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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Wings' Kris Draper takes final curtain call

By Scott Burnside

To consider the career of Kris Draper is to first consider all things are indeed possible.

Watching Draper grab constantly for the bottle of water as he tried to explain what it meant to walk away from the game of hockey reminded one that the currency of possibilities, the currency of dreams is almost always hard work and character.

Has anyone thanked more people than Draper thanked Tuesday as he announced his retirement after 20 NHL seasons, the last 17 with the Red Wings?

Even owner Mike Ilitch joked there wasn't anyone left to thank after Draper included everyone from the security guys at the Joe Louis Arena parking lot -- where he knows Henrik Zetterberg covets his parking spot -- to the trainers to the team masseuse to the staff that looked after his family up in Section 114.

Kris Draper, Detroit Red Wings, retirement
Kris Draper says playing on the Grind Line was "something special" and a highlight of his career.
But that is Draper, through and through.

He teared up as he thanked his wife and three kids near the end of his speech –- as you knew he would -– and talked about how he would miss looking up to find them in the stands and the anticipation of waiting for the kids to pour through the dressing room doors shortly after home games, regardless of the game's outcome.

Draper is one of only five players to have played 1,000 games or more in a Red Wings uniform, and his career spans some of the most important moments in the team's history.

That he would arrive in Detroit during a draft-day trade with Winnipeg in 1993 for a dollar merely adds texture to a story that includes four Stanley Cup championships, a Frank J. Selke Trophy as the game's top defensive forward and a berth on Canada's 2006 Olympic team.

Draper jokingly thanked then-coach and GM Bryan Murray and assistant GM Doug MacLean for the "blockbuster" deal that brought him to Detroit, while Ilitch joked he had no idea he was going to get such a player for the price of a McDonald's smoothie.

"He really was a role model for all our young players," said GM Ken Holland, who was presiding over his second retirement press conference in a week having bid adieu last week to netminder Chris Osgood.

Especially in recent years, coach Mike Babcock would go to Draper when things needed to be addressed in the locker room, and they would be addressed, Holland said.

"He's as proud a Red Wing player as we've had in the history of our team," Holland said.

It was Draper who was laid out by a typically cheap shot by Claude Lemieux during the 1996 playoffs, a hit that required reconstructive surgery to repair damage to Draper's head and face.

The next spring, though, Draper and the Wings had their revenge, winning a Cup for the first time since 1955.

During that improbable run to the Cup in 1997, Draper, Kirk Maltby and right winger Joey Kocur were dubbed The Grind Line.

Kocur would ultimately be replaced by Darren McCarty, who earned four Cup rings with the Wings.

Along with ferocious checking and timely scoring, the line embodied the return of hockey to prominence in Detroit and ultimately stands as perhaps the most popular forward combination outside of the famed Production Line with Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay.

The Grind Line was a group of blue-collar players with more than a few rough edges, which appealed to the blue-collar automotive town that had endured many long, disappointing seasons in Detroit.

Draper is the last of that group to walk away from the game (although he will remain in the organization in some front office capacity).

"It was special. I know Malts, we talked about it when he retired," Draper said. "There was just something about whether it was Mac playing right wing or Joey playing right wing, there was just something special about that group.

"We were able to do so much. It was so much fun playing with those guys. Definitely highlights, I know, in my career."

Kocur was on hand Tuesday for Draper's adieu and had a reporter ask when Draper could be counted on to start joining the Red Wings' alumni for games.

McCarty was there, too.

It reminded us of a visit we made to the Detroit area three summers ago.

The Red Wings had just won the Stanley Cup for the fourth time since Draper's arrival, and McCarty was scheduled to spend the day with the Stanley Cup.

McCarty had been out of hockey at the start of that 2007-08 season, his life derailed by alcohol and drugs. But the rugged winger returned to the game and to the team and city that first embraced him.

That he was able to do so was directly linked to his friendship with Draper.

The two close friends drifted apart as McCarty's life came unraveled. Yet Draper always left the door open, should McCarty need help. When McCarty felt he needed to return to the game, needed to find some sort of grounding in a life gone astray, he called Draper, who agreed to help him get back in shape.

Draper is part owner of a fitness center/hockey school in suburban Detroit and agreed to help McCarty get hooked up with a personal trainer and to get back to playing shape provided McCarty was serious about his intentions.

McCarty didn't take any shortcuts and ultimately signed with the Red Wings. After a stint in the minors, McCarty returned to the big club and stood on the ice in Pittsburgh with Draper and the rest of the Wings as they celebrated a Cup victory in June 2008.

The afternoon of his Cup visit, McCarty honored Draper and their friendship by bringing the Cup to Draper's fitness center.

The place was crawling with kids lining up for pictures and autographs.

"Honestly, you couldn't have scripted this any better. This is Disney for all of us involved," Draper told us that day.

Selfless? You bet. Yet hardly out of character.

Three years later, it was hard not to think in Hollywood terms as one of the most honest guys in the game, a guy who was bought for a dollar and returned that investment many thousands fold over the course of 17 years, took one final well-deserved curtain call.