Part V :: Heading Home with Fewer Shirtuzzis

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.

ON BOARD
We climbed the stairs to Red Bird, and it was clear that the players and management just wanted to put this weekend behind them. There weren’t many smiles to be had, but we were assured that the players would be willing to chat and sign some autographs if we wanted to mingle. Like the rest of the weekend, I didn’t want to disrupt them — and I’m not much for autographs, to be honest. I work in an industry where interacting with quote-unquote celebrities is kind of part of the job description and I’ve gotten used to enjoying their company as regular folks, rather than fawning all over them.

But these were my Red Wings. I’ve never loved anything the way I love the Red Wings. I was lucky to be born into a home where hockey was just kind of part of the deal. My mom has been a massive Red Wings fan from the late sixties, and my dad caught onto the game pretty easily once he arrived from Italy. I don’t remember a time in my life that the Red Wings weren’t important.

Nevertheless, I’m not much of an autograph-seeker — at least for myself — but I knew it was a unique opportunity to take advantage of this kind of access to the players and after urging from the team’s media relations manager Todd Beam, who insisted the guys would be honored to take part in signing an H2H2 shirt, I took a stack of t-shirts into the rear of the plane: one for them to sign… and plenty of others to give them as gifts, to thank them for having me over the weekend and for being generally awesome.

OUTFITTING THE WINGS
Before venturing to the rear of the plane, I thought I’d test the waters. After all, Todd Bertuzzi hadn’t been in a fantastic mood all weekend, and maybe handing him a t-shirt with his face on it wouldn’t go over so well. I showed Mr. Beam first, knowing he’d be honest enough to say something along the lines of “oh, no, he’ll totally kill you in the bathroom.” Instead, he had a chuckle which caught the attention of Ruslan Salei, who wanted to see it…which made Jimmy Howard perk up from across the aisle. I figured, hey, maybe some of these guys will have my back if it doesn’t go over as well with Mr. Bertuzzi.

Most of the guys were watching movies and reading eBooks when I headed back, and I hated to bug them, but every last one of them was gracious and willing to chat for a minute. I explained to everyone individually what we’re doing at H2H2, raising money for Children’s Hospital and accepting pledges, and that this H2H2 Shirt will be a prize that folks hope to win.

As Jimmy Howard was signing the shirt, I told him I had a gift for him and pulled a JIMMAH! t-shirt out of my bag. He lost his mind, absolutely loved it. He laughed about it and said that his wife is going to love it because that’s how she says his name when she’s peeved at him.

Darren Helm is the proud new owner of an Oh, the Helmanity t-shirt.

I had three Curly Fries t-shirts — for the three guys that have gotten us free Arby’s following Operation: Curly Fries. Nick Lidstrom was (SHOCKINGLY) very gracious and gave the idea a bit of a chuckle. I’m not entirely certain Johan Franzen knew what I was talking about as I explained that he had gotten Red Wings fans free curly fries for his massive five-goal performance (because, let’s be honest, if the guys aren’t aware of such things — and it seems like they’re not — it sounds like complete nonsense). Patrick Eaves was legitimately psyched about having a Curly Fries shirt and I hope, like that fan on Saturday morning, that he’s around for a long time. He was one of the more engaging guys on the plane and I enjoyed having a minute to chat with him.

And then I came to Todd Bertuzzi’s row. I had a 2XL Shirtuzzi in my hand, but I was still a little uneasy about what his reaction to a shirt bearing his scowling face might be. When I handed it to him, he unfolded it and half-smirked (I’d be told later that this was a huge victory) and the rest of the players wanted him to show it off. He spun it around and held it up to his chest for the rest of the guys to see, and everyone had a good laugh about it. Mr. Bertuzzi genuinely thanked me, extended his hand for a shake, and promised me he’d wear it in the locker room. I told him I hoped so and that I’d keep an eye on FSD pre-games to see if he does.

After all was said and done, I had the playing roster’s signature on an H2H2 shirt (and if you haven’t seen it, check it out below) that will be available as a prize for the Children’s Hospital Fundraiser. The team was honored to be a part of that and are very proud that their fans are involved in community events like this. Good on you, Hockeytown.

LANDING
As we approached Detroit, everyone was exhausted. It was about 1 in the morning (locally) and here was a plane full of people that had been going non-stop (some, obviously, more strenuously than others) for 48 hours and the promise of one’s own bed seemed to be keeping some of them going. I started to wonder how thrilled the team must be to have to clear the snow off of their cars and still travel a half hour or an hour to their homes.

But, in true rockstar fashion, they wouldn’t have to worry about that first part. After we landed, the plane taxied all the way into a private hangar… where their cars were waiting for them, warm, dry (for the most part), and ready to carry them home. I’m sure it’s obvious by now that these guys know how to live, but that was pretty darn neat to see.

Of course, not every player was comfortable handing their keys over, and a handful of guys walked with us through the building and out to the parking lot. As my dad and I begun to pull out of the lot, I noticed Valtteri Filppula clearing snow off of the back windshield. I say, “do you think we should give him a hand?” but as soon as we pull around near him, he gives a “eh, to hell with it” kind of face and jumps in the driver’s seat.

ONE MORE TIME
On the off-chance that some of them have been reading this series, I want to say it one more time: an incredible thank you to General Manager Ken Holland, Media Relations Manager Todd Beam, Executive Assistant Kathi Wyatt, various members of the Fox Sports family, the Detroit Red Wings players, coaches, personnel, and staff. You gave us an incredible weekend, and know how to run a team full of genuinely wonderful human beings. My dad and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to escort you for a few days.

I just hope we aren’t blacklisted because of the outcomes of the games…

Part IV :: One More Loss and One More Bus

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.

BRIDGESTONE ARENA
We packed up our hotel room and headed down toward the elevators. We were instructed to load our luggage onto the bus so that we could hightail it out of there as soon as the game ended.

The elevator doors open and we hop in, joined by Valtteri Filppula. I mention that we had Ilari on TP:60 and that he was talking shit about little brother…and told me who he thought would win in an arm wrestling match.

“Oh yeah, what’d he say?”

“What do you think he said?”

“He thinks he’s funny.”

The Wings hooked us up with great seats for the Preds game, about twelve rows up in the end where Detroit shot twice. Something I should get off my chest right away: that arena is gorgeous. The city’s pretty awesome, and there’s no doubt they love their Predators. But, like we always see on TV, the arena — and downtown — was dominated by Red Wings fans. Easily 60/40 in red and white, if not more.

The Predators fans may still be learning the ins and outs of the game, but there’s no doubt at all that they love their squad. They had prepared chants, like a European soccer game, and were respectful of fans of the opposite team: something that I can’t say about every arena I’ve visited.

During the first intermission, they had a mini-concert while the Zamboni swept the ice, which is a brilliant idea. Every minute that you’re in Bridgestone Arena, you’re being entertained — another thing other rinks could learn. I’m sure more than a few Detroiters were irked by Alice Cooper (along with Vince Gill) performing in Nashville. They presented him with a Preds jersey after he sang a few tunes, but he didn’t put it on. If you’re asking my opinion (and I know you’re not), I bet the Predators planned to have a Michigander perform AGAINST the Red Wings…and the performer simply didn’t check out the schedule.

BACK TO BACK HEARTBREAKERS
Unlike the Blue Jackets game, it looked like the Red Wings game to play. There was more jump in their step, they were utilizing the drills that Coach Bedard put (a few of) them through in the morning, and they seemed to genuine want to score a goal this time around. But just like the night before, they failed to get anything by a hot netminder. Speaking of which, Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback are both huge. Like… monster huge. We always hear about that, but I’m not sure I appreciated how large they are until I saw them skating in warmups with their teammates next to them.

Once again, I found myself hoping that they could get just one so that they weren’t miserable on the flight back to Detroit. They hadn’t been in the most chipper of moods, and I was looking forward to at least bullshitting with a few of them if they were up for it.

The game ended, another 3-0 loss, and we took our little credentials and headed down the elevator to “event level” and we were directed toward security one more time. Just like in Detroit, Ken Daniels helped out with the wand, as the team completes security screening (and customs, if necessary) before even getting on the bus to head to the private airfields.

The first player out of the locker room to join us by the bus is Jan Mursak, walking with a severe limp and with only one shoe on. We know now that he took a Shea Weber shot off of the toe, and he didn’t look too thrilled about it, obviously in a lot of pain.

Slowly, the team crept onto the bus — once again avoiding eye contact with Coach Babcock. Mr. Holland didn’t look too pleased, either, and why would he be?

Just like the last bus trip, Val Filppula grabs the seat in front of me. Jimmy Howard right behind. Patrick Eaves to my left. Also just like the last bus trip, not too much was said.

The team started wondering what the weather was like back home, and if there was any more snow. Howard says that “Ozzie said we got 8 inches” referring to a text message weather update, which — let’s be honest — is pretty adorable. No one seems eager to return to the weather waiting for them, but you can tell they’re slightly horrified at the idea that our flight might be delayed or canceled. They want no part of staying another night — it’s pretty clear they want to get home, to their own beds, and many of them to families, and just forget this weekend happened and start fresh on Monday.

The bus pulled up to Red Bird I on the runway, and we started to shuffle out. This would be my last hour or so with the team, and I figured if I worked up the nerve to hand Todd a Shirtuzzi… maybe I could salvage a smile out of this group before the weekend ended…

Part III :: Breakfast, Bedard, and Bucatini

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

BREAKFAST WITH MR. HOLLAND
I was lucky enough to spend nearly two hours with Mr. Holland. We talked about quite a bit: that he nearly became a vacuum salesman, how his son is doing (I went to high school with him), and — obviously — hockey. Any question I had for him — be it about the CBA or individual prospects or working in hockey — he answered honestly, frankly, and brilliantly. It was — by far — the highlight of the weekend.

When asked if he can spot a superstar, he answered, “unless it’s Crosby, not really” and he explained that Johan Franzen went through five drafts before finally being selected by the Wings.

I asked if the players have any idea about the things that are written about them (clearly looking out for my own ass before I had the chance to cross paths with Bertuzzi). His answer was kind of what I suspected… that the players don’t read too much media coverage, and if they do, they put very little stock in it.

I told him about being impressed with Riley Sheahan when I had the opportunity to interview him at the Draft. It sounds like the organization likes him, too, and he explained pretty clearly what Jiri Fischer’s role is with the team.

In a somewhat tangential story arc, you can thank ex-Wing Mark Mowers for the team’s “capologist” (though Mr. Holland is quick to point out that HE’S the capologist, with a smirk). Mowers’ agent’s assistant was Ryan Martin — whom Holland had met prior to the negotiations. Mr. Martin knows the CBA backwards and forwards and reads the legal document the way that you and I read a magazine in the john.

Perhaps most importantly, he explained his hockey philosophy to me, explaining how his career in the AHL helped shaped how he approaches building the best franchise on the planet. Surrounding yourself with successful veterans and earning your way onto a club makes it so that the players are emotionally invested in the team. It’s basically exactly what we’ve known for years, just spoken in a way that’s so simple and frank, it sounded like gospel coming from him.

His recall of players’ stats from years past is startling. I mentioned being impressed with Jiri Hudler when Scuttles played with the Griffins however-many years ago. Mr. Holland (accurately — I looked it up) said “that was the year he had 96 points and was third in the AHL in scoring.”

No point was more poignant than hearing him discuss playing ahead of a young man that The Hockey News considered to be a “goaltender of the future.” His advice to the youngster was “why don’t you worry about being better than me first?”

Brilliant advice for all of us. And even moreso for the players hoping to earn their way onto the Detroit Red Wings.

Like I mentioned on Day 1, there are some things I’d prefer to keep to myself. The conversation was fun, honest, and eye-opening, but some of it was meant just for the table and I’d like to keep it that way. If I was put on a plane back to Detroit immediately following breakfast, I would have been just fine with the weekend. There’s simply no way the trip could be a disappointment even though we weren’t even halfway done yet.

MORNING SKATE
As our conversation was coming to an end, Mr. Holland asked if we intended to check out the morning skate across the street at Bridgestone Arena. Obviously, I hoped to do as much as I could, and asked if he knew where we were supposed to enter the building.

“Just walk over with me.”

Yeah, tough sell. We went in the players’ entrance — but not before Mr. Holland was asked by an autograph-seeker if he should invest in a Patrick Eaves jersey, hoping to hear Eaves will be signed long-term. Shockingly, Mr. Holland didn’t show his cards. We asked him how fans know where they’re staying and when the skate is.

“They know everything always.”

I saw a handful of Red Wings in the underbelly of the arena, taping sticks or being worked on by the trainer. Some of guys (and no, I won’t tell you which ones they were) that haven’t been involved in the injury story had ice packs or heat bands, proving that no one in the League is 100% in February.

Ultimately, only a handful of players skated that day. Jan Mursak, Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller, and Jakub Kindl ran a few drills with Joey MacDonald taking the bulk of the shots (he was to start that evening) and Jimmy “Fuckin'” Howard providing a breather or two.

Goaltending coach Jim Bedard was the lone coach on the ice with the six Red Wings, and he didn’t take it easy on them. The drills they ran were pretty intense, and did as much good for the shooters as it did for the goalies. Proving exactly why the Red Wings brought him back into the organization this past summer, Joey MacDonald took these drills extremely seriously and was nothing if not a veteran pro.

When all was said and done, the Wings were only on the ice for about 25 minutes before changing and heading back to the hotel for a pre-game meal and a nap.

CARBO LOADING
We bumped into Coach Bedard as we headed over to the meal, and rode the elevator up with him. If Mr. Holland was the most fun I had talking to anyone all weekend, Bedard was a close second. Hilarious dude. When I mentioned that he didn’t take it easy on the boys at the skate, he smiled and shot me a look that confirmed I may not have had the will to play in this League even if I had the skill (which I also didn’t possess).

We walked into the private dining area and most of the players were already seated and digging into a fairly extensive spread of pastas, chicken breasts, salads, and soups. As I grabbed a plate to help myself, I notice Darren Helm getting in line behind me. I tell him he’s gotta go ahead, it’s far more important that he’s fed than I am. For the record, I’ve never seen anyone eat half as much pasta and this kid did. It was literally a three inch stack the whole circumference of the dish.

After loading up with mashed potatoes and chicken, we found a few empty seats at a table occupied by Jakub Kindl, Justin Abdelkader, and Joey MacDonald. Just like the plane, I didn’t want to bug anyone — not to mention, they might be getting into the mindset necessary to play hockey in a few hours. But it didn’t take long for Kindl to pipe up — asking us where we were from and telling us about his family and friends back in the Czech Republic.

Former Islander Joey MacDonald perked up when I mentioned that I lived in New York and tried to get to Wings games when they play at Madison Square Garden or even in Newark, but that “you wouldn’t catch me dead at the shithole in Nassau.” Joey MacDonald seemed to be, in the little time I spent with everyone, the most “regular dude” of the bunch.

But that’s just the thing… they’re just “regular dudes.” I’m sure they’d like you to know that they talk about regular guy stuff — movies they’d seen recently, new car models they like, the upcoming Super Bowl. We may think they’re demi-gods, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. And they’re no different than any of us, and it was very neat to shoot the breeze and not have to act like I was conducting an interview with them.

As the players streamed out to get their rest, Justin Abdelkader still had several pounds of pasta and three chicken breasts to work with, so my dad and I stuck around to keep him company. I asked what it was like to live every Michigan kid’s dream, playing an entire career (save for one season in Cedar Rapids) in his homestate. He absolutely appreciates how special that is, and says his folks try to get to games on the weekends, but it’s tough during the week since they’re both working. But he realizes his situation is special: friends from college can come see him, and his family can make it if the circumstances are right. There are players on the team who don’t get to play in front of some close to them all season. It’s fair to say that Justin Abdelkader is the most likely Red Wing to have a friend or relative in the Joe every night.

One thing that startled me was how quiet and reserved the guys are. They didn’t talk a whole lot — even to each other — but that could have more to do with having a less-than-awesome weekend than anything else. Still, I expected someone to be a bit of a goofball, but everyone was in Business Mode and that was pretty awesome to see.

Everyone except Coach Babcock, of course. As he was walking out of the room, he patted me on the back and told me to “make sure I get seconds.” I told him I’d load up in case he needed another body that night.

It was about 1:30 in the afternoon. In three short hours, the team was heading to the rink.

Part II :: Airplanes and Awesomesauce

Read Part I here.

ALL ABOARD
We climbed the stairs of Red Bird I, knowing we had beaten almost all of the team (hold for Rafalski and Bertuzzi), but when we were being shown to our seats, I noticed that most of the personnel — coaches, management, trainers — were already on board.

The first person I see is Mr. Holland — he’s seated in the first row on the left side of the plane. As soon as I duck in through the door, he stands up, extends his hand and says, “Hello. I’m Ken.”

Knowing what I know about him now, this isn’t surprising in the least. He’s one of the most friendly human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with, but to hear someone who’s so revered and respected introduce himself so casually was pretty neat. I shook his hand and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Holland.” I’m not sure I’d ever be able to bring myself to call him “Ken.”

On board, I see that most of the plane is divided into tables of four. Two sides of a table face one another in big, comfy, leather seats — with a large wooden table between them. On the table waiting for us (and everyone else) is a spread of cold cuts and cheeses. I’m sure the players are famished after three hours of hockey.

As I was still trying to process what had just happened with Mr. Holland, I realize that I’m sitting in an area with all of the media folks — Mickey Redmond, Paul Woods, Ken Kal, John Keating… Daniels was still screening players — and the coaching staff. Paul MacLean wasted no time to start dissecting game film. His laptop had been loaded with footage and as I sat down, he pressed play on the opening faceoff. Pretty wild.

Slowly but surely, the players started to stream onto the plane — most of them giving us a head nod or a little hello, very few of them making eye contact with Coach Babcock. I start going through the roster in my head, crossing off guys I’ve seen enter, trying to keep the lineup straight in my noggin.

Niklas Kronwall was wearing his Potter glasses. Jiri Hudler really is noticeably shorter than most of the other guys. Jonathan Ericsson is a goddamn beast. Nick Lidstrom has a halo. Val Filppula liked the tie/vest combination I decided to wear after changing my mind fourteen times.

Once Jan Mursak walked by, I figured we might not see Pavel Datsyuk on this trip after all.

PRIVATE JETS ARE THE WAY TO GO
The service aboard the plane is unreal. We were asked — no joke — five or six times if we’d like anything to eat. They had several choices of meals, and I assume that the guys all have their “flight meals” that they swear by. Anything you could possibly ask for — they probably had on the plane. The overhead compartments? Stuffed with chips and gum and cookies and whatnot.

I’m so used to taxiing on the runway for three goddamn hours that I was startled to find we took off about nine seconds after the door closed. They didn’t harass me for not having my seatbelt on. No one mentioned the window shade being down (I knew that wasn’t the reason planes stayed in the air), and before I even realized, my phone was sending and receiving e-mails. Interferes with the instruments, my ass. I didn’t lose service until somewhere over Ohio (of course that’s where it would be).

As soon as we were airborne, Mickey Redmond wandered back to our table and hung out for a few minutes, lamenting the night’s effort but confident the next night would be better. You can tell these guys work hard doing what they do, because Mr. Redmond and Mr. Daniels both looked like they could fall asleep within thirty seconds if challenged. Nevertheless, it was awesome to chat with #20 for a few minutes and my dad couldn’t help himself but to tell him I’m part of the triumvirate of masterminds behind Operation: Curly Fries. Mr. Redmond’s reaction? “They always find a way to make a good thing go bad.” Clearly, this man is  pro-fries.

I decided that this leg of the journey probably isn’t the best to go mingle with the players. They weren’t making much noise back there (although, it was midnight by now) and I figured they’d rather be alone with their thoughts and iPads than shoot the breeze until we landed.

When we did arrive in Nashville, we walked down onto the runway to find that Mickey Redmond was pulling his weight in the way that Ken Daniels had through security screening. Redmond was on the baggage conveyor belt, getting everyone’s bags off of the plane faster than the three actual baggage handlers could dream. One of them tried to get his hands in there to help, but Mickey was moving so quickly, he was better off letting the pro do his thing.

DEAD SILENCE ON THE BUS
We got our bag and headed to the charter bus, which had pulled up to where the plane landed. Baller.

Heading to the hotel, it was completely silent. I kind of figured it would be — considering the plane was pretty reserved, and it had only gotten later. I sat directly behind Valtteri Filppula and his non-Red Wings Lacoste bag. Most of the other guys had black duffel bags with the winged wheel adorning it, but we all know Val rolls in luxury.

As fans, we expect the players to be affected by a loss. And we usually demand perfection from them. But, having played the game for a handful of years, I can say that they’re all still human beings and though I’m sure they don’t like losing, they let it roll off of their backs. And they would. But not tonight. Tonight, they were silent.

Okay, not completely silent.

One player (who will remain unnamed), as we meandered our way through Nashville, looked out the window and joked “neon lights and trucks? You know what that means.”

It means strip club.

A handful of guys chuckled, but believe me when I tell you that zero of these guys had any intention of focusing on anything but hockey. I’m not sure you could convince me they go out and party ever given how reserved and dialed in they were all weekend. But it was a humorous attempt to break the tension a bit and pretty soon we were arriving at the hotel, ready to crash before getting up a few hours later and starting all over.

TEAM HOTEL
We checked into the hotel around 1-ish Central. I was having a hell of a time keeping my eyes open and I didn’t burn 4,000 calories playing hockey that night, so I can’t imagine how painfully exhausted the Red Wings were. In fact, traveling with them for only 48 hours really opened my eyes to what kind of lives they lead. Sure, they have beautiful hotels and beautiful planes and meals are coordinated for them… but they literally don’t stop. We didn’t get settled in until after 1. And they had morning skate at 11.

And they have to do this 41 times a year. Minimum.

Walking into the hotel, we’re greeted by half of the staff (including the manager who welcomed my dad and me back…which is kinda awesome). Just inside the door are two tables: one that says “PLAYERS” and another for “STAFF.” All of the players have envelopes with their names on them — inside is a key to their room. Find your name, find your room, and get to bed.

Pavel Datsyuk’s envelope is left on the table when all the others had been removed. Hint #2 that he wasn’t around this weekend. But, seeing as how the local papers still had him listed in the lineup for Saturday’s game, I thought I’d take the opportunity to break my first “scoop” of the weekend.

We’re just about to head to our room on the 7th floor — the team was spread out all over — Mr. Holland stops us and says, “Breakfast at 9am?”

Part I :: Shutouts & Security Screening

PREFACE
Let me start this five-part post extravaganza by saying that I’m not entirely sure I possess the skills necessary to properly describe the awesomesauce of a weekend like this. The kinds of things I was privy to were amazing — and I’ve had a heck of a time wrapping my head around it all. It’s fair to say that I’ll forget something — and it’d be something pretty awesome — just because of how many incredible things went down over 48 hours. There will be stories that are one-liners, there will be stories that won’t even scratch the surface of the experience, and there will be stories whose details will remain private, like much of the conversation I had with Mr. Holland.

I went into the weekend unsure of how I’d approach it on The Production Line, if at all. It was one of those things where I needed to discover if I should just enjoy it as a fan, which I obviously am, or try to relay a handful of stories. I thought that if it were someone else going, I’d kill to hear which players are quiet, which members of the organization are hilarious, even inconsequential details like what kind of spread they offer the plane.

It goes without saying that none of this was possible without the help of some incredible folks — some of whom will be recognized in a moment. But I owe a sincere thank you to Media Relations Manager Todd Beam, General Manager Ken Holland, and Mr. Holland’s assistant Kathi Wyatt. They made an excursion like this, which I’m certain was difficult to coordinate, insanely easy every step of the way.

So, with all that out of the way… here we go.

HOW’D ALL THIS GO DOWN?
Long story short, it’s thanks to Jack’s Place for Autism, Jim & Lisa Price, and the Dombrowski family. My stepmom is on the board of Jack’s Place, and when they approached the Red Wings to donate something to be auctioned off for a fundraiser, the Wings graciously offered a weekend of access to the team, including a seat on the team plane, a room in the team’s hotel, and tickets to a pair of games. Originally, it was intended to be for a pair of winning bidders.

The way I hear it, when the Wings found out I’d lose my mind to be a part of something like that, they opened it up to four. And so, following a successful fundraiser for Jack’s Place, my dad and I were going to escort the Red Wings to Tennessee. Not bad for a father-son weekend, eh?

We received our itinerary on Thursday afternoon, and as if it wasn’t enough to ride on Red Bird and catch a handful of hockey games, it turns out we were going to have a bit more access than I thought we might. We were invited to morning skates, team meals, and on team buses to and from the airports and arenas.

FRIDAY HOSTING THE BLUE JACKETS
I flew from LaGuardia into Detroit on Friday morning, still not quite sure what to expect of the proceedings. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what I should wear for something like this. Eventually, I stopped being a girl and just put something on and headed to the Joe — which was the first official item on the schedule.

We sat in some great seats to watch the Wings and Blue Jackets. Everyone’s favorite ticket rep Ryan Michaels came down to hang out for a few minutes, and it’s always nice to catch up with him.

I’m always hopeful for a victory but I was really hoping they could squeak this one out. The last thing I wanted was to be on a plane with 23 sour Red Wings, death-stare coach included. I still wasn’t sure what kind of access we’d have to the players once on board the plane, but I knew for certain I didn’t want to bother them regardless of the outcome… but particularly in a loss.

Didn’t quite go as planned.

As the final horn blew, our boys looking somewhat dejected following a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of a vastly inferior team (in theory), I knew it might be a quiet ride to Nashville.

AT THE AIRPORT
The last thing we were independently responsible for was getting to Detroit Metro Airport. I’m sure it’ll shock you to hear that the Wings don’t fly Delta — they have their own hangar, and their own plane, and their own little runway (which I’m sure is shared by other uber-important frequent fliers).

We hustled out of the Joe, because the game ended around 10 and the flight was scheduled to leave around 11, not leaving much time to navigate to Romulus. Even though my dad and I were fairly certain we’d beat the team out of the building (given that they had to shower and talk to the media, etc), I gently reminded him that the plane won’t leave without them…but it might leave without us.

Lo and behold, we were the first ones to the private terminal, hold for a few (very cool) security folks. A few minutes later, faces you’d recognize began to stream in, one by one, as they arrived in their own cars.

Brian Rafalski was the first player through the door — and he headed straight for the plane.

Todd Bertuzzi was next (of course he was). He didn’t say much of anything.

Mike Babcock was the first to go out of his way to come over and say hello.

Mickey Redmond beat the rest of the team — he dropped his luggage and proceeded to the check-in.

And then, one of the more bizarre things that happened all weekend occurred. Ken Daniels, yeah… the one who does play-by-play, was holding the security screening wand. For a minute, I thought he was just screwing around, being funny, trying to lighten the mood for a bunch of guys that just had an off-night. But no… he actually did the security screening, along with an official from the TSA.

I asked him how he got stuck with that duty that night, and he made some crack about doing “whatever you can for a buck.” I was convinced they alternate and take turns being the second security guy. But on the way back, it was Mr. Daniels again…

Once our contact, Todd Beam, arrived we were invited to board. He told us not to worry about bothering the players, they’ll probably all be doing their own thing but if we wanted to chat, just head on over to them. I was still unsure about doing that, seeing as how they were just shutout, and decided that I’d wait until the next day before I try to get all buddy-buddy with them.

Backpack full of Shirtuzzis, Curly Fries t-shirts, and a blank H2H2 shirt… I headed out of the waiting room and onto the runway…