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The Life


April 16, 2002
The Assembly Line
ESPN The Magazine

Here. Take this octopus. Put it in your pants.

Now follow along as we head downtown, past the world's largest tire, 86 feet high, standing along the highway. Say hello to the Motor City. A really big tire. You are not in Malibu, okay?

The road is not glamorous, either. It potholes you past factories and warehouses and finally empties onto Jefferson Avenue, by the river, where a large, flat, industrial-looking red and gray building constitutes waterfront property. This is our rink, Joe Louis Arena, one of the oldest in the NHL. No glitz. No glitter. No mountains in the background. You are not in Colorado, okay?

Detroit Red Wings
Money well spent.
How's that octopus doing?

Stay with us as we walk through the arena's lower level, another glamorless journey, filled with heating units, duct work, exposed pipes and metal lockers. Finally, at the end of this concrete tunnel, is a small hallway. And down that hallway is a door. Through that door is a red carpet.

And inside is what you came for. Wait ... hear it? The clomping of skates? Ah. Here they come, one by one, all wearing the same uniform.

Steve Yzerman. Brett Hull. Brendan Shanahan. Sergei Fedorov. Dominik Hasek. Nick Lidstrom. Luc Robitaille. Chris Chelios. Igor Larionov. Scotty Bowman.

You can close your jaw now.

This is Detroit.

We save our glamour for the ice.

How's that octopus doing?

THE CAST

"Our roster?" says Yzerman, as he walks to his car in the last antsy days before the playoffs. "It's an issue more for other people than us. We don't sit around saying, 'How many guys in this room are going to the Hall of Fame?'"

Of course not. They'd lose count. But when the Wings skate out before a game these days, even opposing teams stop to gape. Thanks to offseason moves that were as impressive as they were expensive, Detroit comes at you now like a posse in a big-time cowboy movie, grizzled legends with long coats and rifles, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and Jesse James, five sure Hall of Fame forwards, two sure Hall of Fame defensemen, one sure Hall of Fame goalie and a coach who's been in the Hall of Fame for more than a decade.

The Red Wings are, simply put, the greatest collection of reputations ever assembled on an NHL roster. Dismayed with three years of too-early playoff exits, owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Ken Holland went balls-out last summer for one last run at recapturing the glory of Detroit's 1997 and 1998 championships.

The result is like backstage at the hockey Oscars, a locker room so crammed with Hart, Vezina, Selke, Norris and Pearson hardware, it could double as a True Value franchise. The Wings have four players with more than 500 career goals -- Yzerman, Hull, Robitaille and Shanahan -- and the first three are among the top 10 goal-scorers of all time! And they're still playing! The Wings dominated the All-Star Game roster. They had so many Olympians that a private plane was sent to Salt Lake City to pick them up. They clinched the NHL's best record in March, and the top players have been sent on forced vacations.

Yet, as Shanahan puts it, "We all know we're on the back nine of our careers." So they act as if they haven't done a thing. It is only now, playoff time, that they even start keeping score.

When you see all these big names on one Midwestern hockey team -- a team that hasn't heard a whimper of ego all year -- you are compelled to ask: How does it work? How do these superstars fit under the same low-slung ceiling? Where's the ice-time whining? Where's the money envy? Where's the jockeying to be The Man? Why does it work?

Several reasons.

Here they are.

How's that octopus doing?

THE CAPTAIN

Reason No.1 is Yzerman, the Johnny Deppish superstar who wants to be neither a superstar nor Johnny Depp. However reluctantly, Yzerman is the law in Detroit. He sets the bar. Selected captain of the Red Wings when Ronald Reagan was president -- Yzerman was only 21 then -- the soon-to-be 37-year-old is not the youngest, the strongest nor the fastest on the team. And he was never the biggest. But make no mistake, he is the Maximus of these gladiators, the man who fights wounded and bleeding, with a heart as large as any lion they spring on him. The rest of the team will follow where he leads. "It begins and ends with Steve," Hull says. "People like him don't come along very often. The way he carries himself, in this town, there's almost an onus on the rest of us to be like him."

That was Brett Hull talking?

Well, Yzerman is indeed idolized in Detroit, a city that prefers its heroes to be more steak than sizzle. Consider Motown's most recently popular sports stars. Joe Dumars of the Pistons, quiet and humble. Barry Sanders of the Lions, virtually silent. Alan Trammell of the Tigers, so self-effacing he once negotiated his own contract during a five-minute on-field conversation.

Detroit does not cotton to loudmouths. There are no Deions here. No Reggies. We had Dennis Rodman during his shy period. So Yzerman fits the mold. You would no sooner challenge him in Detroit than you'd challenge Charlton Heston at a shooting range. And as long as Yzerman is captain, no Red Wing will ever sulk, whine, run to the media or shoot off his mouth. They know it coming in, or they learn it in the first hour here.

Not that Yzerman will ever admit that. "Oh, I don't walk around the room like I own it," he says, embarrassed. "We have guys like Igor and Cheli and Brendan and Nick who I think so highly of -- they don't need me to say anything. If you ask me, it's not the tone I set. I think it starts with Scotty."

All right, then. Reason No. 2.

That octopus getting funky yet?

THE COACH

Scotty Bowman's credentials wouldn't fit on the side of a mountain. You lose count of his Stanley Cups, his NHL records or the number of times people have called him "the greatest coach in the history of sports -- all sports."

But, oddly enough, it is his eccentricity that serves this Wings team best. Bowman, in his 30th year as an NHL head coach, has a brain that operates at a different frequency than the rest of us. With a media nickname of Rainman, he is as predictable as a live volcano and just as eruptive. He can look right through a player, then tell reporters what a good job he did. Or he can nod at him approvingly, then bench him for a month.

No one, Yzerman included, escapes his head games. And in a strange way, because he can treat everyone with the same dispassion, nobody feels slighted. One thing you will never hear in a Red Wings locker room is, "Aw, he's Scotty's boy."

On the other hand, Bowman, like many on his roster, is too old to be bothered with petty matters such as setting a locker room tone. He is not a speechmaker. He does not hand out quotations.

At 68, Bowman doesn't do rah-rah.

"That's up to them," he says now, standing outside his office. He sports a tight black T-shirt, a barrel chest and a jutting jaw that suggests a man who should be sticking out of a Sherman tank. "I got a call a few years ago from Phil Jackson, the coach of the Lakers. And he said, 'You know, if they don't get it, we got no chance.' I think he's right. The players are the ones who have to settle how they're going to be with one another. Not me."

Of course, it is Bowman who decides who's going to play with one another. His juggling of lines has always bordered on the mystical. But this year, with so many stars to mix in with young talent and long-time grinders, the Wings are like a Rubik's Cube with a dozen correct configurations.

"Every game is an adventure," says Igor Larionov, 41, the oldest and perhaps the wisest of the Wings. "Scotty knows how to find the key with one player and make him accommodate the key of another. He experiments all season with that, so he knows what he has for the playoffs.

"It's like chess."

Larionov pauses.

"I like chess."

THE CATCHER

We haven't asked about that octopus in a while. Still okay? Keep it hidden. You don't want our guards doing the mollusk frisk.

Now, let's go to Reason No. 3 why these Red Wings work. The lanky fellow over by locker No. 39, pulling off his goalie pads, revealing a hairy chest that is flecked with gray?

Dominik Hasek, 37, has given this Red Wings team the one thing it lacked even while winning its two most recent Stanley Cups: namely, a cockiness about their last line of defense. Mike Vernon won a Conn Smythe in 1997, the year the Wings rode him to a title, but he was gone by the end of the summer. Chris Osgood had the year of his life in the 1997-98 championship season, but given his youth and gentle demeanor, there was always a feeling that the dam could burst. Both were terrific goalies. Neither made the Wings feel like any night, maybe every night, he could win them games they didn't deserve to win.

Hasek does. His arrival last summer -- via trade from Buffalo for Slava Kozlov and a first-round pick -- was the offseason move to end all offseason moves. "That was the trade," as one Red Wing slyly says, "that made all the other teams in the league go, "Oh, f---!"

Hasek, a six-time Vezina Trophy winner, atomizes the particles. He stirs the air. "Other players, instead of thinking, 'How am I gonna get open?' start thinking, 'How am I gonna get past Hasek?'" Shanahan says. "I used to feel that way when we played against him. You watch him get in a zone, and he's unstoppable. And that's in practice."

Bowman agrees, saying Hasek's aura is tangible: "It's like Patrick Roy or even Ken Dryden when I had him. He can psych out the other team. They know he's going to come up big in certain situations.

"Bringing in Dominik was bringing in an MVP, not just a goalie. If you went through the league at the end of last year and said, 'Pick one player you'd want on your team,' he'd get an awful lot of votes."

But Hasek voted for Detroit. Now, after nine seasons with the Sabres, he is giddily enjoying the favored-nation status. With a Stanley Cup as "the only thing left" in a career that has touched every other square on the board, Hasek is as determined as he's ever been to achieve a single goal, Olympics included. And for the first time, he is entering the postseason as a favorite, not an underdog.

"In Buffalo," Hasek says, "it was pressure at the end sometimes just to make the playoffs. Here, it's different. And here, if I make a mistake, my teammates can come back and win the game. If I give up three goals, they can score four goals. We have so many great players on this team."

Some of them he knows uniquely well. Hull, for example, put a puck past Hasek in triple overtime three years ago that won Dallas the Stanley Cup and broke Hasek's heart. Now Hull is Hasek's teammate, part of the Grand Experiment.

"Excuse me," Hasek says. He turns to two men, one of whom carries a camera. He speaks to them in Czech. They have come from Hokej magazine in Prague to do yet another feature on their country's most famous goalie export.

"All of Czech Republic will be watching," the photographer says later of Hasek's attempt to win his first Stanley Cup. "Is big story there."

Is big story here, too. But in Detroit, Hasek enjoys star status without the star hassles.

"I like that," he admits. "In Buffalo, everyone recognized me. I was highest-profile player on the team. It was great part of my life. But I sometimes felt like I am in a cage."

Things change. That leads us to Reason No. 4.

THE CLOCK

When you're young in sports, it's what you pack. When you're older, it's what you leave behind. There's a reason this Red Wings team is so loose, so comfortable, so confident that their assistant coach, Barry Smith, says, "Even if we're down 4-2 in the third, you feel we're gonna win." There's a reason this $64 million, highest-payroll-in-the-NHL roster clicks like a bunch of beer buddies playing for a keg.

Age.

Sure, there is young talent here -- Pavel Datsyuk, a rookie, is a pleasant surprise, as is Boyd Devereaux -- but the core of this team is simply too old to be concerned about stats, quotes, TV time, or jockeying for the next contract. Think New York Yankees -- but without all the pub.

Larionov is over 40. Chelios turned 40 this season. Yzerman, Hull and Hasek are 37. Robitaille is 36, as is defenseman Steve Duchesne. Lidstrom and Fedorov are the baby superstars -- and they're 31 and 32. Even the bump-and-grind guys like Kris Draper, having a career year, and Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby are all near or past 30.

"When you first come in the league, you just want to play," Yzerman explains. "Then you want to establish yourself. Then you want to do well. But you get to a certain point where you just want to win -- and if you've won it once, you just want to feel that way one more time."

Adds Shanahan: "It's not always gonna be, 'We'll get 'em next year.' After a while, you wonder how many 'we'll get 'em next years' you're gonna get."

Which is why guys like Robitaille, a superstar fixture on the Kings, kept his family in L.A., but signed as a free agent with Detroit. And why Hasek said it's now or never and reluctantly asked the Sabres to trade him here. And why Hull, who won a ring in Dallas and could have retired a star among Stars, came north for one more swing at glory.

What they left behind was the baggage of hubris, how many goals they score, how many reporters are around their lockers, how many endorsement deals they sign. Both Hull and Robitaille, along with Lidstrom, are down significantly in points compared to last year.

Their response: Yeah? So?

"For me, when I saw other guys on this team were deferring money to make room for new guys," Robitaille said, "that was the beginning. I came here saying, 'Okay, I don't care how many goals I score. I want to win a Cup.'"

"The other thing," Hull adds, "is that this is an Original Six team. That was a big motivating factor. I don't think the young players now know what a thrill that is for us."

Ah. Finally. Reason No. 5.

Stop squirming. We're almost done. I know it's an octopus. But we throw them here. It's part of the tradition.

THE CITY

Know this about Detroit. It is not some Sunbelt sprawl-a-thon with a sparkling new corporate arena paid for by a trust fund baby's money. This is Hockeytown, where the guy behind the meat counter plays in an over-50 league and the woman in line at Kmart can explain forechecking.

Hockey is not second class to football, baseball or basketball in Detroit. It is a hot ticket in its own right, with five years' worth of consecutive sellouts at Joe Louis. The Red Wings are intertwined in the tapestry of the city as much as race and unions and the Big Three automakers.

Example: After the Wings finally ended their 42-year drought, capturing the Cup in 1997, nearly a million people attended a downtown parade. There are fewer than a million people actually living in the city limits. And days later, when defenseman Vladi Konstantinov and team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov were crippled in a limo crash, the entire city mourned. It depressed Detroit for months.

There are eateries here with dishes named after the players. There are cigar shops and used-car dealers who proudly display framed photos signed by Wings. It is the right city, the right time, the right cast. Which doesn't mean it will work, of course. The Red Wings have had stellar regular seasons before with dour results. (In 1996, they shattered the NHL regular-season mark with 62 victories, a mark they will not approach this year, only to be eliminated in the conference finals by their archnemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.)

The Wings have not gone past the second round since their last championship four years ago.

They have won only one postseason series against Colorado. It is the Avs' long shadow, and the specter of Patrick Roy, that makes Yzerman snarl at any mention of Detroit's Hall of Fame personnel.

"Colorado probably has 10 future Hall of Famers on their team, too," he says. "The only difference is, half of them are 20 years old right now."

And that could well do the Red Wings in. The NHL playoffs age you faster than a voyage to the sun. Bowman has taken extra precautions with his creaky-years cast, giving them rest days during the meaningless final weeks of the regular season. He wants no repeat of last year, when the Wings lost Yzerman and Shanahan to injury by the second game of the playoffs and were embarrassingly dismissed by the Kings in the first round.

There are other weaknesses. Lidstrom is the NHL's best at finesse defense but finding him a steady partner has been difficult. The Wings could do better at the dirty work -- the holdups, the board battles -- and some teams feel the best way to beat them is to rough them up. That might be stupid strategy in the playoffs, when power plays are often the difference, but enough hits on enough older players can take a toll.

It's a long season, and you have to trust it. Someone said that about baseball once, but you might as well apply it here. The Red Wings have put together a roster for the ages, and to date, they have co-existed marvelously, the very essence of "we" surpassing "me."

So what if there is no Cup at the end? Will owner Mike Ilitch and GM Ken Holland's grand-and-expensive-experiment have been a waste?

"I don't think so," Shanahan says. "We all know in order to justify it, we have to win the Cup. That's why the guys came here, maybe took less money and less ice time.

"But I also think the brand of hockey we're playing is an entertaining game. We're not lining up five guys at the blue line. We're not playing a 1-4. And ..."

He pauses. "The thing is, this has been the most fun I've had as a Red Wing during a regular season. It's a loose group. There's such a maturity to it. Put it this way: If we won the Cup, you might think everyone would say, 'We did it. That's enough. We quit.'"

You mean they wouldn't?

"No way. If we win, having this much fun, there is no way that everybody wouldn't want to come back and do it again."

Big sticks ready. Big tire ready. This is Detroit. A little rusty on the road in, but bright lights, big city on the ice. It's the greatest roster ever assembled. It's the Grand Experiment. Curtains up.

By the way, you can take the octopus out of your pants now. We were just putting you in the mood.

This article appears in the April 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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