Loyalty, sense of family the real key behind Wings' latest Cup win
PITTSBURGH -- When Nicklas Lidstrom took the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman late Wednesday night and presented it to his teammates, he became the first player born and trained in Europe to captain a Stanley Cup champion.
And, to be sure, this finely tuned Detroit team that finally beat back a stubborn Pittsburgh Penguins team by a 3-2 count in the decisive Game 6 has dispelled the old myth that you can't win a championship with a team front-loaded with European players.
But if you looked around the ice at Mellon Arena, at the players and their families and friends, many wiping back tears of joy or relief, you come to understand that this Detroit team isn't built so much on drafting and developing European talent, but in fostering something much more powerful, something closely akin to family.
This is a team that doesn't just talk about loyalty, they live it.
How else to explain Chris Osgood, who now owns three Stanley Cup rings with the Red Wings, the previous two won 10 years apart.
Few other NHL clubs would be willing to bring back an aging goaltender for another kick at the can, yet GM Ken Holland embraced the 35-year-old's return after the lockout, understanding Osgood desperately wanted to come to his hockey home -- Detroit.
And while Holland likely never imagined this scene, there was Osgood, winning his 14th game of these playoffs, fending off one final, valiant Pittsburgh thrust and raising his arms in the air to signal the Red Wings' fourth Stanley Cup win since 1997.
"It's been a long journey. Fifteen pounds later," Osgood said after the game.
Osgood wasn't expected to be anywhere but on the end of the bench when the playoffs began, but with Dominik Hasek wobbling early in the first round, Detroit coach Mike Babcock made the switch and Osgood rewarded him with stellar netminding night in and night out.
"When you pull your goalie in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, that usually means you're going fishing in about three days, and not 14 more wins or whatever we needed to get it done," Babcock said. "You've got to give him a lot of credit. He sat in my office at my house three years ago or two years ago, I guess, after the season, and talked about reinventing himself and finding a way, and he did."
Osgood is a decade older than the last time he held the Cup in his hands. He has a quiet confidence, in part because he is where he knew he belonged -- in a Red Wings jersey.
"I'm much more mature," Osgood said. "I'm just going to take it all in. It's not about me, it's about guys like Dallas Drake."
A journeyman forward brought in to add some sand to the Red Wings' dressing room, Drake was the second player to handle the Stanley Cup, taking it from Lidstrom and holding it aloft.
Drake played his first playoff game as an NHL player in 1993 as a member of the Red Wings. He'd played more than 1,000 regular-season games, but never made it even to a finals series. He came home to the Red Wings family to win his first Stanley Cup championship.
"My heart's still in my throat," the 39-year-old Drake said.
He recalled always managing to watch the final game of the playoffs every season just to watch the guys take their turns with the Cup. Suddenly, he was one of those guys.
"My legs are a little bit shaky. I was just trying to keep it [the cup] over my head," he said.
Asked about the frenetic final moments of the game after the Penguins had scored a power-play goal with 1:27 left to make the score 3-2 and then came within an inch or two of tying the game in the final seconds, Drake said, "Try sitting on the bench. I kept staring at my skates thinking time would go by faster but it didn't."
Among those Red Wings on the ice in that final, frenzied moment was Dan Cleary. He, too, is a player who might not have been anywhere in hockey if it weren't for the Detroit Red Wings and their willingness to give players a second or even third chance.
"I'll never forget this night as long as I live," said Cleary, who became the first Newfoundland native to win a Stanley Cup. "It feels like the entire weight of the world left me."
From a top prospect to chronic underachiever to a man without a contract three years ago, Cleary too has found a home in Detroit and, in return, has given them nothing but dedicated play.
"Here I am at the pinnacle of hockey," he said in disbelief.
As soon as he took the Stanley Cup from Drake, Cleary sought out his family in the stands and raised the Cup to them.
"Oh my gosh, it's so surreal," said Cleary's wife Jelena, holding 22-month-old daughter Elle in her arms. "I'm just so happy for him."
Not far away on the ice was another player who came home to the Red Wings family this season. Darren McCarty played in only one game in the finals, but that did little to diminish the moment for him.
At the start of the season, McCarty was out of hockey, his life a train wreck of financial woes and substance-abuse issues. Former teammate Kris Draper went to bat for him, and Holland -- who drafted McCarty back in 1992 and has likened the rugged winger to a son -- told McCarty he'd give him a chance if he was ready to get his life back together.
It paid off for both sides, but especially McCarty, who has reconnected with his ex-wife and four children. Two of them were at his side on the Mellon Arena ice as he talked about thinking of a montage of all the steps that led to this moment. McCarty was in Detroit for three championships in 1997, 1998 and 2002, but this one represents something greater, a victory in life.
"I've cried many tears already," McCarty's sister Melissa said as she watched her brother talk to reporters. "Just knowing how hard he's worked. Hockey's just the icing on the cake. We're so grateful to the Red Wing organization."
A few feet away from the McCarty family, former defenseman Jiri Fischer was embracing teammates and friends. He nearly died on the ice two years ago, but remains a part of the team.
Hasek came back to this team, too. He won a Cup here in 2002 and managed to put a lot of bad blood behind him to become the ultimate team player as Osgood took the Red Wings home.
Chris Chelios came here as a veteran expected to play out his career and yet has defied Father Time to win his second championship with the Red Wings. This might be it for him, since he was a healthy scratch for the finals. Despite his years in Chicago and Montreal, it's hard to think of Chelios as anything but a Red Wing.
In all, five Red Wings won their fourth Stanley Cup on this night. Those ties to the past tell almost as much of a story as the Wings' Euro-centrism. Six of the Red Wings' top nine scorers in the playoffs are from Sweden and another, Pavel Datsyuk, is from Russia.
And the presence of those talented Europeans proves there is not just one stylistic blueprint for success. Yet there is always one constant, regardless of whether your players are from Newfoundland or Stockholm -- it's the willingness to commit to one another without question.
Lidstrom, of course, is the measured heart of this team, the tone-setter. And he proved he is a worthy successor to The Captain, Steve Yzerman, not just with his play, but his understanding of his dressing room. Lidstrom said he started thinking about to whom he would hand the Cup back in the first round. Drake seemed a natural, he said.
"Looking at all the players on our team, Dallas is one of the first ones I played with," Lidstrom said. "He came in the year after I did. He's been in the league for 16 years. He had a long, good career. And he had never been to the finals before. So it felt natural to me to give it to him for all the effort and hours and everything he's put into the game, and not having a chance to hoist a Cup yet."
As for being the first European captain, Lidstrom has tried to downplay such talk, but he acknowledged Wednesday it was something special, too.
"It's something I'm very proud of. I've been over here for a long time," he said. "And I watched Steve Yzerman hoist it for three times in the past, and I'm very proud of being the first European. I'm very proud of being a captain of the Red Wings. So much history with the team and great tradition, and we see some of the older players coming through. So I'm very proud to be the captain."
One of those experiencing this for the first time was the coach, Mike Babcock. He has a unique view of the team that has become his family and what it means to have won a championship with them.
"Well, you know, I probably haven't come to grips with that," he said. "But to be able to share this journey with the guys and to be able to share it with the city of Detroit and obviously my family, that's very emotional. And I'm sure I'm going to have some emotional moments in the next week just thinking about it."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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