By: Jeff Riger

As the Red Wings get ready to start their abbreviated 48 game season on January 19th, the team that Mike Babcock will put on the ice will look significantly different from last year. The band was not brought back; in fact every member that shared in winning a total of 4 cups with the team is no longer here. We knew that Nick Lidstrom was gone, and now we get word, and it should surprise nobody that Tomas Holmstrom will call it quits once Detroit officially starts training camp later this week.

Nobody is going to claim that Holmstrom is a Hall of Famer and nobody will yell and scream that his number 96 should hang from the rafters, but he was special and does deserve to be remembered fondly. Homer, along with Maltby, Draper, McCarty and some of the others that shared in so much success over the years should get some type of recognition; how could they not?

I fully expect one day, when a new arena is finally built, that there will be a ring of honor of sorts so Detroit can pay tribute to so many of the players that made this truly “Hockey Town.”

But this blog is not about that, instead it is about the legacy that a guy like Holmstrom leaves behind.

Holmstrom, flat out was one of the toughest players I have ever seen. Just because he was not, tackling, checking or even fighting that many guys doesn’t mean that he wasn’t tough. In fact I would contend that Homer was tougher than some of the enforcers that we have seen over the years!

Holmstrom came into the league lacking in some basic fundamental hockey skills. He couldn’t skate as fast as other guys and he could not keep up with the pace of the game. But that did not stop him from making a tremendous impact. Homer made his mark by willing to go in front of the opposing goalie and wreak as much havoc as possible. When he got hit, he never hit back putting his team in the box. He never whined about more playing time. He played on every line, plus the power play. He was the quintessential team player in every way.

Homer played 15 years in the league, played over a thousand games for the Wings and scored countless huge goals by deflecting shots from the blue line past the opposing goal tender. I think we will all miss Lidstrom to Holmstrom on the man advantage.

The guy simply did whatever it took to not just stay in the league but to win, and win a lot!

So in honor of Tomas Holmstrom, a guy that that deserves much more credit than he will ever get because he played with such greats. I felt the need to list my top 5 toughest Detroit athletes of my lifetime!

The following are in no particular order, because it’s hard to gage toughness, just know that these guys were all kinds of tough.

5. Chris Speilman

This one is a no-brainer. Speilman played though a ridiculous amount of injuries and despite that being the job description for a NFL player, it is still damn impressive.  With all the talk of RG III and if it was right or wrong for him to be left in that playoff game, with Speilman there would have not been a choice.  He would have been out there playing with a torn peck, one arm, on a bum knee and usually he was just as effective as a healthy version of himself.  Not only was Speilman one of the toughest I have ever seen but he also seemed to be one of the most mentally locked in as well.  I never had the chance to interview the man because he was before my time in the media, however people that have always talk about his intensity and of course toughness!

4. Isiah Thomas

Zeke was one of the greatest point guards of all time but hoops skills are only part of being a great guard, you also need leadership and toughness to get the job done.  Thomas embodied all of it!  He would give you and elbow or a push if needed and would do whatever it took to win a game.  Thomas played though numerous injuries and also took mass amounts of abuse from other players in the league.  Sure, everybody goes through what he did to an extent, but he handled it the best!  I remember Thomas scoring 16 points in the last minute and a half of a playoff game in ’84 against the Knicks.  In ’88 against the Lakers in the NBA Final, Zeke, on an obviously injured leg scored 25 in a single quarter, granted the Pistons lost that game and the series but without Thomas it wouldn’t have even been close.  People like to remember Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer as the original Bad Boys but Isiah was right there the entire way through.  If he could play, he would and most of the time he won!

3. Steve Yzerman

Yzerman was a lot like Thomas; they both won!  Like Thomas, Yzerman too was a fantastic leader and without him the Wings would have never broke their Cup drought.  Of course Yzerman played with other great players but he was the heart and soul of those championship teams.  Being a leader was not Yzerman’s only successful trait.  He was a great forward and he was tough as nails.  Part of the leadership thing is being able to walk the walk.  Yzerman played through ridiculous, injuries which seems to be what every NHL player is forced to deal with and he would not stop until he won a title or three.  I feel like I don’t even have to justify calling Speilman, Thomas and Yzerman tough because we all knew it.

2. Justin Verlander

I figured at # 2 on the list I would go a bit obscure.  When people think of Verlander, toughness might be the last thing that comes to mind however that shouldn’t be the case.  People saw all the toughness that anybody could ask for in 2011 when Verlander was the most mentally tough pitcher anybody has ever seen while ending so many Detroit losing skids.  Yes, his number are not fantastic in the playoffs and definitely not the World Series, but he displayed a ton of toughness in game 5 against the Oakland A’s last season.  Going the distance and holding that team to a shutout still floors in a must win game.  Being a pitcher takes a ton of toughness and Verlander is one of the toughest mentally tough men on the mound I can think of.  The fact that he is dating Kate Upton moved him up on this list as well.

1. Tomas Holmstrom

What are you surprised? Homer is the reason I decided to write this blog in the first place.  Holmstrom was not as good of a player at his sport as the four above him were on this list but he made up for it with his toughness.  Now that his career is over, maybe he can hunt down some of those d-men that constantly tormented him and settle the score!

You can’t do a list like this and not have some honorable mentions, so here goes…

Alex Avila

Nick Lidstrom

Brian Rafalski

Calvin Johnson

Kirk Gibson

Lance Parrish

and, Mateen Cleave (his MSU days) all need to be mentioned.

Ok, so who did I miss?


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