A half-hour after they had clomped down the tunnel, leading from Joe Louis Arenas ice to their dressing room, most Red Wings players had vanished behind a broad curtain leading to the no-media-allowed showers, training room and team lounge.
Their noon skate had just wrapped up a day before Detroit and Calgary were to meet in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal series. Players were tired, thirsty, far more interested in lunch than interviews.
The simple truth is Motowns NHL players get sick of talking to microphones, notebooks, and TV cameras. Its a drag, especially to players who think a daily media crush is unnecessary. The team is good. The arena is full. There is a Stanley Cup to pursue. And the playoff season lasts so doggone long.
Let someone else like Drapes handle the locker-room horde and their queries, which on this day were typified by a single bland question: What does Detroit have to do to get back in a series after blowing home ice in Game 1?
Drapes that would be Kris Draper, Detroits peppery 33-year-old center. Hes a player who seems to percolate more fan devotion per ounce of skill than any athlete in town. He handles interview pressure with about the same sense of acceptance and responsibility he displays in killing penalties, or in shaking up the ice as part of his Grind Line role.
This time of the year, obviously, the media hype can be overwhelming, Draper said, sitting in front of his locker, a tan Red Wings cap spun backward on his head. But Im not gonna run away from a loss, or a disappointment (Calgarys 2-1 victory in Game 1 qualified both ways). If questions come my way, Im gonna answer them.
He paused for a half-second and said: You have to realize youre playing for one of the most prolific sports franchises in all of sports.
In other words, some hassles come with the territory. Draper realizes a lot of NHL locker rooms are vacant as April wanes. Media are long gone because clubs either didnt make the playoffs, or expired after one round. And even for those teams still in the Stanley Cup chase, few towns are as hockey-hungry as Detroit, as demanding of their stars as Motown hockey fans are toward the Red Wings.
Drapers personal chemistry with Red Wings rooters is another issue. A guy with ordinary skills seems to play with extraordinary passion, as if he has a hockey stick in hand and a dagger between his teeth. It isnt only fans who buy into Drapers ways. He disrupts opponents so maddeningly that this year he is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, which the NHL hands each season to the leagues best defensive forward.
Fans appreciate the validation there. Draper breaks up a power-play assault, maybe scores a shorthanded goal, then joins his Grind Line cohorts, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty, on a rock em, sock em shift, and departs for the bench to whistles, cheers and applause.
Ever since Martin Lapointe left and Joey Kocur retired, he (Draper) has been my favorite player, said Gloria Castor of Wyandotte, a Red Wings devotee since the 1950s.
He never gives up, hes always out there trying his best. He just seems like a real team player. And whenever I see him in an interview, he seems like a real nice guy the kind of person you could have a conversation with. Hes not standoffish. Hes all heart and soul out there on the ice.
Thats the common perception. It also prods him into hanging around for media questions that delight him no more than his teammates.
Theres something about a no-frills hockey player who came to Detroit in the most humble of ways for a $1 waiver fee that makes him, after 10 years and three Stanley Cups, believe he should share with those who want his time, particularly when media are the channels through which Detroits ice fanatics get their daily fix.
Then theres this matter of personal identification. To most Red Wings fans, Draper looks like any other guy who might get his tax return audited, who took his trash out to the curb this morning, who put last months vacation on a credit card that was already crowding its limit.
It is a vicarious thing, more so, in that every frustrated NHL player sees in Draper the person that might have been him. Draper picked up on it, long ago.
Maybe its because I was acquired for $1, maybe thats why the blue-collar fans seem to relate, he said, his red beard moist with perspiration spilled during the previous hours skate. And every time I go out there, I love what Im doing. Ive never really given it a lot of thought, but fans probably connect with the fact theres a smile on my face, that I love what Im doing.
Scoring goals will intensify passions, as well. Draper scored more of them this season, by far 24, nine more than his previous best two years ago than would have been imagined from a fourth-line, penalty-killing grubber who remains one of the teams least imposing people.
About the meanest part of Draper is his red beard and hair. He is otherwise fairly benign, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound centerman / scalawag who turns 34 next month.
Draper realizes this stuff wont go on forever. And he plays as if it wont, which has pretty much been his trademark since he arrived after being discharged by the then-Winnipeg Jets in 1993.
Detroit not only became his NHL refuge. It became his home in all respects. He and his wife, Julie, are both Toronto natives and have both gotten enmeshed in the fabric of a metropolitan area that, by any measure, differs dramatically from that of Toronto.
I came here when I was 21, and I kind of grew up here, Draper said. I became an adult here, I became a husband here, I became a father here. This is where Ive made my home, and its where Ive met some people away from the rink who have been very important.
For three years his wife taught school in Metro Detroit, pre-kindergarten at Detroit Country Day. Julie is enough at home here to have decided her husband can stretch a rather improbable NHL career for as long as he, and the Red Wings, wish.
No one is quite sure how much longer the blast will last. But if Detroits fans have anything to say about it and anyone with a working set of ears at Joe Louis Arena knows they say plenty Draper might be a hard man to push out the door.
In fact, Detroits front office should remember that its in just such a situation, when the people with the power think theyre in control, that Draper so often scores shorthanded.