The stage was the biggest, the lights were the brightest, and so the ovation was the loudest.
Hockey shifts are like a stack of resumes on a hiring manager’s desk. They all start to look the same after awhile, but then suddenly, one stands out.
Kirk Maltby skated to the bench that June evening in 2009, his work done, his helmet laying on the ice. Whenever the hockey player’s head isn’t inside the wayward bucket, it’s a start.
The Joe Louis Arena crowd rose to its feet and roared its approval. Maltby had just given the patrons 45 seconds of thrills and the Pittsburgh Penguins three-quarters-of-a-minute of torment.
In those 45 seconds, Maltby did what he did best—make a nuisance of himself with relentless skating, checking, and pick-pocketing. The Penguins were the substitute teacher and Maltby was the derelict class clown who wouldn’t stop acting out.
It was 45 seconds inside Game 1 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, and Grind Liner Maltby had just schooled the Penguins in the art of grinding.
The Red Wings won the game (though they would, sadly, not win the series), and afterward I trudged down to the locker room at the Joe and queried the player his teammates called “Malts” about those 45 seconds where Maltby made himself into a weapon of mass destruction.
His smile went from ear to ear. He knew exactly of which 45 seconds I was speaking.
“Yeah, that was great,” Maltby said of the ovation he received as he made his way back to the bench, leaving a cadre of frustrated Penguins in his wake.
I asked Maltby if it reminded him of the salad days of the Grind Line, when he teamed with Kris Draper and Joey Kocur—and later Darren McCarty—in the late 1990s to form a trio of hockey pests par excellence.
Again with the smile and the “Aw, shucks” shrug.
“Yeah, I guess it did,” he told me, as if the idea had never occurred to him prior to me bringing it up. “It’s fun to get the crowd fired up,” he added.
Maltby’s NHL career has now come to an, ahem, grinding halt.
Maltby has retired. The odds were stacked against him to be a Red Wing this season, and to just have that chance would mean bus trips and three games in three nights, because to continue playing hockey, Maltby would have to be a Grand Rapids Griffin first, a Red Wing second. Maybe.
“I knew, coming into the season, my situation with signing a two-way contract. I knew where my situation stood and that there was a possibility that if not making it here, going to Grand Rapids,” Maltby said yesterday at a press conference.
“Ultimately, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to go there … it was an easy decision. I’m very comfortable with it. I want to watch my kids grow up. It’s tough. I’m going to miss the game; I’m going to miss being around the guys. I think that’s going to be the hardest.”
It always is. It’s a running theme with most of the former athletes I’ve spoken to—they badly miss the camaraderie, the locker room banter.
“I even missed practice!” I remember former Red Wings great Bill Gadsby telling me several years ago.
Kirk Maltby was a good Red Wing, and among the most successful, what with winning four Stanley Cups and all. He was a man of little scoring but if effort translated to the scoresheet, Maltby would have been an Art Ross Trophy candidate every season.
Maltby will stay with the Red Wings (don’t they all?), working as a scout.
“I feel truly privileged for what my career has brought me,” Maltby said.
I think Red Wings fans would say, “Right back at ya, Malts!”