By Allan Muir
A few years back during my brief youth hockey coaching career, I rolled video to illustrate the concept of net-front presence to a couple of glacially slow wingers. “You see that guy? 96? Watch him and do what he does.” Yeah, I was loaded with well-nuanced insight like that.
No. 96, of course, was Tomas Holmstrom, the obvious example for coaches everywhere trying to teach youngsters how to wreak havoc down low. Not just because he was so effective, but because he made what he did look simple. He drove the net, screened goaltenders, deflected point blasts and buried rebounds. Nothing to it, right?
The kids were inspired to emulate him, but they never quite got it.
The thing was, nobody ever did it quite like Holmstrom, the four-time Cup winner who retired today after 15 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. He leaves as the sixth most prolific scorer in franchise history, fourth in the postseason.
It was a remarkably successful career for a player who could barely skate when he arrived in Detroit in 1996 … and wasn’t much better when he left the ice for the final time last spring.
“Homer is not a very good skater but [he] was the quickest guy from the net front to the corner, back to the net front, that I’ve ever coached,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told the Detroit News. “Competed to get to his spot. Very, very ultra-competitive.”
And that was really the key to Holmstrom’s game: Nobody battled quite like him. He’d plant those giant haunches on the edge of the blue paint and absorb the abuse heaped on him by goalies and defenders without giving an inch. He’d hold his position until he could pounce on a loose puck laying in the crease or get a piece of one as it sailed toward the net. And then he’d come back and do it all over again.
If one of his goals made the highlight reels, it wasn’t for the beauty. It was for the timeliness. For being big. Important. Forget about flash. Holmstrom was the ultimate garbage man. If you totaled up the distance traveled by his 243 career goals, it probably wouldn’t much exceed 243 feet.
There’d always been guys like him — Phil Esposito did most of his best work on the rebound — but no one just like him.
“He basically made sure that there was a new role on everybody’s team with what he did in front of the net on the power play, and even in five-on-five situations,” teammate Niklas Kronwall told USA Today. “[He] really created more jobs for more people.”
And he made a generation of heavy-legged hopefuls believe anything was possible.