Gritty Maltby’s long grind comes to an end

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Kirk Maltby never scored more than 14 goals during his 16 NHL seasons, but his worth went far beyond any offensive stats

If one moment can sum up a 16-season NHL career, for Kirk Maltby(notes), this is it: Game 5, Western Conference semifinals, 2002. The Detroit Red Wings were trying to eliminate the St. Louis Blues. Maltby was killing a penalty.

Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, who had one of the most fearsome slap shots in hockey, broke Maltby’s stick with a blast from the point. But Maltby didn’t give up. He positioned himself like a goalie, crouched, hands out. He blocked another shot. And another. Joe Louis Arena roared, the fans chanting his name as if he were a superstar scorer: “MALT-BY! MALT-BY!”

“I think I was on the ice with him, and I was chanting his name, too,” recalled Wings center Kris Draper(notes). “He’d do anything to help the team win. That’s why you miss a guy like that.”

Maltby retired on Tuesday, and the game lost more than just another grinder. It lost another member of the Grind Line, Detroit’s beloved blue-collar checking unit, and it lost a type of guy that was already rare and is becoming even rarer in the salary cap era: a role player who spends a long time with one team.

“I’d just like to think I was a guy who came, worked hard – whether practice or the game – and come game-time all I wanted to do was win and did what I had to do to help my team,” Maltby said in a farewell news conference.

The Wings won that Game 5 against the Blues, 4-0. Maltby shrugged off the fans’ chants much the way he handled his retirement. (“I was just out there trying to do my job,” he said then. “The equipment is pretty good these days.”) But the Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s no coincidence.

Consider this: Only five players had their names engraved on the Cup each of the last four times the Wings won it – 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. That group does not include legendary captain Steve Yzerman. It does not include superstars like Sergei Fedorov(notes) and Brendan Shanahan(notes). Its only regal member is Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), a six-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. The other four are role players: Tomas Holmstrom(notes), whose specialty is screening goalies on the power play, and the Grind Line guys – Maltby, Draper and Darren McCarty(notes). (And Holmstrom almost shouldn’t count. He appeared in only one playoff game in 1997.)

The Grind Line had a special place in the heart of Detroit and the game of hockey. Anyone who had worked at an auto plant or hustled in a cold rink could appreciate the job done by Maltby, Draper and McCarty – work that was especially important at the most important time.

“If you’re going to win come playoff time, you need skill,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said in the news conference. “But you also need people who want to go to the trenches and do the dirty work.”

Maltby literally got his hands dirty. It seemed he would wear the same nasty, discolored gloves all season, which would make his face washes all the more effective. Maltby was a master agitator, spraying ice shavings into goalies’ faces, getting into it with opponents, drawing punches and penalties.

“I was a pain in the ass,” Maltby said. “But I didn’t mind giving those shots. I know I took my share of shots, too. I didn’t mind that. I liked that. It’s kind of the game within the game.”

But don’t be fooled. Just because Maltby accepted and excelled in his role didn’t mean he couldn’t play the actual game. He could hit, skate and score. He had 50 goals and 91 points his last year in junior, and even though he never had more than 14 goals or 37 points in an NHL season, he chipped in key goals at playoff time.

“The beauty of that line was that they had skill,” Holland said. “When they got the puck, they hung onto the puck and made it difficult for the other team to get their hands on the puck. Usually, a checking line, when they check, they throw the puck away.”

Maltby spent his first two-plus NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. But after the Wings acquired him during the 1995-96 season, he spent the rest of his career in Detroit – well over a decade. That was unusual for any era, but this was a unique situation.

Holland valued the contributions of the Grind Line. He allowed McCarty to earn a second chance in 2007-08 and ’08-09, even though McCarty had gone through personal and professional problems after leaving the Wings after the ’03-04 season. He has kept Draper as a depth player and mentor, even though Draper is 39 and far from the form that won him the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in 2004, knowing Draper took less money to stay in Detroit when he was his most marketable. He gave Maltby one last chance at the NHL this season at age 37, signing him to a two-way contract, and when Maltby decided not to accept a demotion to the minors to wait for a call-up, he gave him a job in the organization as a scout.

“For role players or grinders or whatever you want to say,” Draper said, “to be able to stay in a city as long as both of us have is something that we really appreciate, we know is very special, very rare.”

How often will we see this in the future? Teams might sign an Alex Ovechkin(notes), an Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) or even a Marc Savard(notes) to a long-term contract. But a Kirk Maltby? That’s the type of guy most easily replaced by a younger, cheaper player. It’s the natural cycle of life – and it happened here, too – but now it will be only accelerated.

The decline of the Grind Line has been a long time coming. Joe Kocur, who actually preceded McCarty on the unit and was on the original Grind Line T-shirts, retired after the 1998-99 season. McCarty retired after the 2008-09 season. Now it’s Maltby’s turn, and Draper said: “My day is coming, too.”

Justin Abdelkader(notes) and Darren Helm(notes), two 23-year-olds, are Detroit’s next generation of grinders. They should be only so lucky to be like Maltby, to hear their names chanted after a gutsy play at the Joe, to finish with four Stanley Cup rings.

“He’s a gamer,” Draper said. “He’s a guy that when you’re in the playoffs and the game’s on the line, you want him on your bench, on your side.”