Archive for Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings captain of today was wearing a suit when he should have been wearing a uniform.

When the Red Wings honored defenseman Nick Lidstrom last winter by retiring his no. 5 jersey, the evening was jarred by the sight of two current Red Wings and former Lidstrom teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, wearing Armani instead of Reebok.

Both were battling injuries. Zetterberg’s was a back ailment, and watching him move around gingerly that night was less-than-inspiring.

The Red Wings captain, Lidstrom’s successor in that role, returned in time for the playoffs but he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Hockey players are the Frankenstein monsters of athletes. They are sewn together and zipped up. I think if you look closely, some of them have bolts coming out of their necks.

They’ll play on one leg and seeing out of one eye. Teeth are optional, as are all internal organs other than the heart.

But as tough as they are, hockey players aren’t immune to two things: groin injuries and bad backs. Those maladies are the hockey player’s Kryptonite.

Just ask the guy in the broadcast booth who has described Zetterberg’s on-ice wizardry ever since Hank broke into the league in 2002.

Mickey Redmond was 28 years old when his back popped. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Redmond’s hands never left him. His shot never vanished. But his back went out and that was pretty much it for him as a hockey player. His last NHL game played was in January, 1976.

More than three years later, at age 31, Redmond tried to give it another shot on the ice but only lasted a few days in training camp in 1979 before retiring for good. The bad back quickly re-flared.

So there was some understandable breath holding when Zetterberg’s back, which has given him problems off-and-on for several years now, ached him yet again last season. Zetterberg’s age (33 at the time) only added to the angst.

Seeing Z waddle around during the Lidstrom ceremony didn’t help the psyche of a fan base that was rooting for its team to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.

Fast forward to this season. The captain’s back is repaired and he’s, well, back.

Boy, is he ever back.

Zetterberg is 34 now but he is flitting around the ice like he’s 24. Usually he is the Red Wings’ best player on any given night. He skates freely, briskly and with purpose. Sometimes you swear there are two no. 40s on the ice at once.

All Zetterberg has been doing is scoring goals, assisting on others, playing defense on both ends of the ice and leading by example. You know, kind of like what Z’s predecessors at captain—Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom—did all their careers.

On October 15, Zetterberg said he played a stinker of a game against Boston at Joe Louis Arena. He was quick to call himself out. The Red Wings lost in a shootout that night to the Bruins.

Zetterberg then took out his anger on the poor Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a rare home-and-home series with an Original Six club the weekend of October 17 and 18, Zetterberg assisted on all four Red Wings goals on Friday night in a 4-1 victory. The next night, he scored the game’s only goal, in overtime. The following game, in Montreal, Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal in a 2-1 loss.

That goal in Montreal meant that Henrik Zetterberg had a hand in the Red Wings’ six most recent goals.

The schedule moved on and Zetterberg moved on with it, his back healthy and leaving him pain-free.

Two nights after Montreal, the big, bad Pittsburgh Penguins came to town and with less than three minutes remaining, the Red Wings trailed 3-1 and the arena was emptying.

Enter Zetterberg. Again.

He took a pass near the Penguins blue line and split the defense like a high-flying youngster. Before Pens goalie Thomas Greiss, making his first start of the season, knew what hit him, Zetterberg had fired a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder to make the score 3-2.

Exactly two minutes later, at 19:21, Zetterberg assisted on Niklas Kronwall’s tying goal.

In overtime, with less than a minute remaining, Zetterberg was hard on the forecheck behind the Penguins net and got his stick on an attempted clearing pass. The puck squirted out to Justin Abdelkader, who deposited it past Greiss to cap the amazing comeback, which gave the Red Wings two of the most unlikeliest points they will earn all season.

When the snow settled, the three points Zetterberg earned against the Penguins gave him a hand in nine of the last 10 Red Wings goals.

The streak started immediately after the captain indicted himself for his play against Boston.

Watching the man they call Hank or Z—because Henrik and Zetterberg take too long to say—play this season is like watching a youthful rookie skating on fresh legs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Zetterberg was one of those Grand Rapids Griffins called up last year.

Lately, coach Mike Babcock has paired Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk on the same line, now that Datsyuk is back in the lineup, healed from his shoulder injury.

To say that it’s pleasing to finally see Z and Pavs together again is an understatement. Last season, injuries kept the two off the ice far too often. Or when one was healthy, the other wasn’t.

Zetterberg turned 34 a few weeks ago. Last season he looked like an old 33, with his bad back. This year he looks like a young 34, mainly because his back doesn’t make him feel 54.

He captains a team that is younger and less experienced than any roster Yzerman or Lidstrom led, which makes Zetterberg’s savvy and skill on the ice all the more appreciated.

And heaven help the league the next time Z thinks he’s had a bad game.

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Aug
17

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

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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.

Fair enough.

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.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

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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?

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They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.

Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.

Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.

The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.

Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?

But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.

Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.

The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.

The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.

So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.

Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.

“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.

But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.

Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.

After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.

Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.

Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.

But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.

That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.

Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.

“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”

I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.

So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.

No. 14 in red and white.

 

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Jack Adams looked like a lot of things, but a hockey coach wasn’t necessarily one of them.

He was a rotund man with a bulbous nose, a wearer of wire-rimmed glasses. He was one of those haggard-looking men who could never have been young. He could have been a heavy in a gangster film.

If Adams put skates on, he surely could never have seen them past his jelly belly.

Adams ran the Red Wings from behind the bench and behind his desk. He was coach from 1927-1947 and general manager from 1927-63. He presided over the glory days of the 1950s, when the Red Wings were virtually perennial league champions and more than occasional Stanley Cup winners.

The Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in the ‘50s and early 1960s was in Edmonton. Adams, according to Ted Lindsay, would walk around the team train and the dressing room with a pair of train tickets to Edmonton sticking out of his breast pocket, plainly visible.

“You see so many 5-on-3s these days,” the erstwhile left winger Lindsay told me back in 2006 as we chatted during a hockey roundtable discussion. “Back in my day, if you took a second penalty to put our team down two men, Adams would threaten to send you down to Edmonton. Or, he would just send you there.”

Adams coached in the days when the Red Wings were a mostly veteran team that had precious little roster space and ice time for young players. He didn’t suffer youthful indiscretion easily.

The time of Jack Adams and the Red Wings’ heyday of the 1950s was not dissimilar to the Detroit teams from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s.

Scotty Bowman, then Mike Babcock, didn’t have to walk around with train tickets to Grand Rapids stuffed in their breast pockets. The Red Wings were a team of Hall of Famers, steeped with playoff experience.

Today, Babcock coaches a different group.

The coach can’t roll out four lines, each stocked with talent, skill and purpose, like he did when he first came to Detroit in 2005. Because of injuries, it’s a challenge to find 12 healthy forwards to dress each night, period.

Because of injury, Babcock doesn’t have Pavel Datsyuk and he doesn’t have Henrik Zetterberg. Because of retirement, Babcock hasn’t had Nick Lidstrom for a couple years. He doesn’t have the Danny Cleary or Mikael Samuelsson that he had seven or eight years ago—as each of those forwards are now mere shells of their former selves.

Stephen Weiss, the free agent signed away from Florida, is injured, and even when healthy, Weiss was proving to be fraudulent.

Babcock’s team has been held together with baling wire and duct tape—and diapers and baby powder.

The leader by process of elimination now is 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, signed away last summer from Ottawa. Alfie’s two decades in the league has proven to be even more valuable than expected when the Red Wings inked him.

Back in 2007, when covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, I wrote a column that playfully asked where in the dressing room the Red Wings were hiding their fountain of youth. It was a time during the post-season when the team was getting key contributions from a collection of players whose ages were much closer to 40 than to 30. Some had already passed 40 with flying colors.

The team didn’t win the Stanley Cup that spring, but it did the following year and came a goal away from winning it again in 2009. In a way, that seems like a million years ago.

The Red Wings of today are now a collection of young, eager, energy-filled kids who started the season in Grand Rapids and figured they’d likely end it there.

Babcock is in un-chartered territory here, coaching this group of players. Behind the bench, he’s used to tapping guys on the shoulder who have resumes, not who need to show ID at the bar.

But the push for a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance this season, while uneven and at times frustrating, hasn’t required Babcock to wave train tickets around.

While some of the veterans have faltered or been hurt, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings have provided depth and an “aw, shucks” mentality that is a desired antidote to the pressure being felt at this time of the year.

While experience is terrific, there’s also something to be said for never having been there before.

Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco are four forwards whose buzzing around the ice and “It’s great to be young and a Red Wing” attitude is help lifting Babcock’s team into playoff contention.

About that.

This is another place where Babcock and the veteran players remaining on the roster are not familiar.

The Red Wings are used to being in the playoffs when the puck drops on Opening Night in October. Their January-March games have meant little in the standings. Their over/under for points never dipped below 100.

But at this writing, the Red Wings have 13 games remaining, and every one has playoff implications. The team has been scrambling for the post-season since Thanksgiving. There is no cruising; there is no resting guys for the playoff grind.

And you know the NHL.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have been the playground for teams whose scratching and clawing for the few remaining berths in the season’s final weeks have led to terrific post-season success.

The talent-wealthy and elite have often been drummed out in the early rounds by teams who’ve been playing, essentially, playoff hockey for weeks.

The Red Wings have been on that side of the coin before, and the finality when the horn sounds and there is no more hockey to be played, while the so-called lesser team whoops it up, is no fun.

For all the thrills and Stanley Cups since 1997, there have been some long summers in Hockeytown as well, with seasons ruined by “Cinderella” teams.

It’s quite possible that Mike Babcock, Stanley Cup winner, junior World Championship winner and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist coach, won’t be leading a team into the playoffs next month. It’s that dicey for the Red Wings now.

If the Red Wings don’t qualify, it won’t be because they were torpedoed by the silly mistakes made by the young. It will simply be because they weren’t good enough—a team decimated by injuries that didn’t quite have enough skill to squeeze in.

That might make the summer seem not so long, after all.

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He was wearing a smart leather jacket, hair still damp from a post-practice shower. It was one of the last team workouts before the playoffs began. Spring hockey, the best kind of hockey, was on the horizon.

But first, there was the matter of a nod to history.

Nicklas Lidstrom and I stood as spectators in the Joe Louis Arena concourse, as the Red Wings were about to unveil the new sculpture of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. The date was April 10, 2007.

We were scrunched together, players and media alike, awaiting the drapery to be pulled from the white bronze piece of artwork that depicted Howe in follow through after a shot.

Lidstrom, unassuming in his version of street clothes, kept his eye on me, even though I was slightly behind him and to his right. He appeared to not want to lose sight of me.

Moments earlier, in the Red Wings’ dressing room, I had asked Lidstrom for a few words. I was writing for a local sports magazine at the time, and my assignment was to get a feel for the team’s mindset as the playoffs beckoned.

Lidstrom, ever the gentleman, apologized, but with a rider.

“I can’t do it now, but right after the ceremony,” he told me.

No problem.

We all were herded upstairs, near the Gordie Howe Entrance. The way Lidstrom kept looking at me, I got the feeling that he was more concerned about our chat than I was.

Not long after the unveiling, Lidstrom approached me and the brief interview began, as he promised.

He didn’t know me from Adam, although I’m sure he’d seen me in the locker room before—and would see me again.

But the point is, Nick Lidstrom made good on his word, even to an ink-stained wretch.

They’re going to have another ceremony tonight at the Joe, and this time Lidstrom won’t be merely a spectator. This time, the nod to history is a nod in his direction.

Number 5 gets hoisted to the rafters tonight, taking its rightful place next to 1, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19 as retired Red Wings jersey numbers.

1. Terry Sawchuk, the best goalie ever and the most dour. Perhaps, at the same time, the best at what he did and the most unhappy while doing it.

7. Ted Lindsay, who had the most appropriate nickname for his on-ice persona and the most inappropriate for when he was off it—Terrible Ted. Never has the NHL seen someone who so lived up to his moniker as a player and so lived down to it as a person.

9. Gordie Howe, who is still one of the few hockey players any man on the street can actually name. The bumpkin from Saskatchewan who made good.

10. Alex Delvecchio, who played the game with quiet grace. Fats wasn’t spectacular, but somehow he always ended up with 25 goals and a bushel of assists every year.

12. Sid Abel, who centered the Production Line between Howe and Lindsay. Old Bootnose, who served the Wings so well as a coach, GM and TV commentator in addition to his years as a Hall of Fame center.

19. Steve Yzerman, who immediately comes to mind in Detroit when anyone says “The Captain.” Never has the Red Wings franchise employed a player who played with more grit and heart than Stevie Y.

Lidstrom joins these greats tonight, his jersey settling in nicely way up high. It won’t be out of place.

Lidstrom II

If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.

The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him  ”a Genius in Spikes.”

Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”

Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and  angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.

Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.

As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?

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The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Toronto. But for years, the Hall had a satellite office in Detroit.

If you didn’t feel like jumping on Highway 401 or the train in Windsor, and you wanted to see hockey relics, you just needed to venture to Joe Louis Arena—specifically the Red Wings dressing room.

The players weren’t in the Hall, but that was only because they had yet to retire. Certainly, that was their post-playing destination.

The names above the cubicles in those days—from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—were a Who’s Who of the NHL.

Yzerman. Hull. Shanahan. Hasek. Lidstrom. Robitaille. Murphy. Larionov. Fedorov. Chelios.

Everyone was 35 years old, or older. Everyone had won Stanley Cups, somewhere. Everyone had their ticket already punched to the Hall.

The Red Wings were so old and experienced in that time frame, the official team drink was Geritol.

But oh, did they win.

Stanley Cups were won in 1997, 1998, 2002 and then, after a pause to re-load the roster, in 2008.

Even the coach for three of those Cups, Scotty Bowman, was HOF-bound.

They could have erected statues outside the dressing room for the players suiting up inside.

Back then, you could be arrested for being young and playing for the Red Wings.

Youthful players were bargaining chips in those days for the league’s trading deadline. The Red Wings drafted smart, developed even smarter, and then just when you were ready for the NHL, you got traded for someone with gray hair.

There was no salary cap. GM Kenny Holland needed only to dial his boss, Mike Ilitch, tell the owner how much pizza dough it was going to take to sign the highest profile free agents, and thy will be done.

It seemed like the Red Wings had nobody on their roster less than 30 years of age.

When the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) took effect starting with the 2005-06 season, the days of the blank checks were over with. Each team would have to budget. Free-spending teams like the Red Wings—the New York Yankees of hockey—now had ceilings.

It was like telling Hitler to stop invading.

Holland managed to steer the Red Wings through the waters of salary caps and budgets to the tune of 2008’s Cup and darn near another one a year later.

But the team was still mostly made up of veterans. Youngsters were few and far between.

The Red Wings kept making the playoffs—22 years in a row now and counting—but the graybeards started to fall by the wayside after the 2009 Cup Finals.

Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood and Tomas Holmstrom were some of longtime Red Wings who hung up their skates.

Then Nick Lidstrom called it quits in 2012, which sent many fans into a frenzy of panic.

A quick look at the roster after all this churn saw a bevy of players who dared to be in their 20s.

Certainly the Red Wings would dip, most folks thought. The team was too young, too inexperienced.

Save for Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi and newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, the 2013-14 Red Wings were shy on veteran presence.

The modern era Red Wings didn’t win four Stanley Cups and all those playoff games with kids.

It’s still in question whether this season’s Red Wings will continue the playoff-making streak, but if they do, they’ll have to do it with key contributions from youngsters.

The Red Wings aren’t used to this. Coach Mike Babcock isn’t used to this. GM Holland isn’t used to this. And the fans most definitely aren’t used to this.

“This” is seeing a bunch of young, fast players in red sweaters, creating havoc, scoring goals and flying around the ice. “This” is a reliance on a new wave of players, many of whom started the season in the minor leagues. “This” is an exciting batch of kids that might, just might, be the core of a Cup-winning team in the not-too-distant future.

For now, though, it’s about making the playoffs this spring.

Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are four of these exciting young players. Their average age is 23. And they are becoming an annoyance to play against.

Nyquist has a knack for scoring big goals. Tatar is immensely talented and looks like the Red Wings’ next puck wizard after Datsyuk, who is basically playing on one leg thanks to a bad left knee. Zetterberg isn’t playing at all, due to a herniated disc in his back that recently required surgery.

Jurco and Sheahan, who was the team’s first round draft choice in 2010, have hockey smarts beyond their years and create plenty of scoring chances with their passing skills.

In a season marred by injuries, these four young players are tasked with keeping the Red Wings in the playoff hunt. It’s on them now. Reinforcements aren’t really on the way.

Free agent bust (so far) Stephen Weiss is only just now on the verge of returning from a sports hernia injury that has kept him sidelined for over two months.

Datsyuk plays on one leg, Zetterberg doesn’t play at all.

Johan Franzen has just played his first two games after missing 25 of 26 with post-concussion symptoms.

Darren Helm has been in and out of the lineup—mostly out—with a variety of injuries.

Even the goalies—Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustvasson—have missed considerable time due to various physical maladies.

But the four kids are healthy as horses right now. And they’re eager. And they’re having a blast.

It just may be that the Red Wings’ fate—playoffs or not, and then how far they go in the post-season—is directly tied to how Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco and Sheahan perform.

In recent weeks, their production has saved the team’s bacon.

This reliance on so many young players is not how the Cup-winning Red Wings teams back in the day got it done.

But partly out of necessity and partly due to the fact that these kids can flat out play, today’s Red Wings are daring to take a path to the playoffs that the franchise has never had to try.

Out with the Geritol, and in with the Flintstones vitamins.

 

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Dec
31

The Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno For 2013

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It’s that time again.

It’s time to look back at a year’s worth of columns and see how the Detroit sports landscape looked through my crossed eyes.

So, without further ado, here’s the annual “Best of/Worst of Greg Eno” for 2013.

February

On the Red Wings’ slippage to begin the truncated 2013 NHL season:

The Red Wings used to play a selfish brand of hockey—meaning that they never let the other team have the puck. They cycled and passed and it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the basketball during “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

It’s become so hard for the Red Wings now.

No longer do teams step onto the Joe Louis Arena ice shaking in their skating boots. Gone is the intimidation factor at The Joe. The crowds are still sellouts but it’s a polite crowd nowadays—19,000+ who are sitting on their hands too often.

We knew it wasn’t going to be the same this season, but for a long time it was all conjecture, thanks to the labor lockout. The hockey season was always somewhere over there, past the horizon.

Then the labor strife was over and the NHL started playing games again, and all of Hockeytown’s fears are being realized.

The Red Wings are an ordinary team, no longer one of the league’s bullies. They win on some nights, lose on others. They are 7-7 and it befits them.

This could describe this season’s Red Wings, eh?

March

On then-rookie Andre Drummond being, at age 19, the Pistons’ best player—already:

In Drummond’s absence the Pistons have collapsed like a house of cards. They are shockingly inept with Drummond out of the lineup. They are pushovers in the paint, and lost everywhere else on the court defensively. The only rebounds they grab these days are the ones that fall directly into their hands.

The Pistons, with Drummond on the sidelines, have become a disinterested, wretched mess of a basketball team. They are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to play anyone tough right now.

Drummond’s absence and the Pistons’ subsequent freefall into oblivion are about as coincidental as cause and effect.

So it’s not too much to say that Drummond, at 19 years old, is the Pistons’ best player right now. It was not too much to say back in 1981 about Isiah Thomas, when the 20-year-old rookie from Indiana University became the Pistons’ best player just a few minutes into his first game.

Thomas didn’t stop there; he became the franchise’s best player of all time.

It’s way too soon to say that Drummond is a HOF player, but his impact on the team remains significant

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On the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference for the 2013-14 season:

NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.

Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.

I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.

You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.

The Red Wings ought to be thankful, too—because had they still been in the West, they would be way out of the playoff picture this season.

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On Justin Verlander’s contract situation and his possibly heading toward free agency after the 2014 season:

So I wouldn’t worry too much about Justin Verlander hitting the free market after next season. Ilitch won’t have that. There will come a time when the owner will yank DaveDombrowski by the ear into a room and ask his GM, flat out, how much it’s going to cost to keep Verlander in the Old English D. Dombrowski will tell his boss, who will fork over a check, and that will be that.

That check is likely to steamroll past $200 million.

It will be a bargain.

Verlander is nothing like we’ve ever seen on a pitching mound in Detroit. He’s 30 years old and he’s just getting started. He’s pitched in more big games already than most guys will see in a lifetime. His awards and achievements and accolades read like a 20-year veteran’s. He’s funny and good-looking and loves the media.

He also thinks free agency will be fun. Too bad he’ll never get to find out for real.

JV did, indeed, sign an extension for over $200 million—and proceeded to have a difficult year, though he turned it on in the playoffs.

———————————–

On collecting baseball trading cards as a kid growing up in Livonia:

Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.

The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.

The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.

Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.

Brings back some memories for you, I hope!

April

On the Lions drafting DE Ziggy Ansah:

The whole idea of the draft is volatile enough. You hardly need to add to its propensity for being tenuous.

Yet that’s what the Lions have done, by picking hugely talented but terribly raw DE Ziggy Ansah, number five off the board. This kid could become the best pass rusher to wear Honolulu Blue since Bubba Baker.

Or he may flat out stink.

Boom or bust. Star or dud. Genius or folly.

Pretty much describes the NFL Draft as a whole, I’d say.

Ansah had a decent rookie season. He is far from being a draft bust—so far.

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On the Red Wings signing G Jimmy Howard to a six-year contract extension:

The wolves were out again this week, as news came to light that the Red Wings are about to outfit Howard with a six-year, $31.8 million contract. It should be signed any day now, after some final details are hammered out.

The therapists on talk radio, namely Bob Wojnowski and Jamie Samuelsen, had a bunch of apoplectics on their hands Thursday evening when the topic of discussion turned to Howard and his soon-to-be new contract.

The bridge jumpers were aghast. They didn’t like the length of the deal. They thought GM Ken Holland was “overpaying” for one of his own. They didn’t like the money, as if they were each being shaken down for a share of the payout.

Mainly, they didn’t like the idea of Jimmy Howard playing goalie for the Red Wings for the next six years.

Based on how Howie has played this season, the fans like this contract even less.

——————————————

May

On the freefall of WR Titus Young and how it compares to that of Charlie Rogers, the team’s first round pick of 2003:

It’s not about football anymore for Titus Young. It’s about life, and his ability to survive it. It should be pointed out that Young is the father of a nine-month old baby boy, Titus Jr.

Again we smirk and shake our heads at Young’s personal life, as we did at Charlie Rogers’.

Rogers never got any help. Young’s father’s comment gives hope that Titus can get some help and support. Maybe there will be a personal posse that will gather and help Young battle his demons.

Charlie Rogers is 32, broke, and has no future. The world that was once his oyster is now his living hell.

That’s nothing to smirk about.

Let’s hope the next time we read of Young, it’s about how he’s getting his life together. Don’t hold your breath.

———————————————–

On the Tigers’ much-maligned utility man, Don Kelly:

He is the quintessential Jack of All Trades, Master of None. Killing him is like killing nine mediocre people. But he’s open-minded; he’ll try anything once—and he has.

Don Kelly has done it all on the baseball diamond. He just hasn’t done it all that well.

Ah, but what would baseball be without the Don Kellys of the world?

Someone has to be the 25th man on a 25-man roster. Kelly has spent his entire big league career looking over his shoulder and seeing no one behind him.

It’s been a baseball life lived on the edge—of extinction.

Kelly, the Tigers Designated Sitter, has been hanging on to a big league job by a thread for so long, it defies physics.

The Tigers drafted him in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft. Little did they know it would be like drafting a boomerang. Every time the Tigers tried to throw Don Kelly away, he kept flying back to them.

Kelly meandered his way through the Tigers farm system, like a rat in a maze, looking for the cheese. He started as a shortstop but that soon proved to be as significant as saying a chameleon started green.

In the minors, Kelly switched to third base, then to second, then to first, then back to third base again. He was threatening to rewrite Abbott and Costello’s act, all by himself.

Kelly will return to the Tigers in 2014, the ultimate baseball survivor

—————————————————

June

On the comparison between new Pistons coach Mo Cheeks and his predecessor, Larry Frank:

The similarities pretty much end with their both being NBA head coaches prior to coming to Detroit. Frank coached the New Jersey Nets; Cheeks steered the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both coaches led their teams to the playoffs, but neither went very far into the postseason.

After that, Cheeks and Frank part ways.

Frank never played pro basketball. Not even close. He was a pipsqueak gym rat who started his coaching career as an errand boy for legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight. After Indiana, Frank lived a hard scrabble basketball life, taking very unglamorous jobs before finally getting his break. Still, he became an NBA head coach at age 33.

Cheeks not only played in the NBA, he was one of the game’s star point guards in the 1980s. He was manning the point when the 76ers won the league championship in 1983. His career was filled with assists and points and both individual and team success.

Mo Cheeks can never be accused of not knowing what it’s like to play in the NBA.

But Cheeks, so far, has presided over a terribly inconsistent basketball team in Detroit. But it’s still early.

———————————————-

On the breakout year of Max Scherzer’s:

The Tigers soon discovered that the scouting report on Scherzer was dead solid perfect—he was the human roller coaster.

It was Cy Young one day, and Sigh Young five days later.

Scherzer’s arm was alive, alright, but it was like what a scout once said about a young Sandy Koufax.

“Koufax would be a great pitcher,” the scout said, “if the plate was high and outside.”

Scherzer was installed in the Tigers rotation in 2010 and not having seen him pitch before, I thought the young man was trying to throw his arm to home plate, along with the baseball.

Scherzer, at the time, had what is known as a “violent” delivery. His windup was designed to gain power from his legs, which he then used to whip-snap the baseball from his right hand like it had cut him off in traffic.

It was anyone’s guess as to where the baseball was going at that point.

It wasn’t that Scherzer was ridiculously wild. In his only full season with the Diamondbacks, he averaged about 3.5 walks per nine innings.

He just threw a lot of pitches. Like, a ton of them. He was about as efficient as the government.

The Tigers presumably knew what they were getting in Scherzer, which was a big arm who could be a fixture in their rotation, as long as he could be refined. They hoped that he could, one day, be a nice complement to their ace, Justin Verlander.

Some say that Max has supplanted Verlander as the Tigers’ ace. I say give it at least one more year before you make such a declaration. Besides, Max may be gone after 2014, anyway.

July

On Chris Chelios’ being voted into the HHOF, and his unexpected turn as a Red Wing:

I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news that the Red Wings had acquired Chelios in March, 1999 at the trading deadline. I was in my car, and nearly ran it into a ditch.

Chris Chelios, a Red Wing?

It was Ted Williams to the Yankees. Larry Bird to the Lakers. A Hatfield to the McCoys.

Chelios was 37 when the trade was made, and it looked like so many the Red Wings were famous for making—a wily veteran on his last legs, for a prospect that would never find serious ice time in Detroit anyhow.

Chelios was traded for a defenseman named Anders Eriksson, who was 24 at the time and who would play in the NHL for another 11 years, but whose career reads more like a travelogue. Eriksson played for six more teams after being traded to Chicago, never carving out much of a niche anywhere he went.

But a funny thing happened with this Chelios-for-Eriksson deal. Despite being 13 years Eriksson’s senior, Chelly nearly played in the NHL for as long as Eriksson would last.

Chelios became a Red Wing, and eventually the Winged Wheel was tattooed emotionally on his heart. Detroit slowly replaced Chicago as Chelios’ home. He opened restaurants in metro Detroit, got involved in charity work and won two more Stanley Cups along the way (2002 and 2008). He played in Detroit until he was 46 years old, beating Gordie Howe in that category by three years in the age department.

Last week, Chelios—along with fellow Red Wing Brendan Shanahan—was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Chelly deserves it, but did anyone thing he’d play for the Red Wings for as long as he did?

——————————————-

On the idea of the Pistons moving back downtown:

Move the Pistons back downtown, the romanticists say. The crowds will return.

The Red Wings’ recent announcement of plans to build a brand new hockey arena in the area near Comerica Park and Ford Field has fueled the Pistons-to-downtown rallying cries.

Luckily, the Pistons have an owner now who won’t take the bait.

Tom Gores didn’t find his money in a satchel somewhere. He wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t win the Lotto, nor sue for negligence. He wasn’t left a fortune by a rich uncle.

Gores got his money fair and square—by earning it and turning profits into bigger profits. He navigated choppy financial waters to build his portfolio into something pretty amazing for a guy who has yet to reach his 50th birthday.

Gores is smart enough to know that the only thing that will bring fans back to see the Pistons in droves is winning.

Gores knows that you can move the Pistons downtown all you want—put them right smack next to the RenCen if you please—but it won’t mean a hill of beans if the team keeps turning in 29-victory seasons, like the one just passed.

I have a hunch that Gores is perfectly happy to have his team remain in Auburn Hills—for now.

August

On MLB’s desire to use instant replay for more than just HR calls, starting in 2014:

Major League Baseball is on the verge of expanding its relatively limited use of instant replay for the 2014 season. Taking its cue from the NFL, MLB will allow managers to use challenges—one prior to the seventh inning and two afterward, until the game ends.

Pallone, in a Facebook comment to me, wrote simply, “Why don’t we just use robots!!”

I understand Pallone’s stance (he absolutely detests FSD’s so-called FoxTrax, which supposedly determines electronically if a pitch was a ball or a strike), especially given that he is a former big league umpire.

But there’s also something to be said for getting the call right, and for returning good umpires back to anonymity.

I say use the damn thing already.

Looks that way!

September

On the return of Red Wings RW Dan Cleary:

The Red Wings didn’t have to say yes to Cleary just because he drove up to Traverse City to ask for his old job back—especially not after it was reported that he was on the verge of signing with another team.

This one’s for loyalty and for not always chasing the money. This is for everyone who doubts that pro sports teams and players really will scratch each other’s backs—when push comes to shove.

Dan Cleary said no to the money, and yes to being a Red Wing. The team said no to convenience and yes to rewarding past performance.

How about that?

Yeah, how about that? And how about Cleary’s awful performance thus far?

——————————————————

On the Lions’ ineptitude in Washington, written on the eve of their game against the Redskins:

They’re going to fly to Washington, land, de-board, take a bus to their hotel and spend Saturday night dreaming of touchdowns and defensive stops. They’re going to imagine themselves walking off the field on Sunday as victors.

Dutch Clark couldn’t do it. Neither could Bobby Layne or Joe Schmidt. Lem Barney was never a winner in Washington, nor was Charlie Sanders.

Sorry, Chuck Long. Scott Mitchell, you couldn’t win there either (Mitchell was the one who threw the game-winning pick-six in overtime to Darrell Green in 1995).

So you have to give this 2013 group of Lions an “A” for guts and gall. They fancy themselves as the squad that can fly home from Washington as winners. That the Redskins are 0-2 and not exactly one of the league’s best teams perhaps buoys them. But the quality of the two teams has meant diddlysquat in years past. It’s always been Goliath beating David, no matter what.

Detroit at Washington, NFL style. Forget the spread; take the ‘Skins. It’s the lock of the century, every time. The house always wins. It’s been the biggest waste of three hours on a Sunday for eight decades and counting.

Go figure.

The Lions WON. Go figure.

———————————————————–

On SS Jose Iglesias making Tigers fans forget—already—Jhonny Peralta

But Peralta is the 2013 Pipp, whose place in the Yankees lineup at first base was taken by one Louis Gehrig in 1923 as Pipp infamously nursed a headache. Pipp was a pretty good player, too, but he was no Gehrig, as it turned out.

Iglesias is already making people think of Peralta as a distant memory, and Jhonny has only been gone for a little more than a month.

Iglesias plays shortstop as if he tumbled out of the womb wearing a mitt. It wouldn’t surprise me if his first words were seis-cuatro-tres.

Brooks Robinson was dropped on Earth by God to play third base. Iglesias is a shortstop the way Brooks was a third baseman. In just seven weeks as a Tiger, Iglesias has made plays that you only see on video games, or in dreams.

There isn’t a baseball that Iglesias can’t get to. He has the range of a nuclear bomb, and an arm like an ICBM missile.

We have never seen shortstop play in Detroit like we’re seeing it now with Iglesias. With all due respect to Alan Trammell and Steady Eddie Brinkman, Iglesias combines competence with flair. He’s an acrobat playing baseball, and part gymnast, too.

What’s Spanish for vacuum cleaner?

The Tigers have Iglesias sucking up ground balls at SS for several years to come. Should be fun to watch.

—————————————————————

On the amazing comeback of Victor Martinez, especially after his slower-than-molasses start to the season:

I remember watching a game on television in June, when Martinez started to perk up a little bit. Still, his average was below .250. FSD analyst Rod Allen said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez was back around .300 by the end of the year.”

I thought Allen to be merely spewing out propaganda as a homer shill.

Well, look who was right, after all.

Martinez has lifted his batting average, which was like an anchor, all the way to “around .300,” just as Rod Allen prophesized.

Martinez’s recovery from an awful first two months, at age 34, especially considering that the resurrection came after losing an entire year to injury, when there were calls for his head in May, is nothing short of amazing.

Martinez is on pace to hit .300, drive in 80+ runs, and his bat is considered so valuable to the Tigers’ cause that the team is seriously considering playing him at catcher in World Series road games, where the designated hitter doesn’t exist.

This isn’t a comeback, it’s a reincarnation.

They shouldn’t call it the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. It should be renamed the Victor Martinez Trophy.

Mariano Rivera won it, in his final year before retirement. V-Mart fell victim to sentiment.

October

On the Red Wings’ struggles:

These are tough times for Babcock’s bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can’t be, due to injury—like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.

Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven’t been yet—Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.

Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.

And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn’t need to give us a hard sell on it.

“Right now, with the way we’re playing, we have no chance,” he said after the Rangers game.

No eye rolling from anyone this time.

And the struggles continue…

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On the Tigers’ search for a new manager:

Now, as to who might get the job?

Keep these guys in the mix for now.

McClendon. Dusty Baker. Brad Ausmus. Jim Tracy. Ozzie Guillen. Tony Pena.

The reasons are as follows, for each man respectively.

Already interviewed. Past success. Mike Matheny redux. Dark horse but brilliant mind. Crazy enough to work. Experience, can relate to the plethora of Latin-American Tigers.

Dombrowski, it’s been reported, will likely wait no longer than the first 10 days of November before choosing his new manager. This gives us about two weeks or so to see the focus shift to the finalists, as news of interviews comes to light.

Regardless, this is a great job for the right person. But the right person must know that if the 2014 season isn’t capped with a parade down Woodward Avenue, there will be hell to pay.

Ausmus got the job, and let’s hope he dialed Matheny and thanked him.

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On retiring manager Jim Leyland:

Leyland didn’t always push the right buttons, but what manager does? He was slave to pitch counts. He wasn’t particularly aggressive or creative. The move of Jhonny Peralta to left field, when it comes to Leyland, was almost off the charts. It was Mickey Stanley to shortstop-ish.

But the players adored him. And when players like the manager, they tend to play better. That’s a fact.

1984!

It still stands alone. Leyland wasn’t able to rip that year from the wall. It’s 29 years and counting. That gap makes the 1968-84 wait seem like nothing.

Leyland, thanks to the emergence of the Internet and talk radio, was nitpicked and criticized more than any Tigers manager prior to him, combined.

But would we have nitpicked and criticized, if the team was dreadful?

Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point guard, once said that fans don’t boo nobodies.

Translated: only the irrelevant escape feeling the heat.

The very fact that Jim Leyland, in his eight years managing the Tigers, faced so much criticism, is actually a testament to the man.

Here’s wishing the Marlboro Man all the best in retirement—though it is a soft retirement of sorts. Leyland will still advise President/GM Dave Dombrowski.

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November

On the trials and tribulations of Michigan football this season:

Hoke, while not the popular first choice, at least had some Ann Arbor pedigree.

He was a Michigan Man—a term that is beginning to be more laughable than serious these days.

Hoke, frankly, looked more like he belonged at Michigan, coaching football, than his predecessor. His name even sounded more like Michigan than his predecessor, if you want to be even more superficial.

To Rodriguez’s muscular build, good looks and Latino last name, Hoke offered a squishy body, a moon face and a name of a left tackle.

To Rodriguez’s mild manner and soft voice, Hoke’s demeanor conjured humorous comparisons to the late comedian Chris Farley’s satirical motivational speaker.

Then they started to play the football games.

And here, near the end of Year Three under Hoke, the Michigan football program is in no better shape now than when Rodriguez was given the ziggy.

It may actually be worse.

Hoke’s most critical year as U-M football coach will certainly be 2014.

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On the legacy left in Detroit by 1B Prince Fielder, traded to Texas for 2B Ian Kinsler:

Detroit sports fans are simple folk, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. In fact, far from it.

Here’s what they want, and it’s very simple.

The Detroit sports fan only asks that you, as one of their athletes, show that you’re just as torn up as the fans are about failure.

They want to know that you feel their pain.

That’s all.

Fielder, in two post-seasons as a Tiger, not only failed miserably on the field, he failed miserably in the court of public opinion. He never really made us feel like that he was “one of us.”

Not once in either playoff did Fielder say, “I stink. I know a lot is expected of me and I’m just not getting it done.”

That’s all he had to say. And the forgiveness would have been plenty.

Instead, after the 2012 World Series sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants, Fielder deflected criticism, essentially saying that fans better not look at him cross-eyed, because he’s one of 25 guys.

Those comments didn’t get too much play. They were spoken almost in a vacuum. But he said them.

Fielder will always remain an enigma in the Old English D.

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On the Tigers’ new manager, Brad Ausmus:

Ausmus is 44—just a few years removed as a player. He was one of the best defensive catchers of his time. He has worn the Old English D, as then-GM Randy Smith kept trading Ausmus, and trading for him. But to Leyland’s resume as a manager, Ausmus offers a big baseball brain and not much else.

Ausmus has yet to be second guessed. He has yet to hear his name besmirched on sports talk radio. Nobody wants to fire him—yet.

It’s the cleanest of clean slates—a manager with not a speck of big league managing experience.

It’s also a hell of a risk.

The Tigers aren’t a team in development. They’re not in rebuilding mode. This isn’t a situation where a manager and his players can learn on the job, together. This job isn’t warm and fuzzy. It’s win or else.

The Tigers expected to win in 2011. They expected it again in 2012. The pressure to do so in 2013 was off the charts. So what do you think expectations will be in 2014—Ausmus’ rookie year as a big league skipper?

GM Dave Dombrowski apparently feels that Brad Ausmus, all 44 years of him, has what it takes to enter this win-or-else pressure cooker and come out without being so much as scalded.

I still maintain that Ausmus’ hiring is a risk, but I believe it is less so, after some thought and Ausmus’ answers to the questions put forth to him since he was hired.

December

On the Lions’ plummet from division leaders to being on the verge of missing the playoffs:

The Lions should be cruising, on their way to the playoffs.

They could still get there, of course, but if they don’t, there ought to be repercussions.

The infamous winless Lions season, in which they became the only team in NFL history to go 0-16, was five years ago. That is ancient history when you’re talking about a league in which teams’ records go up and down like an EKG reading.

Head coach Jim Schwartz is in his fifth season. He has a losing record in four of those years. The Lions did seem to be trending upward after Year 3, when their games won went from two to six to ten. But last year the Lions regressed badly, to the tune of 4-12. If the charge was that they got too full of themselves after a 10-6 record and going one-and-done in the playoffs, then shame on them—and on Schwartz.

This year’s team started 6-3 but has become as wobbly as a Weeble.

If the Lions don’t win the division this year, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And the apologists who would tell you that this somehow still shows improvement are part of the problem.

The Lions must not only make the playoffs, but must win a playoff game for Schwartz to earn trust back that has been lost since the 2011 season.

If owner Bill Ford can shake himself free from the yoke of blind trust and loyalty, and let his football people—and his son—make some decisions that may be difficult but necessary, then the Lions will finally show the football world that they are through with moral victories and settling.

The Lions blew it, Schwartz lost his job, and the gag job was complete.

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On EMU football:

A few weeks ago, longtime pro and college coach Jerry Glanville let it be known that he was tossing his cowboy hat into the ring to be Eastern’s next football coach. His interest isn’t a joke. Glanville is dead serious.

EMU should be dead serious about Glanville, by the way. Hiring a big name guy is about the only thing the school hasn’t tried. Glanville’s hiring would put EMU football on some people’s radars again—and that by itself is a great start to resuscitating the program.

Besides, Glanville is the only big name coach who appears willing to come to Ypsilanti. I’d hire him in a heartbeat.

EMU didn’t listen to me (big surprise) and hired former Drake coach Chris Creighton. Frankly, the university did the right thing. Now, if they’d only return Hurons as the school’s nickname…

 

There it is—2013 at a glance. As usual, I was right a little, wrong a bit more, and that trend will probably always be the case.

Happy New Year!

 

The news that the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference should have been announced by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not a league spokesman.

The Five-Star General of choice should have gotten up, like in a military briefing, and announced that the Red Wings’ years-long occupation in the West was finally over with.

It’s peace for our time. We don’t have to fear fear itself anymore. The Korean War is ended. It’s pulling out of Vietnam, without Saigon falling.

The Red Wings’ mission out west has been completed. The NHL is letting the Winged Wheelers pull up their stakes from Los Angeles. That time share in Anaheim is going up for sale. They won’t need the guest house in San Jose.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it’ll have to survive without the Red Wings. The oxygen masks marked “Denver” can be put away.

No more looking around Dallas—Dallas—for good ice. The Alberta twins, Calgary and Edmonton, and their 9:30 p.m. Detroit starts won’t be missed.

So long, Minnesota. We hardly knew ye. St. Louis and the Gateway Arch? We’ll miss your breweries but not much else. Somehow we’ll have to live without that hockey Mecca, Phoenix.

Columbus will have to go back to being that town where Ohio State University calls home. Nashville? Love your music, loathe your hockey tradition.

Finally, there’s Chicago. Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “Chicago, we’ll miss you most of all.”

But the soon-to-be truncated rivalry with the Blackhawks—which began when they were the Black Hawks—isn’t enough to make the Red Wings grow wistful for the West.

No more 10:30 p.m. Detroit starts. No more playoff games watched by hundreds of thousands who showed up as bleary-eyed zombies the next morning at work.

The Red Wings have carried the West long enough. Their occupation has ended. General Bettman says it’s OK for the Red Wings to join the East.

Fittingly, the news came down this week, with the Red Wings making one of those lovely Western Canada swings through Alberta. They reacted so giddily, you half expected that they would drop their hockey sticks and run to Philadelphia.

Or Boston. Or New York. Heck, even New Jersey, and no one runs to New Jersey unless they’re in the Mob.

The Red Wings are moving to the East for the 2013-14 season. It’s all part of the realignment that was signed off on by the players association.

It’s Christmas in March for the Red Wings and their fans, particularly those old enough to remember the Original Six, when a trip “out west” meant you were taking the train to Chicago and Detroit.

The Red Wings will be placed in a division with four, count ‘em, four, Original Six organ-eye-zayshuns.

Detroit. Montreal. Toronto. Boston. And the New York Rangers are just a division away. Only the Chicago Blackhawks, from the O-6, are left behind in the West. The Blackhawks are a dynamic hockey club with a wealth of young talent, and they started this season with a streak of getting points in their first 24 games. It’s their turn to prop the West up.

That’s what the Red Wings did, you know—prop up the West. Don’t let anyone in the league offices in New York tell you otherwise. But the NHL loved having the Red Wings playing all those games in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones.

The Red Wings, with their expansive fan base and their Stanley Cups and their annual appearance in the playoffs, papered the houses, from the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to the arenas in San Jose and Anaheim, and all the way to Columbus. Especially Columbus.

For two decades, the Red Wings’ success was a boon to the attendance out west. It wasn’t unusual to see more blood red and white jerseys in the seats than those of the home teams.

Those days are done. The Red Wings will be rekindling rivalries that go back to before World War II.

The fans are beside themselves. They’re rubbing their hands together at the prospects of seeing the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs and the Bruins in Joe Louis Arena more than once every Leap Year.

The beauty of the move is that, finally, the powers that be saw the value of having the Red Wings in the Eastern Time zone.

It’s what’s best for the NHL, really.

The timing couldn’t be better. Look at the standings. All four of these Original Six brethren—even long-suffering Toronto—are good teams. It’s not just that they share lineage, they’re highly competitive.

NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.

Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.

I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.

You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.

Not all the teams in the new division are filled with tradition, but that’s OK. The Red Wings will also be joined by Florida, Tampa Bay (though Yzerman is the GM), Buffalo and Ottawa. But as Bettman pointed out, the Florida markets are filled with transplanted Michiganders.

The winners, clearly, are the Red Wings and their brand in this league gerrymandering. No more jet lag, and during the playoffs, no less. Fox Sports Detroit will enjoy higher TV ratings. A road trip from Toronto to Detroit is back in play, and vice versa.

The Red Wings’ mission out west is complete. They’ll be able to get through a hockey season without spending half of it waiting for their bodies to adjust to the time.

You miss games in L.A.? I guess you’ll have to wait until the Finals.

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