BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — Training camp is over in Traverse City, but it's just starting for Aaron Downey.
The rough-and-tumble forward who's attempting a comeback with the Detroit Red Wings will finally get to hit people for real once the exhibition season starts tonight at Pittsburgh.
"Downey's camp starts now," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after Tuesday's camp-closing Red & White game. "He wasn't going to be running around here against our guys, but I'm sure he'll be good against Pittsburgh."
Downey's White team lost the Red & White Game 5-3, although the slimmed-down winger looked solid, even though he wasn't able to show off his best attributes.
"You can't really hit your teammates," Downey said. "You can rub 'em a little bit, but you can't finish guys. It's like the Russian Red Army out there. It's just nice to be able to play at that level and know you can keep up. I felt like I had good jump."
Downey, 36, slimmed to the 212-215 range, down from his playing weight of 230 in his last stint with the Red Wings.
"I had always had my mind on doing it," Downey said. "I just had to take a year off to heal up the old body and maybe slim down a bit, get a little quicker. It's tough to do that in two months in the off-season. I figured if I played last year, it would've been in the American Hockey League only, and I would have beat the body up more.
"(I want) a contract, to get back up here again. In '07-08, we won the Stanley Cup. I just have to take it one day at a time, one shift at a time. (Tuesday) was a good day."
In 2007-08, Downey also came to camp as a longshot — and he's hoping lightning strikes twice.
Downey racked up 116 penalty minutes in 56 games in 2007-08, providing a physical presence the Red Wings sorely needed. He spent most of the 2008-09 playing in Grand Rapids, seeing action in a Wings sweater for only four games. He did have two points and seven penalty minutes in those contests, including one of his eight NHL goals in 243 games.
But he's not there to score. He's there to do just what he did in 2007-08, when he came to the defense of Nicklas Lidstrom and twice fought Ian Laperrière, who had injured Lidstrom earlier in a game. That season, he had as many fighting majors as the Red Wings
"So I wanted to see what I can do this year," Downey said. "I've got nothing to lose at this point. I still love the game and I feel like I can contribute here. That's why I came back."
He spent the year off in Arizona and was hoping to catch on with the Phoenix Coyotes, but that team's recent turmoil pushed Downey to ask Detroit general manager Ken Holland for another chance.
Detroit's only other real option for an enforcer is Todd Bertuzzi.
"I've got jump — and that's a good thing," Downey said. "If I don't have any jump, I might as well go home."
Downey played a regular shift in the Red & White game, which the Red team won 5-3.
The game began fairly slowly, with both sides a little reluctant to play physically or grind it out in the corners, but that soon changed once goals started going on the board.
The crowd also took awhile to fully get into the contest, as the game's first several goals were by lesser-known camp players.
But by the time Red Wings veteran Dan Cleary snapped a wrister past Thomas McCollum with 11:48 left in the second 30-minute half, the capacity crowd was in full swing. Clear'y goal — assisted by Travis Ehrhardt and Logan Pyett — gave Red a 3-2 lead.
Jakub Kindl, who it appears will start the season in Detroit as an extra defenseman, tied the game at 3-3 off Kirk Maltby's second assist of the game before Henrik Zetterberg snatched up a rebound, skated between the circles and fired a wrister through a crowd in front of the net for a 4-3 Red lead. Doug Janik and Pavel Datsyuk assisted.
Darren Helm pickpocketed Jonathan Ericsson in front of the net to seal the game with 1:23 remaining.
Brad Smith started off the scoring at 16:10 of the first half for the Red team, but Jan Mursak evened it up at 7:22 with assists from Brad Stuart and Maltby. Jordan Owens chopped the puck in the net to finish off a nice rush and give Red a 2-1 lead almost midway through the second half.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the pace and the execution," Babcock said.
Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood each gave up one goal in the first half, while Joey McDonald gave up four in the second half and McCollum two.
With training camp done, now it's time to see how well the four days settle in with players.
"We're going to found out," Babcock said. "I'll know after the first 20 games if we got some details established. That to me is what it's all about: Work ethic and details. Training camp for me is just getting started. It ends with our last exhibition in Toronto, so we've got a ways to go."
NOTES: Mike and Marian Ilitch visited Red Wings camp on Sunday, the first time the team's owners have ever come to camp. ... Kris Draper (groin) did not play in the game. ... Osgood will start tonight's exhibition with Pittsburgh. ... The Wings didn't do their normal shootout after the Red & White game.