By Stu Hackel
Chris Osgood announced his retirement today and, with Kris Draper also apparently headed in that direction, only two members of the Red Wings — Nick Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom — will remain from the last team to win two consecutive Stanley Cups (1997, 1998).
An international melange of talent and intriguing personalities, those ’90s teams coached by Scotty Bowman skated through the gloomy dead puck era with a stylish gleam that made the Red Wings the most popular NHL club in the U.S. They also springboarded Detroit to the status of the league’s most successful franchise of the last 15 years.
Dating from the start of Bowman’s tenure in 1993-94 — perhaps not coincidentally Osgood’s rookie season — Detroit has won the Cup four times and reached the finals two other times (narrowly missing another repeat championship in 2009). They finished first in their division 13 times in 17 seasons (never lower than second) and topped the Western Conference eight times. Osgood was with them for a good chunk of that time, leaving for three seasons to play goal in St. Louis and Long Island before returning in 2005. Even though he was supplanted by others at times, he’s been a big part of the Wings’ identity for all these years.
But Ozzie was never quite good enough to be considered an elite goalie. He’d surrender soft goals somewhat routinely (our friend and colleague Michael Farber wrote superbly about Ozzie’s softies in SI during the 1998 Cup run) and his save percentage never reached .920 – something of a benchmark number for goaltending excellence among those who rank these things — in any one season. Yet, when foes pressed to get the goal that would spell defeat for Osgood’s team, he stiffened. That was the one he wouldn’t allow. Whatever accolades we shower upon Tim Thomas’ character, resiliency, mental toughness and fighting spirit these days could also be applied to Osgood. In many ways, they are similar goalies. Neither adopted the popular butterfly method and both were reliant on a good measure of athleticism. But Osgood became something of a whipping boy among Red Wings fans, for whom it seems no goalie is ever quite good enough. Yes, they always loved him for moments like this…
…but the shots he’d whiff on infuriated them. They’d remember those and not how he’d battle afterward to preserve victories, and he certainly preserved more than most — Osgood won his 400th regular season game last season (and that link discusses whether Ozzie is Hall of Fame worthy), making him one of only 10 goalies in NHL history to reach that plateau. You can add another 74 playoff wins to that 401 total.
He’d endure the critics, and with his boyish face you’d almost expect him to frown. As Farber recalls, Ozzie cried in the dressing room after giving up this bad one to lose Game 7 against the Sharks in his rookie season.
But he grew from that and he toughened up. At those moments when he’d be questioned, the veteran Osgood’s face would harden, he might fire off some short sarcastic remark or say something dismissive. His belief in himself never wavered even if others’ belief in him did. And he leaves the scene today with three Stanley Cup rings, including the one from 2008, when he replaced a faltering Dominik Hasek early in the playoffs and backstopped the Wings to victory when one of the game’s all-time greats could not.
Hockey fans have long memories, especially when it comes to disappointments, so for some, Osgood’s legacy will be surrendering goals like this in the 1998 playoffs.
Those fans forget that Osgood and the Red Wings won this game in overtime and went on to that second straight championship. The Hockey Gods should decree that Osgood be seen as a modern-day version of his hero Grant Fuhr or Billy Smith, goalies who didn’t always have the best stats, but who would rarely allow the goal that meant defeat. After all the numbers are tabulated and the individual awards are handed out, winning the game — surrendering fewer goals than the guy in front of the other net — is what goaltenders are supposed to do. Ozzie won more than most and that’s how he should be remembered.