THE forecast in Detroit this spring is for octopus showers, heavy
at times. This is strictly a local meteorological phenomenon. In
other NHL cities it rains hats or overshoes at appropriate
moments, but only in Stanley Cup-starved Detroit is a player
liable to look up and get conked in the kisser with a marine
creature as jiggly as the girls on Baywatch.
This is an article from the May 15, 1995 issue
Red Wing defenseman Paul Coffey has seen the Joe Louis Arena skies
open before. He loves the concept, hates the octopi. ``They
stink. I won't go near them,'' Coffey says. ``But I think it's
neat because it's a tradition, and there are so many traditions in
the Original Six [teams] that really add to the game.''
This particular tradition dates to 1952, when a local fishmonger
calculated that an octopus had eight tentacles and the Red Wings
needed eight victories in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup.
Eureka! The man lobbed the first octopus iceward to mark the
discovery, a gloppy abacus meant to help fans count down to a
Of course now with four playoff rounds, you need a pair of the
bottom-dwellers to help you keep count, but Detroit has spared
the octopus population undue grief. The Red Wings haven't won the
Cup since 1955 -- the NHL's longest streak of futility since the
New York Rangers broke their 54-year hex by winning last spring
-- and their star-laden teams were ignominiously dumped in the
first round the past two seasons. Detroit, however, is doing
swimmingly now. They finished the regular season with the best
record (33-11-4) in the league and the promise of the home-ice
advantage that goes with it, the second-lowest goals-against
average (2.42), the second-best power-play and penalty-killing
units, an explosive offense, a veteran defense, worthy role
players and a Cup-caliber goaltender in Mike Vernon.
As the Wings have stormed through the Western Conference, Coffey
has been asked daily if they are comparable to the Edmonton Oiler
powerhouses of the 1980s or the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early
'90s -- teams on which he won a total of four Stanley Cups. His
unswerving reply: ``We haven't won anything yet.'' Detroit is
playing it one tentacle at a time.
Now, with Coffey, the Red Wings have a reasonable chance to change
that, and in Game 1 of the playoffs, Detroit started well, beating
the Dallas Stars 4-3. Coffey has been the best player on the best
team in the NHL, an attacking defenseman on a team that has
modified its hell-bent game to emphasize control. The most
remarkable statistic in 1995 isn't that Coffey has been kept off
the score sheet in just seven games -- after all, he is the
10th-highest scorer in league history and tops among defensemen,
with 358 goals and 1,336 points in his 15-year career -- but that
only three teams have allowed fewer shots than the former one-way
Wings. Coffey ended the regular season with 14 goals and 44
assists, a 100-point pace in a nonlockout season. But he also was
a healthy plus-18, and his 72 penalty minutes reflected his old
combativeness, including a nifty triple minor on one play against
the Winnipeg Jets when he cross-checked Kris King twice and then
high- sticked Teemu Selanne.
If center Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers had not grown
from boy to man this season, Coffey would be the league's Most
Valuable Player. He is a lock to win the Norris Trophy as the top
defenseman, which would be his third award but his first since
1986 with the Oilers. How long ago was that? Well, the NHL had no
Russians, no Disney, no million-dollar players, and Hartford
looked like the team of the future. Only Wayne Gretzky, who waited
11 seasons between his first and second Lady Byng Trophies, and
goalie Terry Sawchuck, who won the Vezina in '55 and again in '65,
have gone longer between major awards. ``People say I'm back,''
says Coffey. ``But I really hadn't gone anywhere.''
There are two popular theories to explain Coffey's renaissance.
Popular Theory No. 1: Got to be the shoes.
Coffey, who wears size 10-1/2 sneakers, used to put on skates
the way Cinderella's stepsisters tried on glass slippers. Now
instead of cramming his feet into his old size 6-3/4 skates, he
is in 8-1/4's. ``Wayne [Gretzky] was the same way in
Edmonton,'' says Coffey, who often went sockless back then. ``He
was an eight who went down to 7-1/4. We tried to make the skates
be part of the foot. The trainer used to say, `No pain, no
gain.' '' Although he is as finicky as ever about his skates,
his dogs don't hurt now. Theoretically, this means he's skating
better than ever. But Coffey always could accelerate into
hyperspace. If he is not the flat-out fastest skater in the
league, he is the most elegant. Coffey swoops as much as he
skates, hardly seeming to move his feet. His skating appears to
be an optical illusion. ``It's as if he defies the laws of
physics,'' teammate Mike Ramsey says. ``Like Michael Jordan.
They say Jordan hangs in the air longer than anybody else, which
is impossible. Well, Coffey seems to pick up speed while he's
gliding. That's like taking your foot off the gas and going
faster. I tell people who come to visit from out of town, `Don't
watch the game, just watch Coffey for an entire shift.' ''
It ain't the shoes.
Popular Theory No. 2: Marriage has made him a new man.
Last June, Coffey married Stephanie Littler, who is expecting
their first child on July 1 -- the day of a prospective Game 7 of
the Stanley Cup finals. Stephanie, who pays close attention to her
diet, once shooed Coffey outside their summer cottage to eat
chocolate-chip cookies but swears there's no need to be vigilant
with her husband. ``I let Paul bring chocolate-chip cookies in the
house this week,'' she says. ``He uses a lot of energy.''
But while many bachelors may not watch their diets, Coffey has
always taken care of himself. His off-ice preparation has been
impeccable, and his professionalism has been beyond reproach, at
least since his rookie year when he once arrived two hours late
for practice because he failed to check the schedule on the
dressing-room bulletin board. ``What's the last thing you do
before you leave the room every night?'' Oiler coach Glen (Slats)
Sather fumed. ``Uh, say goodbye to the guys?'' Coffey replied.
He is thrilled about impending fatherhood, and there is a
refrigerator full of fruit waiting when he gets home.
So it ain't the missus, either.
Coffey has bounced around since leaving Edmonton in 1987, to
the Pittsburgh Penguins (1987-92) and the Los Angeles Kings
('92-93) before landing in Detroit. Along the way he stopped
being himself. Coffey started as a natural offensive talent who
was mindful enough of his own end, but he evolved into a
swashbuckler, a risk taker who usually gave both teams a chance
to win the game. He could be trusted to run a power play or
barge into the offensive zone but not to kill penalties or
protect a one-goal lead in the final minute.
``When coaches didn't play me a lot in defensive situations, I
fell into the trap of feeling that all they wanted me to do was
shoot, skate and set up,'' Coffey says. ``It's a Catch-22. When I
played defense, people said, `What's wrong with Coffey? He's not
skating. Where are the end-to-end rushes?' And when I took off,
they said, `There goes Coffey. He doesn't play defense.'
``I've always said it takes talent to get 50 goals or 100 points,
but the only thing you need to play well defensively is
commitment. I wasn't committed, at least not the way I was back in
Edmonton. If people feel you shouldn't be playing in tight
situations, you start thinking that way too.''
Red Wing coach Scott Bowman gave Coffey more defensive
responsibility when he instituted a new system this year. In
1993-94, his first season in Detroit, Bowman adjusted the
forechecking scheme for every opponent, which resulted in a system
so complicated that often most of the players were doing one thing
and the rest the opposite. This season Bowman decided the league
would have to come to the Wings. Assistant coach Barry Smith, who
spent the summer scouting in Scandinavia, picked up a scheme from
a club in Stockholm, variations of which have been kicking around
for decades. The Red Wings began keeping their left winger up near
the blue line in the offensive zone to preempt odd-man breaks if
Coffey, or any other left defenseman, pinched. To sell his
run-and-gun team on caution, Bowman first had to persuade his
stars. He summoned Coffey and captain Steve Yzerman to his office
during training camp and told them if they played the new way, the
other Wings would follow.
Coffey and Bowman make an odd couple: the angular, patrician blur
on skates and the round, resolutely working-class coach who lists
when he walks because of arthritis in his knees. When Bowman steps
on the ice in practice wearing an ill-fitting Red Wing cap,
formless pants and small hockey gloves, he looks as if he just got
in from a hunting trip on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Bowman and
Coffey agree that at 33, Coffey is playing as well as he ever has,
but the two of them haven't always found such common ground. When
Coffey played for Bowman in Pittsburgh, he once got into a heated
argument on the bench with Smith, who was in charge of changing
the Penguin defense pairs. Bowman didn't like the abuse his
assistant was getting and told Coffey to shut up.
The rift began there. Coffey admits he is sensitive, perhaps
befitting his image as an artiste on ice. He had public run-ins
with Sather and Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington, and his
two-month holdout at the start of the 1987- 88 season earned him a
one-way ticket to Pittsburgh. A sour relationship with Bowman and
a chance to be reunited with Gretzky hastened his trade to Los
Angeles. The Kings, in one of a series of ridiculous deals,
flipped him to Detroit 11 months later. Coffey has never been a
stay-at-home defenseman, but it is startling that a future Hall of
Famer, a player still in his prime, is with his fourth team.
``Other than the trade from L.A. to here,'' he says, ``I guess you
can say it's all been self-inflicted.''
Like Sather and Mike Keenan, Coffey's coach in two Canada Cups,
Bowman has challenged Coffey. As he has in the past, Coffey is
responding. With his third stride he still becomes hockey's most
dangerous player, shredding defenses, gliding toward the net on
wings. Sometimes Coffey is Detroit's best forward. But he also has
approached the grunt work with a renewed vigor. Coffey has been
complete, even if his mission isn't.
Under the gathering octopus storm clouds, Coffey is poised to
become the sixth player to win a Stanley Cup with three different
teams. The moment nears. The Red Wings are so ripe for the Cup,
they can smell it. Or maybe that's just the octopi.