At some point in the mid-1990s, a young Swedish hockey player watched the play of Dino Ciccarelli. He saw a No. 22 jersey absorb jolting cross-checks, slashes and hacks, yet Ciccarelli stood his ground in front of the crease and infuriated the screened goaltender.
“I can do that,” Tomas Holmstrom said.
Fifteen seasons later, after a career full of bumps, bruises, hernias, concussions, pain killers, 243 goals and four magical playoff runs that ended with a Stanley Cup parade down Woodward Ave., Holmstrom will retire with the only NHL franchise he ever knew.
Say it ain’t so.
“Homer” is another fountain-of-youth Wings player we’d like to see take a swim and start his career all over again. His No. 96 will cast a shadow among the Joe Louis Arena goal creases, that lasting image of his back to the net to screen the goalie, all while absorbing a merciless pounding, all in an effort to help the Wings earn two points in the standings.
“The way that he plays and the abuse that he took, you probably would have thought that his body would just give up on him,” Kris Draper said to Yahoo! Sports in February. “I think his body has given up on him, but his pain threshold is probably as high as I’ve ever seen.”
Holmstrom, who was the last remaining member of the 1997 Cup-winning team, finishes with 530 points and one of six players to hit the 1,000-game plateau in the Winged Wheel.
He never imagined reaching the majestic mark – not after a semi-rocky start under Scotty Bowman, who frowned upon Holmstrom’s notorious poor skating. In his 1996-’97 rookie season, he played 47 games, was sent to the minors for a six-game stint and made one postseason appearance during the Wings’ ride to their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
Holmstrom, who initially wore No. 15, gave his number to trade-deadline acquisition Dmitri Mironov in March of 1998. As Holmstrom was telling reporters about his new number (96), and why he chose it to symbolize his first year in the NHL, Bowman walked by and said something along the lines of: “You should take 98 because that’s when you’re going back to Sweden.”
Holmstrom, who’s first NHL contract was a two-year deal set to expire in 1998, thought Bowman was serious.
Three months later, there was no more doubts: Holmstrom had seven goals and 12 assists in 22 playoff games to help the Wings defend their Cup and celebrate with wheelchair-bound Vladimir Konstantinov inside Washington’s MCI Center.
Ever since, Holmstrom has been a staple of Hockeytown lore, and what a pleasant ride it’s been.
That said, the lockout may have been a blessing in disguise. Holmstrom was thinking about playing another year, yet Mike Babcock was going to make him fight for ice time. So if the lockout didn’t happen, and the NHL started in October, Holmstrom may have stuck around and ended his career in ugly fashion with limited minutes and healthy scratches.
But without hockey for nearly four months, Holmstrom’s decision became easier. And now he retires with fond memories: 122 power-play goals, the third most in Red Wings history (not bad for the 257th pick of the 1994 NHL draft). Forty-six playoff goals – most via heavy punishment to his body. Five points in a four-game sweep of Washington in the ’98 Cup Finals. The first goal in Game 5 of the 2002 Cup Finals, a night for the ages.
The most memorable, however, is Game Seven against Colorado in the 2002 Western Conference finals. Holmstrom scored the game’s first-goal with an acrobatic tip – off the shaft of his stick – while falling to the ice. Eleven minutes later, he stormed the net, smacked a rebound past Patrick Roy and gave the Wings a 4-0 lead that sent Joe Louis Arena into delirious pandemonium.
In Roy’s 247 career playoff games, it was the lone instance he gave up four goals in a period. Holmstrom was a significant factor: He was a plus-three in that euphoric first period.
There won’t be many more like him.
He’s a once-in-a-generation toughness. Both of his knees may need to be replaced and who knows what else is ailing him.
And as the NHL continues to dampen its physicality – with less cross-checks, hacks and whacks – it’s safe to say the game’s barbaric age is fading fast, which means Holmstrom is yet another old-school toughie who we may never see again.