Red Wings' Kocur Still Has Some Fight Left
By Josh Barr
DETROIT, June 10 Joey Kocur has been beaten, and he's done the beating. But midway through last season, the former unofficial heavyweight champion of the National Hockey League figured he had been beaten maybe for good.
Kocur was out of professional hockey, playing in a late-night recreation league in the suburbs and living at home with his wife and daughter. He figured his career as a hockey player was over, but every once in a while he went to Joe Louis Arena to take in a Detroit Red Wings game.
Now, though, Kocur is on the ice at Joe Louis as a member of the defending Stanley Cup champions. Tuesday night, he scored the first goal of the finals, helping the Red Wings to a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 1. Game 2 is tonight.
"It's been a pretty good run for me," Kocur said today, a half-finished crossword puzzle in his hand, after the Red Wings concluded a brief practice. "Last December I was not playing hockey, hoping to get back into the league. I never expected to come back to the Red Wings and play where my home is."
Indeed, last fall Kocur was playing in a "beer" league for men over 30 with beer drinking before, after and occasionally during games. The rules were a little different there no slap shots, no checking and no fighting, which had been Kocur's specialty during 12 seasons in the NHL. But Kocur still wanted another chance to play professionally.
"I came to a couple games and let them know I wasn't playing," said Kocur, who had remained good friends with Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman after spending parts of seven seasons here early in his career. "Out of sight, out of mind doesn't help."
As it turned out, Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman was looking for a physical presence. Not necessarily someone to fight (Kocur has 1,991 penalty minutes in 705 career regular season games), but an imposing figure who would keep opponents honest.
Kocur played five games with San Antonio in the International Hockey League to show he still could perform, and the Red Wings signed him to a contract. The guy who toted six packs to the rink in the fall got to drink from the ultimate Cup during the summer.
"Joey was one of the heavyweights and probably still is, but he doesn't have to play that game anymore," teammate Kirk Maltby said. "His presence is still felt, and other teams are aware of him and don't take too many liberties."
The scars from Kocur's fight-filled career as an enforcer are clearly visible. His right hand, one of the most feared in all of hockey, is bumpy from broken bones that haven't healed properly. The back of his hand has several purple bruises that won't go away.
"It's not a normal hand, but I can do what I need to do," he said.
Said Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who was the assistant GM in Vancouver when the Canucks traded for Kocur and then decided not to renew his contract: "He was more concerned about fighting and filling that role than giving himself a chance to play. The last three years, his hand has been so bad, he can't fight. But he is a good-sized guy, and he can play along the boards."
Still, despite scoring three goals in the first two rounds of the playoffs and not being a defensive liability, Kocur found himself out of the lineup for the last three games of the Western Conference finals against Dallas. He returned to the lineup Tuesday only because of a groin injury to teammate Brent Gilchrist.
But while he didn't drop his gloves, Kocur once again made his presence felt. He drove to the net and deflected in a pass from teammate Doug Brown to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead. Kocur's goal appeared to unsettle the Capitals, and Nicklas Lidstrom gave Detroit a 2-0 advantage two minutes later with a slap shot from the blueline. The Capitals were unable to rally.
"That is the reason for our success the last few years," Brown said. "We have 23 or 24 guys who are all going to contribute when they get in, and we expect them to."
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