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Lewis misses good part again

HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

June 02, 2008|Helene Elliott

DETROIT -- Dave Lewis seems destined to be a forerunner of hockey history, to do his work and depart -- not by choice -- just before the mountain is climbed, the flag planted and the party started.

Otherwise, he might have been the man coaching the Red Wings tonight at Joe Louis Arena, with the Stanley Cup in the house, the city abuzz and no octopus safe from being heaved onto the ice in Detroit fans' traditional and unique ritual.

The Red Wings can win the Cup tonight and it will be surprising only if they don't do it decisively, so much better have they been than the plucky, young Pittsburgh Penguins in so many crucial areas while winning three of the first four games.

If Lewis weren't the unluckiest man in hockey, he might be there, behind the bench, instead of at the 10-acre place he owns in the farming community of Holly, Mich., about 45 miles northwest of Detroit.

His misfortune as a player was to help the New York Islanders emerge from the muck of their terrible early years and become an elite team only to be traded to the Kings for Butch Goring on March 10, 1980. Two months later, with Goring centering their second scoring line, the Islanders won the first of their four straight Cup championships.

Lewis' misfortune as a coach was to succeed Scotty Bowman behind the Red Wings' bench in 2002, a month after Bowman won a record-ninth Cup title and promptly retired.

Lewis had been an assistant coach in Detroit for 15 seasons under three coaches and he got his name on the Cup twice as an assistant.

As the boss, he had 48-victory seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04, but his contract was allowed to expire after he failed to get Detroit past the second round of the playoffs in his two tries.

He was succeeded by Mike Babcock, who is a little gruffer than Lewis was, a little more distant from his players, and tonight is on the brink of a success Lewis could not achieve.

Lewis went on to coach the Bruins during the 2006-07 season and was fired after they missed the playoffs. Last summer, he joined the Kings' coaching staff as an assistant to Marc Crawford.

He said he's "indifferent" to what's unfolding now for the Red Wings, but that's difficult to believe.

"I have such an appreciation for the players that I know there. It's a great organization," he said. "They gave me an opportunity as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. We just didn't have playoff success.

"The expectations are always high here in Detroit. It's action-packed, pressure-packed and competitive. I have very good memories and thoughts."

Lewis said he has watched some of the Red Wings' playoff games on TV, which means he has seen many familiar faces.

Most of the team's core players are holdovers from his tenure. He had Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, a still-developing Niklas Kronwall, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Darren McCarty in the winger's first go-round with the Wings, and Dominik Hasek too.

"I remember the seating arrangement for Henrik Zetterberg," Lewis said. "Everybody wanted to make sure he sat beside Stevie Yzerman in the locker room for a couple of years, so he could see how Stevie competes and that even when Stevie wasn't saying anything he was still sending a message to his teammates."

The knock on Lewis is that he wasn't tough enough on his players, and there's probably a lot of truth in that. As an assistant to Bowman -- Barry Smith was the other assistant -- Lewis took on the role of good cop. Bowman was the bad cop and Smith the trusty sidekick to the bad cop.

Players sought out Lewis for pats on the back and the simple conversation Bowman couldn't provide. When it came time for Lewis to be the bad cop, he simply couldn't find it within himself.

"You have to understand, I lived through 10, 12 years with those guys, trying to be successful and win the Stanley Cup," Lewis said. "The whole experience of living and dying with them, losing to New Jersey in four [in the 1995 Cup finals] and losing to Colorado [in the 1996 conference final]. It was more than just coaching that team."

As an assistant he was more a father figure, a confidant, than an authoritarian. When his role changed, his nature did not.

"I'm still of the belief that coaching is an individual thing," he said. "You don't have to yell and scream. I think you can win both ways. Joe Torre is not a screamer and I don't think Phil Jackson is a screamer."

Lewis says he keeps in touch with some people associated with the Red Wings, and he texted goaltending coach Jim Bedard to offer congratulations to Chris Osgood when the goaltender broke Terry Sawchuk's franchise record for playoff victories.

"It's a good organization," Lewis said, "and I have nothing but good memories and experiences. It's interesting watching them."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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