Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 02/11/07 at 07:53 PM ET
By George James Malik
The Red Wings’ open practice revealed a myriad of small details about the players’ tendencies, the team’s work ethic, and in Saturday’s case, the astonishingly long shadow cast by an injury of unknown severity, but there is one fact you must know about the Wings’ transformation from a Bowman-era team to Mike Babcock’s team, and it can be summed up in one word: crisp.
I saw two practices last season, and they were very herky-jerky in terms of pacing. Babcock had to stop his drills regularly to either explain himself again or to admonish players for their lack of hustle.
The giggling, hot-dogging, and joke-cracking that form the groundwork for any practice remain, but once Babcock, McLellan, and MacLean explained the next 90-to-180-second drill, the boys got “professional” fast. Hustle like there’s no tomorrow, skating your brains out while doing a simple cycling drill? Check. An innate understanding of not only the technical aspects of what’s being asked, but also the expectations of the coaches in terms of fit and finish? You bet.
Babcock hollered at Holmstrom a few times. He blew his whistle once or twice because he was dissatisfied with the pace of a drill. He didn’t stop to explain himself. He was satisifed with both the Wings’ speed and attention to detail. He didn’t have an issue with Robert Lang’s ambles, nor Josh Langfeld’s complete and total lack of hands. The boys skated, passed, shot, changed, forechecked, and competed like their lives depended on each and every stride.
Chris Osgood was the first player on the ice, working on agility drills from post to post, the post to the top of the crease, and lateral butterfly recovery drills while Josh Langfeld shot on the stick-less Osgood, with Jim Bedard evaluating Osgood’s efficiency in the crease. Ozzie looked very good—as soon as he can hold his stick with his heavily padded index finger, he’ll be ready to go.
Babcock layers his drills in terms of complexity. After a twenty-minute session of ambling onto the ice, and warming up MacDonald and his V3 blocker and catcher at one end, and taking shots at the other net, Babcock asked the boys to do a simple skate-around.
Two minutes later, he layered in outlet passes and turns that slinked and snaked up the ice. Then players broke out in pairs, passing the puck back and forth. Forty-five seconds later, one player was skating backwards, passing to his partner. The team gathered at centre to stretch for a ffew minutes, and then the skate-around increased in intensity, with end-to-end shooting rushes, up-and-down passing, pairs of skaters plowing up and down the ice at the same time, peeling off at the blueline to put a shot on net that the partner tipped, and four-on-four drills that included line changes.
That’s just the first fifteen minutes. Two-touch passes with full three-man lines going end-to-end, then two lines facing off, layering in line changes, penalty-killing and power-play units, dump-and-chase puck retrieval, two-on-one drills, corner battles, and forechecking, ending with wind sprints…it was forty-five minutes of controlled, beautiful chaos, chaos in which the emphasis on skating and going to the front of the net were accentuated with skill levels that make 2/3rds of the NHL’s teams look like American Hockey League squads.
Part of the Wings’ fit-and-finish is work. Most of it is skill. Even in practice, it’s ridiculous to witness how spoiled we Wings fans are in terms of the ability of every player, from Lilja to Datsyuk, to play at the tremendous skill level that’s defined Red Wings hockey for the last fifteen years. For all the Wings’ frustratingly artsy-fartsy sensibilities in terms of goal-scoring, they’re rarely boring to watch, new defensive system included, because they so expertly move the puck up and down the ice.
At the same time, attending an NHL practice is delightful for a reason that no drill can distill. The jokes and giggles. The celebrations after scoring silly goals. Watching Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk play, “Keep away by dipsy doodling, dangling, and then tackling and wrestling.” Seeing the suddenly natural goal-scorer that is Jiri Hudler playing “who can top-shelf it from the bench?” with Langfeld, Williams, and Lebda. Guys breaking down and laughing during stretches.
I watched the Tragically Hip from fifteen feet out at the House of Blues last July, and as much as I love their music, the best part of the concert was the ****-eating grins and glances that musicians who’ve been playing together for almost 25 years gave each other. The Wings have must as much fun, and even when they’re all business, they’re giving each other hell, making fun of interim practice goalie Jim Bedard, and just having the time of their lives because they’ve earned the privilege of playing hockey with their friends. The simple joy on their faces when a slow moment comes, and Chris Chelios smiles because he’s spending his Saturday morning on the ice, the guffaws that follow Nick Lidstrom beating Henrik Zetterberg in a wind sprint, it’s those little moments that really give fans who can’t see their favourite player’s on-ice personality in the blur of action that is NHL hockey something to latch on to.
That’s why PR Nazi John Hahn and the Wings’ PR staff—as well as the lovely security guards who threatened to kick people out of the building for using drug-store cameras with automatic flashes—need an attitude adjustment. You don’t build a season-ticket base by offering up a 6-game multi-pack and attaching a player’s name to it. You don’t build fans for life by offering refrigerator magnet schedules. You don’t ensure that a one-game attendee becomes a fan for life by endlessly repeating the same 22 minutes of “Red Wings Weekly” footage for three months.
You open the doors to the rink and eat fifty grand to invest in the present and future of your market and those walking “revenue streams” called fans by giving them a small measure of access to the seamless fit and finish, their players’ work ethic, and especially their smiles. It’s witnessing the little things—seeing that Zetterberg and Datsyuk have so much on-ice chemistry because they really are best friends, watching Lilja, Draper, and Williams smile and gently pass the puck back and forth with two players’ kids on skates before and after practice, seeing Tomas Holmstrom work for 25 minutes on tipping the puck while his teammates make fun of him with every pass and shot—those things give you a personality to attach to the face, name, and number. Those moments are truly priceless, and we Wings fans deserve more of them.
Saturday was a wonderful start. It would be even more wonderful if the Wings could afford us the opportunity of keeping the goodwill flowing.
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