| Detroit Free Press
The following is an excerpt from “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings,” written by Free Press sports writer Helene St. James and published by Triumph Books. The book will be available online and in bookstores Tuesday.
Nearly four years had passed since he left — years he later recognized were significant to his growth as a person and as a goaltender. But as he approached the meeting with his longtime friend and former boss, all Chris Osgood cared about was his heart.
Osgood spent the first, best, and last parts of his 17-season NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings. He won his first Stanley Cup backing up Mike Vernon in 1997, his second Cup as the team’s starter in 1998, and his third as reliever-turned-starter in 2008. He missed out on the Wings’ 2002 Stanley Cup because they had jettisoned him the summer before, putting him on waivers because he was expendable after general manager Ken Holland traded for Dominik Hasek.
For subscribers: Grading Red Wings’ 2020 NHL draft class
“It was crushing when I had to leave,” Osgood said in a 2019 interview. “I was always conflicted because I thought I could stay there with Dom. I wished I could have stayed, but looking back it was better I left. It made me better. But having a personal relationship with Kenny and knowing in the back of my mind that I would be back one day helped with that.”
That day came in the summer of 2005, as the NHL prepared to emerge from a labor dispute that had wiped out an entire season. The two men, 17 years apart in age but with a relationship that stretched back before the Wings drafted Osgood at 54th overall in 1991, shared the same intention. “I met Ken at this restaurant or lounge on Haggerty Road and he wrote down some numbers,” Osgood remembered. “The salary cap, we knew it was coming. Basically he wrote out a contract on a napkin. It didn’t matter to me how much I would be making or how many years, I just wanted to come back to Detroit.”
It was where his heart was — where he had met his wife, Jenna, where he had celebrated the greatest moments of his career. The Cups. Scoring a goal. Fighting Patrick Roy — which, back in the late 1990s and early aughts, was pretty much mandatory for a Wings goaltender. It was where Osgood had built lifelong friendships, where he had the most fun, where he faked ticket requests for teammates and tinkered with helmets and tied one assistant coach’s shoelaces to a stool — in front of Scotty Bowman.
“Dave Lewis always wore running shoes on the bench, but he wouldn’t do up the laces,” Kirk Maltby said in a 2019 interview. “There was one game, Ozzy was sitting there and he tied the laces around the base of the stool. So when Lewie went to walk away, he was dragging the stool. And he had Scotty Bowman right behind him.”
Osgood won 23 games as rookie in 1993–94, but the lasting memory of that season came in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. The score was 2–2 late in the third period when Osgood skated from his crease to chase a loose puck. He tried to clear the puck— only to have it land on the stick of Sharks forward Jamie Baker. Baker scored, the Wings lost, and Osgood, 21 at the time, wept as he spoke to reporters afterward at his stall.
More on Osgood: How Kris Draper got him to play for Red Wings alumni
The Wings brought in Mike Vernon, a veteran goaltender who had won a Cup, but Osgood remained a significant asset and retained his status as the guy who ultimately would be a big part of their future. After the Wings were swept in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals — with Vernon in goal — Osgood started 47 games in 1995–96. He led the NHL with 39 victories and a 2.17 goals-against average, and was runner-up to Jim Carey for the 1996 Vezina Trophy. On March 6, 1996, he became just the second goaltender in NHL history to score a goal, in a game against the Hartford Whalers. Osgood played 15 games in the playoffs, including the Western Conference finals against Colorado. Osgood finished 8–7 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.
Osgood played 47 games in 1996–97, but Scotty Bowman opted to go with Vernon in the playoffs. The Wings won the Cup, and Vernon was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. Holland, however, had seen enough in Osgood to risk trading Vernon in the summer of 1997.
It was an emotional time for the team and the city, as the exultation over ending a 42-year Stanley Cup drought had ended six days later when a limousine carrying defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov and masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov crashed into a tree on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham. The accident ended Konstantinov’s and Mnatsakanov’s careers.
The Wings entered the 1997–98 season under intense scrutiny. They were the defending champions, one of their top defensemen had been struck by tragedy, and their playoff MVP had been traded. They managed to emerge with a 44–23–15 record, finishing third in the NHL behind Dallas and New Jersey. Osgood started 64 games and went 33–20–11 with a 2.21 GAA and .913 save percentage. Well entrenched in the Colorado rivalry, Osgood fought Roy on April 1, 1998, and afterward he took a good-natured jab at his predecessor. Roy, Osgood said, “is a lot weaker than Vernie said he was.”
Blast from the past: How the Red Wings’ back-to-back Stanley Cups rank in NHL history
Roy, who had fought Vernon in the infamous March 26, 1997, game, challenged Osgood with just over seven minutes to play. “I had no intention to fight with Osgood, but when he came to the middle of the ice, what the heck,” Roy said. “My glove was already on the net before I went, because I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did last year.”
Osgood shook off his gloves, unsnapped his helmet, and put up his fists as deafening cheers of “Ozzy! Ozzy! Ozzy!” reverberated from the stands. Roy landed the first punch, a nice right, but Osgood responded with several left hooks, and, once rid of his jersey, battered Roy until he lost his balance by the Detroit bench.
“It was Roy trying to show up Ozzy,” Kris Draper said. “I think he underestimated Ozzy. Ozzy stood up for himself and did a great job.”
The Wings rolled into the playoffs. Osgood relied on the experience he had gained from the Sharks series in ’94 and from the 15 playoff games he had played in ’96.
“There was a lot of pressure,” he said in 2019. “Vernie had won the Conn Smythe. I was grateful that Ken Holland gave me the opportunity to play. There’s not a lot of times you trade the Conn Smythe [recipient] the year he wins it. So that was a responsibility I took real seriously. I was never nervous because I had played in the playoffs. I had had big wins and tough defeats. I was just trying to make the most of a great opportunity.”
The Phoenix Coyotes were dispatched in six games in Round 1. The Blues were gone after six games in Round 2. The Wings led three games to one going into Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Dallas. The Wings were minutes from clinching when Guy Carbonneau scored with 1:25 to play in regulation. Forty seconds into overtime, Osgood let in a terrible goal. Jamie Langenbrunner fired a shot from the red line that slid past Nicklas Lidstrom and bounced off Osgood’s stick. Game over.
Outsiders wondered whether Osgood could recover. Insiders didn’t give it a thought. “In my career, I don’t think I’ve played with anyone that could let something bad roll off his back so quickly,” Kirk Maltby said in 2019. “Like the Langenbrunner goal in the playoffs in Dallas — he came back and pitched a shutout the next game back at the Joe to close it out. Ozzy never lost track of enjoying playing the game. I think that’s why he could let go of a bad goal or bad game, because he didn’t get caught up in that moment. And it makes a difference to a team—when you know you have a goalie back there that if he gives up a bad goal, there’s a real good chance he is going to shut the door after that—that’s a big advantage.”
The Wings closed out the series with a 2–0 victory in Game 6, then swept their way to another Stanley Cup, this time against the Washington Capitals. On the eve of Game 4, Steve Yzerman was asked who would have his vote as the MVP. His answer was Osgood. “He has had so much attention focused on him,” Yzerman explained.
Instead, it was Yzerman who ended up with the Conn Smythe Trophy. But Osgood had silenced doubters, had come through with 30 saves as the Capitals tried to stave off elimination only to see the Wings win Game 4 4–1. His dad, John Osgood, was among those cheering on Osgood at the MCI Center. “He called me almost every single night of the playoffs and he talked and I mostly listened,” John Osgood said. “He got out a lot of frustration.”
Osgood was 28 when the Wings put him on waivers after numerous attempts to trade him went nowhere. Osgood spent nearly two seasons with the New York Islanders before being traded to St. Louis on March 11, 2003. By the summer of 2005, he was a free agent. The Wings, meanwhile, needed a veteran goaltender; the only guy they had in the fold was Manny Legace. Nikolai Khabibulin was the biggest name on the free-agent market, but the Wings were wary after the Curtis Joseph experiment had gone so poorly. (Joseph had been brought in to replace Hasek after he retired in 2002; even before Hasek decided to come back a year later, the Wings had soured on Joseph.)
The next summer, the Wings re-signed Osgood — and Hasek. The two worked together for a pair of seasons. The same temperament that served Osgood so well when he let in a bad goal made him an ideal fit with Hasek. In 2007–08, coach Mike Babcock alternated the two in starts. Hasek described his relationship with Osgood, whom he had known since he was a teenager, as “the best I have had with another goalie.”
Hasek went into Round 1 against Nashville as the starter, but it was Osgood who emerged from the series as the starter, replacing Hasek in Game 4 after Hasek had allowed three through one and a half periods. On June 4, Osgood hoisted the Stanley Cup for the third time.
Red Wings ‘What If’: Solving the greatest ‘What ifs’ of the 2010s
“I wasn’t supposed to play,” he said. “But I never doubted myself, I never looked on myself as the backup, because I knew behind the scenes what I was doing to get better. I’ll never give up until I’m done with my last game in Detroit. I’ll always give it my all and that’s the way I approach it. I always try to get better and I never give up, and that’s why I’m here.”
Osgood recorded his 400th career victory on December 27, 2010, in a game against Colorado. He was the 10th goaltender in NHL history to reach the milestone. In January he underwent sports hernia surgery that ended his season. In the summer, he announced his retirement. He worked briefly for the Wings as a mentor to their goaltending prospects, but in 2013 started working as a studio analyst for Fox Sports Detroit.
Osgood had grown up near Edmonton, Alberta, watching the Oilers. He played junior hockey in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It was Holland who scouted Osgood, but their relationship went beyond scout and player. They played for the same ball-hockey team in the offseason. Osgood was a forward, Holland played defense.
“He was a competitive ball-hockey player,” Holland recalled. “He was competitive with everything. Laid back, but very, very driven.” The name of the ball-hockey team was — of course — the Red Wings.
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings will be published October 13 by Triumph Books. To order, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”
Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.
Publisher: Triumph Books.
Pages: 336 pages (paperback).
Availability: Officially released Tuesday. Available online now from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and at Triumphbooks.com. Available in leading bookstores this week.
About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.
Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at email@example.com