Bowl Cut / Side Part Alert!
Back when they were terrible in the late 80's and early 90's, the Red Wings would host dinner events at the Joe. They'd put carpet on the ice, and arrange tables so that you were guaranteed to sit with a player. Once it was Kevin Miller (who gave me hell because I didn't finish the meal, then asked if he could). Another it was John Chabot (memba him?).
My folks went a bunch of times, but I was lucky enough to go twice - when I was eight and nine. Some of the guys, like Steve Yzerman, were difficult to get near -- everyone wanted to chat for a minute, get an autograph, or just hang out in their presence. Others, like the young guns or "role players" were a little more accessible - happy to talk to you, sign your jersey, or talk about the photo on their hockey card.
My second time around, in 1991, I noticed a younger looking guy sitting at a table, with no one but a young lady around him. He seemed really shy, kept to himself, stayed seated, didn't really get into schmoozing so much. I asked my mom if she thought he was a player or if he was just another fan in attendance, like we were. We decided to go over and strike up a conversation.
He had a pretty thick accent, and he introduced us to his beautiful then-fiancee (now, wife). We talked for a good twenty minutes, the two of them couldn't have been any nicer. Throughout our entire conversation, I don't remember a single person coming to the table to meet him, but that could just be the memories of a nine-year-old. He said that he hadn't played in Detroit yet (which explains why nobody was knocking chairs over to shake his hand), but he was excited to join the team and hoped he could stay in Motown for a long time. He told me his name was Nicklas, shook my hand, and signed my jersey right between the shoulder blades, just below where Ted Lindsay had signed. How symbolic.
Almost twenty years later, it's hard to imagine I ever had that kind of time with such a special hockey player.
Those nights were awesome. I got to shake hands and chit-chat with so many of the guys. I remember Dennis Vial being impressed I knew his birthday (I share it, so it's probably cheating), meeting Yves Racine's son who was only a few years younger than me, taking a picture of my mom who was fake-punching Bob Probert on the chin, taking a photo with Vladdy Konstantinov (obviously, a cherished memory now more than ever), taking a photo with Steve Chiasson (obviously, a photo opportunity that won't come up again), questioning why a will-remain-unnamed-goaltender needed glasses for dinner but not for games (he probably could have used them...).
But as fantastic as those moments were, they don't even come close to sharing a private, lengthy conversation with Nicklas Lidstrom. I remember watching some 1991-92 games on television, hearing his name, and saying, "hey, that's the guy we made friends with!" I always hoped he'd succeed, and for those first couple years, the "guy from that dinner" was how I thought of him.
It didn't take long, however, for him to go from "that guy from that dinner" to the "future captain," the "future Hall-of-Famer," the "perennial Norris winner."
He seemed genuinely happy that we came by and chatted with him, and when it became time to move on, he seemed a lot more comfortable talking with folks, less embarrassed by his accent, and started making the rounds. I doubt he remembers that chat, but it meant the world to me, a nine-year-old diehard Red Wings fan. Nearly twenty years later, it still means the world to me.