DETROIT – There weren’t a lack of smiles, laughs, jokes or hugs at Comerica Park Monday afternoon as the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs alumni reunited for one final practice before the highly anticipated Alumni Showdown on New Year’s Eve.
“What’s so great about this is two storied franchises and the great fans of Detroit are going to get it,” Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe said of the alumni games. “It’s a great opportunity for the players to try to give back to the fans and also you’re taking in all the love and support that the people have given you over the years.”
There was love between the two teams, too, as players greeted friends and foes they hadn’t seen in years, until it was time for Detroit to let Toronto have its turn on the ice.
“The guys didn’t want to leave the ice, they’re all having a good laugh and unfortunately we have to give the Leafs their ice and had to get off,” Brendan Shanahan said. “Would’ve liked to stay around and horse around a little bit more especially even after the scrimmage just to get out there and take some shots at the goalies.”
Although countless years have passed since the alumni have shared the bench, old jokes and memories were brought up as if it had just been yesterday since they’d seen each other last.
“It’s like we didn’t miss a beat, so many guys just got to sit down talking and take off from conversations I think they were put on pause 20 years ago, well for me 13-14, but it’s nice to see the same guys,” former defenseman Aaron Ward said.
The great Scotty Bowman inspired quite a few laughs from his former players.
“It’s funny when Scotty came on the bench because we were all sort of reliving different moments where he put us all in the doghouse or as Tomas Holmstrom called it the dog yard,” Shanahan said with a laugh.
The relaxed atmosphere was a change of pace from the practices and games the alumni endured through their playing days, a refreshing experience for Howe.
“Normally you play hockey and you’re serious, you’re focused and when you come out here you just try to take it all in so it’s a completely different frame of mind it’s awesome,” Howe said.
The former defenseman enjoyed practicing and reminiscing with his fellow alumni in the unique outdoor atmosphere, but was far more excited about one player’s return to the ice.
“All I remember is for the last 2-3 months I’ve been trying to coax Steve Yzerman into playing,” Howe said. “I know Stevie was a little apprehensive but the game just would not have been the same without him so I’m really excited and happy for Stevie and I mean he needed to be here and I’m glad he made the decision to come.”
Yzerman wasn’t at Detroit’s final practice, but Howe was far more concerned with spending time with his family during the holidays than following the former captain’s schedule.
“Oh I have no idea,” Howe said of Yzerman’s arrival. “I’ve been busy just trying to keep track of my own thing. We had 24 family members in town, we had a nice family late Christmas dinner last night and trying to get a chance to celebrate and be around and have dad with us. You never know how much time’s left so it’s nice to have him here.”
Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower, Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Berenson and Shanahan were just a few of the many elite alumni who attended Monday’s practice. As the nearly full roster glided across the ice, the players couldn’t help but channel their inner child as they reminisced with former teammates and skated alongside their childhood idols.
“It’s great being in the locker room with the guys again, talking a lot of good memories being on the ice again with the same guys you played with,” Lidstrom said. “It’s just fun you feel like a little kid again playing outdoors and playing with your old former teammates.”
“You know it’s just a great venue, it’s awesome to be here, it’s so fun to be out on the ice outside,” former Wings forward Kevin Miller said. “I mean that’s what you grow up doing and then you step on the ice and there are so many legends out there so many guys that you saw as a kid growing up, guys that you played with, guys that you watched, it’s just unbelievable to be back and be able to hang out with them all and have a lot of fun.”
Despite the years and generations that separate the alumni and the time that passes between each reunion, they have one thing in common that created an unbreakable and unspoken bond: they each proudly wore the Winged Wheel.
“A lot of them haven’t changed, a good number have,” Ward said of the alumni. “It’s just fun the camaraderie and getting a little bit of a taste of what you grew up with and how you spent a fair amount of your life, playing a game with a group of guys you enjoyed spending time with and kicking the puck around the ice a little bit.”
And they can’t wait to take the ice tomorrow, as time can only tell when the opportunity to skate alongside some of the greatest legends in the history of hockey will ever arise again.