When Kris Draper’s NHL career started with the Winnipeg Jets (the original ones) back in 1990 as a speedy forward with no real niche at all to crack the Jets lineup, he likely found it hard to imagine that after his struggles to earn playing time he’d be calling it quits 21 years later. After starting off inauspiciously in Winnipeg and ending as a four-time Stanley Cup champion in Detroit, that’s just what Draper is doing as he announced his retirement from the NHL.
For Kris Draper, that kind of story is the perfect way to sum up what’s been the ideal career for checking line player. He didn’t score many goals, just 161 over his career, but he helped prevent them and he won faceoffs with the best in the NHL while playing with the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings obtained Draper from the Jets in one of the oddest deals in NHL history in June of 1993. Draper was traded to Detroit from Winnipeg because the Jets didn’t have a place for him in their lineup and all the Wings had to do was give the Jets a $1.
Draper took that opportunity with the Wings and turned it into a brilliant career as one of the best checking centers in the league. Playing alongside the likes of Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty in the latter half of the 1990s they formed “The Grind Line” as Detroit’s top shutdown line. With an equal mix of grit, speed, and tenacity “The Grind Line” helped lead the Wings to Stanley Cup victories in 1997, 1998, and 2002. With the 90s teams being dominated by equal amounts of North American and Russian superstar talent, “The Grind Line” provided a change-up from what the likes of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, and Igor Larionov were all capable of doing.
Of course, Draper nearly saw his career put on hold in 1996 after receiving one of the dirtiest hits from behind from Colorado’s Claude Lemieux in the 1996 Western Conference finals that saw Draper’s face horrifically injured. Draper suffered a broken jaw, broken cheekbone, and had numerous stitches to his face following the hit and the moment instigated the Detroit-Colorado rivalry that burned white hot through the late 90s and early 2000s.
Draper’s presence in Detroit was a constant over 17 seasons with the Wings and his ability to be productive consistently over his career is what helped his longevity. Draper enjoyed his best statistical seasons from 2001-2007 hitting his stride at its best in his 30s as he scored double-digit goals for five straight seasons. For a guy on the third and fourth line, potting that many goals is a hell of an accomplishment; Even more so considering it wasn’t his job to pitch in that much offensively.
While Draper’s departure in Detroit is a sad one for Wings fans, they have the heir apparent to Draper already in their lineup in Darren Helm. Draper was always known for his tremendous speed and ability to sustain pressure on the forecheck. Helm is one of the league’s fastest skaters and his arrival in Detroit effectively chased Draper out of a job in recent seasons.
For Detroit, it’s the third retirement they’ve seen this summer as Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood each hung it up earlier this offseason. The effect of having three guys in their late 30s retiring helps bring the average age of the team down a bit, but losing that expertise and guiding veteran hands might prove to be difficult in the locker room. Draper’s leadership in particular leaves a bit of a void for the Wings, but with the number of other great veteran players they have their it shouldn’t affect things greatly.
While Draper isn’t someone who’s going to generate talk of joining the Hall of Fame, he’s leaving the game as a hero in Detroit and to Red Wings fans all over and as a guy hated in Colorado and Pittsburgh. You’ve done something right during your time in the league if you can leave the game beloved by the home fans and hated by rivals, and that’s just how Draper wants it.