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Holmstrom makes it to 1,000 games the hard way

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- Kris Draper's smile quickly turned into a laugh.

It usually does whenever he or anybody else inside the Detroit Red Wings fraternity is asked to share stories about Tomas Holmstrom -- who, on Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, will become just the sixth Red Wings player in franchise history to play 1,000 games with the winged wheel on his chest.

Draper, one of the other five, retired last season after playing 17 years in Detroit and 14 with Holmstrom, who's more commonly known in the Wings locker room as "Homer."


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Draper, who now has a front office role with the Wings, was asked earlier this week what it was like back in training camp prior to the 1996-97 season, when Holmstrom was merely a Swedish rookie forward whose lack of skating ability was matched only by his limited grasp of the English language.

"You mean when the demolition man came over?" Draper asked, laughing. "I think his first shift in training camp, he tried to run Stevie [Yzerman] and I think somebody had to grab him and say, 'Ooh, you don't do that.' I mean ... never mind seeing 1,000 games. You won't see game one."

Holmstrom obviously got the message.

After learning that lesson, many more have followed over the years for Holmstrom -- who not only saw game one, but 998 and counting after it. He also saw his name etched on the Stanley Cup four times and has brought countless opposing goalies to the point of boiling over by becoming the most notorious net pest in the League.

Holmstrom has amassed 240 goals and 284 assists for 524 career points and spent 751 minutes in the penalty box -- not to mention his 40 goals and 50 assists in 175 playoff games -- but his 39-year-old body has taken a severe beating. He's been the recipient of countless cross-checks and whacks to the legs by opposing defensemen, many of whom outsized him by great deal.

Before the work stoppage in 2004, defensemen were allowed to get away with much more physical play than they do now. Holmstrom, however, paid the physical toll and became a force around the net -- especially on the power play. His career goals tally could easily be higher if the ones he's had disallowed for goalie interference counted.

"A lot of guys can stand there and deflect the puck in the net when no one's cross-checking you," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "But most guys are trying to find out who's cross-checking them and [aren't] worried about the puck. The good guys don't worry about getting cross-checked. They can always find the puck. That's what he's been real good at.''

Holmstrom also exceeds at not taking silly penalties while fighting back.

"He doesn't retaliate," Draper said. "You look at a guy like Dino Ciccarelli and how they competed, but how about the penalty minutes they had? Homer ... when he was on the power play there wasn't too many times where he nullified the power play the way he plays. That's what's probably the most frustrating thing about him."

Draper can still recall vividly some of the punishment that was dished out to Holmstrom in front of the crease.

"Whether it was [Chris Pronger] or ... I remember Rob Blake just laying beatings on him," Draper said. "He just stayed right there and kept going and would pop up and would never retaliate."

"Whether it was [Chris Pronger] or ... I remember Rob Blake just laying beatings on him. He just stayed right there and kept going and would pop up and would never retaliate."
-- Former Red Wing Kris Draper on Tomas Holmstrom

Those beatings have taken their toll. Asked earlier this week if his body feels like he's played 1,000 games, Holmstrom quipped: "More like 1,500."

In fact, just before the All-Star break this season Holmstrom had injections in both knees to help alleviate excessive pain from osteoarthritis. A side effect from the procedure caused Holmstrom's knee to swell and he spent most of the break plus one game following it waiting for the swelling to subside.

His 1,000 NHL games have certainly been different than many of the League's other 270 players who've gotten to that milestone. How long can he keep it up?

"I'm going to try and survive all you guys," Holmstrom said, joking with the media this week. " I don't know. We'll see. In the mind, I would love to play, but it's body-wise ... the wear and tear on the body. It's going to be a big decision. We'll wait till after the season and see what's going on."

Holmstrom will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, which is his 15th in the NHL. Like Draper and Chris Osgood last year, it's hard to imagine him playing for another team if the Red Wings opt not to give him another contract offer.

The fact he's lasted this long is impressive.

"With the amount of games that he's played and the amount of abuse that he took, you'd think that his body would have given up on him ... and I think his body has given up on him," Draper said. "His pain threshold is probably as high as I've ever seen with a hockey player. The stuff that he goes through and how he keeps coming back for more, just the type of player that he is ... it's just a great story."

He's also done it in a way only "Homer" could. Holmstrom is also renowned for his unique personality traits -- starting with the sticks that he uses, which Draper swears are bent the wrong way for Holmstrom's left-hand shot.

A closer inspection showed the sticks are, indeed, bent for a lefty ... but ever so slightly. Then there is the running joke among Red Wings players -- including Holmstrom himself -- that he doesn't really speak Swedish or English. He speaks "Swenglish."

Tomas Holmstrom
Left Wing - DET
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 18
SOG: 74 | +/-: -5
Draper said he will never forget the day Holmstrom strolled into the sauna and coined a classic term the Wings started using to describe falling out of favor with legendary former coach Scotty Bowman.

"He comes in and goes, 'Geez, how do you get out of the coach's dog yard?'" Draper said. "I thought he was joking. I thought was going to start laughing and he goes, 'I'm in it and I can't get out.' I go, 'Homer ... dog house?' He goes, 'Dog yard, dog house ... I'm in it.' So, that became 'Scotty's dog yard,' which we were all in. That became the new thing. We'd throw out: 'I'm in Scotty's dog yard again.'"

Holmstrom seemed to be in it a lot.

"Funny story about that, too ... we're doing one drill and Scotty's yelling at him about going faster," Draper said. "Finally, Homer yells back: 'I'm going as fast as I can!' Then Scotty's like, 'If that's as fast as you can go, we've got to get someone who can go faster!' Homer just puts his head down and starts digging in. I don't think that conversation went the way he thought it was going to go, you know?"

The same might be said for Holmstrom's career.

He's still not a good skater -- though he takes issue with that label -- and has never been a bruiser or natural goal scorer. He simply takes a knocking and keeps on rocking, with an uncanny knack for tipping pucks and irritating goalies.

"Wow ... 1,000 regular-season games," said Holmstrom, whom Detroit selected in the 10th round with the 247th pick of the 1994 Entry Draft. "It's a big honor to put on that Red Wings jersey. I'm fortunate. It's been a great run and has been so much fun. Time goes by so fast.

There's [27] games left and it's going to hit you in the face ... and then playoffs. I know there wasn't that many [who'd played 1,000 games for the Wings], but, yeah ... for sure, what an honor."

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