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October 14, 2003 - Wings feel at home inside locker room
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Tuesday, October 14, 2003
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David Guralnick / The Detroit News

Coach Dave Lewis has plenty of room to talk to reporters in the Red Wings' locker room.

Wings feel at home inside locker room

Lewis keeps diverse team focused on run at Cup

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David Guralnick / The Detroit News

Red Wings right wing Brett Hull removes his skates in front of his spacious locker.

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DETROIT -- Red Wings practice ended 15 minutes ago. The scene now in Detroit's dressing room is mildly, amusingly, chaotic.

Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Darren McCarty are yacking it up in their side-by-side lockers. Dominik Hasek, two blimp-sized goaltender pads straddling a chair in front of his locker, talks while peeling off a sweat-drenched gray T-shirt.

Pavel Datsyuk is deep into a conversation, in Russian, with team masseur Sergei Tchekmarev. Brendan Shanahan, having fled to the shower, has not yet returned to pick up pads, sweater, shirt and skates that extend from the foot of his locker to nearly mid-floor.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Mathieu Dandenault, and Jason Williams? They have retreated to another of the clubhouse's alcoves, the weight room, where they kibitz while poking around treadmills, stationary bikes, and free weights.

Only one person follows much of a routine on these days. Coach Dave Lewis steps into the dressing room 45 minutes after practice and pours a cup of Powerade. He meets with a half-dozen or so reporters and tries, for their benefit and their audiences, to explain the state of Red Wings hockey. Today's state, anyway.

"I have to say that I like what I see," Lewis says, in response to a question about what has pleased him most, and least, at this early stage of a NHL season. "Dominik has been strong, and Steve Yzerman has two goals. One area we'd like to get a little more from is our five-on-five offense, but that's gonna come.

"The style we've preached from training camp is coming along."

Lewis is the constant in a locker room where, following practice, everyone has his own agenda, his own space. He isn't overly expansive when it comes to talking about his team, but Lewis is cooperative, civil, patient.

The stability that persuaded Detroit to make him Scotty Bowman's successor as coach can be appreciated, to a lesser extent, as Lewis stands on the dressing room carpet, clad in black sweat pants and a red zip-up sweatshirt. He talks, arms folded, about his team.

Lewis might not necessarily enjoy such duty. But he handles it comfortably, with a certain amount of playful give-and-take, the kind reporters never would dare share with his predecessor.

Lewis raved Monday about one of his prized defensemen, Chris Chelios, and the Cheli's Chili restaurant Chelios has opened in Dearborn.

"The chili was excellent," Lewis said, with a knowing grin. "Had some chicken wings, too."

Simple. Folksy. A moment of casual conversation one week into a NHL season that, steadily, will become a physical and mental grind.

Not even Joe Louis Arena's plush dressing room can mask the brass-tacks realities of a sport so intense.

Atmosphere is upbeat, between the piped-in classic rock on WCSX-FM and the big-screen plasma television tuned to ESPN News. But this is a workplace, and what your eyes tell you about this particular place of employment is more than affirmed by other senses. Your nose, for example.

The truth is, locker rooms reek of perspiration. Detroit's quarters are spiffy compared with the cramped, no-amenity dressing areas known by previous Red Wings players. But one thing you can never quite conquer at any level of athletics is the pungent aroma of human sweat.

Players, though, have refuges from the grimier side of professional sports. Several, in the case of Detroit's players.

There is a posh, leather-sofa lounge (food and drink is available daily and after each game) a few steps down the corridor from the dressing area, and the Wings love to relax there. The training room is another retreat, comfortably furnished with a television and whirlpool. Each area is off-limits to media people who linger in the dressing room, microphones and notebooks in hand, hoping to grab a player interview.

It is not the way it once was, of course, back when Red Wings players shoehorned into their locker cubicles at the Olympia following games and practices. They were always available for a chat, largely because there was no place to escape.

But it was a different era in Hockeytown, as well. Media attention was a fraction of what it is today. Tape recorders, TV cameras, Web sites, cable networks -- Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk never had to deal with any such deluge. Nor did Mickey Redmond or Marcel Dionne when they played here 30 years ago.

Now you look at the locker room's limited-access corridor, just behind those two big Powerade buckets, and see that Tomas Holmstrom, wrapped in a towel, is skipping into the shower. Same for Chelios. Both appeared and disappeared so fast they can't possibly be grabbed for a conversation, or even for a couple of fast questions.

Steve Yzerman? No sign of him. Brett Hull? He, likewise, probably showered in a hurry and slipped out the back door, another favored route by Wings players in a hurry to get on with their days -- and get away from media hassles.

So it is left to Lewis, the predictable one, a coach who relishes these conversations no more than his players, but who understands some duties come with the territory.

"Oh, he has a beautiful place there," Lewis says, raving about Cheli's Chili. "Good location. Biggest flat-screen TV you'll ever see."

Serious business, no. Pleasant conversation, yes. On a day when players are ducking, when you have to be careful where you step for fear of tripping on an abandoned pair of skates, the coach is stable and predictable.

He is order amid disorder. Or, didn't fans already know that the man who, during games, stands stoically on the bench while that fire-drill known as a line change occurs, has a knack for making sense of the nonsensical.