They were never the most skilled players on the ice. But then again, that was never the point of the Detroit Red Wings' famous "Grind Line." It was their job to wear down the opponent's top lines through physical force and aggression. And most of the time, they did their job better than the other guys.
The last member of the Grind Line called it quits on Tuesday when Kris Draper retired after 20 seasons, 17 of them with the Red Wings. Draper and teammates Kirk Maltby and Joe Kocur formed the original trio in the mid-1990s; in 1998 Kocur was replaced by Darren McCarty. The new grinders remained together for nearly the next decade.
Some of the most memorable moments in Red Wings history came courtesy of the Grind Line. They single-handedly started the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry late in the decade in response to Claude Lemieux's hit on Draper during the 1996 Western Conference finals (Draper had his jaw and cheekbone broken along with several other facial injuries). Nearly a year later, McCarty jumped Lemieux during a regular season game at Joe Louis Arena in what became known as "Fight Night at the Joe," which also featured the famous fight between goaltenders Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. A year later in 1998, the teams brawled again in Motown, this time with Chris Osgood squaring off with Roy.
Coincidentally, the original "brawl" game was also Vernon's 300th career win. The grinders sure knew how to celebrate.
And celebrate they did. The trio was a part of all four Stanley Cup championships the Red Wings captured from 1997-2008. But as players started to leave the teams, the rivalry slowly died. The grinders kept churning along until McCarty was bought out as a result of the 2004-05 NHL lockout that wiped out the entire season. He returned for a brief stint in 2008 and 2009, reuniting with Maltby and Draper to win their fourth and final Stanley Cup, but they were never as effective as they were in the glory days.
Every Red Wings fan has their favorite memory of the trio. Their bruising style and hard work ethic was immensely popular in blue-collar Detroit, but the Grind Line was far from just a bunch of mindless thugs. Each member had a role and a purpose.
McCarty was obviously the enforcer, but he was more than just that. He could also score if you left him unattended, which the Avalanche found out the hard way in the opening game of the 2002 Western Conference finals. McCarty recorded a hat trick against his nemesis Roy that day in a 5-3 win, the only time in his career he did so.
Maltby was the agitator, known more for his mouth than for actually dropping the gloves. If there was a scrum of players after a whistle, Maltby was probably in the middle of it. More times than not he would force an opposing player into a bad penalty, skating back to his own bench unscathed and with a smirk on his face. He, like McCarty, could also score if left alone, but he never did so more than 14 times in any NHL season.
Draper was the most well-rounded player of the bunch. He became one of the Wings' most skilled penalty killers and clutch faceoff takers during his career. He also won a Selke Award as the league's best defensive forward in 2003-04, scoring a career-high 24 goals and 40 points. He became one of the steadying voices on a veteran team, assuming an alternate captain role in 2006-07. Draper's 161 goals and 364 points were the most of any of his linemates.
Draper had a little prankster in him too: he was known for the "shaving cream pie" when one of his teammates celebrated a birthday.
The Grind Line provided the Red Wings with some of their most historic moments. But after the lockout, their skills became less useful. One by one, the Grind Line became extinct.
The lockout ushered in a new era of NHL hockey that emphasized speed and skill. Players that made a career on brute force like McCarty struggled to find roles in the new league. Maltby didn't become extinct; rather, he was replaced. The emergence of youngster Justin Abdelkader in that role essentially made Maltby expendable and he retired before last season.
Draper lasted the longest because his skill set was the most suited to the post-lockout era. Though he was up there in the age department, the speed never left his 40-year-old legs. Faceoff and penalty killing skills were just as important, if not more important, with new rules against obstruction and interference after the lockout, giving Draper the best chance to succeed.
But he, like Maltby, eventually was replaced by a younger model. Darren Helm busted onto the scene during the 2008 playoffs by scoring two goals en route to Detroit's Stanley Cup title. The next year he scored four more playoff goals, which included the series winner against Chicago. Helm immediately became popular in Motown, holding the distinction as the only player to score five playoff goals before scoring a regular season goal.
With young bucks Helm, Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves playing the roles the Grind Line had performed for nearly a decade, Draper's playing time was cut drastically. He played just 47 games in 2010-11, the lowest total since his opening two seasons in Detroit. When general manager Ken Holland re-signed Miller and Eaves in the offseason, it was apparent Draper was slowly being phased out.
Exactly one week after his good friend Osgood called it a career, Draper did the same. All that remains of the 1997 championship squad is Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, both of whom could retire after next year. Draper's retirement marks not only the end of the Grind Line era, but the 1997-2008 Wings dynasty as well.
Though the players we've come to know and love slowly are retiring, the Red Wings have remained among the NHL elite despite the exodus of talent. Detroit has remained successful by using its veterans to grow and mold their younger players, like Draper and Maltby did with their own replacements. Players like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan gave way to the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and the Red Wings have kept on winning.
The Grind Line's era is now over, but their legacy will last forever.
In celebration, let us reflect on perhaps the most famous Grind Line moment: