Archive for Out of Bounds
It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.
A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.
As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.
Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.
“You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.
Ilitch seemed unaware.
“It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.
His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”
I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.
In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.
The announcement made little fanfare.
Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.
Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.
“As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”
Devellano made good on his promise.
So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.
Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.
It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.
Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.
In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.
Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.
Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.
But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.
The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.
The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.
Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.
Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.
Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.
It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.
Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.
But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.
The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.
Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.
It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.
Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.
Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.
If they wanted to put a punter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame long before now, I have one for you.
Of course, they didn’t call Sammy Baugh “Slingin’ Sammy” because of his foot.
Baugh isn’t famously known as “Bootin’ Sammy.” I get it.
But Baugh, the Washington Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback/defensive back (he intercepted 31 passes) from 1937-51, did triple duty from 1939-47, functioning as the team’s punter as well. And his numbers booting the ball for the Skins are eye-popping.
Baugh’s career punting average was 45.1 yards per kick, and Sammy wasn’t kicking the harder, lighter, more tightly-sewn pigskin that is used in the more modern era. The footballs Baugh punted were sort of like kicking sacks of flour.
In 1940, Baugh punted 35 times to the tune of a 51.4 yard average.
In Baugh’s day, “hang time” referred to public executions. But the grainy film footage that still exists shows Baugh’s kicks weren’t just long, they were high and majestic.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its 2014 class over the weekend, and one of the new members is Ray Guy.
You could hear the snickers from Maine to California when the Oakland Raiders made Guy, from Southern Mississippi, their first round pick (23rd overall) in the 1973 draft.
To that point, no NFL team had selected a pure punter in the first round. In fact, punters weren’t picked in the second, third, or fourth rounds all that much, either.
There were a few reasons for this.
One, Guy came along at a time when NFL rosters began to expand, giving teams the luxury of having foot specialists of sorts on board. In the days of the 40-man roster, anyone who could rear a leg back and boot a ball doubled as punter. Quarterbacks punted. Linebackers punted. Defensive backs punted (as Lem Barney did for the Lions in his first two years in the league, and as Yale Lary did before Barney). Placekickers punted.
Two, the strategy of playing for field position was a foreign concept before Ray Guy started booming footballs into the sky.
Three, the concept of hang time was also mostly disregarded until teams saw that when Guy punted, the Raiders coverage team arrived at the same time as the ball did into the return man’s hands.
Guy’s leg, when fully extended after a boot, turned his body into the letter “E” with the top and bottom missing.
Guy punted, and the football would stay in the air forever. You could watch Guy catch the snap, and you could then go to the bathroom, and come out in time to see the return.
Around the time Guy entered the league, another term started cropping up. It was called the “coffin corner,” and it referred to punts that would be buried deep in the opponents’ zone, out of bounds, usually inside the ten yard line.
Guy was a master of the coffin corner kick as well.
But it was the hang time, those often five-plus seconds that the football was in the air, that made Guy a consistent Pro Bowl and All-Pro punter.
Guy punted. That’s all he did. He didn’t place kick. He didn’t hold. He wasn’t the Raiders’ backup quarterback.
But Guy was a weapon for the Raiders, and leave it to maverick owner Al Davis to envision how valuable a leg like Guy’s could be to his team’s well-being.
Guy changed field position to the Raiders’ advantage on a consistent basis. His punting wasn’t just long and high, it was precise and strategic. Guy was like the champion golfer who could back spin an approach shot onto the green from 175 yards out of the rough, over trees and in front of the bunkers, and have it land six feet from the pin.
With Guy as their punter, the Raiders weren’t playing football on a gridiron like the other teams; they were playing on a battlefield and Guy’s kicks were like grenades landing in the opponents’ soft underbelly.
But despite Guy’s success, no other NFL team could pull the trigger on drafting a punter in the first round.
But again, here’s where Guy’s influence comes into play.
Thanks to Guy, the Godfather of Punting, the game of football from head to, um, toe, began grooming punting specialists, starting at the high school level. The result was that the lot of pure punters increased exponentially, so there wasn’t as much urgency to grab a punter in the early rounds of the draft.
At the 1973 draft, Raiders owner Davis had a decision to make.
Guy was available, but so was a brute of a guard out of Michigan State named Joe DeLamielleure. And though the Raiders prided themselves on many things, a stellar offensive line was high on the list.
DeLamielleure would go on to a Hall of Fame career, but even he acknowledged that Davis made the right choice in selecting Guy over the guard from MSU.
“Mr. Davis, you are a smart man,” DeLamielleure said he told Davis in 1976 at the Pro Bowl in New Orleans. “I’ve never seen a right guard win a game, but I’ve seen Ray Guy win them. You made the right choice.”
When news broke early this year that Guy would be part of the Hall’s Class of 2014, a couple members of his football fraternity got an idea.
Former NFL punters Greg Coleman and Bryan Barker burned up the phone lines, inviting as many fellow punters as they could to induction weekend at Canton, Ohio.
The result was a gathering of 18 punters whose careers spanned nearly five decades.
“He put us on the map,” Coleman said of Guy. “There weren’t too many punters who had a five-second hang time in the league.”
Because of Guy, the TV networks started superimposing hang times on the screen on Sundays. Punters started being graded on how many seconds the football was in the air and where the ball landed, in addition to sheer length of kick.
It’s not bluster to say that Ray Guy, in his way, changed the game of football.
Fittingly, he has three Super Bowl rings for his work, to boot (sorry).
It was Guy’s first pro coach, John Madden, who perhaps summed it up best, from the Raiders perspective. He spoke of Guy before the enshrinement on Saturday.
“When we got Ray Guy, fourth down wasn’t as bad as it used to be.”
The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.
The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.
In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.
Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.
But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.
Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.
Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.
The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.
While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.
But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.
The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.
It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.
Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.
Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.
The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.
Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.
“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.
“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.
“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”
The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.
The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.
But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.
Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.
Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.
Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.
Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.
But that’s all ancient history now, right?
Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.
He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.
I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.
It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.
“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.
The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.
The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.
During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”
The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.
There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.
The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.
But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.
Chemistry is the worst word in sports.
It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.
Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.
Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.
It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.
Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.
This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.
The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.
Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.
So why can’t we just let him play football?
There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.
Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?
You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.
Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.
There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.
Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.
At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.
Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.
Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.
Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.
Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.
The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.
I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.
I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.
Now, back to Suh.
The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.
They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.
So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.
He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.
He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.
But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.
Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.
He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.
The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.
There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.
He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.
Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.
But that’s OK.
One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.
Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.
Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?
Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?
If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.
I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.
The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.
Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.
Stan Van Gundy was less than 30 seconds into his first press conference as the Pistons’ coach and director of basketball operations, and his voice was already hoarse.
But that’s par for the course. Basketball coaches always sound like they’ve been screaming bloody murder for days on end.
Listening to Van Gundy speak today at the Palace, two things came to mind. One was, get that guy a Sucrets. The other, was that Detroit is going to love this guy.
Van Gundy fits perfectly in what the Detroit sports fans crave in their coaches.
They like the fiery, no-nonsense type. The athletes can be quiet leaders of few words—Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Nicklas Lidstrom and Calvin Johnson come to mind—but the coaches need to be engaged and have some hothead in them.
Based on that description alone, Van Gundy will win over many a fan, initially.
Van Gundy spoke with urgency, energy and fire, and if any franchise in this town needs that in its leader, it’s the Pistons.
The fan base is dwindling. Worse, they’re flat-out bored and disinterested.
There’s nothing boring about Van Gundy. Maybe the most exciting part about him is that he has never had a losing record as a coach. His .641 winning percentage ranks in the top five of coaches with at least 500 NBA games under their belt.
In the late-1980s, when the Lions were again stumbling and bumbling through the NFL, owner Bill Ford levied a most damning indictment against his football team.
“We’re losing,” Ford said as he made his way past the media in the press box after yet another loss, “but worse than that, we’re boring.”
Not long after uttering those words, Ford gave coach Darryl Rogers an overdue ziggy.
The Pistons have been losing for five years, and they’ve been boring—unless you count player revolts, a flavor-of-the-month coaching plan and the death of the owner and subsequent sale as exciting stuff.
No one comes to the games anymore, but that’s nothing new. Detroit has always been a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. Unlike its three brethren in football, baseball and hockey, the Pistons don’t get love unless they’re winning. It’s been that way ever since the team moved here from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.
When you consider that the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the hemorrhaging of fans in five years from an already shaky base is significant.
Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.
It would be that way if Van Gundy was only coaching, or if he was only in the front office. There isn’t any run away-and-hide in him.
That was proven when Van Gundy went shoulder to stomach with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The coach lost, but he didn’t go down without a fight—nor without some hard truths about the All-Star center.
Howard, by the way, now counts himself as a Van Gundy fan, after further review.
This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.
This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”
But that’s being a little unfair, too.
The Pistons needed a high profile hire at either coach or GM in the wake of the non-renewal of former president Joe Dumars’ contract last month. They ended up getting a high profile guy at both jobs, so hats off to Tom Gores.
That’s right, I said it. As someone who has been less than kind and thrilled with the Pistons owner, I must admit that he hit a home run here.
I was concerned that Gores, who I viewed as a clown of an owner, wouldn’t have the acumen to hire the right people after Dumars’ departure.
I was wrong.
Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.
He can coach, big time.
This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.
The dual hat thing even has some national people who don’t follow or cover the Pistons wringing their hands.
But I would ask them, how much worse can it get?
I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.
This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.
Millen, the atrocity of a president with the Lions, not only had zero GM experience, he had never coached. So he didn’t have an aura about him—a presence that would automatically attract good football people without any coercion or major sell jobs.
Van Gundy, on the other hand, will have little trouble, I believe, in attracting quality basketball people to Detroit—and that simply wasn’t possible under the previous administration, anymore. Dumars was too tarnished by the time his contract ran out.
So this won’t be Van Gundy doing two jobs. It will be Van Gundy coaching—and he’ll attract quality assistants as well—and a presumably sharp front office staff being the new man’s eyes and ears on a day-to-day basis.
This won’t be Millen, who hoarded power and who tried to take on too much by himself. The most egregious example was hiring a rookie head coach, which made things worse.
People already seem to have this misconception that Van Gundy will conduct practice in the morning, run upstairs to change from sweats to a suit in the afternoon to be the front office guy, and then race down to the floor to coach that night’s game, skipping lunch and dinner.
It won’t work that way, folks.
There’ll be quality (assumption) people in the offices, doing the grunt work, and reporting to Van Gundy at the end of the day.
It’s very doable. Frankly, I wonder why more NBA teams don’t try this model, which has been very effective in San Antonio and Miami, as Van Gundy pointed out in Thursday’s presser.
I’ll go you one further and say that more teams will go this route before too long.
Through it all, Pistons fans will enjoy Van Gundy’s blue-collar, no-nonsense manner of coaching and they’ll enjoy seeing the top dog in the front office not shying away from the cameras and microphones.
Dave Dombrowski with the Tigers, Kenny Holland with the Red Wings and even Marty Mayhew with the Lions aren’t afraid to show their faces on a regular basis.
You can now add Stan Van Gundy to that group.
This is all well and good, but of course there is a roster that needs some overhauling. There is a losing culture that needs to be discarded. There is a certain restricted free agent big man who needs to be addressed.
But at least we won’t be looking under rocks to find the man who is making the decisions.
Someday it won’t be big news that an NFL team drafted an openly gay college player.
Someday that player’s name won’t be prefaced with a designation of sexual orientation, just like we no longer use the word “Negro” to describe black players, like the newspapers and magazines did some 50 years ago.
Someday the drafting team won’t have to go out of its way to say how honored it is to be selecting the openly gay player.
How far we are from that “someday” is anyone’s guess. Mine is that we’re not on the precipice.
But that’s OK. Any journey, no matter how long, needs that first step.
The St. Louis Rams selected Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft—the 249th overall pick.
This isn’t quite Jackie Robinson jogging onto the field, along with eight white guys, back in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it’s not insignificant.
The key word is “openly.”
You’d have to be ridiculously naïve to think that Sam, should he make the Rams (which he almost certainly will), is the lone ranger when it comes to gay NFL players today.
And you’d have to be almost as naïve to think that those gay players’ sexual orientation is unknown to all of their teammates.
There are certainly NFL players in 2014 who know damn well that they are lining up with and against gay men.
But Sam is the first to make no bones about it. He came out on ESPN just prior to the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.
There is one comparison to Robinson, however.
Michael Sam can play football. Like Robinson, Sam is hardly a benchwarmer.
Sam was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for the Tigers. He was credited with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
So barring injury or something catastrophic, Sam will indeed become the NFL’s first openly gay player. He may even start for the Rams—if not right away, then soon.
This isn’t a huge day for just the LGBT community—it’s huge day, period.
This is America, where we pride ourselves on our diversity.
But until today in pro sports, that diversity has never really included sexual orientation.
Sam isn’t just the first openly gay man to be drafted into the NFL, he’s the first to be drafted into any of the four major sports.
MLB recently celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, and while we should never forget Robinson’s courage and significance in history, it does seem kind of silly that we once made such a big deal about a black guy taking the field in a big league game.
Someday we won’t make such a big deal about a gay man or woman suiting up in a major sports league contest.
But that day, clearly, is not today.
I hope Michael Sam knows what he’s up against, and I’m sure he does. If he doesn’t, that would be naivety to the max.
But let’s keep things in perspective.
No matter what Sam may go through, from his first day at training camp to the first scrimmage play in which he assumes the three-point stance, it will pale in comparison to what Jackie Robinson endured.
The fans are a million miles away in an NFL stadium, compared to big league baseball games, where you can almost reach out and touch the guy in the on-deck circle.
Sam won’t even hear much of the vile, disgusting words that are sure to be hurled his way.
Robinson’s appearance in big league games was fought tooth and nail by team owners and players. It wasn’t just the fans who spewed their hate. Some players in 1947 initially refused to take the field in any game in which Robinson was scheduled to play.
And, of course, there were the death threats.
Michael Sam will get some static, for sure. But I doubt that the brotherhood of NFL players will be anything more than a tiny source of that static. The owners, I believe, won’t provide any resistance. They know better.
What Sam will have to deal with that Robinson didn’t, is the venom from social media.
His Twitter account exploded after the Rams’ announcement. Sam gained 20 percent more followers within two hours of his being drafted.
But as we all know, the Internet is the ultimate double-edged sword.
Sam may have gained followers, but he will also be vilified and filleted on his Twitter account. The Internet will be filled with words of hatred about a gay man playing in the NFL.
This is actually kind of hilarious.
One of Sam’s new teammates with the Rams, defensive lineman Chris Long, told ESPN.com, “Obviously people are going to make something out of it. He’s not the first gay player to ever play football. He might be the first openly gay professional football player, but there’s all types of people from all over in an NFL locker room; it really is a melting pot and it never ceases to amaze me how a locker room can just mesh, people from all different walks of life, so I don’t think it’s an issue. He’s coming to a really good D-line room.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he was honored to be part of the Sam pick, and reiterated that the team is getting a good football player, not a gay one.
It seems Sam will have acceptance within his own locker room, and I suspect throughout the league, for the most part.
So he’s one up on Robinson in that respect.
This openly gay stuff really shouldn’t be a big deal, but that can only be assured as the years go by and we look back at the 2014 Draft and kind of chuckle at Michael Sam’s drafting being a sensation.
It will be, “Jeez, can you believe we made such a thing over that?”
But we’re not there yet.
When the St. Louis Rams picked Sam on Saturday, they didn’t just take a football player. They took the first step on a journey that, with any luck, will be anti-climactic in reaching its destination.
Starting on Thursday, May 8 and continuing throughout the weekend, Las Vegas will have nothing on the Big Apple.
With apologies to “Guys and Dolls,” 32 high rollers will gather and hold the world’s second oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.
It’s time for another NFL Draft.
The interviews are over. The combine is history. The Wonderlic scores are in. The mock drafts are (mercifully) shoved aside.
It’s time to roll the dice.
Entire futures of franchises are at stake. Coaches’ fates are in the hands of the players whose names will be read by the Commissioner. Fans are on the edge of their seats.
Luck, be a lady.
The terrific irony of all the preparation, speculation, mock drafts and scuttlebutt over which player will go to which team is…that all of it really doesn’t matter.
You can’t count cards at the NFL Draft. The house usually wins. Things often don’t go as planned.
Luck can be a blessing or a curse.
The NFL Draft is full of cases of “What if?”
The Lions, like so many teams, know that as well as anybody.
In 1960 a group of eight men called themselves The Foolish Club.
They were the original owners of the teams of the American Football League. They would challenge the mighty NFL, both on the field and in the courts. It didn’t take long before the AFL began challenging the NFL on draft day.
Four players who would become stars in the new league—in some cases, Pro Football Hall of Fame members—could have been Detroit Lions.
Should have been, really.
The Lions didn’t draft poorly in the ‘60s—they just didn’t have the best of luck, or the deepest of pockets.
The decade’s drafts would eventually bring star players such as Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney and Greg Landry to Detroit. But there could have been so much more.
The fledgling AFL screwed up the Lions’ plans.
It started in 1960—the AFL’s first year in existence.
Johnny Robinson was a gem of a player from Louisiana State University. He played in the backfield on both sides of the football—a stupendous defender in the secondary and a nifty ball carrier as a halfback on offense.
So heralded was Robinson in college that the Lions snapped him up as the third overall pick of the 1960 Draft.
But the Foolish Club liked Robinson, too. The Dallas Texans drafted Robinson as well.
The Lions of the established NFL and the Texans of the Foolish Club engaged in one of the first bidding wars between the two leagues.
The Foolish Club won. Robinson went to the Texans, who would become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Johnny Robinson played for the Texans/Chiefs for 12 years. He made nine All-Pro teams. He intercepted 57 passes as a safety in the AFL and NFL. Such was his impact that when Robinson intercepted a pass, the Chiefs’ record was 35-1-1.
Robinson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a member of the AFL’s All-Time team. He is considered by many to be one of the top five defensive backs in pro football history.
And the Lions lost him to the Foolish Club, in the AFL’s maiden year.
John Hadl was a multi-dimensional player from Kansas who played halfback and quarterback—and with such aplomb that the school named him as its Player of the Century.
Hadl was an All-American quarterback in his senior year of 1961, and in the 1962 draft the Lions took him with the 10th overall pick.
The San Diego Chargers of the Foolish Club picked Hadl, too.
The Lions had a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon at quarterback throughout the 1960s. A rifle-armed guy like John Hadl would have looked very nice in a Honolulu Blue jersey.
But Hadl, like Johnny Robinson two years earlier, snubbed the Lions and signed with the Chargers, who were coached by pass-happy Sid Gillman.
John Hadl would play 16 years of pro football and throw for over 33,000 yards, almost 27,000 of those coming with Gillman and the Chargers.
How would the Lions’ fortunes have changed with Hadl as their QB?
In 1964, there was a towering, quick defensive end from the University of Buffalo named Gerry Philbin. At Buffalo, Philbin earned all sorts of honors, including Little All America.
The Lions selected Philbin in the third round of the 1964 draft.
But once again, the Foolish Club fouled things up.
Philbin was also drafted by the New York Jets, a team just a hop, skip and a jump from Philbin’s home town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Philbin signed with the Jets, again leaving the Lions holding the bag.
Gerry Philbin became a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team and recorded 15 sacks for the 1968 Jets, winners of Super Bowl III.
And he did it all while not playing for the Lions.
The Lions kept drafting well but signing poorly.
It happened to them again the year after drafting Philbin.
Fred Biletnikoff was a sure-handed receiver out of Florida State—the school’s first consensus All-American.
The Lions could have used a playmaking receiver in 1965, with their plodding offense, led by unspectacular quarterbacks not named John Hadl.
Inspired by Biletnikoff’s college greatness at catching passes, the Lions selected him in the third round of the 1965 draft.
So did the Oakland Raiders of the AFL.
Naturally, Biletnikoff spurned the Lions and signed with Al Davis and the Raiders.
They named an award for Biletnikoff in 1994. It goes to the best receiver in college football. Biletnikoff was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 after a stellar, 14-year career with the Raiders.
What might the Lions have been in the 1960s and ‘70s, if Johnny Robinson, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Fred Biletnikoff hadn’t spurned them?
The Lions crapped out on all four of these AFL stars. Their stingy ways scared them all off. The house won.
It’s all ancient history now, but isn’t it the unalienable right of the Lions fan to ask “What if?”
Earl Morrall spent his entire career, it seemed, encased with a sign that said “In case of emergency, break glass.”
If he was a movie actor, he’d be a stand-in. The only part of him that you’d see would be from over his shoulder.
Morrall, the quarterback from Michigan State who passed away the other day at age 79, managed to stay on an NFL roster for 21 years, though he was usually the one on the sidelines with the cleanest jersey.
But Morrall had his moments, and those kept him on those rosters for those 21 years.
Morrall was the Forrest Gump of pro football—the guy whose face and famous crew cut always appeared in the background, behind images of such luminaries as Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.
But when Morrall got a chance to play, he was no slouch. It was just that he played behind some of the game’s greats.
There was 1968, for example.
Morrall, then playing for the Colts at age 34, was the starter for that season because Unitas went down with torn muscles in his arm in the final pre-season game.
Morrall was 34 but 1968 was only the second time in his career that he was his team’s starting QB. The other was in 1965, when Earl went 7-7 for the New York Giants.
So Morrall was 34 but his arm was probably nine years younger from limited use.
While Colts fans were crestfallen when defending league MVP Unitas was destined to be a season-long scratch, Earl Morrall, the stand-in QB from Muskegon, did his best stand-in work.
Earl almost made Johnny U turn into Johnny Who?
Playing with the talent that was always there but rarely given a chance to shine—even in Detroit, which had the thoroughly underwhelming Jim Ninowski and Milt Plum ahead of Earl in the early-1960s—Morrall authored a stunning season that earned him NFL MVP honors.
Morrall completed 57.4 percent of his passes—a considerably high rate in those days—and fired 26 TD passes among his 2,909 yards through the air for the 13-1 Colts, who won the league title and would meet the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
That’s when Morrall’s fantastic season made a horrifying turn.
Hardly anyone knows that Morrall was the NFL MVP in 1968, because Joe Namath and the Jets turned Earl and the Colts’ excellent year upside down.
The Jets upset the Colts, 16-7, and worse for Morrall, he didn’t see a wide open Jimmy Orr for what certainly would have been a crucial TD pass late in the first half.
And Morrall, who threw three interceptions, was eventually replaced late in the game by a clearly less-than-whole Unitas and his mangled arm.
That loss in SB III haunted Morrall and the rest of the Colts so heavily that even winning Super Bowl V two years later, with Morrall saving the day in relief of Unitas, couldn’t sweeten the bitterness of the loss to Namath and the Jets.
In 1972, Morrall was traded to the Miami Dolphins. The Colts decided to go with young Marty Domres at quarterback when it was evident that Unitas’ career was done.
In Miami, Mr. Backup took his usual place, standing in the shadows of the much younger Griese.
The Dolphins had appeared in Super Bowl VI, but Griese and company were manhandled by Dallas, 26-3. Don Shula, who coached Morrall in Baltimore, brought his old QB back in Miami, just in case the Dolphins would need a steady veteran’s calm if the unthinkable happened.
Griese went down with a broken ankle in Week 5. The Dolphins were undefeated but now their fate was in the hands of a 38-year-old career backup who hadn’t seen serious playing time in several years.
Morrall finished the Dolphins’ perfect 14-0 season by taking the last nine games home with his precise, if less-than-impressive, arm.
Morrall threw just 150 passes in those nine games, as the Dolphins’ trio of runners—Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris—made sure that Earl’s signature play of the season was the handoff.
Griese recovered from his injury in time to start for Miami in Super Bowl VII, in which the Dolphins would attempt to finish the 1972 season a perfect 17-0.
Morrall was again relegated to backup duty, despite his 9-0 record as Miami’s starter in place of Griese.
“A younger player might have sulked,” Morrall once said about his personal disappointment but professionalism in respecting Shula’s choice.
Miami beat Washington, 14-7, as Morrall’s only claim to fame in the big game was as being the holder when Garo Yepremian’s famous “pass” after a blocked field goal attempt was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Michigan’s Mike Bass.
Morrall stuck around Miami for four more years, throwing 134 passes combined, before retiring at age 42.
Morrall was Mr. Backup, yet he led two different teams to the Super Bowl as a starting quarterback—and he and Kurt Warner are the only two guys to ever have done that. And Morrall is, to this day, the only QB in Super Bowl history to come off the bench and lead his team to victory (SB V).
Earl’s old coach in Baltimore and Miami, Don Shula, put Morrall’s career in perspective after learning of Earl’s death.
“All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench,” Shula said in a statement. “And he did it in such a humble way—he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates.”
Morrall showed that humility when he was asked who he thought the Dolphins’ MVP was in that perfect 1972 season.
“Bob Griese for breaking his ankle so I could play.”
Earl Morrall made a career out of being the other guy. But, as Coach Shula said, all the old QB ever did was win games.
There always seemed to be someone who was better than Morrall, except when that QB went down and Earl managed to get on the field.
“I always wondered why he wasn’t starting,” Morrall’s old Lions teammate, receiver Gail Cogdill, once said of Earl’s years in Detroit (1958-64), when no one named Tarkenton, Unitas or Griese were remotely on the roster.
But that’s another column entirely.
Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.
He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.
The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?
Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.
Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.
He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.
He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.
His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.
But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.
Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.
There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.
Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.
But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.
It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.
The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.
So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.
The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.
In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.
That bottom feeding blogger was I.
The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.
The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.
The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.
Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.
So that was your turnaround.
You want some winning against all odds stuff?
How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?
All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.
Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…
When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.
Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.
So that was one side.
The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.
And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.
I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.
Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.
Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.
Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.
“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.
He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.
So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?
Isn’t that what they do every year?
It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?
The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.
The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.
The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.
For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.
Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.
The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.
So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.
The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?
Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.
The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.
There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.
There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16 of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).
But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.
These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.
Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.
The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.
This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.
The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.
Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.
Springtime hockey in the Motor City.
The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.
This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.
Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.
The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.
The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.
The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.
Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.
So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.
But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.
The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.
And where is Dennis Rodman these days?