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Red Wings draw a big crowd to Hockey Hall of Fame

by John McGourty /
TORONTO -- Jonatan Persson, a 12-year-old from Martestad, Sweden, flew all the away across the Atlantic Ocean and a third of the way across to Canada to come to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto to meet his favorite Detroit Red Wing -- Chris Osgood.

What? Not Swedish stars Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg or Tomas Holmstrom?

"Nope, Osgood," said Persson. "He's good."

Next to Jonatan, his older brother, Sebastien, 14, just shook his head in that universal way of hockey players. You could almost guess what he was going to say.

"He's a goalie, what are you going to do?" Sebastien said, as their dad Fredrik laughed.

The Persson brothers are hockey players with Martestad Bois Hockey. Martestad is about halfway between Stockholm and Gothenberg. Jonatan must be pretty good. Normally, the brothers play with age-appropriate teams, but sometimes Jonatan plays up with the older boys.

Sebastien is much more conventional. A defenseman, he's a big fan of Lidstrom, whom he considers the best in the world. Sebastien showed a serious side when he described what he liked about Lidstrom.

"He's very cool. It was nice to meet him," Sebastien said. "Lidstrom reads the play very well, and it must be easy to play with him because he's always in position and he always knows where everyone else is on the ice.

"You can see him reading the eyes of his opponents. As a result, he knows what's going to happen."

Sebastien got to talk to another of his idols, Holmstrom, for a few minutes -- and came away impressed.

"That was really fine," he said. "They're really good people, and now when we see them play, we'll feel like we know them better."

The Perssons are in Toronto to visit Fredrik's sister, Camilla. When they learned the Red Wings would be signing team posters at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday afternoon, they made the decision to come, stand in line and get their signed posters. Talking with the players was a bonus.

Fredrik was impressed with the time that coach Mike Babcock took with young players.

"It was nice to see them want to share," he said. "So many athletes keep to themselves."

Jonatan noted that Swedish goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Johan Backlund have come to North America this season. Gustavsson is with the Maple Leafs and Backlund is playing for the Philadelphia Flyers' AHL affiliate in Glens Falls, N.Y.

"Gustavsson is better," he said.

The Perssons clearly are a strong family and hockey is part of their bond. Dad knows his stuff. Sebastien, a stocky, well-balanced, intelligent defenseman might have a future. And Jonatan?

Who knows? He's a goalie, what are you going to do with one of them?

Osgood wasn't the only Red Wings' Stanley Cup-winning goalie to be discussed Friday afternoon.

"Terry Sawchuk was my favorite player," said Peggy Neal of Pittsburgh but formerly from Detroit. "He used to live near us."

Peggy and her husband, Donn, joined their son, David, and his wife, Stephanie, from Westfield. N.J., for the trip -- which proved to be a gamble that paid off.

"I was pretty sure Steve Yzerman was going to get in and I thought Brian Leetch had an excellent chance so we booked the package in January, long before they announced the inductees in June," David said. "We've got tickets to the induction ceremony and the Legends game on Sunday, plus the Red Wings against the Maple Leafs Saturday night."

The Neals have divided loyalties; Donn's are split between the Red Wings and the Penguins.

"He's very cool. It was nice to meet him. Lidstrom reads the play very well, and it must be easy to play with him because he's always in position and he always knows where everyone else is on the ice."
-- Sebastien Persson

"The last two years have been kind of challenging," he admitted, pretty much taking the attitude that "his" team won each time. Peggy is a pure Red Wings fan. Their son splits his loyalties between the Red Wings and the New York Rangers, and his wife roots for the Rangers.

"'Immersion' is the word you're looking for, Donn," Peggy teased.

When it comes to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Stephanie is the tour guide. This is her third visit, David's second and his parents' first. She came the first time with her sister, Sarah Simons.

"It was funny. Because we didn't have tickets for the induction dinner, we just wandered around outside and found ourselves watching the ceremony on closed circuit in the rotunda where they have all the plaques," Stephanie said. "Sarah is at the Sabres-Flyers game tonight and coming up to join us tomorrow."

Donn and Peggy just returned from a visit to their grandchildren in Oregon, where the Penguins have another fan.

"We introduced our 11-year-old grandson to hockey on an earlier visit, and now he's a big fan of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin," Donn said.

Donn was asked how long he's been a Red Wings fan and was told the writer's earliest hockey memory was the Sawchuk trade to the Boston Bruins in 1955. Sawchuk had a nervous breakdown and lasted less than two years in Boston before being traded back to Detroit.

"I was only seven, but thought it was suspicious you could trade for the Stanley Cup-winning goalie," Neal was told.

"I go back farther than that," he said. "I have a newspaper at home that has an article that says Gordie Howe is single and hockey's most eligible bachelor. That was before he met Colleen. Tell him I'll trade the newspaper for an autograph."

Hockeytown appears to have expanded far beyond the Michigan border. Matt Dolan, 11, of Dunnville, Ontario, didn't come as far as the Perssons -- but Dunnville is Buffalo Sabres' territory. Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom are his favorite players.

Matt is a center for the Dunnville Rivertown Flyers. The team is struggling but Matt said he's had some individual success this season.

"He's a good assist man," said his uncle, Derrick Payne, who was joined by his wife, Miranda. Babcock asked Matt if he played hockey and told him to work harder.

"I improved my skating this year," Matt said.

Derrick is a lifelong Maple Leafs fan and, despite the team's early struggles this season, he believes the team is on the right track.

"I like the approach Brian Burke and Ron Wilson take," he said. "If someone's not playing well, they don't play. That's better than just letting them skate around regardless of how their playing. We could use a big defenseman. Phil Kessel was a good pickup, but if he's as shy as they say, Toronto may not be a good place to hide. Plus, he didn't come with Marc Savard!"

Mike Los of London, Ontario, took his son, Chris, 17, to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a birthday present. Chris was wearing a Detroit Tigers' tuque. The Loses were asked if London is Red Wings' territory, too.

"We kind of cheer for both teams because London is right in the middle," Mike said. "The Red Wings are a powerhouse team, for sure, a great team. The Maple Leafs have made bad draft picks so I think it's a positive that they hired Brian Burke to run the team. They've got the right guy.

"But the Red Wings are a first-class organization each year. They add a few players most years and remain a powerhouse, year after year. They might win the Stanley Cup again this year."

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