Detroit — This was sport in its purest form.
It was done for the sheer exuberance of the effort, the camaraderie. Not about the money, not about the fame, in fact, not too much about anyone’s ego, at all, these two alumni games Tuesday between Red Wings and Maple Leafs.
The motivations and emotions expressed by the players were as uncomplicated as their reflexive smiles, as untainted as the freshly fallen snow that adorned Comerica Park.
And the 33,425 who gathered in the bitter cold, stiff wind and occasional snow were joyous.
It was a moment for:
Scotty Bowman to get back behind the bench and have some fun with players that he drove, with a master psychologist’s skill, to three Stanley Cups in Detroit, restoring the glory to a town that holds the game of hockey in such high regard.
Steve Yzerman to see if there was anything left, at all, in that bad leg he limped on all day and dragged, a bit, on the ice, as he escaped, however briefly, the pressures of building a Stanley Cup contender in Tampa and a gold medal winner for all of Canada.
Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay to receive ever more adulation from a town they set aflame with the glorious victories of the 1950s.
Citizens of a place called Hockeytown to welcome Sergei Fedorov back into their hearts, a gesture in which he clearly gloried in the dressing room after the game.
Vladimir Konstantinov to stand on the ice, brandishing a stick, amid the reunited Russian Five, with his smile beaming all the way from second base up into the upper deck.
“He was so happy and excited,” Fedorov said. “I haven’t seen him that happy in a while. So, I was proud of that moment, and to be part of it was just an unbelievable experience.”
Tribute to teammate
Joe Kocur to honor his fellow Bruise Brother, the late Bob Probert, by wearing Probie’s No. 24 jersey during player introductions.
Nicklas Lidstrom to tally a goal and an assist and skate well enough to tempt fans to think.... Oh, never mind!
Tomas Holmstrom to win a game on a breakaway. (Albeit in that damnable shootout!).
Slava Fetisov to look just like Papa Bear, again.
Red Berenson, at 74, to skate and play better than most of the players 20 and 30 years his junior.
And for Red Wings and Maple Leafs to renew an ancient rivalry in front of greatly-pleasured fans from both countries, who filled the entire lower bowl of Comerica Park almost completely and perhaps a third of the upper deck.
“Yeah, it was blast, you know?” said Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan. “We don’t get to do this stuff anymore, and when your career is over, it’s over and it’s sudden and you just get pulled away from this environment.
“So, to get back for a couple of days and to get a little bit of a throwback glimpse of what it was like to sit in the locker room and sit on the bench and to throw the puck around with some of your old mates, is great.”
Fedorov, standing in what is normally the Tigers’ clubhouse afterward, absolutely glowed. He was greatly pleased.
When he left the Red Wings, feelings were hard. And as is tradition in Detroit, when a big player leaves, he is booed when he returns as an opponent. And boo Fedorov they did, when he played here for a visiting team.
That was all gone Tuesday when he emerged from the Tigers dugout wearing “Fedorov” and “91” on his back.
Of the fans’ multiple warm responses to his appearance and announcements of his name, he smiled some more, laughed, and said, “I really appreciated it, because I always call Detroit home.
“I spent my best years. Everybody knows what I did here. And a reaction is a reaction, but I was really pleased that fans cheered me on, and it was like old days.
“It’s great. It’s a lot of emotions and I think I’ve got to sit on it just for a week or two to remember everything about it, because every guy, every friend and every colleague that I saw today kind of reminded you of a lot of emotions because we played together in so many games and in so many ways we won the hard games, together.
“To me, it was a little bit surreal, anyway. Scotty in the back with Barry (Smith). It was unbelievable.”
When athletes leave the arena, the vacuum created can be most difficult. At the very least, the loss of “being with the guys” is missed.
Some say they ache, emotionally, longing for the days that were. And then, there is the roar of the crowd suddenly gone silent.
Stew Gavin, who played just four years for the Maple Leafs in the early 1980s, expressed some of the feelings.
“You know, when we played, people want to pay good money to come and watch you play,” Gavin said. “And it’s real honor when people want to fork out money to come and be excited to see you play.
“While the quality of hockey may not be what it was some years ago, it’s nice that they enjoyed watching us play and were entertained.”
Even Yzerman, standing on his one good leg at a dressing stall at the end of the game, said he was happy he did it.
“The whole day, really, I really enjoyed it,” he said, despite some obvious discomfort as he skated. “It was a lot of fun to be out there and play, and to skate. I’m really glad I played — and hopefully I’ll never have to do it again.”
Seeing some of the all-time great Red Wings clearly tickled him.
“With all of them, you look at it, Gordie’s here, Ted’s here, Garry Unger is here, so many good players up until the younger guys who — I was 30 when they broke in, like Homer.
“It’s a good group, a good organization to be around. Ideally, I’d retire raising the Stanley Cup at Joe Louis Arena. But it didn’t work out that way. So, it was nice to be on the ice, one more time.
“I really appreciated it.”