Mercurial Red Wings-Avs rivalry was sports’ best—for six years

The roots of one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history can be traced to May, 1995.

The roots started to take hold in early-December, 1995. They were firmly in the ground come the following May.

The Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche will be playing in yet another one of those outdoor games on February 27, in Denver.

Sadly, the alumni game that will take place the day prior to the game is likely to have more juice than the real thing.

The Red Wings and the Avs were the Hatfields and the McCoys of the NHL. Heck, maybe in all of professional sports.

Their bitterness toward each other was fleeting and mercurial, however. But for about six years, nothing was a hotter ticket than a Red Wings-Avalanche game, whether it was played in Detroit or Denver.

You can have your Yankees-Red Sox. You can have your Lakers-Celtics. I’ll even give you Pistons-Celtics and Pistons-Bulls. Same with Flyers-Rangers or Canadiens-Maple Leafs.

You can have them all, but what the Red Wings and Avalanche did to each other from 1996-2002 trumps everything those teams did. For six years, it was must-see TV.

But that was a long time ago.

The Red Wings-Avs rivalry can’t truly be put up there with the greatest of all-time, because it didn’t last very long.

The Red Wings kept being good—winning another Stanley Cup in 2008—but the Avs had some playoff trouble in the years after capturing their last Cup, in 2001.

The teams met again in the post-season in 2008, but it wasn’t a competitive series whatsoever; the Red Wings swept the Avs by mostly lopsided scores.

The alumni game on February 26 will be a trip down memory lane for those who were enthralled by the drama and subplots that seemingly every Red Wings-Avalanche contest provided.

In those days, everything would spill over to the playoffs, where the teams met five times in the seven seasons between 1996-2002, with the Red Wings capturing two series, the Avs three series. Three times the squads faced off in the Western Conference Finals, with the Red Wings winning two of those.

But again—a long time ago.

The NHL is trying, I would imagine, to get some TV eyeballs on the outdoor game on February 27 because of the Red Wings-Avalanche brand name.

But today, the teams aren’t even in the same conference anymore. Most Red Wings fans likely couldn’t name three players on the Avalanche roster, without the help of the Internet.

That’s why the alumni battle will be fun. But of course, it’s not the same as when the players genuinely hated each other.

Claude Lemieux, of course, wore the biggest black hat in Detroit.

Patrick Roy’s lid was pretty large as well.

Which gets us back to the root of the issue—pun intended.

The Quebec Nordiques were a pretty good hockey club in 1995, but they were in financial trouble.

Owner Marcel Aubut tried like mad to keep the team in Quebec City, but the red ink was too deep and the Province of Quebec rejected Aubut’s proposal for a bailout.

Aubut had no choice but to sell “Le Nordique” to COMSAT Entertainment Group, which owned the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. COMSAT moved the Nordiques to Denver and dubbed them the Avalanche, prior to the start of the 1995-96 season.

Denver was a prior NHL loser, having had the Colorado Rockies from 1976-1982 before the team moved to New Jersey and became the Devils.

But the Rockies were 13 years ago in 1995, and the NHL felt comfortable giving Denver another chance—especially since the team was highly competitive.

The move from Quebec City to Denver was announced in May, 1995. So there’s your first roots of the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry.

In early-December, the Red Wings, with what would be tremendous irony, torched Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy in an 11-1 shellacking at the old Forum. Roy surrendered all but two of the 11 goals.

Roy had battled with coach Mario Tremblay, and when Tremblay left Roy in to suffer the humiliation of the 11-1 loss to the Red Wings, the Canadiens goalie had had enough. He demanded a trade, right then and there—behind the Montreal bench. Roy sought out Canadiens President Ronald Corey, seated near the team’s bench, and announced that he’d just played his last game as a Hab.

Roy was traded forthwith—to the Colorado Avalanche.

A rivalry’s roots started to take firmer hold.

The Avalanche, for one, moved to the Red Wings’ conference because of their geographical relocation to Denver.

As fate would have it, the Red Wings would set a new all-time record for most wins in a season (62), and in the conference finals, who were waiting for them but the Colorado Avalanche—with their new goalie, Patrick Roy.

Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face with a brutal, illegal hit in the Conference Finals, which the Avs won in six games.

Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli lamented the post-series handshake after Game 6.

claude-lemieux-kris-draperjpg-35a9759a0a17377f

Claude Lemieux, leaving the scene of the crime in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

“I can’t believe I shook that [expletive]’s hand,” Ciccarelli seethed of Lemieux, who had been suspended for the clinching game because of the Draper hit, and who joined his teammates on the ice in an Avs t-shirt for the handshake.

The rivalry was now on!

Back and forth the two teams went for the next six years, slugging it out on the ice—twice the goalies got into it—with each team one-upping the other. But the head that wore the rivalry’s crown lied uneasily. Neither team really dominated, or went on any long winning streak against the other.

That was, of course, part of what made Red Wings-Avs so delicious. It was like MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” series.

But after 2002, the teams didn’t have very many memorable regular season contests, as they used to. And in that 2008 playoff series, the Avs were totally outclassed.

The Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, which means the two teams hardly play each other.

But for six years, we were treated to the best that pro sports rivalries can give.

There were heroes and villains, subplots and drama. Even a mental image of an Avs sweater would make a Red Wings fan seethe, and vice versa.

When the Red Wings ousted the Avs in Game 6 of the 1997 Conference Finals, it was like when the Pistons finally eliminated the Celtics in the 1988 Conference Finals after years of torment; that 1997 series victory almost meant more than winning the damn Cup—which the Red Wings hadn’t done for 42 years.

The rosters for this month’s alumni game were announced a few weeks ago and as you would expect, the names that dot them are a Who’s Who of vintage Red Wings-Avs storylines.

But there won’t be bloody battles. There won’t be black hats. There will only be the names of yesteryear on the backs of the sweaters.

There’ll be too much smiling on the ice, number one.

As for the real game on February 27 between the Red Wings and Avs of today, you can have it.

All this is, is a reminder that sometimes in sports, you can never go back.

But you have the memories, and those will have to suffice—and they will.

For the Red Wings, the Road is where the heart is

The NHL has enjoyed flipping jersey color assignments throughout its history.

In the 1950s, home teams wore white. Then in the 1960s, the league decreed that home teams would wear dark jerseys.

Not to be  outdone, the 1970s came along and home teams went back to wearing white jerseys. This remained the norm until after the lockout, in 2005–which is where we are today, with home teams back to wearing dark sweaters.

Maybe the Red Wings are confused.

In their past eight games inside the cozy–and outdated—confines of Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings are 1-5-2. In contrast, on the road, the team is 7-1 in the month of January.

Simple solution: have the Red Wings wear white sweaters at the JLA. Because apparently they’re color blind.

Winning on the road in any professional sports league is supposed to be a challenge. The goal is usually modest—break even on the road and try to clean up at home.

But Jeff Blashill’s team is doing this backwards—it’s running roughshod over opponents in their own buildings.

And the Red Wings are performing at the Joe like hockey’s version of the Washington Generals basketball team.

All that’s missing is the sound system blasting “Sweet Georgia Brown” when the Winged Wheelers’ opponents step onto the ice at JLA.

This schizophrenic on-ice behavior presents a classic glass is half-full/half-empty conundrum.

Should we admire the Red Wings’ ability to storm into opposing arenas and mop the ice with their foes, or should we be worried that the good guys are losing at home more than a husband trying to win a fight with his wife?

The half-full scenario is that in the playoffs, winning on the road is a must. No team wins the Stanley Cup by going undefeated at home and playing miserably away from it. So the Red Wings’ current hot streak away from Detroit is a good sign, right?

But wait—if the team soils its own ice surface, then how can it have a true home ice advantage this spring?

Hmmm.

Red Wings on road

Pavel Datsyuk pursues the puck in New York during Monday night’s 4-2 win over the Islanders

The Red Wings won another in foreign territory on Monday night—cleaning the New York Islanders’ clocks, 4-2. It was the team’s last game before the upcoming All-Star break.

The schedule was very home-heavy for the Red Wings pre-Christmas—and they played very well at JLA for the most part in 2015—so with all the road games looming in the 2016 portion of the schedule, the team knew, to a man, that the effort would have to be stepped up in order to keep its playoff path on track.

But 7-1 on the road and 1-5-2 at home in January? Isn’t that taking things to the extreme?

“If we weren’t 7-1 (on the road), who knows where we’d be,” said Brad Richards, who opened the Red Wings’ scoring on Monday night with a power-play goal.

“There was a lot of urgency, a lot of realization we had that good schedule heading into Christmas and we would have to come out of it on the other side and put together a good effort on the road – and we’ve done that,” Richards, a two-time Stanley Cup champion—including last year with Chicago—added.

OK, so the Red Wings seem to have this road thing figured out, but how about taking advantage of some home cooking now and again?

What do we have to do—toss coney islands and bottles of Vernors onto the ice instead of octopus?

But this is probably nothing more than a mid-season anomaly. The NHL is a long, 82-game season and teams plow through it like salt trucks after a blizzard. You’re going to get hot and cold—at home and on the road.

In the playoffs—where the Red Wings (25-16-8, 2nd in Atlantic Division) appear to be headed for a 25th consecutive year—you can pretty much toss teams’ home and away records out the proverbial window anyway. The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been sports’ shaken-up Etch-a-Sketch—everyone gets a clean slate and unlike the NBA, low-seeded teams can worm their way into the Cup Finals—and win.

But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Red Wings, after the All-Star break, won a home game here and there.

Break out the whites at the Joe!

First-year coach Blashill not about to be the guy who fouls up Red Wings’ culture

It’s been so long since there’s been dysfunction with the Red Wings, that we’ve lost a whole generation of cynicism.

After dinosaurs like yours truly perish, all we’ll be left with are a bunch of millennials who were born with a silver hockey stick in their mouth.

The Red Wings are 40-plus years past the days of “Darkness with Harkness.” We haven’t been able to truly rail against the franchise’s ineptitude on a regular basis since everyone was wearing bell bottoms and mood rings.

We’re a quarter century into a stretch of nothing but winning, playoff hockey—and four Stanley Cups, plus two Finals appearances.

Sometimes I miss the days of dysfunction.

Sometimes I wish I had been writing about sports when GM Ned Harkness bugged star center Garry Unger about the length of his hair. That would have been a hoot.

I would have loved to pen a column about how the Red Wings sloppily changed coaches in 1973 by firing Ted Garvin and naming player Alex Delvecchio as his replacement—except Alex hadn’t retired yet and league rules forbade a player from also coaching. So Garvin had to coach that night—AFTER he’d been given the ziggy. Teddy left midway through the third period. Injured player Tim Ecclestone finished coaching the game.

What a humdinger that was.

Oh, to have been a sportswriter when GM Ted Lindsay signed 33 year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon as a free agent, only to come perilously close to losing young center Dale McCourt as compensation to the Los Angeles Kings.

Those Lindsay teams were fun. Teddy signed the likes of Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson to bully opponents—kind of like how Teddy did as a player, only without the talent.

But then Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 and after a few false starts, it’s been nothing but win, win, win.

As a writer, where’s the fun in that?

At least when the Red Wings lost Mike Babcock to free agency, there was hope that the new coach would come in and foul things up, finally.

No such luck.

Jeff Blashill has stepped in and as the Red Wings did when Bryan Murray came on board and when Scotty Bowman arrived and when Dave Lewis replaced Scotty and when Babcock replaced Lewis, the team hasn’t missed a beat with a new coach.

Again.

Blashill has his team playing good hockey right now, despite the loss in Los Angeles on Monday night, which snapped a four-game winning streak (all on the road).

As a coach, it’s easier to win in any pro sport if you have the players. That’s true. But what’s happening with the Red Wings is further validation that it’s maybe just as much about the system and the culture as it is anything else.

This isn’t to take anything away from Blashill, who was Babcock’s replacement in waiting at Grand Rapids. Actually, it’s praise for Blashill, because even though there might be a great culture in Hockeytown, you can still be the guy who screws it up if you don’t handle things with aplomb.

Blashill made the right move in accepting a pay raise in Grand Rapids with the promise that he wouldn’t pursue an NHL head coaching gig, knowing that Babcock might leave after the 2014-15 season, when his contract expired.

It was the right move because how many coaches can be set up so well for success as you can with the Red Wings?

Coaching, as you know, has all the job security of a snowman in the summertime. The late, great Earl Lloyd once said, after agreeing to coach the Pistons in 1971, “It’s funny. As a coach, as soon as you sign a contract you’re also signing your termination papers.”

So true.

So when a coach has a chance to join a team with a winning tradition and an owner’s commitment to spend and a GM who’s among the best

Jan 7, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) talks to assistant coach Jeff Blashill on the bench against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Blashill’s year as a Babcock assistant is paying dividends now.

in any sport, with a scouting department that makes the other teams’ look like a bunch of Mr. Magoos, you jump at it.

Or, you bide your time and wait for it to open up, as Blashill did.

The wait was worth it, as Blashill would surely admit.

This isn’t to say that Jeff Blashill won’t, someday, be given the ziggy as coach of the Red Wings. But GM Ken Holland has only fired one coach in his 18 years on the job—Lewis, and that was more because of the misfortune of following a legend like Bowman than anything else, because Lewie had two outstanding regular seasons as coach.

But if Blashill gets canned, it won’t be anytime soon and it might be because the two sides got tired of each other, rather than because of any ineptitude. It might not even be a firing—it could be Babcock-like in its circumstance.

The Red Wings have not been the perfect team by any imagination this season, but they’re kings of the road and Blashill has displayed a tender knack for knowing when to push and let up. He demands accountability, albeit not with the same in-your-face style as Babcock did. Blashill has handled his delicate goaltending situation perfectly, if you ask me.

The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.

But that’s nitpicking.

Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.

There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.

First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.

There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.

Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?

Just asking.

In a test of goalie endurance, Mrazek has pulled ahead of Howard

The pucks went into the net fast and furious. The red light went on behind the goalie so often, he got a sunburn on the back of his neck.

It was a rough night at the office for Glen Hanlon, but with typical aplomb befitting him, he was able to crack wise about it afterward.

“Who replaced the net behind me with a soccer goal?” Hanlon quipped.

Hanlon, the ginger who played between the pipes for the Red Wings from 1986-1991, was in net on February 23, 1988 when the Philadelphia Flyers stormed into Joe Louis Arena and smacked the Red Wings, 11-6. Hanlon allowed 10 of the 11 goals that night.

But Hanlon put that nightmare evening behind him and scored two shutouts in his next four starts.

Hockey players are known for wearing the “C” on their sweater but it may as well stand for “confidence.” Never is that more true than with goalies.

You know goalies—that odd breed of athlete.

Hockey goalies are either nuts or savants. They either know something we don’t, or they’ve been sniffing the goal post paint.

Why else would you suit up and face vulcanized rubber discs fired at you?

The mental aspect of the position has swallowed some netminders whole. Even the Hall of Famers have had their moments—and by that I mean, where they could be fitted for a straitjacket.

Glenn Hall once played in over 500 consecutive games, without a mask, which makes him the Supreme Nut. And Hall went through a ritual before every game where he would throw up, like clockwork. It was every bit as normal as Brendan Shanahan tapping the blade of his stick for good luck as he stepped onto the ice every night.

Roger Crozier retired briefly, in his 20s. The reason? The stress of being a goalie threatened to consume him.

Jimmy Rutherford once told of having dreams where pucks were flying at him from all different directions, all at the same time.

Dominik Hasek is a very nice man, but he’s crazy, too. Hasek was as quirky as Felix Unger.

So don’t try to tell me that goalies are the same as everyone else walking this planet.

But it all comes down to the big “C”—confidence.

If you lose it as a goalie, you can’t stop a beach ball. And the net behind you turns into a soccer goal.

Petr Mrazek, the Red Wings goalie for whom you want to buy a vowel, has morphed into the team’s no. 1 netminder. It’s been a non-hostile takeover, but a takeover nonetheless.

Coach Jeff Blashill began the season with good intentions. He alternated goalies, a la the great Boston Bruins teams of the early-1970s.

But lately, Mrazek has been the man. He’s the one playing with confidence. Mrazek has started three straight games, which under Blashill is akin to Glenn Hall’s streak.

Jimmy Howard is no. 2. He’s the one with the shrinking “c” on his sweater.

Howard’s last two starts have ended the same way—with him on the bench, wearing a baseball cap.

On December 22, Howard started at home against New Jersey and 14 minutes and three goals later, his night was finished.

A week later in Winnipeg, Howard lasted 31 minutes and surrendered four goals. His save percentage in those two games combined was .650, which is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 12.

Howard hasn’t seen the ice since, as Mrazek is playing with flair and with the big “C.”

When it comes to confidence, by the way, you won’t find a goalie in the NHL with much more of it than what Mrazek has.

Confidence—some call it swagger—has been Mrazek’s calling card from the moment the Red Wings scouts first saw him play in the Czech Republic.

The Red Wings nabbed Mrazek in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, which is about right. The Red Wings have made a killing in the later rounds over the past 25 years or so. It’s as if their scouts knuckle down when other teams’ start to lose interest.

Mrazek hates to be scored upon, and not because of fear of the red light—because of disdain. Teammates marvel at his intensity, even in practice.

Petr Mrazek

Mrazek has seized the Red Wings’ no. 1 goalie job—or so it would appear.

Now, no goalie likes to be scored upon. This is hardly a trait unique to Mrazek. But Mrazek’s brimming confidence/swagger raised the team’s eyebrows when they scouted him, and nothing has changed since.

Mrazek pitched two shutouts at the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s playoffs, when coach Mike Babcock chose the kid over the veteran Howard to be his post-season goalie. And had the Red Wings survived that first-round series, Mrazek no doubt would have remained the no. 1 guy throughout the playoffs.

Blashill took over last summer and he said polite things about Howard, who is going to be 32 years old in March. Then Blashill declared an open competition in training camp, and to the coach’s delight, his decision about who was no. 1 was rendered excruciating, mostly thanks to Howard’s solid play. The 23 year-old Mrazek was up to the task, as expected.

So Blashill decided that his decision on who would be the primary starting goalie would be…neither man. Hence the alternating goalie system out of the gate.

But like a long distance foot race, the younger man is pulling ahead.

Mrazek threw a shutout at the Devils on Monday night, so it would make sense that Blashill will start the Czech for a fourth straight game, at San Jose on Thursday.

As for Howard, it can’t help his confidence that seven of the 20 most recent shots he’s seen have eluded him, and that he’s been pulled in two straight starts.

But Howard is a goalie, and goalies are used to having their confidence ebb and flow. They all know that when they sign up for the job. And they do so, gladly.

Because they’re kooky.

Red Wings’ best player right now? It’s precocious rookie Larkin

The Red Wings’ best player wasn’t even born when Colorado’s Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

Let that sink in for a moment. I’ll wait.

It’s almost incomprehensible to think that, not even two months ago, there was hand-wringing over whether Dylan Larkin should be included on the Red Wings’ opening night roster.

Right now, Larkin is making this NHL thing look easy; forget what he might have done to the American Hockey League. They would have banned him, like a casino would with an expert card counter.

Larkin is the 19 year-old who on many nights is the best player on the ice for the Red Wings, who are riding his wave to the tune of a 7-0-3 streak in their past 10 games.

In NHL parlance, it’s a polite way of saying that a team is 7-3 in its last ten, but still, it’s a nice streak.

Larkin leads the league in plus/minus, and no matter what you think of that flawed statistic, whenever you lead the league in anything that’s deemed positive, it’s a good thing.

When you do so as a teenager, it’s even better.

Larkin, the kid from Waterford who last year was wearing Maize and Blue and a full face mask, continues to amaze with his hockey instincts, which belie his tender age.

If you didn’t know better, watching Larkin play, you’d think no.71 was a wily veteran.

His passes are threaded like a tailor. His game is awash with deftness. He glides around the ice as if he owns the rink. He has the confidence of a seasoned cat burglar.

And he’s 19.

Forget the Calder Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s Rookie of the Year—and which Larkin just might win next summer.

The kid might want to clear some space for a Hart Trophy. Or two.

The Hart goes to the league MVP, and no Red Wing has won that since Sergei Fedorov in 1994.

Four Stanley Cups have been won since then, but never have the Red Wings had a serious candidate for the Hart Trophy.

That has been a testament to the multitude of great hockey players that have passed through Detroit over the past two decades.

The Red Wings Way—and the path to that quartet of Cups—has never been to rely on one stud player. The Red Wings won by coming at you in waves. If they were a baseball team, their batting order would be lethal, one through nine.

Hence no league MVPs despite the overwhelming team success.

I’m not saying that Dylan Larkin is a no-brainer as an MVP candidate down the line, but he seems to already possess the ingredients.

He scores. He assists. He’s the best player on the ice on many nights. His hockey IQ is in the vicinity of genius.

And the Red Wings are, arguably, being led by him right now.

Larkin is tied for the team lead in points (21, with Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Tatar), but his plus-19 rating is 13 ahead of the next highest (Jonathan Ericsson).

Larkin leads the Red Wings in game-winning goals (3), even strength goals (11) and just plain goals (again, 11). His only weakness seems to be on the power play, where he hasn’t put the puck into the net—yet.

Larkin leads the team in shots on goal and, if they kept such a statistic, he would lead in Smiles Put on the Faces of Fans.

We’re not used to this in Detroit when it comes to our hockey.

The Red Wings have always been about grizzle, not peach fuzz.

On Opening Night, Larkin became the first teenager to crack the Red Wings roster out of training camp in 25 years.

He came out of the gate playing as if he’d been in the NHL for a decade: whip smart ice presence, composure, patience and guile, all beyond his years.

There’s also the physical gifts that Larkin possesses—and which you either have or you don’t—such as speed, power skating ability, and more upper body strength than I originally thought he had.

Some folks wonder if Larkin will hit the so-called rookie “wall,” because playing a truncated schedule in college is nothing like the 82-game grind of the NHL.

True, but Larkin is 19. He’ll never have more energy in his life than right now.

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 17: Dylan Larkin #71of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens  in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin is one-third through what could be a Calder season.

The Red Wings, with the addition of Larkin to the mix, are continuing to shout down the naysayers who, a few years ago, thought this team was on a collision course with a mini-rebuild.

One of the naysayers is banging this out on his keyboard right now.

How foolish of us to doubt the Red Wings’ crack staff of procurers of personnel, who scavenge the Earth from Flin Flon to Omsk year-round, trying to find the next Pavel Datsyuk or even the next Joakim Andersson.

And just like that, the roster is filled with the likes of Tatar and Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan up front, and Danny DeKeyser, Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith on the blue line—all to complement the veteran presence that is still very strong in the Winged Wheel.

And there’s Dylan Larkin.

The Red Wings are being led on many nights by a kid.

The entire NHL is being led by him, in the plus/minus category.

The question no longer is, Should Dylan Larkin make the Red Wings out of training camp?

It’s, Where would they be without him?

Mr. Hockey still throwing elbows at age 87

When the NHL was ramping up its discipline against hits from behind some two decades ago, it was no less than Gordie Howe who offered his own version of common sense, hockey style.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Mr. Hockey opined, “then how the hell can I hit him from the front?”

Hard to argue with that!

Gordie is 87 now and it appears that he still has a few elbows left , and maybe some hits from behind, for the Grim Reaper—and I don’t mean Stu Grimson.

Mark Howe, Gordie’s middle son, offered some words of encouragement for fans the world over of his dad.

“Dad has the will to want to live again and I’ve never seen a better competitor or fighter in my life,” Mark Howe told NHL.com the other day.

This will to live didn’t necessarily exist about a year ago at this time, Mark said. Gordie’s body had been riddled with a series of strokes, the last of which in October 2014 having done the most damage.

“We had seen something in dad that we had never seen before [at that time] and that was dad quitting. He didn’t want to partake in any physical therapy or eating, lost 35 to 40 pounds in six weeks and his life was basically going down the tubes.”

That was before Gordie was taken to Tijuana, Mexico to undergo some stem cell treatment in his spine. The trip to Mexico was necessary because such treatment isn’t available for humans in the United States or Canada.

The meteoric rise of Gordie’s health, attributed to the stem cell treatments, has been the subject of debate.

But what’s not debatable is that Mr. Hockey’s quality of life has improved substantially over the past 12 months.

We are lucky in Detroit. So many of our sports heroes are still around, even though we’ve lost our share.

Joe Schmidt, inventor of the middle linebacker position, is still in relatively good health at age 83 and is not living in seclusion.

We still have Al Kaline, who will be 81 next month. Al is no wallflower, either.

Dave Bing will be 72 tomorrow and his voice can be heard all over Pistons promos that the team’s marketing people pumped out this year.

And Gordie Howe, who isn’t just Detroit’s—he’s a North American treasure—is still mucking it up in the corners.

With social media and the Internet’s constant blasting of information and news updates, we are more exposed than ehowe-gordie-recovery-620ver to the passing of celebrities and former athletes. That’s why it can seem like our sports heroes are dropping like flies.

It’s that time of the year when we all are supposed to be thankful, so let’s have gratitude for who we do have left in our midst.

But of all the Detroit athletes mentioned above, it’s Gordie Howe’s health and well-being that’s been the most documented, the most discussed and the most intriguing.

Perhaps this is because that, at one time, Howe appeared to be ageless.

He was the George Burns of sports.

Someone once asked the entertainer/comedian Burns what his doctor thought of George smoking a cigar in his advanced years.

“My doctor’s dead,” Burns deadpanned.

Gordie Howe was never shy to dispense a wisecrack as easily as he was an elbow to the face.

At Steve Yzerman’s jersey retirement ceremony on January 2, 2007, I did some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral special guests to be interviewed during whistle stoppages.

One of the targets was Gordie, and I spoke to him briefly before the game, giving him some instructions and letting him know that I’d be coming for him.

“Bleep off,” he told me, bursting into that big, Gordie grin.

It was a badge of honor that I still wear proudly to this day.

Gordie Howe told me to bleep off.

Moments after that epithet, Gordie spotted NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Hey young man,” Gordie said, clapping Bettman on the shoulder. I half expected him to ruffle the commissioner’s hair.

And Bettman stood, wide-eyed, as Gordie regaled him with some comments, though sadly outside my earshot.

Maybe the best news that Mark Howe had was that not only is Gordie holding his own physically, but his famous personality has also returned.

“He’s getting around pretty well and he knows who you are,” Mark said of his dad. “I do a lot a lot of Facetime [communication] with him and he knows me. When he’s speaking, every so often it disappears so he does a lot of hand gesturing. Other than that, from where he was a year ago to now it’s just amazing how well he’s doing.”

Thankfully, eh?

With Fedorov in HOF, it’s time now to retire no. 91

As far as love affairs go, it was at times tumultuous, the relationship between Sergei Fedorov and the hockey fans in Detroit.

Mention Stevie Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom’s names in Hockeytown and the fawning will begin in earnest.

Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk and Ted Lindsay will get you nothing other than a bow down on one knee from the person to whom you utter the names.

And it’s not Normie Ullman’s fault that he wore the same no. 7 immortalized by Lindsay, but Normie scored 324 goals for the Red Wings and it’s too bad that he gets forgotten about in Detroit.

Ullman’s name should be in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, as well as at the new arena that will open in a couple of years. And I’m not one to retire numbers like they do at the deli counter.

I believe that if you’re going to take a number out of circulation forever, then your case ought to be pretty damn compelling. To me, it’s almost as hallowed as being inducted into that sport’s Hall of Fame.

Which brings me back to Fedorov.

You bring up Fedorov in Detroit and it’s not a slam dunk, like it is with the other men whose numbers have been retired by the Red Wings.

Fedorov doesn’t emit the same aura as his honored teammates Yzerman and Lidstrom.

You can’t find a soul in Detroit who’ll besmirch no. 19 and no. 5, but no. 91 will sometimes elicit an eye roll and a snort of disgust.

It’s the same old thing with the Detroit sports fan: you’d better not leave on your own volition.

There are two things the sports fans in the Motor City demand from their pro athletes: loyalty, and empathy for their pain.

The lack of the latter is what got Prince Fielder turned into a pariah in this town.

And the perceived lack of the former is why Fedorov doesn’t get nearly the same love as Yzerman and Lidstrom, with whom Sergei won three Stanley Cups.

But only three Red Wings scored more goals in the Winged Wheel than Fedorov, who tallied 400: Howe, Yzerman and Delvecchio. And only Howe and Yzerman scored more playoff goals as a Red Wing than Fedorov, who notched 50.

That’s some not bad company.

Sergei is in the Hockey Hall of Fame now, fair and square. He was formally inducted on Monday night, along with Lidstrom, who goes by the nickname The Perfect Human.

Fedorov, the Imperfect Human (tying him with billions of people around the world behind Lidstrom), has waited long enough. It’s time to put aside whatever rancor is left about Fedorov and string his stinking number into the rafters at The Joe.

I can still hear some gasps of indignation.

But he left! He left us!

He held out! He was a Johnny-come-lately in 1998!

He had a weird relationship with Anna Kournikova!

Yes, yes, and yes.

So what?

Fedorov remains the last Red Wing to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP—in 1994. He was just as much a part of the Red Wings’ Cups won in 1997, 1998 and 2002 as Yzerman and Lidstrom.

Yes, Fedorov bolted town as a free agent in the summer of 2003, defecting for the second time in his life, this time for Anaheim.

Yes, FedoFedorov Stanley Cuprov’s contract holdout in 1998 was something that Yzerman and Lidstrom—and every other Red Wing, frankly—never engaged in.

Yes, some would call Fedorov’s relationship with teen tennis star Kournikva unseemly and definitely non-Yzerman and non-Lidstrom-ish.

But what should really matter is what Fedorov did on the ice for the Red Wings, and this is where it gets ironic.

Bob Probert. Denny McLain. Miguel Cabrera. Bobby Layne.

Those are just four Detroit athletes whose off-the-field/ice issues are legendary.

Probert, with the bottle and the drugs.

Denny with his suspensions in 1970 for carrying a gun and for dumping ice water on a sportswriter—long before the ice bucket challenge existed.

Cabrera with his DUI arrests.

Layne with his party-hearty ways.

Yet Probert was about as popular as Yzerman in his heyday with the Red Wings.

McLain returned from suspension in 1970 to thunderous applause at Tiger Stadium.

Cabrera is revered in Detroit.

And Layne is so worshiped in Motown that some folks actually think he put a curse on the Lions.

So why doesn’t Fedorov get the same accommodation?

I think of the three grievances listed above, the most egregious to Red Wings fans is Fedorov leaving via free agency, which none of the aforementioned stars ever did.

Probert was waived. McLain was traded. Cabrera is still here. Layne was traded.

None of them left on their own volition, and Detroit sports fans don’t like it when their athletes bid adieu willingly.

It’s time now to get over that with Fedorov. It’s not like the Red Wings stopped winning Stanley Cups after Fedorov left.

It’s time to put no. 91 up with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19.

And I’m not a “retire his number!” kind of a guy. The case has to be compelling.

With Sergei Fedorov, it is.

For the Red Wings’ part, GM Ken Holland said in July that the team would consider honoring Fedorov with a number retirement ceremony.

The Red Wings have had four months since then to hash it out.

This morning, Sergei’s plaque is in the Hall in Toronto.

It’s time now.