Everyone’s feeling really warm and fuzzy about Chris Osgood right now. As well they should. But don’t the confident predictions of his hall of fame selections (a few years down the road, as the popular thinking goes) seem just a little strange? I’m as big an Ozzie fan as the next Wings fan, but there are significant ebbs in the general tide of my favor for the longtime Wings goalie. For one, I was at the game when Ozzie lost it for us in Game 7 against the Sharks—the God Damned Sharks—in the ‘94 Playoffs. There are three key things to remember about that game: the Wings were first place that year, still hadn't won the Cup since the Eisenhower Administration, and I was ten. I’ll never forget that picture of Ozzie—just eleven years my senior—crying at his stall after the game. His reaction to the loss was even stronger than my own ten-year-old, ready-to-invest-all-faith-in-my-team revolt at the loss. That was both comforting, because I could relate to him, and disappointing, because I’m supposed to be in awe of these people, not relating to them.
This could have easily have become the defining moment in Osgood’s career, perfectly describing an athlete whose heart and intentions you never questioned, but who also never rose to the top ranks the game. There was never a reason to doubt Osgood as a person. Another childhood memory I have of him is being seated next to a table where he and Kris Draper were mowing down some burgers at the now-defunct Dunlevey’s. They were both totally cool and casual about coming by and making some people’s week (and they were dining at a pub). But at that time, Osgood still hadn’t been between the pipes for a cup win. I remember thinking, “those guys are great, now if they can only end this damn Cup drought.”
It would take the acquisition of Mike Vernon to make that happen. So Osgood watched the first playoffs that got his name on the Cup, further evidence that he was nothing but a very likable Tim Cheveldae. And that feeling wasn’t shook off by the fact that Osgood was in net as the Wings successfully defended that cup the next year. The thinking then was that he was, at best, a discount-bought cog that didn’t fail in an otherwise near-perfect machine. And letting in two goals from center ice didn’t do much to help him shake the “choker” label. The Wings won that cup despite Osgood, the cynics said. Others disagree—Ken Holland recently reminded us that Osgood served up a shutout of the Stars after letting in one of the center ice goals in overtime—but it was hard not to have some sympathy for the argument that Osgood was just a mediocre goalie who was lucky to be on the team of the decade.
Then Osgood entered his journeyman phase, performing more than adequately for the Islanders and Blues. At the end of this stint, Osgood returned to Detroit on a modest, $800,000 salary, and with a definite label attached to him: good veteran goalie. OK, we thought, he’s been good for long enough to say he’s, well, a pretty good goalie. But it was Osgood’s lasting power, and his ability to adjust, that gave him that final push up to the ranks we never thought he’d reach. First of all, the guy just stuck around long enough to outgrow the “choker” label, in addition to the discomfort opposing fans seemed able to thrust on him with the “OOO-ZZZZ-EEEE” chant that originated way back in ’94 (God I hate the Sharks, so glad they’ll never win a cup, like the Cubs of the NHL). Ozzie might still be average, but his maturity had come to allow him to get the most out of his talents.
But the biggest turn in Osgood’s career came during the lockout of 2005, when he took the opportunity to, at the age of 33, reinvent his game. Instead of remaining an old-fashioned on-your-feet reflex goalie, Ozzie decided to get with what the kids were doing and learn the butterfly. The results were undeniably impressive. Osgood always had great reflexes—he was fun to watch on a penalty shot—but now his game reached another level. He would go on to backstop the Wings to the 2008 cup—taking the job from what’s-his-name, the Czech guy with the sprawling and the amazingness—before leading them—as the most oft-mentioned Conn Smythe contender on the team—to game 7 of the finals the next year. Suddenly, Osgood was no longer the guy you wished could be as great and clutch as Vernon had been in ‘97. Suddenly, Osgood had passed that level. Suddenly, this guy was a bona fide Champion, and we got to watch him struggle to turn into one. His story was damn near perfect: good guy struggles, good guy doesn’t get respect, good guy wanders, good guy retools, good guy gets respect we always wanted to give him but couldn’t until 2008.
Now, compare that journey to that of Brandon Inge. Inge, like Osgood, comes off as a hard-working, very likable guy (I forgive him for resisting the catcher position a few years back, they needed to find a real catcher). He seems to love playing in Detroit and seems to fit into the 90s rock kind of feel that so many of Detroit’s favorite Hockey players fit into (think Chelios, McCarty, Draper, Osgood, Kid Rock). He’s been with the Tigers forever, through the worst and best of times. He also has, at his best, come off as extremely adequate. He was once dazzling in the field, hit for some power, and could hover around .250. You can live with that at third base, and you could live with that as the equivalent to what Osgood was, to many people, on that 1998 Stanley Cup team. But Inge failed to do what Osgood could; he failed to last, to muddle through as an adequate player, and he has thus far failed to revamp his game. Inge is like an alternate-reality baseball version of Osgood; he’s like if Osgood just shit his pants when he got to the Islanders and never recovered. Remember, before the fans grew to love him near the end of his career, Osgood was not immune to the vitriol spit at Inge on a regular basis today. Ozzie did, after all, dash our hopes in ‘94.
But Osgood recovered, and that says more about him than it does about Inge, because Inge’s story, it seems, is the more likely. How many players reinvent themselves more than a decade into their professional careers? Osgood’s transformation brings to mind Yzerman’s mid-career shift to a more defensive and complete style of play. Not bad company there. Yzerman’s in the Hall, by the way. If Osgood joins him, it will be by the skin of his teeth, because he was a Red Wing (it must be conceded) and by the virtue of both his lasting power and his ability to be reborn in the butterfly stance. Osgood’s such a good guy, the ultimate team player, that you can’t help but hope he makes it in. But don’t wait up for Inge to make it to Cooperstown, unless the Tigers acquire a minor league affiliate there.