DETROIT -- I must admit, I was a little worried when the Detroit Red Wings traded Joey Kocur a few weeks ago. After all, hockey is a tough sport. And in giving up Kocur, the Wings were giving up one of the toughest guys around.
I don't want to say Joey spent a lot of time punching opponents. I will say I once looked at him and said, "Hey, nice leather gloves."
"Those are my hands," he said.
You trade a guy like that, you trade away a lot. Sure, you have Bob Probert -- who, if you ask me, could probably beat both Foreman and Holyfield -- but Probert can't travel to games out of the country. And what happens then? I was concerned that, without Kocur, our traditionally grinding hockey team might be seen as . . . timid.
Not anymore. I just returned from a visit to the Red Wings' locker room. There I met three of the newest players, Dennis Vial, Brad Marsh and Marc Potvin, all acquired within the last seven weeks.
Ladies and gentlemen, I don't think toughness is going to be a problem.
Take Potvin. He recently arrived from the minor leagues. And boy, were they glad to see him go. Potvin apparently set a record for fights down there, skate, punch, skate, punch -- "It's a good way to get playing time," he admitted -- but it got so that every time he took the ice, someone wanted to challenge him, as if he were Jesse James walking into a saloon.
"There was this one guy from Newmarket," Potvin told me Tuesday, "he kept bugging me to fight. 'Come on. Come on,' he said. I didn't want to fight him. But he kept bugging me. So finally, I dropped my gloves."
"I broke his jaw and cheekbone."
See what I mean?
And then we have Dennis Vial. Whoo. You gotta like this guy, For one thing, he looks a lot like his nickname, "Dancing Bear," with narrow eyes, short-cropped hair and the body of a baby grizzly. He, too, has had his share of fights, considering he is only 21.
But this is not what makes him impressive.
What makes him impressive is something he did last year in a steakhouse in Peoria, Ill. His friends challenged him to eat the biggest steak they had.
"It was a 48-ouncer, about this big," Vial recalled, making his hands the size of a hubcap, "The restaurant had this deal: If you can finish it, you don't have to pay for it."
He smiled at me.
"I like to eat," he said.
"So the steak came, and I figured, as long as I'm eating it, I might as well find out what the house record is for speed. They told me the fastest anyone had eaten a steak that size, in that restaurant -- with a salad and potato -- was 34 minutes."
"How fast did you eat it?"
Now. For the math whizzes out there, that's nearly three ounces of steak per minute -- chewed and swallowed -- not to mention the salad and potato. And you have to allow for breathing time.
And believe it or not, Vial came back the next week and ordered another steak. The following morning, he had stomach pains so bad, he had to crawl to the doctor.
"He said I had a protein build-up that was blocking my system."
Gee, I find that hard to believe.
"He suggested I eat some fiber."
"I went to the grocery store, bought a load of bran cereal and bran muffins, and I ate those. Felt better, too."
Like I said, why worry?
Wait. I didn't tell you about Brad Marsh, the defenseman. He's one of those guys that everyone calls "too slow, too unskilled' -- so naturally, he's been in the NHL for 13 years. At age 32, he has as many goals in his career as Stevie Yzerman gets in a month. But he does do one thing that neither Yzerman nor many others do these days -- he plays without a helmet.
And not because he's showing off.
"I grew up watching guys play without helmets," he said Tuesday. "I just always felt that's the way hockey should be."
This is very noble. It is also dangerous. Marsh learned that the very first game he played sans plastic, when he took a stick to the side of his head. And then there was the night in Philadelphia when he crashed headfirst into the boards and was knocked unconscious.
They carried him from the ice.
Yet he still goes without a helmet. "There is no sane reason for it," he admitted. "It's just me."
And that's what we want to hear. Who cares if it's sane? I mean, let's face it. How sane is it to play a game in which a slam into a wall is perfectly legal?
So, anyhow, all of this makes me feel much better about the Wings' playoff chances -- with a hard head, a hard fist and hard stomach in the lineup. True, they might not score a lot of goals. But you never know. . . .
"The other day, in practice," Vial said, "Jimmy Carson skated up behind me. He said, 'If you make the next shot past Glen Hanlon, I'll buy you another 48-ounce steak.' "
Vial aimed. He swung. Score!
Don't forget the bran muffins.