Maltby’s skills were such that he was often asked to disrupt the tactics of the most talented players on the opposing team. He was like a defensive specialist in basketball, shutting down the best scorer, all the while poking and pestering them until they grew so frustrated that they snapped.
Then, he had them right where he wanted them.
As part of Detroit’s famous “Grind Line” with Kris Draper and Darren McCarty (and at times, Joey Kocur), Maltby played a crucial role for the Red Wings in his 14 seasons in the red and white. This wasn’t lost on the fans at Joe Louis Arena, and as a result, Maltby became one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
In all of Detroit sports history, few athletes enjoyed the widespread allegiance that Matby did. And though his #18 may never hang from the rafters of The Joe alongside famous teammate Steve Yzerman, Maltby drew cheers for his gritty play. It wasn’t just that Maltby was a key member of four Detroit teams that hoisted the Stanley Cup, it was the way he did his job.
To Detroiters, it always seemed like Matlby was one of them, a working class stiff who lowered his shoulder and went to work, shift after shift, game after game, season after season. It was something he thoroughly enjoyed.
“I like the physical aspect of the game,” Maltby admitted. “Nobody likes to get hit, but I don’t mind it.”
The opposing team minded. Maltby, along with Draper, delivered the shots, buzzed around the best skaters on the other team, and created havoc. If it got out of control or someone took umbrage, McCarty or Kocur was there to enforce things. It was a perfect strategy that made the “Grind Line” household names and Cup champions.
“[That line] knows how to do their job with precision,” coach Scotty Bowman said. “I trust them as much as any players I’ve ever coached.”
Maltby didn’t score a lot of goals, never recording as many as 20 in a season, but that wasn’t his role. He was a fast skater, had a fantastic nose for the puck, and he could check as well as anyone ever has.
“I knew what my role was,” he said. “I was a pain in the ass.”
But Maltby had no problem finding the enemy net when it was most important. In the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs he scored five goals after netting just three during the entire regular season. That was the year the Wings finally ended their Cup drought, and the following year Maltby, Bowman, McCarty, Draper, and the rest of the gang won the title again.
And that was all Kirk Maltby wanted. Like Kirk Gibson and Bill Laimbeer, two other Detroit athletes who did whatever they had to do to win, Maltby was “team first” all the way. It said something that when Maltby announced his retirement in October of 2010, every member of the Detroit team was there for the press conference.
The only thing missing was an opposing #1 line for Maltby to frustrate, but he’d done his share of that during his great NHL career.