BOSTON — The color scheme on his jersey had been stripped of its usual blue and reduced to a simpler red and white, the number on his back inverted from 52 to 25, but this was still the same Mike Green in many ways, soft-spoken and all smiles for the reporter visiting from his old city. The assumption of departure had shadowed him throughout his 10th and final season with the Washington Capitals, when he was a third-pairing defenseman making $6 million. He tried hard to avoid thinking about the future, those life-altering decisions best left unexplored until unrestricted free agency came closer. And now he was here, leaning against a wall outside the Red Wings’ locker room at TD Garden, more than two months into the biggest change of his NHL career.
“It was kind of a shock once it happened,” Green says. “We had agreed Detroit was where we were going. Then it was like, OK, well, what next?”
Next, Green and his wife, Courtney, sold their McLean, Va., house, the one with the darkroom in the basement for her photography work. Next, they found a new place in Detroit, in a residential neighborhood with plenty of families, and they’re getting a darkroom installed this week. Then, he learned that Courtney was pregnant when she walked downstairs and, without a hint of warning, announced the news three months ago. Green had prepared himself for fatherhood for the past year. A new member of the family for a new home. The timing, he said, just felt right.
Green was never someone who liked change, skating in 575 regular season games and 71 more in the playoffs for the Capitals, who drafted him 29th in 2004. But when the Capitals signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik for a combined $67.75 million annually in the summer of 2014, their budget would no longer acommodate what Green could command on the open market. Wings GM Ken Holland noticed this too, calling his counterpart in D.C., Brian MacLellan, and gauging Green’s availability. When told the Capitals would ride their current corps—and keep Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist and one-time 30-goal-scorer—Holland backed off. But Green stayed on Detroit’s radar until the free agency interview window opened last June.
While he was down in Florida for the NHL draft, Holland phoned Green, who was in Calgary. Holland talked about life in Detroit, and how the Red Wings were hunting for a right-shot defenseman. (They had offered Niskanen a deal the previous summer, but didn’t make his final cut.) He told Green, then 29 years old, that he envisioned him returning to a top-four role, after Green averaged his lowest ice time (19:06 per game) since his rookie season. Then Holland asked if Green wanted to talk again. Green said no. He had all the information he needed, enough so that by 2 p.m. on July 1, Holland and Green’s agent were exchanging salary figures and discussing terms.
“I knew we had a deal done, we just had to put some finishing touches to it,” Holland says. “The sense I got from his agents was he was at the top of our list and we were at the top of his list.”
The toughest part, Green says, came during the lead-up to free agency, when reality of his exit finally dawned. After all, his best friends lived in Washington, some of them teammates for his entire career. He met Courtney there and became a two-time All-Star with the Caps. Even after injuries stunted his prime years, Green thrived in his reduced role under coach Barry Trotz, logging more games (72) than he had since 2009-10 and finishing second in points per 60 minutes among NHL blueliners with at least 1,000 minutes played, behind only St. Louis’s Kevin Shattenkirk.
“Once we knew where we were going, everything was smooth,” Green says. “But the uncertainty was tough on the old heartstrings. I’ve been in Washington for a long time, then not knowing when you’re going and to where was tough.
“It was more tough leading up and thinking about it. Everything’s relatively easy and the guys [in Detroit], the organization, made me feel really comfortable. That part was OK, but I think leading up to it, the uncertainty of where I was going to go, what might happen, that was the tough part, just the uncertainty really.
“Sometimes you need a new start to find yourself again. That’s what I was excited about.”
During a lengthy interview in May, when Green candidly admitted that the prospect of leaving Washington “scared the s---“ out of him, he seemed eager to try replicating his production under Trotz with a larger role, where he could again command tougher assignments and more minutes. A right shoulder injury interrupted his transition in Detroit, as did a foot injury to his projected partner, Danny DeKeyser. By Saturday’s 3–1 loss to the Bruins, when Green was on the ice for all three goals against, he was skating beside Niklas Kronwall while DeKeyser was deployed with Jonathan Ericsson.
“First off, what we do isn’t an exact science,” Holland says. “These are real people and they’re going to different situations and there’s a whole lot of things. My take on Mike Green is, he’s 30 years of age, he’s in a great age group. He shoots right, he’s been a two-time finalist for the Norris Trophy, he can run a power play, he’s got a big-time shot from the point. Now, those are all positives. Those are all reasons why you sign somebody.
"Now, we’ve got to go play games and we’ve got to watch. We’re 16 games in, we talked all summer, [head coach] Jeff Blashill and I, that we were going to pair DeKeyser for our second pair. Now it’s one pair, we’re 16 games in and we’ve changed partners. I guess what I’m saying is, this isn’t an exact science. You think things are going to happen and you want them to happen a certain way, but you put down the laundry list, you put down the things, [Green]’s what we were looking for.”
Green felt the same about Detroit, no matter how tightly his heartstrings stretched. Last week, when the Capitals visited Joe Louis Arena, a 1–0 Red Wings win, Green dressed fast after the morning skate and emerged onto the bench to see his old teammates. “It was interesting, because you’re used to playing with them, see the great things that they do on that side, then playing against, it’s like, Wow,” Green says. “These are pretty incredible players. It was just fun to compete against them.”
He will get two more chances during the next month: first when Washington returns to Detroit on Wed., Nov. 18, then for Green’s homecoming to Verizon Center on Dec. 8. When told that Joel Ward, another off-season departure, received a tribute video soundtracked by Bob Marley during his first visit after signing with the Sharks, Green laughs. Had he wondered if he’d be welcomed back in similar fashion?
“I hope not,” Green says. “I don’t want any attention.”
He’ll likely get it just the same.