He was a gritty, inexperienced young forward who once had the guts as an Edmonton Oiler to put a good hit on Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, when the latter was with Detroit. Yet, it was in Motown that Maltby stayed and found his place in the NHL – helping the Red Wings win four Stanley Cups in 14 seasons with the organization.
Now, the 37-year old Maltby will become a scout with the Wings after officially announcing his retirement as a player in an emotional press conference on Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena.
"I came here in 1996 and wasn't sure where I belonged," Maltby said, sitting in front of his wife, kids, other family members, teammates and media. "Now I have roots here. This is my home."
As a player, Maltby leaves the game as one of the best defensive forwards in team history – helping the Wings win those four Cups as a standout penalty killer and agitator. Maltby and current Wings forward Kris Draper teamed with former Detroit forward Darren McCarty to form Detroit's infamous "Grind Line" that even inspired a line of T-shirts in the late 1990s by making life miserable for opposing top lines – especially in the playoffs.
"If you're going to win come playoff time, you need skill, you need character, but you also need people who are willing to go to the trenches and do the dirty work," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "Certainly that line did all that. Usually checking lines, when they check they throw the puck away. This one … they got their hands on the puck, they played puck possession and made the other team's stars spend a lot of energy trying to get the puck back."
That's not to mention the yeoman's work that Maltby did killing off penalties, often sacrificing his body for the sake of blocking shots. His willingness to do that quickly made him a fan favorite of blue-collar Detroit fans – who began chanting his name once while he blocked slap shots by Al MacInnis even though he'd lost his stick.
When asked about it on Tuesday, Maltby said he remembers that game well – and how good it felt hearing his name chanted throughout the arena for doing the dirty work that embodied his career.
"All I wanted to do was win," said Maltby, who played in 908 games as a Red Wing and 1,072 in his career. "I did what I had to do to help my team. Part of penalty killing is you have to sacrifice your body, knowing that you're going to be getting hit by pucks making plays to get the puck out. You're going to be in a vulnerable position to get hit. (Against MacInnis) I was just kind of doing my job that I had to do to help the team win."
He was just as dedicated off the ice, where his accommodating personality added to his fan-favorite status. Likewise, how much it meant to him to be a Red Wing was evident in the number of times he choked back tears on Tuesday.
Maltby left the game the only way he knew how – with class and gratitude. He thanked everybody from his family to the Illitch family that owns the Wings to his teammates. He even thanked the Edmonton Oilers for trading him to Detroit, the lot attendants who cut his friends a break on parking fees and Joe Louis Arena's "gray coat" ushers for their kindness.
"You can travel all over the world, but it's hard to find people like that," Holland said. "Kirk loved being a Red Wing. He wasn't looking for fanfare. He's humble. He just wanted to win and be part of an organization and help a team win. I'm really proud that Kirk has spent over 900 games in a Red Wing uniform."
Maltby finished his career with 128 goals (107 with Detroit) along with 132 assists (115 with Detroit) and 867 penalty minutes (683 with the Wings). He also appeared in 169 playoff games for the Wings, which is fourth in team history behind only Steve Yzerman (196), Draper (212) and Nicklas Lidstrom (247).
He also became the 239th player in NHL history to play at least 1,000 games on Feb. 27, 2009.
"It's been awesome," Draper said of playing with the guy nicknamed Malts. "Winning the Stanley Cups with the 'Grind Line' was so much fun back in the late 90s, when the T-shirts came out and all that kind of stuff. For role players or grinders or whatever you want to say, for both of us to stay in a city as long as we have is something that we really appreciate and we know is very special and very rare."
"The one thing we all realize is that this is beyond hockey, the friendships that we've created," Draper said. "We all realize that we're all getting to that point soon. What a great career (Maltby had). He can look himself in the mirror and say he did a lot of great things here."