Learning from the Wings: never surrender

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

With an Over Time loss yesterday, Detroit suddenly sits in a 2-3 series hole in the first round of play-offs against Anaheim, facing a sudden-death potential exit game at the Joe on Friday, American time.

With such jeopardy facing the Wings, I want to say right now that I’m very proud of my team.

All season, coach Mike Babcock has been trying to find the magic; putting this player with that, introducing defenders (one who literally arrived at the club on the morning of an early-season game, a guy Babs admitted he barely knew anything about), just holding things together. Helm’s been out all shortened season with his mysterious back, Bertuzzi for almost the entire season … it’s just been one of those seasons of pure struggle.

I was really pleased that the team found cohesion and form to roar into the play-offs for the 22nd straight year, when that could so easily not have happened. And now, against the more highly-rated Ducks, they’ve been dogged and determined and about a goal-a-game short of where they need to be.

In Game 4, it was the Wings that kept falling behind; somehow hanging on by their fingernails to take the game to OT, where Brunner and the rookies combined to steal it. But today was the other way. The Wings got the first goal, then allowed the Ducks one. Detroit got the go-ahead goal but couldn’t hang on to the advantage. The third OT of the series, and it was Anaheim that scored.

Another day, another desperate struggle. Which is how it’s been since the lock-out ended.

I’m not giving up on this Western Conference quarter-final. Game 6 is at the Joe and the Wings have shown that on their day, they can score and score heavily. Which is what they need to do to make Game 7. But they could just as easily be strangled; not be able to find the net. Hank Zetterberg, who has been brilliant all season as our new captain, has yet to score in the play-offs, and Filp has gone cold again. We’re pushing it, to rack up enough goals to overwhelm the experienced, confident Ducks.

This absorbing battle has mostly been what’s kept me going over the past week or so. My life has been a rollercoaster (although it’s actually fine: all minor bushfires, not major scares).

Like Detroit, I just don’t seem to be able to find the goal often enough; can’t score wins lately in many areas of my life. I’ve taken the Wings’ lesson and kept pushing and persevering, but it can be hard. You want life to be one way and it’s another; you have ambitions and dreams and they drift tantalizingly out of reach. All you can do is breathe, and tell yourself that the buzzer hasn’t gone. Keep your head up. Chase the puck.

On Sunday night, I played for the Nite Owls, where I can feel out of my depth. Many of my teammates have played for 40 years or more and skate without effort or thought. My skating has come along in the last few months – no longer endlessly camped on my inside edges… yes! – but I’m pretty wobbly compared to these old gliders. They notice every hole in my game, in a good way; telling me to skate with both hands on my stick (a bad habit) and to stay high on the blue line in D, things like that. I don’t mind. I respect their experience and game sense and I’m still up for learning everything I can. Even better, I managed to find my way to my usual place in the slot, to jam home the first goal of the night, which gave me a feeling of belonging. I even almost managed to Holmstrom-deflect another goal, which hopefully made my teammates realize the 48-year-old they call “lad” isn’t a total muppet.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he's getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he’s getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

But by Wednesday, another few life kicks had me really struggling to ward off a general feeling of emotional flatness. Mackquist was sick with a cold and I thought about missing hockey, mostly to look after him, but also because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to compete in the occasionally wild and willing dev league games.

How sad sack are you to baulk at the idea of playing hockey? Even I couldn’t stomach that … I’m definitely unable to make Sunday’s Nite Owls play, so decided I really wanted to get in some skating this week, and should go. I checked Mack was alive enough for me to head to the Icehouse after all.

Of course, it was a brilliant night. The hockey was fast, furious and good-natured.

Before the game, I’d joked to another player, Todd Harbour, that I was going to kill someone. ‘And if I kill early, I plan to hunt again.’ I was deadpan and he looked worried but then smiled. Minutes in, battling for a loose puck on the blue line, I met an opponent head-on and they went flying backward, landing flat. Yes, it was Todd. I swear, Mr Harbour, I didn’t know it was you. And I was joking beforehand.

Later in that game, Big Cat and I combined for one of my favourite goals ever; me winning a battle on the defensive blue line and sneaking a short pass to his stick, then following his charge down the ice to be there when his shot rebounded off the top crossbar and between goalie Chris Lourey’s pads. I poked home the goal, for an epic one-two-one-two Place combination. Sometimes you have to remember why you got into something in the first place, and playing alongside my boy(s) was a prime motivation for my dive into this crazy world. Playing alongside Big Cat and having that kind of understanding on the ice remains awesome.

Usually I’m pretty buggered by the end of the 10 pm game, staggering into the night, knowing I won’t sleep before 1 am or more and have to wake to a 6.30 am alarm. Last night, I just wanted to keep skating, to keep chasing the puck; all the worries and annoyances of the real world blown away as I felt my legs burn and my chest gasp for air, and laughed with my hockey mates, bantered and sledged the coaches Lliam, Army and Tommy, and couldn’t wait for my next shift, and then the next shift, and then the next shift.

Damn, I love hockey when it’s like that.

And now, that hockey momentum has carried into the real world so that a few of the disappointments dogging me all week seem to be not quite so black. Maybe I’m not out of the game after all? Just like the Wings, I’m definitely 2-3 down in a seven-game series, but that just means I need to keep winning, right?

I have no idea, after watching yesterday’s game, which way the Wings-Duck series will go, but I’m proud of my Detroit team either way.

They just never ever stop trying, pushing forward, believing. It’s the Red Wing mantra, a non-negotiable, and I wish I could explain it to my AFL team, Richmond, which is building and building but does not yet believe. Something I can be guilty of as well.

I need to hang on to the Red Wings’ sense of self-confidence and excellence, no matter the scoreline; refusing to concede until the buzzer says it’s over …

And it ain’t, Anaheim Ducks. It ain’t over at all.

Comments

  1. Well, the Red Wings are looking to close out the MUCH favored Chicago Blackhawks tonight (it will be morning for you)! Mike has this young team playing it’s best hockey of the year.

    Steve Landskroener
    Michigan

    • Heya Steve,

      Can you believe it?
      If anybody didn’t think Babs was a genius coach before, this should seal it; no matter what happens from here.
      You can’t imagine how envious we’ve been, half a world away, watching the crowd at the Joe go nuts over the past week or so 🙂 … but also really glad we’d been there, to have a sense of it.
      I’m going to be underwater, on a pre-booked scuba diving adventure, when today’s game happens. I wonder if nhl.com radio can be somehow carried underwater?
      LGRW!
      Nicko

      • Tonight is a much important Game 6 at the Joe, hopefully Detroit can match the Blackhawks energy and finish them tonight. Enjoy the dive. (never got the opportunity when I was in Cairns and Townsville back in 1995!)

        LGRW!!!!

        Steve

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