By Mitch Albom
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Long before the puck was dropped here Wednesday night, before the Detroit hockey season saw its sad and bitter conclusion with that final 8-4 loss to Edmonton, there was a crack in the heart of this Red Wings team. It may take a long, long time to mend.
We are talking about an incident that left half the team angry, and its coach almost numb with disbelief. It is not a story I want to write. It is not a story you want to read -- not this morning, when we should be paying tribute to the fine effort of the Wings all year.
On the night before the biggest game of their season, eight Red Wings players went out drinking. Not all together. Not all with the intent of getting drunk. But they stayed out late, well past curfew -- a curfew that wasn't being checked because, as coach Jacques Demers would say: "We never ever thought we'd need to enforce curfew when our team reached the final four of hockey."
And one of the culprits was Bob Probert.
This will break your heart. It already broke Demers'. Probert has been battling alcoholism for years. It has tackled him, trashed him, landed him in jail. Yet recently, with the help of medication, he seemed to have it under control. He was playing his best hockey of the year and was Detroit's top performer against Edmonton.
Yet there he was Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before Game 5 of the Campbell Conference final, at a nightclub called Goose Loonies. He came with Petr Klima (who is out of the lineup with a broken thumb). By all accounts, it was Klima who encouraged Probert to go out, and if that is true, Klima should be so ashamed he should turn in his uniform right now.
"My God, Petr Klima could be ready to play if we reach the finals," Demers said Wednesday afternoon, his face red with anger and disappointment. "If he keeps the big guy eating ice cream, he might get a chance at it. Instead they do this . . . "
He sighed. He looked like he was going to cry. He talked about how Probert and Darren Veitch returned to the hotel drunk, after an assistant coach found them at the bar. I have never seen news affect Demers like this. He looked as if the police had just knocked on his door and told him his children had been arrested.
"Klima and Bobby could have spent the most wonderful summer of their lives this summer," Demers said. "People thought so much of them. The way they played this year. All the adulation. Now, they'll hear about this instead. For one night. One night. It's not worth it . . . "
"It's just not worth it."
Probert, who was allowed to play by Demers Wednesday night, looked awful on the ice ("God-awful," Demers said afterwards). He was sluggish. The fire from the earlier games was gone. By the second period, Demers had moved him off the first line and onto the second. What happened? Was it the night before? Was it the knowledge that he had let down his coach, perhaps for the last time?
"It definitely had an effect on our whole team," said a weary Demers. "We came out flat in the first period. There was a loss of respect going on.
"My first thought when this happened was to send them all home, but I felt I owed it to the fans to put the best team I could out on the ice."
OK. Let's be clear about what happened here. First, remember this was not all the Red Wings, just a handful -- reportedly, Klima, Probert, Veitch, John Chabot, Joe Kocur, Darren Eliot and two others.
Having said that, let us say this: Anyone on this team who encourages, accompanies or allows Bob Probert near alcohol is committing an unforgivable crime. The guy has already been junk-heaped by booze. As a fellow human being, you keep him away from the stuff. Then you can worry about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Going out there with a hangover sure isn't going to help your team's chances.
Which doesn't absolve Probert. "Hey, he's 22," Demers said, sighing. "He's an adult. Nobody had to twist his arm."
One night. The night before a game they had played all year to reach. Why do this? For what? Aren't there dozens of other nights, summer nights, when you can have a few beers and safely enjoy yourself? Demers and the rest of the Wings have worked so hard to build a team that may have lacked superstars but always had heart -- a heart that never seemed to beat louder than on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena, in a breathtaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Oilers.
Just two nights later, the heart was slashed, the character wounded.
"Do you think the players involved in this incident just said, 'Well, we can't win this series,' after Monday?" Demers was asked. "Is that why they did it?"
He bit his lip.
"If they did, then I don't want players like that on my team." When contacted about this, both Klima and Probert denied they were even out Tuesday night. This, despite the fact that Demers had addressed the situation in a team meeting earlier Wednesday. He told his team the press might find out. He told them he would not shield the players involved.
Now. All right. This is not a witch-hunt. No doubt some teams make a practice of drinking the night before games. Fine. But the Wings had rules, an agreement amongst themselves that they would do whatever it took to be at their very best against Edmonton. They certainly were not Wednesday night.
"It put a black cloud over what we accomplished," said Steve Yzerman, the Wings captain, in the locker room after the game. "It's not a big thing, but in some ways it is a big thing. I don't agree with what they did, but we're all adults. I'm not going to be their babysitter."
How sad. These were their rules. Demers' rules. All the coach has done for these players is treat them with respect, with dignity, with love. He has stuck with Probert longer than most people would, simply because Demers' father died an alcoholic, and the coach sympathizes. But Tuesday was not the first rule-break by the kid. It was not the second. It was not the third, nor the fifth nor the seventh.
"It's my biggest disappointment since coming to Detroit," said Demers, before a game that would only confirm those fears. "It's totally unprofessional. It hurt me more than anything."
In the coming days, we may see the repercussions. Demers vowed to "take some action right away, like tomorrow." He said he let Probert play Wednesday only because of the innocent guys on the team who wanted nothing more than to win. Guys like Steve Yzerman, who fought all the odds to play again in this series, and Glen Hanlon, who has killed himself emotionally defending against the Oilers, and Brent Ashton, Gerard Gallant, Harold Snepsts, Shawn Burr. Run down the list. Veterans. Young kids. They deserve better than a betrayal from their own ranks. And that is what it was. If you had seen the faces of some of the Red Wings Wednesday, you'd know it was true.
Not the story I wanted to write. Not the one you wanted to read. This Detroit team played gallantly all year, and it should be coming home knowing that everyone gave his best to the end. Instead, the Wings lost the game, they lost the playoff series -- and a handful of them lost something more important. They lost trust. They lost spirit. They broke their coach's heart, and there's no excusing that.
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