DETROIT (CP) - Kirk Maltby vividly recalls his first days as a Red Wing.
He flew in after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers for Dan McGillis at the 1996 trading deadline and had to wait to get onto the ice with his new teammates because they were snowed in at Toronto.
"Finally, the third day, I came down for practice and I was sitting in a stall over there," he says, pointing to the far side of the Joe Louis Arena dressing room where he now sits. "One by one, all of these guys are coming in - Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey, Nick Lidstrom, Dino Ciccarelli - guys I'd watched since I was young or had played against.
"I was in awe. That team was expected to win the Cup. It had set records in wins and points. Scotty Bowman was the coach. I was ecstatic to be part of it. I was young and living in the moment. I was taking everything in. I knew I was going to learn so much from just watching those guys. I did, and that was a key part of developing as a player."
The Wings didn't go all the way as expected, but they won in 1997 and in 1998, and they were back to hoist the Stanley Cup again in 2002.
In the last decade, no NHL team has been as consistently successful as the Red Wings. Now they are in the final eight again and set to open a second-round series against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET).
"I feel very, very fortunate and happy to have been here for so long," says Maltby, a 34-year-old native of Guelph, Ont. "The organization has been committed to bringing in the best players it possibly can within the financial means they have.
"It's all about winning here. It's about bringing in the right people. I feel very honoured they feel I've been a part of that and have re-signed me over the years. I'm sure the guys who have been here as long as I have or a little bit longer feel the same way.
"If a team can establish a strong core of guys who can have longevity in an organization that has been successful, it's important. It just kind of carries on to the younger guys."
Maltby, Lidstrom, Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom are the four remaining players from the 1997 championship lineup.
Lidstrom, who was drafted 53rd overall in 1989, has the longest tenure. Yes, all those other teams had a chance to draft him before Detroit. He entered the NHL in 1991.
"It doesn't seem that long ago," the 36-year-old Swede said after practice Wednesday. "It seems like the years have just flown by.
"I've been having a great time this year. I'm enjoying myself. It doesn't get easier but you know what to expect. Experience helps."
So much has changed, but the Red Wings remain a constant.
"Even when we've lost in the first round, we've still had good teams coming back the following season," says Lidstrom. "Keeping a core group of guys for a long time has helped us stay where we are."
The perception of how the Red Wings are perceived has altered.
Ten years ago, they had tough guys such as Joey Kocur to send over the boards. Now they are known for finesse, although anybody who puts much credence in the oft-floated opinion that these Red Wings are cream puffs is mistaken. The Calgary Flames tried to take it to them physically and were gone in six.
"I think they're tougher than they're given credit for," says Bill Guerin, the Sharks' American forward. "They just show it in different ways.
"We've got to keep playing tough, physical, hardworking hockey."
The Red Wings aren't soft. They're smart. They've adapted effectively to the no-tolerance bent referees take in calling games today.
"It is a lot different," says Lidstrom. "There's not as much clutching and grabbing, which makes the game a little bit different.
"It's more open. You have to play a little bit differently. You can't use your stick to your advantage the way you could. Now your stick is on the ice a lot more. You can't put your stick on a guy or they're going to call a penalty. You still see a lot of penalties because you're in battles, but it is a faster game than it was 10 years ago."
Maltby and Toronto-born Draper are among the league's best penalty killers.
"We cover for each other," says Maltby. "One guy goes in and comes out and the other guy goes right back in there.
"For whatever reason, we're on the same wavelength. Playing together as much as we have has allowed us to be successful."
The 35-year-old Draper has been around so long that he was playing for the Winnipeg Jets when Detroit acquired him in 1993 for future considerations that amounted to a bag of pucks.
Holmstrom, the 34-year-old Swede who was drafted 257th overall in 1994, also kills penalties but is not expected to play Thursday because blood hasn't completely drained from the eye that was dinged by Craig Conroy's stick blade in Calgary on Sunday.
San Jose won three of four regular-season meetings with Detroit but the teams haven't played since January.
"They're first in the conference for a reason," says Sharks centre Joe Thornton, who will be cheered on by a crowd of hockey fans from St. Thomas, Ont., who'll drive in for Game 1. "They're real deep, and there's not a lot of weaknesses over there.
"We had some success against them this season, but we're not taking anything for granted."
This was supposed to be the year the Red Wings would regress. Steve Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan skipped to the Rangers. Surely, Detroit was going down. Yet, here they are again.
"It's going to be a great series," says Guerin. "You always want the chance to go against the best in the business, and these guys were the best team in the Western Conference this year."