Confident Primeau missed out on Cup glory in Detroit

There were more than a few Red Wings fans in the 1990s who considered Keith Primeau a bit of a Mickey Mouse player.

Detroit traded center Keith Primeau to the Hartford Whalers in a deal that brought them Brendan Shanahan before the 1996-97 season. He later spent six seasons with the Flyers.

Most meant it in a good way – but not all. Anyway, it turns out the towering center collected anything related to the Walt Disney cartoon character. “I’ve got framed posters of Mickey, statues, watches, ties, socks, shirts,” he said at the time. “Because people know I collect, I get a lot of Mickey cards in the mail.”

At 6-5 and 235 pounds, Primeau perched on a pair of skates was an imposing sight. But just like it took him time to grow into his body, it took awhile for Primeau to mature as a professional. He spent 17 seasons in the NHL, the first six in Detroit, where fans regularly voiced their displeasure over what they considered an underachieving Wing.

Primeau, who hailed from the Toronto suburbs, had been a sensation in the Ontario Hockey League, leading the loop in goals and points his final year of juniors. The Wings nabbed him as the third overall pick in the 1990 entry draft. But his time in Detroit was spent as the third center, behind Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, and he often was put on the wing, a place he never felt truly comfortable.

Primeau could come across as awkward on the ice and moody and self-absorbed off it, but a lot of that could be attributed to his youth, his playing out of position, and his sense of perfectionism. It was a severe blow to the young man’s ego to discover that he would not be able to dominate in the NHL the way he had in the juniors. There were just far too many great players.

Nobody ever questioned Primeau’s intensity, however. His learning curve as a Wing peaked in the 1993-94 season, when he set personal highs in goals (31), points (73), and plus/minus (+34). He was a force the following season, scoring 42 points (fourth best on the club) in a strike-shortened schedule, as the Wings made it into the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were swept by New Jersey.

“Keith has a good attitude,” coach Scotty Bowman said at the start of the 1995-96 season. “Sometimes he’s pretty hard on himself. I think that hurt him when he first started. He has a lot of desire. Being hard on himself is a good asset as he matures, but boy – he gets possessed. He likes to do things right. He’s a tough loser, you know.”

When the Wings signed Igor Larionov, Primeau balked at becoming the fourth center. He held out until the club traded him, along with Paul Coffey and a first-round draft pick, to Hartford for Brendan Shanahan and Brian Glynn at the start of the 1996-97 season. Some thought Primeau had an over-inflated sense of his own worth, but he simply wanted to be the front-line stud he always thought he could be. The price for Primeau was missing out on the back-to-back Stanley Cups the Wings won immediately after he left.

Primeau went on to flourish in new surroundings. He captained teams in Carolina and Philadelphia and was selected for a couple of All-Star games, though he never won a Stanley Cup. A series of concussions forced him to reluctantly retire in 2006. Things might not have gone precisely the way Primeau had envisioned when he had broken into the NHL ranks as a raw, promising center. But all things considered, it had been no Mickey Mouse career, either.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.