When Keith Primeau walked into the Detroit Red Wing dressing room
in Joe Louis Arena the morning after Game 4 of the Western
Conference finals last Thursday, equipment manager Paul Boyer
pulled him aside and delivered the bad news: His gear had been
sabotaged. Primeau had been tossed from the match the night before
in Chicago after using his stick to open a blood donor clinic on
Blackhawk captain Dirk Graham's face, and someone who had spotted
Primeau's equipment bag in the United Center corridor had
obviously taken it upon himself to avenge Graham.
Did they mess with his stick blades?
Did they take a razor blade to his laces?
``Well, actually we noticed a smell on the equipment truck, and we
noticed a smell when we loaded the plane,'' Boyer told him. ``Then
we opened your bag this morning. Somebody put an octopus in your
There. So it turns out those know-it-all Red Wing fans who for
five seasons booed him almost every time his name was announced,
who jeered him for being so big and oafish on skates, who loathed
him not so much because he was Keith Primeau but because he wasn't
Jaromir Jagr, were absolutely right. Primeau had a splendid series
against Chicago, but he definitely stinks.
Slava Kozlov scored at 2:25 of the second overtime early Monday
morning to give Detroit a series-clinching 2-1 win and its first
spot in the Stanley Cup finals in 29 years. This was a five-game
series that seemed to last as long as the Punic Wars, only with a
higher body count as key players for both teams -- centers Sergei
Fedorov and Steve Yzerman for Detroit, center Jeremy Roenick and
defenseman Steve Smith for Chicago -- kept falling. The Red Wings
didn't have a laugher (they led for just 19:52 of the almost 18
periods played), although the games kept everyone in stitches. All
four of Detroit's victories were by a goal: two in double
overtime, one in overtime, another with 1:45 left in regulation.
``It was a lot tougher series than it looked at times,'' Red Wing
coach Scott Bowman said after it was all over. ``The way
[Blackhawk goalie] Ed Belfour played. . . . I've said it before:
He's the best goaltender we faced in the playoffs. It was going to
take a special kind of shot to beat him.''
And Kozlov's clincher was a special shot. He carried the puck into
the Chicago zone against defenseman Chris Chelios, who had been on
the ice for almost 40 minutes. As Kozlov pulled up, Chelios
overskated the play. By happenstance, the puck hopped over
Chelios's stick, and Kozlov took the opening to fire a 30-footer
between Belfour's pads. Belfour quickly was surrounded by
consoling teammates who tapped him on the head, which is where he
had been standing all night. He made 45 saves, including 19 in the
second period when Detroit outshot the Blackhawks 20-2. Belfour
skipped the traditional postgame handshake where platitudes like
``Good job'' are routinely mouthed. After a night -- and part of a
morning -- spent playing like a wizard, Belfour didn't need to
Primeau had a team-high seven shots and some gilt-edged
opportunities to score in regulation Sunday night. His best chance
came on a deflection from the edge of the crease in the second
period during a five-on-three Detroit power play, a shot that
struck Belfour on the chest and dribbled to the goal line before
he covered it. No matter. There was enough glory in Octopus City
to reflect on all the Wings, even a monster like Primeau. He came
to Detroit five years ago at age 18, a 6'4" package of arms, legs
and promise, and he grew another inch and a half the next year.
Then during these playoffs, the 220-pound Primeau kept looming
larger and larger. ``He used to be in the Bambi stage,'' Red Wing
assistant coach Dave Lewis says. ``But now he's a full-grown
With the two marquee Red Wing centers slowed by injuries --
Yzerman didn't return from arthroscopic knee surgery until Game 4
and Fedorov was knocked out of Game 3 with a bruised left shoulder
and missed the fourth game -- Primeau, the center for Dino
Ciccarelli and Shawn Burr on the Two Men and a Baby Line, was
given more responsibilities, more ice, more important face-offs.
Primeau, at 23, is the baby: big, bouncing and careless with his
stick. He cut Graham in Game 4. He almost Van Goghed the peeved
Chelios in Game 5 and didn't even draw a penalty. But Primeau also
made some supremely grown-up plays: scoring the tying goal in Game
1 while cruising through the slot with one hand on his stick, and
then cleanly beating Roenick on the face-off that set up
defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom's winner 61 seconds into overtime.
Primeau also played 36 minutes in the 4-3 double-overtime victory
in Game 3, scoring a power-play goal by protecting the puck along
the boards, fending off Chelios, making a slick pass to the point
that bisected the Chicago penalty killers and then crashing the
net and putting in a rebound.
Roenick was snippy after the first game, probably because he found
himself in the unexpected position of having to neutralize
Primeau instead of the other way around. ``I'm sick of talking
about Primeau,'' Roenick said. ``Haven't you heard? He's the best
player in the NHL.''
But after the Wings took a 3-0 lead in the series, Roenick was
more gracious: ``He's developed extremely quickly, a lot more
quickly than I expected. He has a lot of confidence and size and
talent. I've seen him struggle with his confidence, but he has it
now. He's cocky, and you have to love players like that. He's got
an edge, he comes to play. He doesn't bitch and then not show up.
He's an honest player; that's what you need. I just don't like to
play against him.''
``Wow,'' Primeau said. ``Roenick said that?''
Primeau is no more accustomed to the kindness of strangers than he
is to the kindness of the Joe Louis Arena crowds. In the fabulous
draft of 1990, Red Wing fans wanted a player, not a project. They
looked longingly at the elite players selected that year -- No. 1
Owen Nolan, No. 2 Petr Nedved, No. 4 Mike Ricci, No. 5 Jaromir
Jagr -- and then gazed upon Primeau, whom Detroit had taken third.
Nolan scored 42 goals in his second NHL season. Nedved poured in
38 his third season. Ricci had 27 and 30 goals his first two
years, respectively, and the flashy Jagr scored 59 in his first
two seasons. Meanwhile Primeau had just nine goals in two years,
but he did possess a superior knowledge of the bus routes of the
American Hockey League. The Red Wings deposited him in their minor
league affiliate in Glens Falls, N.Y., for much of his second year
not only because he looked bad on the ice but also because he
made the organization look bad for seemingly having squandered a
high pick in a bountiful draft.
The Wings simply didn't know what to make of this gangly
man-child. Was he a center? A left wing? A checker? A scorer? Or
was he simply a bust?
By his third season, in '92-93, Primeau didn't want to play in
Detroit any more than the Detroit fans wanted him to. He asked out
through the newspapers, not the prescribed way of winning new
admirers. ``I brought a lot of this on myself,'' Primeau says.
``The people expected me to score like Jimmy Carson and fight like
Bob Probert. They had such high expectations for me, but I had
high expectations for myself. I understood their frustration. For
a year I tuned out the radio, didn't watch the TV, wouldn't look
at the sports section except to read about other sports. Size
always has been a huge advantage and a huge hindrance to me. It
makes you stand out on good nights and bad nights, and there were
a lot of bad nights. My mistake was taking the trade request to
Primeau was more discreet early in the 1993-94 season, complaining
to assistant coach Barry Smith that he was unhappy with his
limited ice time and uncomfortable playing left wing. Smith said
fine, that makes us even, because the coaches aren't real enamored
with your play, either. ``Give it five or 10 more games,'' Smith
told him, ``and if you're still unhappy, I'll take you by the hand
to the front office and say that you should be traded.''
Primeau thought about it and realized he had better be careful
about what he wished for because he might get it. For his first
three years in Detroit, Primeau knew that no matter how much he
groused, the Red Wings wouldn't trade him. Even at 6'5-1/2", he
had a big upside. But now the team had lost patience. Primeau
decided he wanted to remain a Wing at precisely the time Detroit
was ready to jettison him.
Where hasn't he seemingly been traded the past five years? He was
supposed to go to Chicago for Belfour in 1991, to the Buffalo
Sabres for Grant Fuhr last year, to New York (Rangers and
Islanders), to the Philadelphia Flyers, to the Pittsburgh Penguins
and to the Edmonton Oilers countless times. ``A rumor a day,''
Primeau says. But when he scored 31 goals last year and made plays
at high speed with a skating stride that is so long he looks like
a figure in a hockey video game, Red Wing management cut back on
the long distance calls. Primeau, whose coordination was improved
by his jumping rope daily, played poorly the first five games
after the lockout this year to put himself back in the bad graces
of the fans. But 15 goals during the truncated season and his
playoff performance at the Joe, where Detroit is 8-0 in this
postseason, have granted him absolution.
``It's funny: We scored 24 goals against San Jose [in the second
round], and I didn't get a sniff,'' Primeau says. ``But then when
we play Chicago, where there's more contact, more play in the
corners -- it fit me.''
The Red Wings, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1955, bill
the quest as a Call to Arms and have formally adopted the octopus
as their symbol. There were even reports of octopus scalpers
outside the arena last week getting double the retail price;
America hasn't seen anything this slimy since the savings and loan
scandal. ``With this team, anything less than the Stanley Cup is a
negative,'' defenseman Bob Rouse says. ``That's the perception in
the media, and it's the perception in this room. Those are the
Primeau welcomes those expectations. He isn't a prolific scorer
like Jagr or as complete a forward as Nolan, but of the top 1990
draft picks, of all the players by whom Primeau has been measured,
he is the only one still playing in the late spring of 1995.
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Primeau jumped for joy as the Red Wings eliminated the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals on Monday.[Keith Primeau]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHOAs Blackhawk defensemen Smith and Chelios found out, Primeau can beat you a number of ways. [Keith Primeau grappling with Steve Smith and Chris Chelios]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHOPrimeau has picked up the finer points of the game from savvy veterans like Paul Coffey. [Paul Coffey talking with Keith Primeau]COLOR PHOTO:NUCCIO DINUZZO/CHICAGO TRIBUNEPrimeau had a blast against the Blackhawks, scoring a pair of goals in the five-game series. [Keith Primeau taking a shot on goal]