Archive for Detroit Red Wings
In your world or mine, a 40-year-old goalie nine years removed from his last Stanley Cup is probably wearing a suit and gabbing in between periods for one of the TV networks.
Or he might be coaching kid netminders somewhere, imparting words of wisdom about how positioning is everything and teaching the art of being stingy with rebounds.
Not in Martin Brodeur’s world.
In Marty’s World, the 40-year-old goalie is leading in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and already being credited with saving not only pucks, but his team’s bacon.
OK, so Marty Brodeur isn’t 40—yet. He turns it on Sunday.
Not that you’d know it with the way he’s playing these days.
Brodeur has his New Jersey Devils in front of the favored Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The latest win was an overtime thriller on Thursday night in Jersey. Brodeur was key in killing off two Flyers power plays in the extra session, enabling the Devils to stay alive long enough to pop in the winning goal with less than three minutes to play in the fourth period.
Brodeur is 17 years removed from the first of his three Cups, which he won over the heavily favored Red Wings in a four-game sweep—a series in which New Jersey employed their infamous trap, and Brodeur’s goaltending allowed the mighty Wings just seven goals scored in four games.
Marty was 23 back then, and at the time, he was almost more recognized for being the son of Denis Brodeur, a world-class hockey photographer whose work—mostly shot at the Montreal Forum—can be found in coffee table books the world over.
You know how many goalies have come and gone from the NHL since 1995?
I don’t, either, but it’s too many to keep track of.
Brodeur is closing in on playing in his 200th playoff game. Through Thursday’s contest, he’s logged close to 12,000 minutes between the pipes in the postseason alone. That’s 200 hours, or over eight full days of kicking, sprawling, butterflying, stretching, reaching and smothering—when the stakes have been the highest.
And here’s the thing: Marty Brodeur looks, pretty much, the same today as he did when he broke into the NHL in the 1991-92 season as a 19-year-old.
Still has the boyish, baby face. Still has the bright eyes. Still has most of his hair.
And judging by his numbers for this season, Brodeur still has the cat-like quickness, the reliable glove and the uncanny knack for placing his body between the shooter and the net, just in time.
Brodeur had 31 wins, a 2.41 GAA, three shutouts and a fine .908 save percentage in his 19th NHL season.
Oh, and about those shutouts.
There was a time, when talking about the seemingly unbreakable records in pro sports, you tossed Terry Sawchuk’s 103 shutouts into the mix. Given the relatively short careers of the modern-day goalie, Sawchuk’s shutout mark appeared untouchable.
For a while.
Then this baby-faced kid from Montreal won another Stanley Cup in 2000, then another in 2003, and all of a sudden, it was like you blinked and the 23-year-old, first-time Cup winner was a grizzled, three-time champion hoarding shutouts like a squirrel does nuts.
Closer and closer, Brodeur edged toward Sawchuk, who was widely regarded as the greatest goalie in NHL history.
For a while.
Then Brodeur passed Sawchuk, in 2009, and now, it’s Marty who may never be caught when it comes to pitching shutouts.
Sawchuk was once in a class all his own, in many people’s eyes, when it came to NHL goaltending excellence. Today, it’s maybe even money: Sawchuk or Brodeur? Brodeur or Sawchuk?
This will hit a nerve in Detroit.
It’s a double whammy because Red Wings fans—if you talk to them about it—are still stinging from the Devils’ sweep of their team in the ’95 finals. I think they rue that series more than the seven-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.
So you have that image of the 1995 Devils. Then you suggest that Marty Brodeur is, overall, a better goalie than Red Wings great Sawchuk, and you might as well be telling a six-year-old that there is no Santa Claus.
Yet here Brodeur is, playing some of his best hockey, leading another playoff series that his team is not even supposed to be competitive in, and you start to scurry to the record books.
What is the longest gap between first and last Stanley Cups won by a goalie?
If Brodeur’s Devils survive the Flyers and two more series after that, it will be 17 years between Cup No. 1 and this one for Marty.
I know that’s one too many “ifs” for some people’s liking, but would you feel comfortable betting against Brodeur right now?
And I’ll save you the scurrying; the 17 years would set an NHL record.
The New Jersey Devils, when Brodeur joined them, were, as Wayne Gretzky once famously called them, a Mickey Mouse organization.
The Devils have a lineage laced with infamy. While other franchises were taking slap shots, the Devils’ forefathers were engaging in slapstick.
The family tree begins in 1974 with the advent of the expansion Kansas City Scouts. They were awful, as most expansion teams of the 1970s were. The Scouts lasted two seasons before moving to Colorado and calling themselves the Rockies—some 17 years before the baseball team swiped that name.
The Colorado Rockies were lousy, too. Even the bombastic Don Cherry was brought in to coach them, and it was like Mike Ditka coaching the New Orleans Saints.
The Rockies moved east to New Jersey in 1982.
The New Jersey Devils were about as bad as the Scouts and the Rockies. They tripped over themselves for over 10 years before finally getting it right, personnel-wise.
Just about the same time that Marty Brodeur arrived to be the Devils’ goalie.
Funny, but in the 19 years that Brodeur has manned the net for Jersey, the Devils have missed the playoffs only twice.
If you think that’s a coincidence, then I have some swamp land in—where else—New Jersey to sell you.
The high-scoring Flyers, who play a video-game style of hockey and win games by scores like 8-3, were supposed to run roughshod over the 2012 Devils in this series—even in the playoffs, where if goal-scoring were a commodity, it’d be gold.
But, the Devils are leading the Flyers. They have another game in New Jersey to play before the series shifts to Philadelphia. By that time, the Flyers might trail, three games to one.
And Marty Brodeur will be a little closer to another Stanley Cup.
Not bad for 40 years old, eh?
Marty is no longer known as Denis’ kid; rather, Denis is Marty’s dad.
I’m not sure where the April showers are so far, but it is the fourth month of the year, and this is Detroit, so whether the rains come or not, the hockey fan is about to venture into “that time of the year.”
It’s a time of mysterious injuries of the upper and lower body; a time of a game every other night, each the most important the Red Wings will have played thus far.
It’s a time of guys trying to get off the schneid; a time of “puck luck” and a word that rhymes with it. It’s a time of struggling power plays and stealing home ice. It’s a time of ricochets and “lively boards” and a time to panic.
It’s a time when goalies “would like to have that one back” unless they’re “standing on their head.”
It’s a time when skaters are being “Johnny on the spot” and speedy, pesky guys who are great on the “PK.”
It’s a time when you can’t let anyone come into “your building” and shove you around and a time to play a “good road game.”
It’s trailing in a series, 3-1, and declaring that you’re just taking everything “one game, one period, one shift at a time.”
It’s playoff hockey time in Detroit, where every fan wakes up the morning of Game 1 of the first round and sees that a panic button has been installed on their TV remote, ready for the run.
It’s a fun time to be on Twitter and to listen to talk radio to parse the thoughts of the suicidal as the Red Wings fight through a series, and I’m reminded of a line from Steely Dan’s song, “Black Friday,” which is about the financial ruin of stockbrokers.
“I’m gonna stand out by the door; gonna watch the grey men as they dive from the 14th floor.”
There’s nothing quite like a long playoff run in Detroit, the legions of which have so smarmily given the city the moniker of “Hockeytown.”
It’s springtime hockey, which is significantly different than fall and winter hockey.
As the temps increase, so does the pressure. The checking turns tighter than a cheapskate’s wallet.
The other three major team sports’ postseasons don’t have the element of luck, chance and quirkiness that playoff hockey is rife with.
Last year, during the ALCS, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hit a shot down the third-base line in the sixth inning of Game 5 that struck the bag and shot over the head of Texas 3B Adrian Beltre. The fortuitous hit drove in the go-ahead run and started a four-run rally that swayed the game in the Tigers’ favor.
But playoff baseball isn’t filled with bad hops and caroms and the feeling of kismet that playoff hockey provides.
Nor does basketball or football; those sports’ matches are overwhelmingly decided by talent, scheme and execution.
Hockey is the fickle finger of fate of sports. It’s blood, toil and sweat—and broken noses, jaws and teeth—but so often the final score is as fair as a crooked judge.
In basketball, if you outplay, out-rebound and outshoot your opponent, you win by 25 points. In baseball, if you bash the ball, pitch the ball and catch the ball, they’ll call it a laugher. In football, if you outclass the enemy, you’ll cover the spread and then some.
Playoff hockey will have none of that kind of justice.
The shots-on-goal counter can read a two-to-one ratio. The playing surface can look tilted in a 45-degree direction. The outplayed, outshot team can look like it’s wearing skates made of lead.
Yet the scoreboard won’t indicate any of that.
Playoff hockey isn’t interested in following formula or offering up the usual cast of characters as heroes. It’s sometimes not enough to lead in every category one can think of, because in the only one that matters—the final score—you just might find yourself on the losing end.
A successful playoff run in hockey lasts about two months, has more ups and downs than a teeter-totter during recess and plays with the emotions of fans like a cat with a ball of yarn.
Brendan Shanahan is a three-time Stanley-Cup-winner and a playoff hockey war horse. He came to Detroit in a trade in 1996, anxious to win a championship. He got it, eight months later. Then he got two more, wearing the Winged Wheel on his chest as if it had been branded there.
A couple Aprils ago, I sat across from Shanahan while he was in town prepping for a Fox Sports special involving two local high school hockey teams renewing a bitter rivalry.
He clued me in on how a hockey player looks at a playoff run.
“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”
Shanahan was just over a year removed from retirement when we spoke and he already was pining for participating in playoff hockey.
“I miss playing for the Stanley Cup,” he told me, plainly.
Yet playoff hockey isn’t just the Shanahans of the world, who played in 184 postseason games and scored 60 springtime goals.
It’s also a quiet, shy kid playing with a bottle of water, sitting at a table with his name on a placard during a media meet-and-greet, looking like he was feeling foolish by his mere presence at such a gathering.
Darren Helm, just a couple days removed from scoring the overtime goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, was another of those accidental heroes that the playoffs are so famous for conjuring up.
I was roaming the big media/players room the NHL set up at the Renaissance Center in advance of the Red Wings-Penguins final when I caught Helm playing with his water bottle. He was so young the bottle might as well have had a nipple on it.
Yet he was the hero of the moment—except no one was talking to him.
Too many other stars to grab sound bites from, I guess.
I chatted Helm up for a bit and strained to hear him. He had just scored the biggest goal of the Red Wings’ season but had the countenance of a boy meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.
Brendan Shanahan and Darren Helm—two playoff heroes, two ends of a spectrum.
But this is springtime hockey, so they’re also one and the same.
Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena, as the clock’s final few minutes ticked off, 21,000-plus fans stood and shouted, as if they were at a blackjack table at one of the city’s casinos.
It was a night where no one left early to beat the traffic. The score was out of hand, but that was the point.
Just the latest accomplishment by the best franchise in pro sports.
And appropriate that the chant be “21!”—because that’s also how many consecutive seasons the hockey team from Detroit will have qualified for the playoffs after this 82-game season is in the books.
I wonder if we truly appreciate and understand what it is that we’re seeing here with this Red Wings—as they say in Canada—”organ-eye-ZAY-shun.”
It’s not just that the Red Wings qualify for the postseason as reliably as Punxsutawney Phil rises from his hole every February 2nd. It’s that the Red Wings don’t just make the playoffs—they annually expect to be the last team standing in June, hoisting the Stanley Cup over their sweaty heads.
With the exception of 1991, when the streak began, there hasn’t really been a year among the 21 straight playoff appearances when the Red Wings haven’t been in the discussion as serious Cup contenders. Oh, they’ve been more serious in some years than others; but for the most part, you would be remiss to exclude them from at least the Final Four conversation.
There have been first-round disappointments and Finals heartbreaks, and wins and losses in series in between. But can you think of a spring when you didn’t think they could go all the way?
It has no precedent in sports, really. The Celtics of the 1960s were an amazing unit that racked up championships like dirty dishes at a diner during the lunch rush. But even the Celts didn’t make the playoffs 21 years in a row.
The Yankees of the 1940s and into the ‘60s were almost annual World Series pre-season picks. But they had some down years mixed in, when they weren’t a factor in the pennant race.
Les Canadiens du Montreal—winners of the most Stanley Cups on Earth—never put together two decades straight of championship-caliber teams.
The NFL’s dominant teams are neatly segmented into decades. The team of the 1950s (Cleveland); the 1960s (Green Bay); the 1970s (Pittsburgh); the 1980s (San Francisco); the 1990s (Dallas); and the 2000s (New England). But no 20 years of consecutive excellence for any of them.
What haven’t the Red Wings provided us since 1991?
Record-setting seasons? Check (the 1995-96 club won a league-record 62 games).
Stanley Cup Finals appearances? Check (six of them, including four wins).
Individual stars/future Hall of Famers? Check, check, check and dozens more checks.
Player development? Check (an unbelievable amount of the Red Wings’ key contributors were drafted in the lower rounds; Tomas Holmstrom, who recently played in his 1,000th game and who has 240 goals, was a 10th-round draft pick).
Stable, competent management? Check (the hierarchy of owner Mike Ilitch, VP Jimmy Devellano, GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill have been working together since the Reagan administration).
Last spring, however, it looked like some of the Red Wings’ luster was tarnishing.
After a second round exit in 2010, the Red Wings trailed the San Jose Sharks—their 2010 vanquisher—three games to none in the second round of 2011.
Too old! The window has closed! The Red Wings’ time has passed! The end of an era!
And that was from the fans, uttered on sports talk radio and the like. The national pundits joined in, too.
Nobody gave the supposedly old and decrepit Red Wings a prayer to make the Sharks series competitive.
But Detroit won Game 4 and then stole a stunning victory in Game 5 in San Jose. In Detroit for Game 6, the Red Wings played as if they refused to accept that the Sharks were the better team. It was a tight, low-scoring affair that saw the Sharks edge in front in the third period by a goal, despite not being the best team on the ice that night.
The Red Wings sneered at their supposed fate and stormed back to snatch Game 6 and force a Game 7 that had earlier in the series been as expected as a man winning a fight with his wife.
The Sharks held on and captured the series, but I don’t know that I’d ever been as proud of a Red Wings team as I was after they made the unthinkable thinkable.
Just when you thought they were old, done, over with as a dominant NHL team. Last year, the Red Wings struggled to win at home. They were a very mediocre 21-14-6 at the Joe, which is the NHL’s way of saying they were 21-20.
Not done with giving us thrills and chills, this year’s Red Wings have again made Joe Louis Arena a house of horrors for opponents. They again lead the entire league in total points.
If you can come up with some sort of NHL record, this Red Wings “organ-eye-ZAY-shun” is likely to break it. And they have yet again, besting the 1930 Bruins and 1976 Flyers for most consecutive wins at home in one season.
People often ask me if I ever think I’ll see the day when the Lions win the Super Bowl. Before I answer them, I remember that there was a time where I never dreamed I’d see the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup, let alone four.
Joe Louis Arena was barren, devoid of fans and excitement. The biggest cheers came during intermission, when cars were handed out for free by a desperate Ilitch ownership, in its formative years.
I remember knocking off work several times in 1985-86 and deciding, on a whim, to head up I-75 from Taylor to downtown and catch a Red Wings game, all by my lonesome. Parking was a breeze. There was no line at the box office. I paid my 15 bucks and sat in the lower bowl. I could stretch out quite comfortably.
The Red Wings would lose, but that was OK. It was NHL hockey on a shoestring, without the crowds. I could skip to the refreshment stand and get back to my seat and barely miss any action.
I thought of those days as I gazed out from the press box, covering Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Finals, during a stoppage of play. How far this franchise has come, I thought.
The Red Wings lost on that night, too.
They haven’t done much of that over the past 21 years, have they?
When is someone going to officially declare that hockey players are certifiably
I mean off-their-rocker nuts, totally and completely out of their minds?
It’s a sport played by Kamikazes, who zoom around an ice rink surrounded by
non-giving hardwood boards, with sharp objects all around them: skates, sticks,
corners of elbows and teeth—those that haven’t been spit out on the bench, that
You think football players are tough? Maybe so, but they also have all their
marbles, because the NFL hasn’t seen a leather helmet since World War II. The
face mask started to come into vogue in the 1950s.
Jacques Plante, the legendary Hall of Fame goalie, tried to put a thin,
flimsy mask on his face in the mid-‘50s and was all but mocked out of the
league. It wasn’t until Plante took one too many vulcanized rubber discs between
the eyes and refused to play without facial protection that Montreal coach Toe
Blake consented to the wearing of the mask—with conditions.
If Plante had trouble seeing the puck, Blake said, then the mask was history
and so was Plante if he had a problem with Toe’s disclaimer.
Plante could see the puck—or, he told his coach that he could see
Not that any of Jacques’ brethren followed his lead right away.
Goalies continued to mostly go maskless until, unbelievably, the 1970s.
Only then did the last few bare-faced netminders vanish.
I always thought a goalie not wearing a mask, facing pucks being fired around
his head at upwards of 75 MPH, was akin to a race car driver refusing to wear a
While all this insanity in hockey was going on, the NFL did away with leather
helmets and as the years went on, the quality of the headgear got increasingly
Meanwhile, the NHL eschewed helmets like a
dieting woman waving off a slice of cheesecake.
A few wore them, and they too were derided, as Plante had been. Again, not
until 1979 did the NHL mandate helmets for its players. But there was a
grandfather clause that said players who signed contracts before ’79 had the
option to wear helmets or not.
That’s why Red Wings fans were
treated to the balding head of Harold Snepsts from 1985-88.
The hockey players’ shoulder pads until the Reagan administration were a
Don’t get me started on visors.
Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s Jackie Robinson—the league’s first black player—was
in Detroit several years ago, sponsoring an initiative to get more
African-American kids playing hockey in the inner city.
I knew of O’Ree, of course, but I didn’t know that he hid the fact that he
was blind in one eye.
“Oh yeah,” O’Ree told me as we chatted in a RenCen lounge. “I was afraid if
they found out I couldn’t see in one eye, they wouldn’t let me play
The irony is that because we’re talking hockey, not only would they have let
O’Ree play, the powers that be might have sent their scouts looking for more
Hockey players lose teeth, have their faces gashed open and break their
legs—sometimes all before the first intermission. They might miss a shift or
two—or however long it takes a doctor to pull, stitch or set whatever needs to
be pulled, stitched or set.
Bob Baun beat the Red Wings in the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals with an overtime
goal—playing on a snapped ankle.
O’Ree played with one eye.
Amazingly, there has been only one fatality in a game—that of Minnesota’s Bill
Masterton, in 1968, whose head hit the ice after a check. And we’re talking
about 100 years of this ice hockey stuff.
Masterton’s death, by the way, had no effect on players wearing helmets. They
continued to not don them.
I remember watching video of Buffalo goalie Clint
Malarchuk bleeding from his neck like a wide-open faucet after his carotid
artery was slashed by a wayward skate. I can still see the white ice below his
neck turn deep red within seconds.
Malarchuk almost died, but he kept playing after his neck healed.
If you need more convincing that hockey players are coo coo, look no further
than the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom.
Holmstrom played in his 1,000th career NHL game Friday night. Good for him.
That’s not an insignificant milestone.
But that also means that Holmstrom has subjected himself to 1,000 games of
being hacked, whacked, face-washed and throttled—not to mention putting himself
in the crosshairs of powerful slap shots from the point.
Holmstrom is that guy you’ve seen camping out in front of opponents’ nets
since 1996 with utter disregard for his own well-being. Nothing good can come
from stationing yourself where Holmstrom does during a hockey game, but a whole
lot of bad can happen.
Well, there is one good thing that comes from it: scoring goals.
Holmstrom, before Friday’s game, had scored 240 goals in the NHL. I’ll bet
200 of them have come with a very expensive physical price to pay.
Holmstrom isn’t the flashy goal scorer who uses sleight of hand and smoke and
mirrors to deposit pucks past goalies while nary being touched.
Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a
grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The
grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and
bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000
You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000
games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine
being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks
for over 10 days straight?
Holmstrom is the typical hockey player—which means he’s as crazy as a box of
yo-yos. What does he think of all the abuse he’s endured for 1,000 games?
“It’s fun, for sure,” he told the Free Press the other day. “People
just are like, ‘Congratulations, 998, 999. One to go.’ Frequent reminders. It’s
I’m telling you, these guys are looney.
Congratulations, Tomas—you crazy SOB.
It’s polo played on ice, sans the horses.
The thrills and chills come from the long, effortless strides of a puck-carrier as he bores down at the goalie from the wing, at some 25-30 miles per hour. Until he loses the puck, and the same thing happens, going the other way.
It’s a sport whose stoppages of play can come in rapid-fire fashion or as few and far between as an apology from Rush Limbaugh.
The typical rink is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. That’s 17,000 square feet of frozen fun.
Yet despite all that area with which to work, an Italian-Canadian named Phil Esposito made his living operating within a fraction of it.
Esposito was a center man, or, to be true to his Canadian roots, a centre man. But he played the position as if he was employed by the Boston Celtics instead of the Boston Bruins, for whom he toiled in his heyday of the 1970s.
If the NHL had a three-second rule in front of the goal crease, Esposito would have led the league in violations.
The Bruins led the NHL in goals in the 1970-71 season, scoring nearly 400 in 78 games. Esposito scored 76 of those, by far a new NHL record. If you measured the distance the pucks traveled, those 76 goals likely traversed no more than the 200-foot length of a rink, combined.Esposito was immovable in front of the opponent’s goal. He never took a slap shot in his life. He didn’t shoot the puck, per se—he shoved and poked and pushed it past the goal line.
The single-season goal scoring record that Esposito shattered was held by Bobby Hull, who ONLY took slap shots. The two players’ styles couldn’t have been any more different.
Hull skated; Esposito planted.
As for their shooting skills, if they were pitchers, Hull was Nolan Ryan and Esposito was Phil Niekro.
Yet both hockey players made it into the Hall of Fame by scoring bushels of goals. It’s just that Hull did it from afar and Esposito did it from the goalie’s doorstep.
Esposito comes to mind as I watch this man the folks around town call The Mule play hockey for the Red Wings.
Johan Franzen wears No. 93, a number never considered to be worn in Esposito’s day. Hockey players back then didn’t wear a number higher than 35, and that was reserved for the goalies.
If a player was sent to the minors, his replacement simply took his number—kind of like a hockey doppelganger.A hockey player wearing No. 93 in Esposito’s time might as well have been all green with one eye in the middle of his head.
Doesn’t matter. Franzen plays Esposito-like hockey.
They call Franzen The Mule because, well, you ever try to move a mule that doesn’t want to be moved?
Like Esposito four decades ago, Johan Franzen takes a vast majority of his cracks at the net a stick’s length away from it.
Franzen is the bull to the goalie’s china shop. He has the finesse of a caveman and the grace of the town drunk. His goals have the beauty only a mother can love.
But hockey doesn’t award style points. Like its brethren, hockey is a bottom-line, end-of-the-day sport. Wins are doled out to the team with the most goals, not the most oohs and ahhs.
Every team should have a Johan Franzen. Yet not every team does.
It may seem that all Franzen does is throw himself at the net like a blind squirrel in search of a nut, hoping to pick up a few. But Franzen is a strong, powerful forward with a will to match. He is maybe the most purposeful player in the NHL.Especially come playoff time.
Since he’s been a regular with the Red Wings (seven seasons), Franzen has been his most lethal when the buds begin appearing on the trees and you can start smelling the charcoal and lighter fluid again.
In 83 career playoff games, Franzen has 37 goals—about 10 more than he averages per the same amount of games in the regular season.
An injury reduced him to just eight playoff games and two goals last spring, his effectiveness neutralized by his poor health. It was one major reason why the Red Wings couldn’t advance past the San Jose Sharks and the second round for the second year in a row.
Franzen is 6’3”, 225 pounds and doesn’t take no for an answer around the net. He plays like a bulldozer, but in reality he has hands as soft as rose petals. Often, you need to see the replays of his goals to appreciate his dexterity in such close quarters in the crease area.
Franzen has 18 goals this season in 47 games. On that pace, he’ll register about 30 for the year, which would be second to his career-high of 34, set in 2009. Of his 18 tallies thus far, all but a few have been scored while breathing down the goalie’s neck.
Franzen plays on a very intriguing line with center Pavel Datsyuk and right wing Todd Bertuzzi. I say intriguing because few lines in the NHL can match theirs in terms of creativity (Datsyuk), smarts (Bertuzzi) and sheer strength (Franzen).The line is becoming a beast in the league. All three of them are playing some of their best hockey right now. It’s a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
Johan Franzen isn’t likely to get a sniff of MVP talk, probably ever in his career. His play isn’t glitzy or glamorous. His goals don’t find their way on any of the ESPN highlight montages.
But try playing chunks of games without him and see how the Red Wings fare.
Not that I’m suggesting it.
Forget Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg et al—how Johan Franzen goes will pretty much determine how the Red Wings go. They are, after all, the only team that can saddle up a mule.
He was the NHL’s original Iron Man—a man of perfect attendance, whose offices were located in six Taj Mahals of indoor sports venues.
Long before the tentacles of corporate sponsorship wrapped themselves around the naming of stadiums and arenas, the NHL of Johnny Wilson was played in a half dozen barns, each wonderfully devoid of anything remotely corporate in name, though several were botanical.
Chicago Stadium. Maple Leaf Gardens. The Boston Garden. Madison Square Garden. The Forum. Olympia Stadium.
The names of the arenas screamed hockey.
And Wilson screamed hockey by showing up to work everyday—580 consecutive times, to be exact.
This was the Original Six era—14 games played against each of your five opponents, for a 70-game schedule.
It was hockey without helmets, with shoulder pads smaller than those on today’s women’s attire and with cages around the rink, not Plexiglas.
Travel was by train, sometimes on the same cars as your opponent, if the teams were playing a home-and-home set. That made for some interesting commutes.
It was a race to see which would happen faster: players losing their teeth, or their faces being sewn back together.
All the players were Canadian.
The 70 games were scrunched together between mid-October and late-March. There was no two-month run of playoffs. Everything was wrapped up by mid-April, in time for the baseball season to take center stage.
Wilson joined the Red Wings late in the 1949-50 season, a 20-year-old from a town called Kincardine in Ontario. That was another constant—not only were all the players from Canada, they all hailed from towns that you needed a map to find.
Wilson, a left winger, picked a great time to debut in the NHL, because just weeks later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
Too young to crack the Red Wings’ talent-rich lineup on a consistent basis, Wilson bounced back and forth between Detroit and the minor leagues until midway through the 1951-52 season, when he got called up yet again.
That’s when he started his streak of 580 consecutive games played. No more minor leagues for him.
Three more Stanley Cups followed (1952, ’54, and ’55), with Wilson popping in the odd goal, and skating up and down his wing, dutifully, every night.
The bottom line was this: Johnny Wilson got called up to the Red Wings in 1951 and didn’t miss a game the rest of the decade, despite a trade to Chicago in 1955 and back to Detroit in 1957.
The original NHL Iron Man.
Johnny wasn’t the only Wilson kid playing in the NHL—he just played in it longer. His brother, Larry, made it with the Red Wings for a time.
Larry also followed his big brother behind the bench as Red Wings coach.
More about that later.
Johnny Wilson died in Metro Detroit on December 27 at age 82, after an illness.
You’d hardly have known it, judging by the shameful under-reporting of his death by the Detroit newspapers.
Wilson was one of those Red Wings alumni who stayed in the area, hung around the team and who was always eager to talk hockey.
I should know.
In fall 2006, I moderated a roundtable discussion about hockey, comparing eras and talking about how the game has evolved since the 1950s.
The panel consisted of Ted Lindsay, Shawn Burr and Johnny Wilson.
Wilson was 77 at the time but he was as sharp as a scalpel, talking hockey and, more importantly, listening.
It was a wonderful hour.
Before we sat down and talked, I told Wilson that I thought he got a screw job, when he was fired as Red Wings coach after less than two seasons in 1973, and right after missing the playoffs by two measly points. I had wanted to tell him that ever since it happened.
He grinned and said, “Darkness with Harkness,” referring to GM Ned Harkness, who rendered Wilson’s ziggy.
About four years after Johnny was canned as Red Wings coach, brother Larry came along and tried coaching the second half of a 16-55-9 year in 1977. Two years after that, Larry dropped dead of a heart attack, at age 49.
You may know Larry’s son—and Johnny’s nephew—Ron Wilson, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Johnny Wilson was a great Red Wing. He wasn’t a prolific scorer; there were plenty of those on the roster. He won no MVP Awards nor had any remarkable seasons, statistically.
But he was there every night, in the lineup, for those 580 consecutive games. He won four Stanley Cups. And he kept himself closely aligned with the Red Wings, being active in the Alumni Association.
Wilson was also a pretty damn good coach who won a championship in the AHL before coaching the Red Wings.
He was a true gentleman who represented the Winged Wheel with class, dignity and respect.
He died on December 27 and his death barely got a sniff from the local fish wrap. Maybe everyone was too giddy about the Lions clinching a playoff spot just days earlier.
It was a shameful example of under-reporting, because Wilson was among the greatest of Red Wings.
As a player, he was as solid—and reliable—as they come. As a coach, he was innovative and settled the team down from the upheaval that existed when he took over.
As an alumnus, Wilson was active, involved and you knew there was a Winged Wheel tattooed on his heart.
He deserved better from the local papers, which should get a game misconduct for virtually ignoring his legacy.
In a flash, a whirr and a blur, another year in sports came and went. 2011, it seemed, might have been missed had you blinked.
And what a year it was.
Tigers AND Lions in the playoffs, for the first time in the same year since 1935.
Pistons with a new coach (again).
Red Wings almost coming all the way back from an 0-3 playoff deficit against the San Jose Sharks.
Michiganfootball resurging under new coach Brady Hoke.
And I wrote about it all—with varying degrees of premonition and soothsaying.
For the fourth year in a row, I take you through the calendar and share some of my bon mots—and why they were or were not some of my best.
(on Steve Yzerman putting together a winner inTampaBay)
You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.
There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer toCubathanCanada.
Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHL; I looked it up.
No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.
Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.
Yzerman is turning theTampa(freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.
Stevie’s team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, as a matter of fact.
(on why the Pistons should hang onto veteran Tracy McGrady)
McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn’t look like all has been done; not even close.
The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name; a player who wasn’t too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.
The Pistons didn’t need another swingman; in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn’t like NBA teams were knocking McGrady’s door down for
his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.
It’s not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.
The Pistons decided otherwise, and let McGrady walk away after one season in Detroit.
(on the once unthinkable retirement of former Piston Dennis Rodman’s number)
He worked as a janitor at theDallas-FortWorthAirportafter high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.
Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.
Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place calledCookeCountyCollegeinGainesville,Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.
From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.
The Pistons are going to do something on April 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.
On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.
Not long after, Rodman went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, for good measure.
(on the long overdue election of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.
I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You heard me; it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.
This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.
Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.
It was very satisfying watching Ed, with son Steve by his side, giving his induction speech.
(on who should be the Tigers’ starting second baseman)
If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers’ second sacker.
Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He’s hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and he only made four errors in 53 games.
He’s a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that’s still seven years younger than (Carlos) Guillen.
Umm, you can’t win them all. Rhymes did indeed win the job in spring training, but he didn’t hit a lick and was lopped off the 40-man roster earlier this month.
(on the importance of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Tigers’ cause)
Jacksonis the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.
Jacksonstrikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player, but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.
Well, the batting average was .249, and the strikeouts jumped from 170 to 181. Yet the Tigers still won their division.
(on the sad state of veteran forward Mike Modano, who was on the outside looking in, for the most part, during the NHL playoffs)
Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.
Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back toDetroit.
Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.
“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”
Modano only got into two playoff games, and he retired over the summer, after having missed about three months of the season with a badly gashed wrist.
(on my frustration with the stubborn Tigers manager, Jim Leyland)
Jim Leyland, in case you haven’t heard, is a rocket scientist.
He presides over a job so sophisticated, so complicated, that it defies the understanding of those who aren’t rocket scientists.
He stands above all in his knowledge of his very scientific vocation, and therefore has no use for those whose brains simply cannot wrap themselves around the mesmerizing theorems, laws and corollaries that one must know in order to manage a baseball team.
OOPS; did I say Jim was a rocket scientist?
I made an assumption, since that’s how he treats his job, and those who dare question his logic.
The Marlboro Man had the last laugh, of course.
(on the prospects of new U-M football coach Brady Hoke)
Michiganfootball had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.
Michigandidn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.
…But Hoke needs to start beatingMichiganState, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith inMichiganfootball once again.
Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to saveMichiganfootball. That’s all.
And you know what?
I think he’s gouhnna do it.
That last sentence was my attempt at spelling how Hoke pronounces “gonna.” And, for the record, Hoke seems to be right on course, leading the Wolverines to a fine 10-2 season.
(on the Red Wings forcing a Game 7 in their conference semi-final series againstSan Jose, after dropping the first three games)
It’s now the thinkable.
The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the ‘51 Giants, the ‘78 Yankees. They’re the ‘68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.
The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.
Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy’s hold.
This isn’t happening, but yet it is. Even Disney’s Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.
The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?
The Red Wings dropped that Game 7 to the Sharks, but they made Hockeytown so extremely proud of them.
(on why the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been embraced by fans as a superstar player should)
We love the idea of Miguel Cabrera being on our team. But we don’t love him. In fact, there’s a bunch of us who may not even like him, because he’s not that likeable of a guy, frankly.
Which is all such a shame, because we probably have him figured out all wrong. His teammates liken him to a big, cuddly bear. That may be the case; they ought to know, after all.
But we don’t see that side because we don’t see him. All we see is a big, talented man wearing a Tigers uniform. That may be enough for some, but it falls way short for most.
We don’t know Miguel Cabrera because we never hear from him. This is his fourth season as a Tiger and the man is a blank canvas, save for some splotches that have been tossed onto it.
I stand by this, though he ingratiated himself more as the season wore on.
(on LeBron James, after the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals toDallas)
The Miami Heat won’t soon live this one down, folks. Maybe not ever. History, me thinks, will be in a cranky mood when it passes judgment on the 2010-11MiamiHeat—the team LeBron James couldn’t wait to join. The team that so easily seduced him, but that he also disappointed by leaving during the NBA Finals.
Until he wins a championship—and there’s no guarantee that he ever will—LeBron James should go down as one of the most laughable “superstars” that pro sports has ever seen. He should go down as a less-than-brilliant, heartless, gutless player who managed to fool his public even while hiding in plain sight.
But LeBron didn’t just fool them; he failed them.
His name doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Michael Jordan’s, unless it’s to create a grocery list of reasons why it doesn’t.
Why don’t I tell you what I REALLY feel?
(on the death of former Tiger Jim Northrup, and my personal dealings with him)
Jim Northrup always got his hacks in—whether it was at the plate or at the table.
I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.
I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.
I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office to vent.
He was one of a kind, Jim Northrup was. RIP.
(on the potential end of Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s career)
So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard’s backup are over with.
Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin—a goalie’s worst enemy.
Osgood is another who isn’t making things easy forHolland. Ozzie hasn’t offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it’s doubtful that he will.
But Osgood’s reticence hasn’t stoppedHollandfrom carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Kris Draper) that a new contract wouldn’t be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.
It wasn’t, and Ozzie retired to help coach the organization’s young goalies.
(on the All-Star season authored by Tigers catcher AlexAvila)
Now I know why they call April 1, April Fool’s Day.
For that was the date, after just one game had been played in the 2011 season, that sports talk radio was lit up with phone calls from loudmouths on their cell phones, calling for the ouster of catcher Alex Avila from not only the Tigers starting lineup, but from the roster, from Detroit, and probably even the state of Michigan—to be on the safe side.
The Tigers had lost on Opening Day to the Yankees inNew York, and I won’t argue that it wasn’t one ofAvila’s crowning moments. He was shaky behind the plate and he looked overmatched with the bat—albeit he was going against southpaw CC Sabathia.
After one game, the callers were frothing at the mouth.
By mid-season, those same callers were urging fellow fans to vote for Avila for the All-Star team.
(on the importance of Lions QB Matthew Stafford staying healthy for the whole season)
Every timeStaffordgets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.
The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.
…The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other thanStafford, I will grant you that.
There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.
There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.
There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.
But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.
So far, so good.
(on my [then] disappointment with Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera)
Baloney, I say, to those who would tell me that I expect too much from Miguel Cabrera.
Look at his numbers, they’ll say. He grinds out an MVP-like season almost annually.
So how come Cabrera has never truly ever, in his four years as a Tiger, put the team on his back for any extended period of time?
Has he? Go ahead—I’ll wait while you come up with some examples. Or one, even.
Cabrera is doing it again, his timing again impeccably bad.
He has pedestrian numbers, this season, for a man of his talents. He swings too much at the first pitch. He grounds out to shortstop more than I thought was humanly possible.
This is the column that I took the most heat from. And Cabrera turned it around almost immediately and I gladly ate crow.
(on the Pistons hiring yet another new coach—Lawrence Frank)
They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.
There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible n Latin, his head bowed.
The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.
It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.
Let’s hope Frank proves to be something other than just another Pistons coach who stays for a couple years then is jettisoned.
(on Lions coach Jim Schwartz)
Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.
He doesn’t have “the look.”
How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?
The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.
…A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.
“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.
Now THERE’S a look for you.
Schwartz has the 10-5 Lions in the playoffs, three years after 0-16. Looks good to me!
(on the prospects of the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom)
Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.
In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.
Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.
There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.
Sooner rather than later, the Red Wings will have to pursue the Cup without Lidstrom, a frightening thought indeed.
(on why the Tigers beating the Yankees in the playoffs couldn’t really be celebrated)
It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.
The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.
Or that nothing could be better.
As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.
And that’s as far as the Tigers got, thanks to Texas’s Nelson Cruz.
(on why Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is good for the NFL’s business, good guy or bad guy)
It doesn’t matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.
Suh’s entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.
Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.
The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.
Suh’s play on the field seemed to take a slight step backward in his sophomore season, but his presence in the league is still high-profile and impactful.
(on former Lions guard—and paraplegic—Mike Utley’s battle to once again walk sans crutches)
Utley then made one of the most famous gestures inDetroitsports history.
His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.
He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.
The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.
Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed toWashingtonin the NFC Championship game in January.
It’s hard to find a more inspirational figure than Mike Utley.
(on the mid-season struggles of Lions QB Matthew Stafford)
But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There’s no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is ifStaffordis hurt—there’s no QB controversy here.
Staffordisn’t right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.
The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.
The Lions fixed him—i.e., his broken right index finger healed—and Stafford is as hot as they come heading into the playoffs.
(on a new era of Lions football, being ushered in by coach Schwartz, after the team clinched a playoff berth)
It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.
If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.
We just might.
(on new Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and his dual charge: to make the Pistons competitive and likeable)
From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.
The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.
Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 inNew Jerseya few years ago.
The Pistons won’t scare him.
The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders.
“Just Like Us, Baby.”
After three games, the likeable part looks to be more feasible than the competitive part, for now.
There you have it! 2011 in a nutshell.
See ya next year.
The most celebrated goaltender in Red Wings history—indeed, maybe in NHL history—was a tormented man. It’s been said that you have to be a little off your rocker to want to throw yourself into the path of vulcanized rubber discs for a living. Terry Sawchuk may not have been crazy, but he wasn’t happy.
It’s been documented—by his teammates, by his son, by those who covered him. Sawchuk, the Hall of Famer who did three stints with the Red Wings from 1949 to 1969, was a tragically sad man, for the most part.
Sawchuk was like the comedian who makes your sides burst with laughter, but who himself is devoid of joy. Kind of like the troubled Lenny Bruce, who, like Sawchuk, was dead by age 40.
Sawchuk dominated NHL shooters in his day, racking up 103 shutouts (a record long considered unbreakable untilNew Jersey’s Marty Brodeur proved otherwise) and guarding the Detroit goal like an Irish beat cop in the Bowery.
He gave Red Wings fans much joy—and helped lead his teammates to three Stanley Cups—but Sawchuk was joyless in the process. He was afflicted with untreated depression, and nearly had a nervous breakdown in 1957 while playing forBoston.
It should be noted that Sawchuk, at age 37, led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Leafs haven’t really come close to winning it since.
Yet even the great Terry Sawchuk was dispatched out ofDetroitbecause there was someone else to take his place. It happened in 1955, when the Red Wings, fresh off another Stanley Cup victory, dealt Sawchuk toBostonto make room for youngster Glenn Hall.
It was like trading Sinatra to make room for a young Perry Como.
The two-headed goalie inDetroithas been a monster seen all too often in theMotorCity. The parallel between the Red Wings goalie situations and those of the Lions’ quarterbacks are eerily similar.
Both teams can point to the mid-to-late-1950s as to when the two-headed monsters made their debut.
On the gridiron we had Layne and Rote thenPlumand Sweetan then Munson and Landry then…well, you don’t really want me to go on, do you?
On the ice it hasn’t been all that different.
Sawchuk gave way to Hall, then the Red Wings brought Sawchuk back and got rid of Hall, who is a Hall of Famer in his own right.
Sawchuk was with the Red Wings until 1964, then the merry-go-round in the Detroitnet really began.
It hasn’t mattered if the Red Wings were atrocious, as they were for most of the 1970s until the late-1980s, or if they were annual Cup contenders, as they have been for the past 20 years.
The two-headed goalie monster has reared its head often, regardless.
Remember the two heads of Glen Hanlon and Greg Stefan? They led the Red Wings to the NHL’s version of the Final Four in 1987 and ’88.
How about Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood? They presided over a 62-win season in 1996, then took turns leading the Red Wings to the Cup—Vernonin 1997 and Osgood in 1998.
Dominik Hasek. Curtis Joseph. Manny Legace. Hasek again. Osgood again. Hasek again. Osgood again.
The Red Wings, with their two-headed monster between the pipes, won four Stanley Cups in an 11-year stretch.
The goalie controversies have been much kinder to the Red Wings than the QB ones have been to the Lions.
But you can say goodbye to both two-headed monsters—the one on the football field, and the one on the ice rink.
The Lions, with the young gunslinger Matthew Stafford, are set at quarterback for the next 10 years, his recent interception fetish notwithstanding.
And the Red Wings have no more worries in goal—provided they can keep Jimmy Howard shackled to a contract befitting his skills.
Howard, from theUniversityofMaine, was the only Red Wing earning his paycheck for the first month of this season. And those are some big paychecks we’re talking about.
Howard is pretty much established now as one of the upper echelon goalies in the NHL. So say I.
He’s in his third full season, a late bloomer of sorts.
Howard is 27, and will be 28 in March. He didn’t become the Red Wings starting goalie until 2009, a full six years after being drafted in the second round.
He’s proving to be worth the wait.
Howard is no Sawchuk, and I mean that in a good way.
Jimmy Howard isn’t tormented. He isn’t in a dark place mentally. He hasn’t had to miss a half season at age 27 from mental exhaustion, as Sawchuk did back in 1957, when the media and fans inBostonrode him mercilessly.
And it’s not like Howard is playing incognito.
You can’t hide inDetroitif you’re a goalie. Or if you’re a quarterback. It’s not unlike other pro sports burgs that have NHL and NFL teams.
Goalie and quarterback, in most towns, are not positions for the faint of heart or weak of character.
Howard took over goaltending duties in 2009, somewhat shoving out the veteran Osgood, the starter for two of those four Cups between ’97 and ’08. There was some concern about Howard’s status come playoff time. Folks wondered aloud if the kid had what it takes to navigate through the choppy playoff waters.
Good thing the water is frozen in hockey, eh?
Howard acquitted himself well in the 2010 post-season, and even more so in 2011, even though the Red Wings didn’t make it out of the second round in either spring.
Now he’s got a stranglehold on the starting job, with only 35-year-old Ty Conklin around to back him up. Conklin will be lucky to appear in 20 games this season.
It took Jimmy Howard a wee bit longer than most NHL goalies to emerge and stake his claim to being the No. 1 guy in net.
Now all the Red Wings have to do is keep him signed and happy.
The happy part shouldn’t be a problem.
Howard is no Sawchuk, after all.
Nick Lidstrom doesn’t block shots. He doesn’t body check anyone. He’s never thrown an elbow. His next fight will be his first.
The greatest hockey defenseman of his time—or maybe of any time—isn’t supposed to be so mild-mannered. He isn’t supposed to be less physical than a second baseman.
Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.
In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.
Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.
There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.
He’s 41 and despite his lack of wear and tear, Lidstrom is on the back end of his career. Only a delusional fool would believe otherwise.
The topic came up Monday night on “The Knee Jerks,” the podcast I co-host each week with Big Al Beaton of The Wayne Fontes Experience.
What will life be like, we wondered, when Lidstrom neatly folds his sweater and hangs up his skates?The word “terrifying” came up, more than once.
It’s an annual question—one that we ask without really wanting to know the answer. You ask the question and then bury your face in something, shivering.
Last spring, Nick made us sweat a little bit more than normal. It took several weeks after the Red Wings were once again eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks for Lidstrom to consent to play his 20th season.
They could hear the sighs of relief from Detroit all the way to, well, San Jose.
It’s not just that Lidstrom has played 20 seasons, or that he’s played them flawlessly, or that he’s the perfect teammate or that he seamlessly took over as captain from Steve Yzerman, no less—which is like a singer stepping onto the stage right after a set by Sinatra and no one noticing.
No, it’s that Lidstrom has done all that while hardly missing a game.
His games-played column reads like an early-summer thermometer: 76, 78, 80, 77, 79, 80, 81.
The spooky notion of no more Nick Lidstrom is just as much the fear of the unknown as anything else.
We don’t want to think of the Red Wings without Lidstrom because we haven’t really seen the Red Wings without Lidstrom since before he was a Red Wing.
It’s History 101.The last time a Red Wings roster didn’t list Lidstrom’s name, George Bush The First was President. The Pistons were the defending NBA champs—but they were the Pistons of Isiah and Dumars, not Chauncey and Hamilton.
There was no Internet.
The kids graduating high school this year were still two years from being born.
Need I go on?
Lidstrom’s longevity is one thing; his durability is quite another.
As much as Yzerman is revered in Detroit—and he should be—Steve wasn’t exactly an Iron Man, unless you count his days spent in those hyperbaric chambers. Stevie Y was more Iron Lung than Iron Man.
Yzerman missed games in chunks, due to various injuries. He was the anti-Lidstrom, in a sense.
There was a serious knee injury in 1988. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As Yzerman got older, his body broke down more frequently. He played the 2002 playoffs on a knee so mangled that he managed to report to work for just 13 games the following season, recovering from the knee’s reconstruction.
There was more time lost in the 2005-06 season, Yzerman’s last as a player.
So we had heaping spoonfuls of Red Wings life without Steve Yzerman, making his retirement no less sad—just less of a shock to the system.Not so with Lidstrom, who has played with mind-numbing consistency and Lou Gehrig-like durability.
We have not been prepped for Lidstrom’s retirement.
If the Red Wings fan base thinks that another Lidstrom is being groomed, or that he can in any way be replaced, forget it. Not going to happen.
This is no affront to Niklas Kronwall or Brad Stuart or Jonathan Ericsson or to any of the prospects in the Red Wings’ system.
Players like Nick Lidstrom come by once in a franchise’s lifetime—if that.
How will the Red Wings ever replace him?
Did the Boston Bruins replace Raymond Bourque?
Yzerman, for all of his Hall of Fame worthiness, was in the process of being phased out by the time he retired in 2006. The cache of forwards the Red Wings employed made Stevie’s departure easier to digest.
All the Red Wings can do when Lidstrom finally bids farewell—and it’ll be sooner rather than later—is take a deep breath, exhale and hope that they have a defensive corps that can band together and do one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of things.
Because if you think he’s going to be replaced, you’re mad.The Red Wings have had four—four—players who’ve played 20-plus seasons for them: Lidstrom, Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.
This is significant.
The Montreal Canadiens, for all their history and Stanley Cups, have had just one player—Jean Beliveau—play as many as 19 seasons for them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had only George Armstrong play 20 seasons wearing the Leaf.
The New York Rangers have no 20-plus-year men.
The Boston Bruins have only Bourque, who played a tad over 20 in Beantown.
The Chicago Blackhawks had Stan Mikita for 21 years. That’s it.
The Red Wings have had four such men. It’s significant.
The most recent of the Red Wings’ 20-plus-year men might leave a void that none of his predecessors left—not even Howe, for Gordie “retired” with the team well on its way to being miserable for an entire decade.
How do the Red Wings replace Nick Lidstrom?
I guess he’ll just have to keep playing until we figure something out.
It’s hockey season in Detroit again. Time to put up with another 82-game grind. In our self-ascribed “Hockeytown,” it’s considered par, not impolite, to look past the months of October through March so that we can worry about playoff match-ups.
The 82-game regular season is something we tolerate. It’s a longer opening act than a bad comedian.
We actually had to pay attention, a little, to the regular season two years ago, when the calendar turned to 2010 and the Red Wings were still monkeying around, trying to secure a playoff spot. But that drama was short-lived and by the end of February, order was restored as the Red Wings distanced themselves from the bottom feeders.
It’s never a matter of if the Red Wings will make the playoffs. It’s, “How far will they go?”
The 2011-12 season is just underway, but I submit that this campaign might, just might, provide a legitimate sidebar.
Mike Babcock, the steel-jawed, facially scarred coach, is into his seventh season helming the Red Wings. Yes, seventh.
That’s longer than any Red Wings coach since Jack Adams, with two exceptions: Sid Abel (11 years) and Scotty Bowman (nine years).
The fear is this, simply: will the Red Wings get a seven-year itch with Babcock?
Is seven years, in this day of modern pro sports, too long for one coach with the same team?
I suppose we’re about to find out.
Coaching and longevity are fickle partners. You can be a coaching “lifer,” but that’s typically done with a whistle in one hand and a road map in the other.
The coach who stays put in one city for any longer than three years is, frankly, usually a “dean” in his division.
Terry Francona just had a rather messy break-up with the Boston Red Sox. All Francona did in his eight years as Red Sox manager was make the playoffs just about every year and win two World Series—ending the franchise’s 86-year drought with the first one.
Yet a bad September this year proved to be Terry’s death knell.
The seven-year itch inDetroitwhen it comes to Babcock and his players might just be the warped bleatings of a worry wart sports blogger.
Yet I suggest that the Red Wings are entering into a potential danger zone with Mike Babcock. And it has nothing to do with whether he’s the best coach in the entire NHL—which he is.
It won’t matter how good of a coach Babcock is if he can’t get his players to keep him tuned in.
The coach’s voice starts to grate after a few years, depending on the character of the team involved.
Which makes it a decent bet that my Chicken Little hand-wringing over the Red Wings and their seventh-year coach is much ado about nothing.
The Red Wings are veteran-laden. Their captain is 41 years old and his face doesn’t look a day over 30. They have worked in some younger players over the past several years but their core is still Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom—not a spring chicken among the group.
Hey, is Chris Chelios still on the team?
He may as well be.
The greatness of the Red Wings organization is that, for them, familiarity hasn’t bred any contempt.
They’ve had the same owner since 1982.
They’ve had the same GM since 1997.
They’ve had the same assistant GM since about that time, too.
They’ve had the same VP since 1990—and he started in 1982, too.
They’ve had the same trainers, equipment guys, masseuses and probably even the same mechanic for the Zamboni machine for years.
And, of course, they’ve had the same players, for the most part.
When you play for the Red Wings, you skate for them until they pull the sweater over your head and tell you that enough is enough.
Oh, they do it in a nice way, but Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Chris Osgood have all departed in recent years, and in every instance, they were pretty much stared down by management.
In a nice way.
But the flip side to that is that when you’re done as a player wearing the Winged Wheel, you stay with the organization in some capacity. The Red Wings reward their fully-vested employees almost as much as Bob Ficano does inWayneCounty.
The ex-Red Wings, in addition to the aforementioned—who all have jobs with the club—dot the org chart.
There’s Mark Howe, who heads the advanced scouting department.
There’s Aaron Downey, who works in strength and conditioning.
There’s Jiri Fischer, whose domain is player development.
To name a few.
Yet the coach, Babcock, is the one we should keep an eye on. It’s always the coach, isn’t it? That is, if it isn’t the goalie.
Babcock brought in two new assistant coaches this season, perhaps as a nod to the concern of the players hearing the same voice, being preached the same thing in the same fashion.
The seven-year itch.
It didn’t get Bowman, who lasted nine. But they weren’t exactly nine blissful years. Just ask Steve Yzerman, or Brendan Shanahan. Two Hall of Famers, each who would have liked to jam a puck down Scotty’s throat from time to time.
Babcock, in six seasons as Red Wings coach, has delivered a Stanley Cup, two Finals appearances and three conference final appearances.
But the two most recent seasons have seen the Red Wings bumped out of the playoffs in the second round—to the same team.
This is Hockeytown, which is theBronxof the NHL. A season that doesn’t end with the Red Wings raising the Stanley Cup over their heads is a season wasted, followed by a summer of consternation.
It’s been that way since Bowman re-instilled a level of excellence that had been missing for decades.
Now Babcock is the keeper of that flame. He’s going on seven years of being on the job. That’s a mighty long time, anymore.
Just something to chew on, as you bide your time waiting for the playoffs.