For a trio of Red Wings, their last taste of competition this spring was champagne -- and another championship.
No, it wasn't the Stanley Cup. But it still meant something for Mathieu Dandenault, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby to return from Finland as world champions this past weekend. And it can't hurt NHL rookie Henrik Zetterberg to head home with another medal won in international competition. Team Canada beat Sweden, 4-3, in overtime Sunday to win the World Championships in Helsinki.
What does the victory mean? Not much to the Detroit fans who lost interest in hockey weeks ago, courtesy of the Wings' early playoff exit. But it meant something -- and rightly so -- for Canadian hockey fans. Canada can now back its claim as king of the hockey world, as the reigning Olympic and world champion. And for the Wings' representatives, this European vacation was worth the effort.
"It's just a great feeling to be able to call yourselves gold medalists, and world champs," said Draper, who didn't hesitate when asked to make his third trip to the World Championships with Team Canada.
Others, including some of Canada's more heralded hockey names, weren't so willing. And others, still, seemed to question those who did sign up.
"I hope they do well, but I don't see how guys can pack up and go play in the World Championships after being embarrassed like we were," said Tie Domi, whose Toronto team lost in seven games to Philadelphia in the first round.
Admittedly, Draper had to be even more embarrassed, having been swept out of the first round with the defending Stanley Cup champs. But when told of Domi's comments before the World Championships started, he fired back.
"That's ridiculous," Draper said. "It's an honor to be invited to play for your country. Obviously, being a Stanley Cup champion is the ultimate, but (here) you get an opportunity to play for your country and you have an opportunity to win a gold medal."
And an opportunity to improve as a player, in many cases. A few of the Wings' young stars and top prospects fall into that category.
Zetterberg, the 22-year-old Calder Trophy candidate, finished with an impressive three goals and four assists in nine games for Sweden. He also won his third consecutive medal at the world tournament.
Pavel Datsyuk led Russia with five points -- a goal and four assists -- and played on the top line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Wings prospect Igor Grigorenko, who added two goals and an assist. Another Wings prospect, Jiri Hudler, had two goals and four assists for the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Dandenault no doubt gained confidence this past week. He ranked second on Team Canada in plus-minus rating (plus-9 in nine games), third in ice time (18:35 per game) and second among defensemen in scoring with two goals and three assists.
Draper and Maltby, meanwhile, did what they do best: They helped put the clamps on opponents' top lines, including holding Swedish star Peter Forsberg's line off the score sheet in the gold medal game. The Wings' "Grind Line" tandem combined for two goals and five assists in nine games, while Draper was Canada's top faceoff man in the tournament.
He flew home to Toronto a winner. Can't argue with that.