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December 7, 2021

From Slap Shot to Dink Shot

NHL legend Kris Draper has been so completely taken by pickleball that he transformed his Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, backyard hockey rink into a pickleball court during the warmer months.

By Drew Wathey

Hoisting the Stanley Cup, perhaps the most revered trophy in all of sports, epitomizes the pinnacle of success in the National Hockey League. And, for Kris Draper, nicknamed “Nailz” for his energizing 20-year career—the majority of which was spent with the Detroit Red Wings during their glory years in Hockeytown—lifting Lord Stanley’s chalice was a lifelong dream whose reality far exceeded his expectations.


“Definitely the greatest feeling as a hockey player that I ever felt,” he says. “I remember in 1997 at Joe Louis Arena, Joe Kocur called my name and handed me the cup and said, ‘Go for a lap.’ I remember grabbing the cup from Joey, raising it over my head, and realizing this is the greatest moment in my hockey career. You dream about this as a kid all the time and when you play in juniors, that’s all you ever think about...the time when you can grab the Stanley Cup and skate around the rink with it. It was an unbelievable feeling.” Draper would realize that feeling three more times while wearing the Red Wings jersey.


Perhaps his finest season on the ice was in 2003-2004 when he scored 24 goals and tallied 40 points, helping Detroit win the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL team with the highest point total during the regular season. Not to be outdone, Draper’s defensive exploits were recognized as well. The West Hill, Ontario, native won the prestigious Frank J. Selke Trophy that same year, given to the sport’s top defensive forward.


The competitive fires that burned so deeply in Draper during his illustrious hockey career have now been transferred to the pickleball court, where even his opponents across the net wonder if he’s envisioning himself back on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. He plays hard, just as he did when he wore the #33 sweater for the Red Wings. Taking up pickleball, however, took some convincing.


“A friend of mine invited me over to his house to play pickleball,” Draper recalls. “At first, after hearing the name, I kind of chuckled and said ‘No thank you.’ Then, after a while, he talked me into it and convinced me it was a sport that I would really enjoy. I went over to his house, and we played for about two to three hours. I was hooked pretty quickly, and since then I try to play pickleball four to five times a week and I have been playing for just over a year. I’m totally into the sport of pickleball now and look forward to taking my game to the next level and beyond.”


So completely taken by the sport, Draper transformed his Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, backyard hockey rink into a pickleball court during the warmer months. “The rink in my backyard is outfitted with boards and a permanent cement floor,” he explains. “All summer long, I [was] playing in my backyard. Early in the summer, I bought a Tru-Shot net and got the lines painted and turned the rink into a full, functioning pickleball court. It was great because the whole family used it too. It was the summer of pickleball! I have also played at public courts in Royal Oak, and during the winter I also play indoors at the Sports Club of West Bloomfield. I can’t get enough of this sport.”


As a hockey player, Draper was often referred to as a “grinder”—a relentless player who never gives up on a puck and continues to skate hard every second of every shift—playing for legendary coach Scotty Bowman. Along with linemates Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby, they were known as the Grind Line and were an integral part of the Red Wings squad who elevated the stature of the team and were instrumental in winning those four Stanley Cups.


“The Grind Line was something I was so proud to be a part of,” Draper says. “We played a fast and physical style of hockey, and obviously we grinded it out game in and game out. I feel that is similar to the way I want to play in pickleball tournaments. We earned the name on the ice, and I haven’t yet earned a nickname on the pickleball court quite yet. I know my style of play will be a bit like my time on the ice, but of course I can only move around so far on the court—and crashing into the net is a no-no because I have to keep remembering to stay out of the kitchen when I’m not allowed in there.”


With most professional athletes, hand-eye coordination is one of the strongest attributes, and that rings true with Draper. Stickhandling the puck, especially through traffic in the defensive zone, is of paramount importance and many of those same qualities have transferred to his initial play in pickleball.


“I definitely see some similarities between the two sports,” Draper explains. “Playing in the NHL requires great hand-eye coordination and I think that is a skill that has enabled me to play fairly well early on with my pickleball game. One of the aspects of pickleball that I really enjoy is getting into battles at the net when the volleying gets fast, quick, and hard. That’s when my competitive juices really get flowing. When I get in a competitive atmosphere, I really want to win.”


The spirit of competition never leaves the mindset of former professional athletes. It’s part of their DNA, and improving his game on the pickleball court is a top priority for Draper—who played in the NHL until the age of 40, which is an incredible accomplishment in a sport as physically demanding as professional hockey. “Playing in the NHL until the age of 40 is something I am very proud of. I’m also very proud to have played over 1,000 games in the Detroit Red Wings uniform,” he adds. “And a big reason for that was that I was able to stay relatively healthy during my career. I have always had a passion for working out. With that combination, that allowed me to play 20 years in the NHL.”


Draper’s longevity in a Red Wings sweater is in line with the likes of Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and his good friend Steve Yzerman, now the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. “To be mentioned in the same sentence as those players is truly an honor,” he says. “I can’t believe, [thinking back to] when I was playing in my early junior days in the Ontario Hockey League, that one day I would be mentioned in the same breath as a Gordie Howe and a Stevie Yzerman. Well, it’s just an overwhelming feeling. One that I will always cherish.”


When not playing pickleball as much as he can, Draper is also the director of amateur scouting for the Detroit Red Wings and gets to work closely with Yzerman. “My role is to travel around the globe and look at top prospects that could be potential draft picks for the Red Wings,” he explains. “I am in charge of running our draft. It is great to have Stevie Y back in Detroit with the passion to make the Red Wings Stanley Cup contenders once again.”


Aside from Draper’s family and job with the Red Wings, his other passion clearly lies within the 20’ x 44’ dimensions of a pickleball court. Not exactly the size of blue line to blue line, but it suits the “grinder” just fine. And, as with any high-achieving athlete, Draper—who plays with the Engage Maverick paddle—is continually working at his game, some aspects of which can be frustrating for the 50-year-old player: “I would say [it’s] when I don’t hit the third shot drop. I know how important that shot is to get myself and my partner to the net, and when I don’t hit a good one, it is aggravating.”


He thrives on challenges and looks forward to the days when he’s playing in tournaments to see where he stacks up against other players. Draper truly enjoys the competitive aspects of the sport, as he has met a lot of great people within the local pickleball community.


“As of right now, I have really enjoyed playing the game,” he says. “I have had the opportunity to play with outstanding players here in Michigan, but I would like to try my skills at a tournament in the near future to see where my game is at. I am so looking forward to that challenge. Being a former professional athlete, we hold ourselves to a high standard and I always want to improve my game. I enjoy working on areas of my game that I feel I need to get better at, and I also enjoy watching the top players in the world.”


Challenges are what made Kris Draper a great hockey player, one of Detroit’s favorite sons and a Red Wings legend who’s proud of the Stanley Cup banners he helped to get hung in Joe Louis Arena. Now his focus is on the sport of pickleball, and while his “grinding” style may not play quite as well on the court as it did on the ice, there’s no doubt “Nailz” will find a way to make his game and style of play successful as he moves forward in the sport of pickleball.  •



Drew Wathey is a published novelist and first-ever Director of Communications for the PGA TOUR’s Phoenix Open. Wathey is owner of SportsLink, a home-based sports  public relations and marketing company. His family lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


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