With only several last, anticlimactic minutes remaining in the Predators' season last Saturday, a young Red Wings fan rubbed Nashville's collective nose in defeat. He ran down the aisle next to Section 108, hurled a dead octopus over the glass and onto the ice, then extended his middle fingers on both hands toward the Preds fans on either side of him.
As he made his way up the steps, I found myself in perfect position in my aisle seat. I could literally reach out and touch him as he passed. So I did.
As he went by my row, still flipping off the crowd, still sneering, I stood and with one fluid motion grabbed the back of his collar and jerked his head back in my direction. Then I planted my foot firmly behind his right knee and pushed. As he fell forward, I put my full weight behind him and rode him down. He grunted when he hit the concrete steps, and I felt the air being knocked out of him.
"Here's the guy who did it!" I shouted to the security guards now at the top of the aisle. "I got him! You can toss him out now!"
That was my Walter Mitty moment. Every once in a whileactually, more often than I should probably admitI get Mitty moments. You remember Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber's short story who, in his secret life, imagines himself piloting a bomber or facing a firing squad. Inevitably, his wife jolts him from his reveries with a demand that he perform some banal task.
Instead of dreaming up entire situations, I only fantasize about my response to real ones. I never actually collared the Red Wings fan, of course. But the guy was real, and he really threw an octopus, and he really taunted Predators fans with obscene gestures. I watched it all from way up in Section 305. I imagine other Nashvillians had similar Mitty moments as Octopus Boy ran up the aisle.
In some ways, the octopus incident was a perfect symbol for the series. For the first four games, the brash young Predators had fought like the Finns in the winter of 1940, keeping Detroit's red army bedeviled and at bay. Then, at crunch time in games five and six, the top-seeded Wings asserted their superiority with a vengeance. They jumped on top earlyit was 3-0 after one period in the fifth game and 2-0 after only two minutes on Saturdayand smothered the Preds with defense.
Tossing the octopus, no less a Detroit tradition than carjackings and chop shops, emphaticallyand arrogantly, to Nashville eyesasserted the Red Wings' dominance on the Predators' home ice. It was as if to say: "We still own you whenever we want."
For many Nashville fans, the most galling part of that taunting message may have been the grudging acknowledgment of its stinging truth. When push came to shove, the Red Wings pushed and shoved the Predators around. They were clearly superior.
But I'm going to suggest a revenge scenario for Preds rooters that doesn't require a Mittyesque fantasy. Two years from now, offer me a choice between the Predators' and Red Wings' rosters, and I'll take Nashville most every week.
Maybe this would be a good time to go ahead and officially break a taboo long observed by Sports Media Geniuses: I hereby admit that I'm biased. Now, I realize that the existence of particular prejudices, loyalties and rooting interests among Media Geniuses is as well-kept a secret as Michael Jackson's cosmetic surgeries. But I'll step forward anyway and put it in writing. I like the Predators. And if, by some chance, scientists used DNA cloning to bring back Attila the Hun, and Attila organized a Hun hockey team that played the Red Wings, I'd have to think a while about which side to root for. Provided I could tell them apart.
So you can assume it's either the bias or the crystal meth talking when I say I'd prefer the Predators' starless lineup over Detroit's veritable galaxy of greats. But it's neither, and I'm serious like a big dog.
Here's why: The Red Wings are older than white dog doodle. Sure, they've developed some great young players, like Pavel Datsyuk. But the core of their team is past prime. Derian Hatcher is 31. Steve Yzerman and Curtis Joseph are 36. Brendan Shanahan is 35. Brett Hull is 39. Chris Chelios is 42.
In the past, age has posed no insurmountable barrier to the free-spending Red Wings. When older players depart, Detroit simply replaces them by trading for other established, pricey stars or signing them as free agents.
But their day of reckoning approaches. With hockey's collective bargaining agreement set to expire, and with labor and management farther apart than Republicans and Democrats, a work stoppage now seems as inevitable as winter.
When the revolution comes, don't assume the owners and players will try to bridge their differences with mere Band-Aids, as baseball did. Hockey's economics are even more fundamentally whomperjawed than baseball's. Average NHL salaries are higher than those in the NFL, even though TV revenues are only a small fraction of those football owners enjoy. Even hugely successful teams like the Red Wings break even financially only if they advance deep into the playoffs.
Something must give: either the players' refusal to accept a salary cap or several franchises around the league. I'm betting on the owners in this one.
And if they win, the Preds win. GM David Poile has built a team that can serve as the NHL's New Model Army. The players are mostly homegrown. The team's core is exceptionally young. Scott Hartnell, David Legwand, Dan Hamhuis, Martin Erat and Adam Hall all are 23 or under. Tomas Vokoun and Marek Zidlicky are only 27, Kimmo Timonen and Steve Sullivan are only 29. As they geland now, with a taste of playoff experience, gain new confidencethis group has great long-term upside potential.
Financially, the low-payroll strategy gives the Predators great financial flexibility, too. Under any conceivable salary cap, the team will have plenty of room to provide pay raises (like the nice bump Vokoun is sure to receive this summer) to keep its talent in Nashville. And there will be moneywhich bloated-payroll teams like the Red Wings and Rangers won't haveto pursue another goal scorer or two in a market that is likely to be laden with free agents available for a fraction of their former price tags.
The "wait 'til next year" cry might be inaccurate. If there is a long lockout, Preds fans may have to wait until the spring of 2006 to see a serious contender in Nashville. But that delay could also give them more time to savor a Mitty moment I imagine some of the hard corps are already having: As Nashville wraps up a series win at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, a young man in a Predators sweater flings a fat Tennessee catfish onto the ice, then sweetly blows a kiss to the crowd.