10/25/2008 8:08 AM
Derek Meech capped a memorable rookie year by getting his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Tolstoy wrote “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time,” and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Derek Meech knows both well.
Meech, who spent three full seasons in Grand Rapids before playing his first game in Detroit, accepted the role of dutiful soldier during the 2007-08 season.
He was the consummate team player, sacrificing personal goals for the greater good.
Meech stayed in Detroit all of last season, even though the Wings didn’t have a spot for him to play. Concerned that they would lose him on waivers if they tried to send him to Grand Rapids, the Wings gave him the opportunity to apprentice under the tutelage of such veterans as Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Brian Rafalski.
He saw action in 32 games, half of them coming in a 16-game stretch from Jan. 30 to March 2 when the Wings’ top four defensemen were forced out of the lineup with injuries.
For the better part of the season, however, Meech’s game-time uniform was a suit and tie. He went long stretches where he didn’t play, dressing for three games in December, only two in January. But he never complained, not once.
Not that it was easy.
“It took a lot of mental toughness, that’s for sure,” Meech said. “My goal was to come to the rink with a great, positive attitude every day. I was paying my dues.”
He waited and waited. If he couldn’t crack the lineup, he would play games inside his head. Practices took on greater importance. They were an opportunity to improve, not only himself but also his teammates. He was willing to do whatever it took, even if it meant taking a bullet to his pride.
And when his time came, he made the most of it.
“I just tried to play as confident as I could and not worry about making mistakes – just do what I do,” Meech said. “I figured that I had nothing to lose.”
Meech played in the final regular season game on April 6, then watched as the Wings worked their way through the Stanley Cup playoffs. He continued to practice every day, making sure that he was ready if called into action.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “Everybody made me feel a part of everything, and that really helped. People don’t realize what kind of character we have in our dressing room. All the guys really helped me.”
Meech’s contributions did not go unnoticed.
He was named the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association’s Rookie of the Year. Previous winners of the award include current Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jiri Hudler.
He also will have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, even though he didn’t meet the NHL’s official criteria to be included.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland successfully petitioned the league to make an exception, which it has done for other players in the past. Meech’s 32 games were eight short of the 40 needed to qualify.
“He was with our team every day,” Holland explained to the Detroit Free Press. “He was ready, willing and able to play, but he didn't play because we didn't have a ton of injuries.”
It came as a complete surprise to Meech, who didn’t campaign, let alone ask, for the honor.
“I was ecstatic when I found out,” he said. “I had heard rumors that it might be happening, but nobody said anything to me. My uncle called me when he saw it on the Internet.”
For a kid growing up in Winnipeg, the thrill of seeing your name on the Cup is something that goes beyond words. He feels indebted to the Wings for the gesture.
“It just shows the class of this organization,” he said. “They recognized that I was here the whole year and put in my time with the team, and it gives me a really good feeling not only about last season but also my future in the organization.”
Meech earned a spot on the Wings’ 2008-09 roster with a strong training camp, competing with former Griffins teammates Kyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson.
“When you come up through the organization playing with the same guys, you obviously want to see your buddies do well, but when you’re on the ice, you’re playing for your livelihood,” he said.
Looking back on his years with the Griffins, Meech is grateful for the time he spent in Grand Rapids.
He especially remembers that first season when he was a 20-year-old rookie, playing in the AHL during the NHL lockout. “It was obviously a good league, so it enabled me to get in there and get the jitters out,” he said.
It accelerated his development, as well as that of his teammates. “You can see it now in our locker room in Detroit,” he said, pointing to the success of former Griffins Niklas Kronwall, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and Brett Lebda. “I loved the city and I loved playing there. It was a great experience.”
Now his focus is on Detroit, hoping to show that he is worthy of more playing time.
“To play consistent is the biggest thing,” he said. “I need to play the way I did last February when I was playing every day. I think I showed I can play at this level and it bodes well for my future.”
In the meantime, he is willing to be patient.
"I really want to be a Red Wing. I don’t want to go anywhere else. That’s the bottom line.”
Meech described his day with the Stanley Cup as nothing short of “awesome.”
It began with breakfast at the home of his aunt and uncle, Pat and Lee Meagher, where he “enjoyed” a breakfast of Fruit Loops and champagne out of hockey’s hallowed bowl. “A lethal combination,” Meech confirmed.
Meech then took the Cup to the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, in part as a tribute to his mother, who passed away from cancer when he was 11 years old, and also to put smiles on the faces of the sick kids there. “That was really special,” he said.
In the afternoon, Meech returned to the rink where he had played as a youngster. Hundreds of fans greeted his arrival at the Dakota Community Centre, where he signed autographs and posed for photos for two hours.
The evening included a gathering for his closest friends and family at a local restaurant. “We had a party for about 300, until three in the morning,” he said.
“The whole day took a lot of planning and I wasn’t really prepared for that. I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. But my stepbrother Kyle and my dad, along with my aunt and uncle, did a great job of helping me out and getting things going. It turned out great.”
Things went so well, in fact, that Meech said he wouldn’t mind doing it again. And again.