By Stu Hackel
Perhaps the best dollar an NHL team ever spent was the one the Red Wings paid the Winnipeg Jets in 1993 for minor leaguer Kris Draper. He had played only a handful of games for the Jets in three seasons and didn't figure in their plans. They just wanted to unload his contract and the Wings figured at worst they'd be getting a speedy young forward for their Adirondack AHL farm club. By January 1994, Draper was in the NHL to stay.
After 17 full NHL seasons with the Wings, Draper retired Tuesday, having been a key member of four Stanley Cup teams, the winner of the 2004 Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward, an alternate captain, a player for Team Canada at the '04 World Cup and '06 Olympics, and one of only five players in Wings history to play over 1,000 games for the club.
It's an impressive resume for a guy who was never a scoring star, but specialized in stopping stars from scoring. And with his big smile, good-guy persona and occasional Chuck Norris beard, Draper was among the most popular Detroit athletes of the last few decades.
Draper joins two other Red Wings veterans in retirement this offseason: defenseman Brian Rafalski and Draper's good friend, goalie Chris Osgood.
Draper was the kind of player who fans can't resist cheering. He brought energy to the game, hustling on every shift and banging bodies, the kind of effort that the blue collar guy who has to dig deep to pay for tickets appreciates. And Draper was the working class hero of the Wings. He only hit the 20-goal and 40-point marks once in his 20-year NHL career, but that's not why he was there. A superbly conditioned athlete, an outstanding penalty killer and face-off specialist, he did lots of little things to win games, turning his great mobility and tenacity against the opposition's best. While Detroit's big guns got most of the headlines, Draper's checking kept their counterparts off the score sheet.
Draper's effectiveness was no doubt a reason that Claude Lemieux targeted him for one of the more notorious plays in Stanley Cup history, during the 1996 Western Conference Championship, ramming Draper into the boards face first, breaking his jaw, nose and cheekbone and concussing him, seen here in the highlights of that game (starting about 1:10 in)...
...and without Draper to help shut them down, the Avs won the game and the series en route to winning the Cup. It was the start of the NHL's nastiest rivalry for the next few seasons.
But Draper and his team would bounce back. Playing with Kirk Maltby and Joe Kocur (who the Wings pulled back into the NHL from a beer league) on the Grind Line, Draper helped Detroit end a 42-year Cup drought in 1997, and with Darren McCarty taking Kocur's place on that line the following season, the Wings repeated, the last team to win the Cup two years in succession. Draper scored a big overtime goal to win Game 2 of that final against the Caps, the biggest of his career, capping a furious late game comeback after the Caps led by 3-1 and 4-2 (video).
The Grind Line's rugged play and diligent forechecking wore down foes and allowed the Wings to prevail at their high-tempo pace, but the trio did more than defend. As Draper mentioned in his farewell address (video), Scotty Bowman would use them in any situation.
"We were a bunch of crazy kids," McCarty recalled Tuesday (video). "We were nuts and we liked to play that way, but we were trusted to play that way. We just sort of formed. We had chemistry, we were able to chip in and score some pretty big goals, but also play some pretty big minutes and shut down some big lines. The one thing Malts, Drapes and I always prided ourselves in, we all loved to score goals, but what we prided ourselves in was we even loved shutting down the other team's top line even more."
After winning the Cup again in 2002, Bowman retired and new coach Dave Lewis gave Draper more responsibility. The result was a string of seasons with double-digit goal totals, his best offensive season coming in 2004, and that led to more league-wide recognition of Draper's defensive play and his winning the Selke Trophy.
Draper was a leader on and off the ice, a guy who would speak up in the dressing room to keep the team on track. He volunteered countless hours to the Wings' youth hockey programs. No one was more accessible to the fans...
...and the media.
And as the years went on, Draper's leadership continued with the next generation of Wings, guys who would replace him, as this TSN video shows.
Even as his 40th birthday approached, Draper's skating remained the strength of his game, as this goal in January showed...
...and while he said today that he believes he could still play, he is also not the kind of guy to hang on after the game had passed him by. He could have come to training camp in September, but without a contract or a guaranteed roster spot, essentially on a tryout. GM Ken Holland has young players he needs to work into the lineup and Draper knew he might be creating a jam in the talent pipeline. Holland's offer of a front office job made the decision easier, and a guy of Draper's character can enhance any hockey department. True to form, Draper said he'd continue his offseason workout regimen with the goal of still being the best conditioned member of the organization when training camp rolled around.
Draper was easily one of my favorite NHLers. It was obvious in the way he played how much he loved the game, loved everything about being in the world's best league, and he never took any of it for granted. He didn't have the skills of his famous teammates Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull or Nicklas Lidstrom, but no one had more heart or dedication. When you see a guy like that, it's hard to dislike him.
And because he loves the game so much, he admitted that Tuesday was a sad day for him. "The bottom line is, I’m really going to miss being a hockey player," he said. "I’m really going to miss throwing on ‘Draper 33’.”
The feeling's mutual.