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Lang has Wings in good hands

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings
A sports report was playing on a TV over Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland's shoulder when I asked him what it was that he liked most about veteran center Robert Lang before he traded for him just before the March trading deadline in 2004.

"The best assets Robert has are great hands and a big body -- and he's a very, very smart player," Holland said. Then he smiled and added: "With the way the rules are now, he is exactly the kind of player you want down deep -- from the faceoff circles to the goal line, where a quick shot, a quick creative decision can often result in a goal with the time and space that players now have in our game."

Right on key, I pointed to the TV screen as they showed a highlight of Lang's first-period goal against St. Louis in the Blues' home-opener. The replay neatly showed all of the talents that Holland just described. A moment later, the sports cycle on TV shifted to golf and Tiger Woods was shown hitting one of his patented flop shots in tight for a birdie, followed by a Phil Mickelson trouble shot that cozied up to the hole to help him save par.

"That's the kind of hands Robert has," Holland said.

After the game, I told Lang about the conversation I had that included the Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson exclamation points. His smile was as wide as a fairway at Pebble Beach.

"That's the kind of hands I only wish I had," Lang said, laughing. "I'm a 3-handicap. But I don't think I've peaked yet ..."

He paused for a moment before completing his thought.

"In golf or hockey," he said.

Even in just the first week of hockey this season, it's patently clear that players with great and soft hands can make a difference in the new game the NHL wants to put on display for the fans -- emphasizing skill and talent over a game that previously have become a attempt to neutralize the most skilled players in the game.

And he's a perfect player for the way that a skilled team like Detroit plays, where he can slowly keep his feet moving and get into position in a scoring area to make something out of nothing ... just as the puck arrives.

"He kind of disappears out there sometimes and then ... reappears with the puck," Blues center Doug Weight said. "He's sneaky quick ... and he's really big and hard to knock off the puck."

"There's time and space out there now and if you have special hands, you can take advantage of the new rules to create a lot of offense," three-time Norris Trophy-winning Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.

"There is daylight to shoot at," Wings winger Brendan Shanahan said. "The goalies no longer cover all of the net. There are openings to shoot at that weren't there before."

"Right now, the game is sort of a quick-twitch show out there, where a guy like Robert, can really shine with the kind of hands and smarts he has," Lidstrom continued.

Want proof? In back-to-back season-opening wins over St. Louis and then in a Sunday afternoon triumph over the Calgary Flames, Lang scored a goal in each game.

Goal-scoring is up in the NHL. Goal-scoring opportunities are really on the rise. The game is faster and skilled players are beginning to show off their talent.

"My hands," Lang said. "They're a gift from God."

Great hands. Big body. Smart player. It's also true that Lang is not a natural -- one of those kids who was drafted high and roared onto the ice in the NHL with a bang. He was the 133rd player taken in the 1990 draft by the Los Angeles Kings, a sixth-round pick. He finally made his way to North America from the Czech Republic after getting five goals and eight assists in eight games in the 1992 Olympics. Even then, he spent more time in the minors than with the Kings over the next four seasons.

Lang, in fact, returned to play at Sparta Praha of the Czech Elite League in 1997-98. From there, he was signed as a free agent by the Pittsburgh Penguins, claimed in the waiver draft in October of 1998 by Boston and then re-acquired on waivers by Penguins after just three games with the Bruins.

It was at this point in his career that Lang met Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett, who was then coaching Houston of the International Hockey League.

"You couldn't blame him if he came down to Houston and sulked, after all the time he had invested in the game with very little to show for it in the NHL," Tippett told me recently. "You could see he had all the skill in the world, and he always had a smile on his face, like he knew this was going to be his best chance to regroup and make a big run at the NHL. Which he did. I was really happy for him, especially when the Penguins gave him some great linemates to complement his skills."

When Lang went back to Pittsburgh in November, 1998, he was put on a line with Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev. In the next four seasons, he twice had 20 or more goals and then put up a career-high of 32 goals and 80 points in 2000-01.

"It's all about confidence," Lang said. "Every step along the way is part of the learning curve. I could say I always knew I could play in the NHL, but going through what I did made me work harder and more hungry to make things work out. Being put on a line with Marty and Kovey was the lucky break I needed."

After the Penguins went through bankruptcy and had to sell off some of their high-priced talent, Jaromir Jagr went to Washington first, followed shortly thereafter by Lang.

"We were all excited about Washington, but ..."

Lang's voice trailed off for a minute as if to say that when things didn't work there it started to look like a bad day on Wall Street.

Lang said he, Jagr, Peter Bondra, Olie Kolzig, Sergei Gonchar and others were brought closer together by the need for management to rip the team apart and sell off the assets of a high-priced, low-production team. Trade rumors were rampant.

"The five of us started greeting one another at practice each day with a handshake," he recalled. "We would say, 'Great to see you again today. Have you heard anything?'

"Slowly, players began disappearing. After Jags went to the New York Rangers, there wasn't much offense to work with. Then Bonzie went to Ottawa and the rest of us were pretty much on our own."

Then, Lang got the call from Detroit, telling him that the Red Wings had acquired him for prospect Tomas Fleischmann, a first-round draft choice in 2004 (Mike Green) and a fourth-round pick in 2006.

"I was holding it together ... barely ... in Washington," he said. "Going to a Stanley Cup contender was like Christmas."

Lang was challenging Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis for the scoring title with 29 goals and 45 assists in 63 games at the time of the trade. He added one goal and four assists in six games for the Red Wings, but couldn't reward his new team like he wanted because he missed 11 games with a rib injury in late March and was at less than 100 percent after sustaining a broken bone in his hand in the playoffs.

"He was our best player before he got hurt," Shanahan said. "He's a great addition to our team, always has a smile on his face."

Gone from the 2003-04 edition of the Red Wings are Brett Hull, Derian Hatcher, Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph, Steve Thomas, Ray Whitney and Darren McCarty. Some in Detroit wonder where the goals will come from. They forget about Lang, since he really didn't have a chance to introduce his skills to the Motown faithful.

But then Lang is used to hiding in the background, behind the likes of Mario Lemieux, Jagr, Kovalev and Straka in Pittsburgh and being overshadowed, to most, in Detroit behind a lineup that includes Steve Yzerman, Shanahan, Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Kris Draper.

Lang is 34. He's smart. He's experienced and ready to be in the spotlight. Gone are the days when he would be in a waiver draft or be put on waivers.

The truth of the matter is Holland tried unsuccessfully to sign Lang, when he was a free agent in 2002. He was outbid by Washington. One year later, the Red Wings GM went back to Washington and tried again, after losing centers Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov.

"We felt it was a move we couldn't pass up," Holland smiled. "We didn't have to send out scouts out to take a last look to make sure he was a guy we felt would fit in with our team.

"We had all the data ... and we knew he'd fit."

When I asked Lang if there was some new training regimen he started to follow or diet that suddenly made him the kind of impact player he only yearned to be in Pittsburgh, where Lemieux, Francis, Jagr and Kovalev got the headlines.

"Nothing magical," Lang said. "It's all confidence. It's hearing teammates and coaches say I should shoot more because I had a good shot. But I didn't, because I could pass to someone else who I thought could do it better.

"Confidence, it seems, has a snowball effect. When I got to Washington, I didn't always have a Mario or Jags or Kovey to pass to ... so I guess I became a little selfish, but in a good way. I wanted the puck. I started to understand how the other guys felt, when they made great things happen."

Selfishness and selflessness are not that far apart. And now Lang exudes both characteristics.

"We saw him continue to persevere in adversity after Washington traded Jagr," Holland said. "We like that about him."

You won't find Robert Lang saying "poor me" or "what if?"

"You know something: I think I'm a better player, better person now," he said, "because I had to roll with the punches and make the best of the things that came along."

And now the long and winding road gives him a chance to finally win a Stanley Cup.

"I look back on my career and it makes me appreciate the opportunity I have now, with this team," said Lang. "I think sometimes bad things like being on waivers, struggling to find my place in the NHL, the problems in Washington, turn out good for you.

"It wasn't a nice, sweet, sweet road to success -- and that's what make it much sweeter now, because I know what I went through."
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