“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
… Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son.”
-- from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”
Andreas Lilja rarely has to handle even one question after a hockey game, let alone 100.
Stay-at-home defensemen aren’t that helpful to reporters who are looking for comments on a particular goal or a pass turned around an outcome.
But on Sunday afternoon, Andreas Lilja was the most sought-out player in the Detroit locker room.
For most of yesterday’s Game 5 of the Western Conference final, it looked as though Lilja would be questioned on the goal that he scored to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead. He fired a shot that beat Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Lilja pumped his arms and smiled, knowing that he hadn’t scored in more than 12 months time and that his teammates would surely ride the heck out of him on that night’s plane ride to Southern California – the sort of teasing of which a defensive defenseman dreams.
That goal gave the Red Wings an advantage that they held until the final minute of regulation time when the Ducks scored after pulling their goalie.
Then 12 minutes into overtime, Lilja came around behind the Detroit net with the puck pursued by a Duck. When he couldn’t get free of Andy McDonald, Lilja tried to toss the puck over to the outside away from harm. But his pass was a misfire and when Lilja and McDonald skated this way, Teemu Selanne skated that way with the puck.
Last man back can’t lose the puck. It’s a basic rule of hockey.
Lilja said after the game that all he saw when he looked back was the puck going in the net. It happens that fast.
Lilja said a lot of things after Sunday’s disappointment and I’m here to tell you that is something worthy of note this morning.
You’re going to read and hear a lot of commentary about the gaffe made by Lilja and how it cost the Red Wings.
Of course it did. You don’t need to be told that.
What I saw after Sunday’s game, however, impressed me just as much as the outcome of the game depressed me.
Andreas Lilja sat on the small stool at his locker and answered every reporter, looked into every bright camera light without squinting, dealt with every question (although they were mostly the same question asked over and over and over).
And that is not easy. Nor was it necessary.
Of the 20 Red Wings who played yesterday’s game, about six or seven were available for questions after the game. Only two or three were still around 15 minutes after the game. That’s the way it is after every game, regular season or playoff.
Lilja could easily have made his way to the back areas where players work out after games and avoided reliving a game that was once the best of his playoff career, but turned into the worst.
But Lilja didn’t hide.
“It happens,” said Lilja of his turnover. “It’s not supposed to happen, but it happens.”
What’s not supposed to happen is that dreams are not supposed to turn into nightmares that fast.
The questions eventually went away with the reporters and Lilja was left alone on his locker stool. He looked down and silently unwrapped the brace that he wears on his left knee during every game.
No brace. No crutch. No alibi.
Hockey players make mistakes. It happens.
Men rarely handle them as well as Andreas Lilja did Sunday.