Thursday, October 14, 2010

Slaves to the Grind.

As a kid growing up in SOUTH DETROIT, hearing about the “Grind Line” made me say, “Eh.”

As an adult living in sweet caroline BAMP BAMP BAMP, hearing about the “Grind Line” makes me say, “GLORBPEJAAAGH!!~!!@!~~~!”

I know checking lines are important, but man do I hate the word “grind.” Let’s give it up shall we?

And,yes, I know Cotsonika used to write for the Free Press so there is some bias here, getting the word out about one of the leagues ‘unseen heroes’ guys that go ‘beyond the box score.’ Whatever.

Write an article glorifying Kirk Maltby and I’m going to criticize it.

I do some skipping around because this is pretty tedious.

If one moment can sum up a 16-season NHL career, for Kirk Maltby, this is it: Game 5, Western Conference semifinals, 2002. The Detroit Red Wings were trying to eliminate the St. Louis Blues. Maltby was killing a penalty.

Wow, sounds important. I’m guessing he deflected a pass that led to a short-handed breakaway and took a shot into the goalie’s logo.

Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, who had one of the most fearsome slap shots in hockey, broke Maltby’s stick with a blast from the point. But Maltby didn’t give up. He positioned himself like a goalie, crouched, hands out. He blocked another shot. And another. Joe Louis Arena roared, the fans chanting his name as if he were a superstar scorer: “MALT-BY! MALT-BY!”

Way to do your job, Kirk. Maybe if you weren’t so bad at hockey, you could’ve like, scored more goals or something. But instead, you got to lay your mug out in front of cannonades Laperriere-style. This is what happens when you aren’t good.

“I think I was on the ice with him, and I was chanting his name, too,” recalled Wings center Kris Draper. “He’d do anything to help the team win. That’s why you miss a guy like that.”

“Doing anything to help the team win” a trait shared by about, give or take 1%, 99% of the NHL.

Maltby retired on Tuesday, and the game lost more than just another grinder. It lost another member of the Grind Line, Detroit’s beloved blue-collar checking unit, and it lost a type of guy that was already rare and is becoming even rarer in the salary cap era: a role player who spends a long time with one team.

It’s rare because these guys aren’t good. If I’m kinda crappy, but will take less money to continually play on a winning team, I’d take it, too. These guys don’t stick around because no one wants them.

“I’d just like to think I was a guy who came, worked hard – whether practice or the game – and come game-time all I wanted to do was win and did what I had to do to help my team,” Maltby said in a farewell news conference.

What a North American hero. During Mats Sundin’s retirement press conference, if memory serves, he said, “All I wanted to do was lose and make my teammates hate me. You know why Toronto never won a cup? Because I made sure it didn’t happen. I started betting against us and now I’m super rich and fuck you.”

The Wings won that Game 5 against the Blues, 4-0. Maltby shrugged off the fans’ chants much the way he handled his retirement. (“I was just out there trying to do my job,” he said then. “The equipment is pretty good these days.”) But the Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s no coincidence.

What a key moment. Maltby blocked a couple of point shots in game 5 of a series the Wings won 4 games to 1 and a game that Detroit won handily. And then Wings fans flipped their dicks over it. Actually, yeah, that sums up Maltby pretty well.

Consider this: Only five players had their names engraved on the Cup each of the last four times the Wings won it – 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. That group does not include legendary captain Steve Yzerman. It does not include superstars like Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan. Its only regal member is Nicklas Lidstrom, a six-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. The other four are role players: Tomas Holmstrom, whose specialty is screening goalies on the power play, and the Grind Line guys – Maltby, Draper and Darren McCarty. (And Holmstrom almost shouldn’t count. He appeared in only one playoff game in 1997.)

Consider it considered. And I’ve been telling this to everyone I know everywhere I’ve ever been ever. Maltby was better than Yzerman, Fedorov, and Shanahan. The point of the game is to win, and NO ONE this side of Henri Richard did it more than Kirk. The NHL All-Star team, the Canadian Olympic team, Daniel Alfredsson, they never figured that out. The Hall already has your spot saved, pal. WHY WON’T ANYONE GIVE MALTBY ANY CREDIT?!!!!?

The Grind Line had a special place in the heart of Detroit and the game of hockey. Anyone who had worked at an auto plant or hustled in a cold rink could appreciate the job done by Maltby, Draper and McCarty – work that was especially important at the most important time.

I’ll never forget that tweet I read where Henry Ford berates at a young Maltby, Draper and McCarty for trying to yell over the noise of the conveyor belt. “You’re at work, dad blast it!” he’d yell. “Get back to popping the rivets onto that Model B. It needs to be out before I die!”

Maltby literally got his hands dirty. It seemed he would wear the same nasty, discolored gloves all season, which would make his face washes all the more effective.

It seemed? In the Bronze Age, it seemed Earth was flat.

But don’t be fooled. Just because Maltby accepted and excelled in his role didn’t mean he couldn’t play the actual game. He could hit, skate and score. He had 50 goals and 91 points his last year in junior, and even though he never had more than 14 goals or 37 points in an NHL season, he chipped in key goals at playoff time.

First, anyone who isn’t a complete thug and played in the NHL was a scorer as a youngster. Donald Brashear scored 38 goals in the AHL. Jordan Tootoo had 35 goals and 71 points in the WHL. The point is, scoring in the minors or juniors doesn’t always translate.

Second, literally anyone who spends 14 seasons playing the playoffs is going to “chip in key goals.” Garry Valk has a playoff OT winner for Chrissakes.

Holland valued the contributions of the Grind Line. He allowed McCarty to earn a second chance in 2007-08 and ’08-09, even though McCarty had gone through personal and professional problems after leaving the Wings after the ’03-04 season. He has kept Draper as a depth player and mentor, even though Draper is 39 and far from the form that won him the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in 2004, knowing Draper took less money to stay in Detroit when he was his most marketable. He gave Maltby one last chance at the NHL this season at age 37, signing him to a two-way contract, and when Maltby decided not to accept a demotion to the minors to wait for a call-up, he gave him a job in the organization as a scout.

Fans liked these guys. That’s why they were brought back or kept. It was a way to rejuvenate fan spirit without increasing the team’s salary. They already were packed with stars. Maybe it was about ‘valued contributions’, but not of the on-ice variety.

How often will we see this in the future? Teams might sign an Alex Ovechkin, an Ilya Kovalchuk or even a Marc Savard to a long-term contract. But a Kirk Maltby? That’s the type of guy most easily replaced by a younger, cheaper player. It’s the natural cycle of life – and it happened here, too – but now it will be only accelerated.

That’s the problem with this stupid CBA. Players like Maltby can sign 17-year contracts and then never see them through to the end. I’ll never forget that press conference from Edmonton in 1994, “I plan on playing until I’m 40.” Bullshit. Someone needs to put an end to this.

Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm, two 23-year-olds, are Detroit’s next generation of grinders. They should be only so lucky to be like Maltby, to hear their names chanted after a gutsy play at the Joe, to finish with four Stanley Cup rings.

Agreed. Luck would most definitely have to involved there.

“He’s a gamer,” Draper said. “He’s a guy that when you’re in the playoffs and the game’s on the line, you want him on your bench, on your side.”

Kris Draper that is the truest thing anyone has ever said. When the game is on the line, Kirk Maltby should absolutely, 100%, without a doubt be sitting his ass on the bench.

Look, Maltby forged a nice career for himself and that’s great. Good for him. But how many times do we need to hear it from fans or the media or writers that, “OMG PPL! THESE GUYS ARE UNDERRATED!” when there are articles out there that put Martin Havlat on the all Overrated team.
4 Cups, Broh. Oh. Now, I get it.


  1. When I was growing up, watching the grind line made me feel so good. SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!

  2. Quick note: Ever heard of Ernie Godden? He had a wonderful NHL career. He had a goal and an assist in 5 career NHL games spanning from the 1981-82 season to the 1981-82 season. Why am I mentioning this? Because he holds the OHL record for goals in a season, with 87. To be fair, I'm sure that goal he scored was a "key" goal.