Every year, as the NHL playoffs gear up, the cynics with wrinkled shirts who populate sports desks from Vancouver to South Florida reverse their usual disdain for their hometowns. And for a few brief weeks, they spew their vitriol at a moving target — i.e., whichever unfortunate metropolis is home to the local team's opponent.
No sooner are the match-ups announced than the ink-stained start fanning the fires of resentment: "Not only is our hockey team better, but our streets are cleaner, our food is better, and our citizens avail themselves of indoor plumbing!" (Some of these folks' trash-talking is a little rusty, what with all those Downton Abbey episodes to follow.)
It's a playoff tradition in nearly every sport, and a noble one too. Sure, when the task falls to hacks, it can produce lazy troll bait — as the gormless Jeff Miller demonstrated in the run-up to last year's Predators-Anaheim Ducks series. After discovering that (get this) Music City is home to country music, Miller used his Wikipedia Eureka moment to excrete a vacuous pile of Hee Haw jokes on the readers of the Orange County Register.
But when crafted by proud technicians, these acid-etched screeds can be pretty funny. Most writers can't balance a checkbook, let alone deliver a body check. So for columnists, this marks one occasion to help their hometown be better than some other city at sports — and, thus, by logical extension, better at everything else.
There's just one problem: Every year when the NHL's playoff seedings are settled, some poor stone-cutter realizes his town's team is playing the Red Wings. Thus he has to decide whether to pile on Detroit — a city that needs no introduction, mostly because everybody is afraid to meet it.
The things that until recently made Detroit great — Jack White, the auto industry, did we mention Jack White? — have left or shrunk. Some of them made it to Middle Tennessee. Heck, even Kid Rock moved to Nashville.
With all of its problems — the mass exodus, the crime, the garbage fire that is the American auto industry, not to mention actual garbage fires — taking jabs at Detroit is like laughing at Tiny Tim when his crutches slip. No offense to Clint Eastwood, whose infamous Super Bowl pep talk sounded like someone reassuring a zombie it only has a paper cut, but Detroit's best days are behind it.
You'll be reminded of this during the Predators-Red Wings series. Through lips framed by unfortunate facial hair, the wearers of the winged wheels will ask, "How many Cups do you have?" Translated, that means: "We are losing this particular game, so we have to bring up things that happened before your team even existed." It's like modern-day Greeks facing fiscal apocalypse and saying, "Sure, but how much democracy did you invent?"
There's plenty to despise about the Red Wings without mentioning their hometown's problems. And I'm not just talking about Todd Bertuzzi.
The team's captain is defenseman Nicklas Lidström, who is Swedish and, possibly, a robot sent from the future. Lidström is an exceptional player, one of the best to ever patrol the blue line. But the combination of being Nordic and an automaton means he displays all the fiery emotion of an IKEA desk lamp.
Speaking of robots, Wings forward Justin Abdelkader is, despite his name, not an evil super-weapon developed by SPECTRE for the next James Bond movie. Nor is he a low-level Soviet technocrat. He is, in fact, an American who scores eight goals a year — and they are always against the Predators in crucial situations.
Also, you know those guys that play basketball at the YMCA who have no shot whatsoever, but are mean and big and stand under the basket, getting follow-up baskets and drawing fouls? That's Tomas Holmström. He's all tip-ins and put-backs and sprawling around at even the hint of a cross-check.
And then we have the Red Wings goalies: Jimmy Howard and Joey McDonald, whose names suggest mild-mannered superhero sidekicks. Howard, especially, puts up excellent numbers with frequency. As with, say, Jimmy Olsen, this is mostly related to the supermen around him.
The super-est of these is Pavel Datsyuk. Drafted with the 171st pick in 1998, Datsyuk is now widely considered one of the NHL's greatest players. It will seem weird when Detroiters talk about how underrated he is, because no one underrates Datsyuk. In a Feb. 17 game against the Predators, he scored with five seconds remaining, in the process making superstar Ryan Suter look like a lamp post rather than the league's most coveted free agent.
Datsyuk does things with the puck that are so dirty, otherworldly and fun to watch he will probably be banned by the Tennessee General Assembly. Datsyuk is so talented, in fact, he's hard to hate no matter what logo he wears.
So for completely opposite reasons, there's no reason to say anything mean about Datsyuk or the city of Detroit. We won't give them too much grief when they're bounced from the playoffs. Who knows? We might even let them take back Kid Rock.
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As we can always count on you for insult and nothing of substance.