over matter” game and, at age 37, Stevie Y was taking regular shifts on a knee that qualified for Federal disaster relief. Yzerman even spent some time during the playoffs in a special hyperbaric oxygen chamber. But that was nothing compared to what he put himself through before games, like Brent Gilchrist four years earlier. Again, there were long needles involved and teammates looking the other way. These were the playoffs, after all. The Red Wings won another Stanley Cup, their captain by the end of the playoff run needing to prop himself from the ice with his hands because his knee wasn’t able to do it by itself. And, like Gilchrist, Yzerman’s injury had after effects. Following the 2001-02 season, Yzerman underwent a knee realignment surgery, which meant that he played during the playoffs with a knee that was misaligned, which—I don’t know about you—sounds as delightful as chomping on a candy apple with misaligned teeth. The surgery was called an osteotomy, and doctors told us that it was commonly performed—on senior citizens! Here’s a description of a knee osteotomy, courtesy Wikipedia: Knee osteotomy is commonly used to realign arthritic damage on one side of the knee. The goal is to shift the patient’s body weight off the damaged area to the other side of the knee, where the cartilage is still healthy. Surgeons remove a wedge of the tibia from underneath the unhealthy side of the knee, which allows the tibia and femur to bend away from the damaged cartilage. And Yzerman led the Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup on a knee that needed the above work, forthwith. Now it’s 2011, and already there is a walking wounded among the Red Wings before the playoffs even get started—leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg, who suffered a “lower body injury” in Carolina this week. Judging by the way Zetterberg left the ice, the lower body injury looks like something to do with his legs. Zetterberg’s status, according to the propagandists within the Red Wings’ medical staff, is the unsatisfying “day-to-day.” No doubt, maybe even as we speak, Hank Zetterberg is undergoing some sort of treatment, somewhere on his “lower body,” that is designed to deaden his pain and brainwash him into thinking that it’s not all that bad—until the playoffs end and they tell him that his lower body will have to be realigned. Hey, after Bob Baun scored on a broken ankle and Brent Gilchrist had himself shot up with knitting needles and Steve Yzerman led his teammates to a Stanley Cup on a misaligned knee, it’s the least Zetterberg can do, me thinks. These are the playoffs, for chrissakes.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Red Wings Need the "Real" Henrik Zetterberg Come Playoff Time

A quick glance at the numbers ought to tell you a little bit about the superstar hockey player. The superstar player should have numbers that cause eyes to pop, spit takes to be made.

They all had such numbers.

Orr, LaFleur, Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman.

At any point in any given season, the stat lines on those players were in the stratosphere, compared to their mere mortal colleagues. They were “you gotta be kidding me” numbers.

And by the end of the campaign, it was an easy task to discern the greats from the very goods. The greats had goal totals in the 40s and 50s—sometimes more. The point totals were well into triple digits.

There were the superstar players and then there was everyone else.

Henrik Zetterberg, I’m convinced, must be sandbagging it. He’s a hockey hustler. Paul Newman on skates. We’ll call him Njurunda Fats.

Njurunda is the town in Sweden where “Z” was born, 30 years ago and some change.

Zetterberg is in the prime of his career, but you wouldn’t know it. He must be pacing himself.

Zetterberg has more talent in his left pinky than a majority of the players in the NHL possess in their entire bodies. When he’s at his finest, Hank Zetterberg is a tornado on skates. He can be as untouchable as Elliott Ness, as deft as Baryshnikov, as productive as a worker ant.

When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, Zetterberg was the best player on a team full of stars. He pumped in 43 goals, added 49 assists, and started in the All-Star Game. Z began the season by scoring a point in his first 16 games, a new Red Wings record.

In the playoffs, Z cranked it up another notch, which the superstars do when you think they couldn’t possibly. In 22 games, Zetterberg blistered the opposition for 27 points. He scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Finals. His penalty killing during a Pittsburgh Penguins 5-on-3 in the Finals is stuff of legend.

The Red Wings won the Cup, and Z won the Conn Smythe Award for being the MVP of the playoffs.

And this was after seasons in which he scored 39 and 33 goals. Zetterberg was on pace to be the greatest Red Wing in the post-Yzerman Era.

He had the eye-popping numbers and an eye-popping life. The summer after winning the Cup, Z got engaged to Emma Andersson, a Swedish model and TV host.

Iggy Pop used to sing, “I wish life could be...Swedish magazines.”

Hank Zetterberg lived that life.

Zetterberg is a huge talent—maybe among the top five most skilled, blessed-by-God players the Red Wings have ever employed.

So why do I look at him nowadays and scratch my head?

Zetterberg followed up his magnificent 2007-08 season with 32 goals in ’08-09—not bad—and then dipped to 23 goals last season (not good).

Currently, with six games left to play, Zetterberg has 24 goals and 53 assists. Those are good numbers. But they’re not as good as what Hank Zetterberg is capable of producing.

Zetterberg has so much skill, so much strength, so much hockey IQ, that he should routinely be scoring 40 goals a season and threatening 100 points, especially playing on a team as peppered with talent as the Red Wings.

The past couple of seasons, Zetterberg has done this thing where he disappears for stretches of time, and I’m talking games, not minutes. The final horn would sound and you’d have to double-check with the official scoresheet to confirm that Zetterberg suited up that night. Sometimes, this happened several games in a row.

This was a travesty. It was like attending a performance of the Rat Pack and wondering how you missed Sinatra’s number.

But then Zetterberg reappears from his time MIA, and once again he becomes a man among little tykes on the ice. He takes possession of the puck and keeps it for a week. Without the puck, Zetterberg doesn’t act as if there’s a force field preventing him from entering his own zone, like so many of the goal scorers do in the NHL.

Such is Zetterberg’s greatness that he’s maybe the team’s best defensive forward, perhaps 1A to Pavel Datsyuk’s 1.

Ahh, Datsyuk—Z’s frequent linemate.

Coach Mike Babcock doesn’t know what to do with those two half the time. When the mood strikes him, Babcock puts them together, creating a pairing so lethal that the third player on the line is like the Fifth Beatle.

Other times, Babcock breaks them up, figuring that each is so good that he can create a second lethal line, like splitting an amoeba.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two different players, though.

Where Datsyuk is a magician with the puck, relying on sleight of hand rather than brute strength to keep possession, Zetterberg is more bull in the china shop. If they were an NFL backfield, Datsyuk would be the tailback, Zetterberg the fullback. And each would rush for over 1,000 yards.

When Datsyuk went down with an injury earlier in the season, Zetterberg put the Red Wings on his back—at first. Then he faded away again, mysteriously.

The true superstars don’t fade away, they don’t vanish, they don’t have you scurrying to the scoresheet to verify presence. Hank Zetterberg has all the talent in the world. He ought to be a true superstar in a league that he owns if he plays up to his potential.

Check that—he should be playing in his own league.

Yet he’s not doing that right now, and he hasn’t for at least two seasons. He is, without question, a very good player most of the time. But he has the ability and skill to be great all of the time.

The playoffs are almost here and if the Red Wings are going to go as far as the folks around town think they can, they need the superstar Zetterberg to be there, night after night. Not the very good Zetterberg, sometimes.

Or maybe he is hustling us, and the Red Wings, with Zetterberg leading the way, will run the table.

That would be Swede.