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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

Hockey heaven

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The titanic clash between teams of media members felt just like a Red Wings game - well, except for those 20,000 empty seats. The titanic clash between teams of media members felt just like a Red Wings game - well, except for those 20,000 empty seats.
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For some, their sports fantasy might be digging in at home plate at the old Tiger Stadium, taking a few cracks at the short porch in right field.

Others may want to walk the fairways of Inverness, the exclusive club on Dorr Street, and see if they can conquer Tway's trap.

For me, it was something else, something far less likely: strapping on my skates for a game of hockey at Joe Louis Arena. As a lifelong fan of the Red Wings - back when they were the Dead Things and played at the now-razed Olympia Stadium - the thought of getting on the ice would have been pure fancy.

I mean, it's not like they rent the place out for beer-league hacks like myself.

No, almost all paths to the Joe Louis ice are hard-earned. You can be good enough to play high-level college hockey. Or you can be one of the best players in the world who toils in the NHL. Each takes thousands of hours of practice and a mountain of skill.

Turns out there's another way: be one of the only reporters in the Blade newsroom who plays hockey when the chance to play in a media game comes up.

Oh, my lucky day.

The worst part was waiting the three weeks from the sign-up until the actual game. The anticipation reminded me of my teen years in suburban Detroit, when my dad would come home with tickets for an upcoming Wings game. It would always be a month or two away and I would watch the calendar crawl as I waited, and waited, and waited like those poor folks in Casablanca.

Wilkinson: Wings fan. Wilkinson: Wings fan.
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But last Wednesday it happened. Under the bright lights and big banners, below the huge scoreboard - Tam O'Shanter, it wasn't - Blade Web czar Kevin Cesarz and I took to the ice with about two dozen other reporters, editors and athletic-department spokesmen. The game was held in conjunction with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's tournament.

From the moment you step on the ice, it's clear that things are different at an NHL rink. First, you can see. Unlike the recreational rinks across American - and I've played in plenty - there were no broken bulbs creating shadowy ice. Instead, you'd think every ounce of energy from Fermi II plant was beaming down on you.

Then there's the ice. NHL snobs say how good the ice is at Joe Louis, how Al Sobotka - the Joe's building manager and resident babysitter of the ice surface - keeps a near-perfect rink. He's doing something right. No cracks or waves or puddles here. When you send a pass 50 feet, it's not going to hop and bob like a skulled 5-wood at Detwiler.

But something happened shortly after taking a few turns around the rink and shooting a few pucks at our goalie, Windsor Star columnist Bob Duff. After the two sides took some pictures and figured out who would play what position (as one of the few who could skate backwards, I got assigned to defense), the awe of playing before nearly 20,000 empty seats faded.

He may not be Nicklas Lidstrom, but our intrepid defenseman had nothing to apologize for. Well, maybe one thing. He may not be Nicklas Lidstrom, but our intrepid defenseman had nothing to apologize for. Well, maybe one thing.
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It became, surprisingly enough, another game. The rink was the same size as almost every other rink, the ice was slick, the puck black.

The excitement crept in at inappropriate times, however. In the second period, the puck popped free along the right boards, and I found nothing between myself and the goalie but the Red Wings logo at center ice. It was too good to be true: a breakaway from my own blue line. Too good is right; my head got ahead of my feet. Do I deke? Do I just shoot? So many options, so little time. And then - frumph. Skate flips out to the right, puck skitters to the left, fanny meets ice. It was time to slink off to the bench, muttering that maybe there was an invisible rut in the ice. And thanking my lucky stars that every seat in the arena was empty.

Kevin almost wrapped himself in glory. Late in the game he beat two players at center ice - our forwards were about as mobile as Mount Rushmore - and bore in on me. I had time to think: Do I let him go by, and get a good shot off? Or do I try to stop him? Pride won out; I poked the puck away, yelling “sorry” at the same time. I shouldn't have apologized - Kevin returned the favor later, denying a chance I had.

After the final “buzzer,” as everyone skated off grinning, I turned around. The ice was nearly empty, and there still were a couple dozen pucks in the net. Sheepishly, I fished one out and started skating around like a little kid, making moves on imaginary foes, looking at the seats and the scoreboard. It sank in again, that feeling of disbelief.

And then it was over. The final score was 5-2 in favor of Kevin's team, but that was OK. No one gloated and no one complained. For most, it was a rare opportunity to do something that so few do while so many watch. Instead, you could see people almost embarrassed by their good fortune: Without the threat of getting pummeled by Bob Probert, without possessing the cobra-quick hands of Brett Hull, they had played at the Joe. Who could complain?

My final box score will read: no goals, one shot, two goals against, several falls, and a lifetime of memories. I had played on the same ice sheet where my lifetime favorites Reed Larson, Nick Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman have skated and scored.

What no-talent bum gets to do that? It was, as they say in the ad, priceless.



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