Archive for Detroit Red Wings

Oct
14

What a Week in Detroit Sports

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That was the week that was.

David Frost, don’t come at me with copyright infringement. I didn’t capitalize all words. Give me some artistic license here.

With apologies to the Brit Frost, who produced two versions of the satirical show called “That Was the Week That Was” (or “TW3”)—one British, one American, in the 1960s—I can’t recall five days in which the Detroit sports landscape was fraught with so much sadness, anger, frustration and, ultimately, happiness, relief and awe.

Monday, October 8. The city is riding high, but there is some disappointment and even anger. The Tigers are up, 2-0, in their ALDS with the Oakland A’s. Only one more win and it’s a return trip to the ALCS, baseball’s version of the Final Four. Yet a peek ahead on the calendar shows that Friday, the 12th, was supposed to be the opening game of another NHL season, which is in limbo thanks to yet more labor unrest. The city is giddy over the Tigers around the Monday morning water cooler, and even more relaxed because the Lions didn’t play the day before. But there’s no hockey on the horizon, and that makes some folks cranky.

Tuesday, October 9. The Tigers series has moved to Oakland, which means a welcome back to the late night start, something we are used to with the Red Wings, who seem to play at least one playoff series every spring two or three time zones to the west. It seems like 9:07 p.m. will never come, but there is some sad news to deal with first.

Budd Lynch, the one-armed bandit and more of a Red Wing, in a way, than Gordie Howe or Stevie Yzerman, has passed. He was 95. It was Budd’s rich baritone voice that combined for many years with Bruce Martyn’s crackling one that made Red Wings hockey on TV and radio something worth tuning into, even when the product on the ice was horse manure—which it was for so many years in the 1970s.

Budd Lynch, the oldest of all surviving Red Wings—and yes, he was a Red Wing even if he never laced up a skate—is gone, and so many people’s memories flash back in a whirring manner. Budd is the Ernie Harwell of the Red Wings—a good man who was good to others. A man who lost his right arm in WWII and who could still play golf, as a lefty only, better than many with two good limbs. Budd Lynch, who started calling Red Wings games on the radio well before a single television camera found its way into an NHL rink.

Budd had tried to retire from the Red Wings twice—once in 1975, but then was lured back as the head of the Public Relations department; and again in 1985, but the Ilitch family persuaded Budd to stay on yet again, this time as PA announcer at Joe Louis Arena. And that’s exactly what Budd was doing, as late as this past spring—calling the goals and penalties and announcing “Last minute of play in this period” as if God himself was doing so.

We mourned for Budd, but then more bad news came, from the left coast.

Alex Karras, the short and stumpy, cigar-chomping defensive tackle with the thick, wire-rimmed glasses and with an innate hatred of quarterbacks (even on his own team), lie deathly ill, according to his wife, fellow actress Susan Clark. Kidney failure, we were told. Alex had days to live, maybe even hours.

While we wrestled with the news of Lynch and Karras, suddenly it was, indeed, 9:07 and time for the first pitch of the Tigers-A’s Game 3.

Anibal Sanchez is dealing from the mound for Detroit, but the Tigers offense goes AWOL, as it is wont to do. Sanchez does his best, but the Tigers don’t score any runs and fall, 2-0. The ALCS inches closer, the Tigers ahead two games to one.

Wednesday, October 10. Groggy from staying up until about 1 a.m. watching the Tigers lose the night before, we get the news in the morning that we feared. Alex Karras, old #71, six years in age past his uniform number, has died in California. The Golden Greek. Tippy Toes. Mongo. Webster’s foster dad. The only member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Alex is gone, one of the most colorful athletes to ever play in Detroit.

We go to work, come home, have dinner, and settle in for Game 4 of the ALCS. Tigers fans are confident the series will end tonight, with Max Scherzer on the mound. And Max does his best, limiting the A’s to one run and three hits through six innings.

The Tigers lead, 3-1, heading into the bottom of the ninth. The crazy Coliseum in Oakland is quiet, like its derogatory nickname, The Mausoleum.

But closer Jose Valverde implodes, the A’s teeing off on him with three straight hits, each hit harder than the previous. It only takes a few horrifying minutes for the A’s to wipe out the 3-1 deficit and win, 4-3, causing Tigers fans’ insides to twist like pipe cleaners. Series tied, 2-2.

The end of the world is nigh in Detroit. In 48 hours, we’ve lost Budd Lynch, Alex Karras, and a 2-0 lead in the ALDS.

Oh, and as if we needed more bad news, it’s reported that former Pistons player and coach from the 1960s, Donnis Butcher, has passed at age 76. Fittingly, today’s Pistons begin their exhibition season—a 101-99 win over Toronto. Also fitting that the only victory of the week is a meaningless one.

Thursday, October 11. We wake up in Detroit, stunned by the week’s turn of events. The Tigers, flying so high a few days ago, are now on the brink of disaster. Even the prospect of Justin Verlander starting fails to totally soothe the denizens, because the offense has wasted two superb starts in Oakland already. The city is ready to erupt with a volcano of venom if the Tigers blow this series.

Yet we are still not done with tragedy. Former Tigers slugger Champ Summers, who played in Detroit from 1979-81, succumbs to cancer at age 66 the day of Game 5.

These things are supposed to happen in threes, but this week it has happened in fours. Lynch, Karras, Butcher and Summers. All gone within 72 hours.

Verlander takes the hill for the 9:37 p.m. start and strikes out the first two A’s hitters. The third gets a single and that’s the last base hit for Oakland until 12 batters later. The Tigers scratch out a couple of runs and the way Verlander is throwing, the 2-0 lead may as well be 12-0. It’s still only 2-0 going into the seventh, but then the Tigers break it open with four runs for a 6-0 lead. The city exhales for the first time since Monday.

Verlander finishes the 122-pitch, 11-strikeout complete-game shutout with a tic-tac-toe ninth and the Tigers avert calamity with a 3-2 series win. They are headed back to the ALCS for the second year in a row. It’s the first good news in the world of Detroit sports all week.

Friday, October 12. No game today. No deaths to report. It’s a day of basking in the glow of Verlander’s instant classic pitching performance. All that’s left is to find out the Tigers’ opponent in the ALCS. Baltimore or New York—and the winner will also determine where the next series will start. In Detroit if the Orioles win; in New York if the Yankees triumph.

The Yankees, behind a complete game from their workhorse ace, CC Sabathia, beat the Orioles 3-1 and take the series, 3-2. It sets up another Tigers-Yankees postseason series—the third since 2006. The Tigers are 2-0.

The roller coaster week of emotions flies by. Five days of toil, tears and sweat. We lose four sports heroes—one each from the Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Lions—but retain the community of togetherness that is spawned when one of our teams goes on a deep playoff run.

It was something.

Oct
10

Hey, Hey Hockeytown: This Budd’s For You

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(the following column was initially posted on October 16, 2005; re-posting it now in honor of Budd, who passed away on October 9, 2012)

 

So the NHL is going to have its referees wear microphones and announce penalties to the crowd and television audience just like the National Football League officials do. Perhaps you’ve already seen it.

Just as long as the refs don’t announce goalscorers. Or which youth hockey teams are in the building. Or the attendance figure. Or how to qualify for the between-periods contests.

For that is Budd Lynch’s domain, and we can’t have the league messing with that.

Lynch, 87, is in his 56th season with the Red Wings. Mostly, he has spent that time booming his baritone voice into a microphone, in one capacity or another: radio, TV, public address announcing. He spent some time in the team’s public relations department. For all I know, he’s helped pop the popcorn and made sure the pucks were properly frozen before the game, too.

I grew up watching the Red Wings in the early 1970s, and back then the television team was Bruce Martyn and Budd Lynch. Talk about a booth graced with greatness. It was like a cockpit populated by Charles Lindbergh and The Red Baron. I am telling you, it was a marvelous time to watch — and mostly listen to — the Red Wings, back when there wasn’t much to get excited about on the ice, so you got your fun from the cracking voice of Martyn and the dramatic voice of Lynch.

Martyn is retired now — been that way for eight years or so and enjoying his time up in Gaylord, I presume. But Budd Lynch is still kicking it with the Red Wings, from providing the 20,000+ regulars at the Joe with the pregame lineup changes to thanking them and wishing them a safe trip home. In between there are goals and penalties to announce, in a way only Lynch can: succinct, no-nonsense, and always baritone. Then, of course, are those seven words that define the NHL P.A. announcer: “Last minute of play in this period.” Lynch has them all beat there, too.

I had the pleasure of meeting Lynch on two occasions — 14 years apart and one of those as a child. In 1973, my folks had taken me to my very first Red Wings game at Olympia Stadium — the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw — and to my amazement, before the game, there was one-armed Lynch (he lost his right arm during WW II), presumably on his way to the broadcast booth. Even at nine years of age, I knew who he was, and my father asked him to sign my program. I stood, dumbfounded, program dangling, totally unfit for Lynch to sign, so my folks quickly slammed it on a nearby table and the autograph was received. Then, in 1987, working in local cable television, I met Lynch again, as a guest on one of our shows. I was much more conversive on that occasion. We got to talking about the greatest player of all time. Naturally, there was only one choice in Budd’s eye. “There was none better than #9,” Lynch said, referring to Gordie Howe. “And there never will be.”

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Lynch started with the Red Wings in 1949, which makes him a seven-decade man for the club. He makes Gordie Howe’s longevity with the Winged Wheel look like the run of Magic Johnson’s late night talk show.
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If you’re wondering why Budd Lynch isn’t retired in Florida, catching NHL games on the dish, let it be known that he has tried. The team just wouldn’t let him quit. In 1975, Lynch tried retirement #1, but then-GM Alex Delvecchio convinced him to stay on as the team’s publicity director. Then, in 1985, retirement #2 failed when Marian Ilitch urged him to continue with the club as public address announcer.

That was 20 years ago. I think Lynch has given up trying to quit the Red Wings.

“Budd’s been such a tremendous ambassador for our team and the game,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press in February, 2004. “He’s been such a big part of our history and a bridge between the eras. He’s just a great human being.”

Part of what makes Budd Lynch a great human being is the charity golf tournament he hosts on Grosse Ile every August. The Budd Lynch Celebrity Golf Classic benefits the Guidance Center, a behavioral health and human services organization dedicated to the mental well-being of residents in Wayne County. Only Lynch doesn’t just host it. Even without a right arm, Budd plays, too. But that’s nothing new. In a good summer, he’ll play golf two or three times a week. He shoots in the high 80′s to low 90′s. Basically, his age, and then some, on a bad day.

“I don’t worry about long drives,” Lynch quipped to the Free Press. “I play three five-iron shots and hope for a tailwind on the long holes. Like everybody else, it’s a challenge.” Yeah, like everybody else with one arm gone.

Lynch started with the Red Wings in 1949, which makes him a seven-decade man for the club. He makes Gordie Howe’s longevity with the Winged Wheel look like the run of Magic Johnson’s late night talk show. He’s been there for the glory days of the 50′s and early 60′s, the slapstick of the 70′s and the rebirth of the club in the late-80′s. Then there were the 90′s, and now the 00′s, and…I’m getting tired just writing about it.

Lynch is Canadian by birth, but has been living in Wyandotte for years. “My downriver liver,” is how he explained it to me. For those who know, downriver is a hotbed of hockey – youth, high school, you name it. It’s a fitting nest for a man whose life has been mostly sticks and pucks and rinks.

Another NHL season is underway, and that means the old One Arm Bandit – the nickname is Lynch’s own for himself – is doing his thing, keeping the JLA denizens informed. He could never be replaced by a referee with a wireless microphone.

“Last minute of reading in this column.”

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Detroit is not a “Look at me!” town. It doesn’t scream at you, like New York, or smirk at you, like Chicago. It doesn’t have the pretentiousness of Los Angeles or thesassiness of Philadelphia.

Detroit is a do-your-job, keep-your-head-down-and-plow-through kind of burg. Its biggest accomplishment is just getting through the day. All it wants is a cold beer at 6:00 and a game on Fox Sports Detroit at 7.

Detroit expects nothing from its professional athletes that it’s not willing to give from itself. It works hard, keeps its mouth shut, is just happy to be here, and so expects its sports heroes to do the same.

There hasn’t been much patience for the loudmouth, for the petulant, or for the ingrate. The whiner and the unhappy camper, Detroit can do without. Detroit is a “you don’t like it here, you can leave” kind of town.

So it’s highly appropriate that the greatest sports stars who have played in the Motor City in this generation have also been among the most humble and quietly dignified of their profession.

That’s how we like it here, after all.

Chest pounding is OK, as long as we get the feeling that the chest that’s being pounded is that of the team and the city, not of the individual.

We have been blessed to watch the strong, silent types.

The generation of which I speak starts in 1983, when the Red Wings, slugged by the disappointment of not being able to draft the kid from Waterford, Michigan, PatLaFontaine, instead nabbed a scoring machine from greater Ottawa named Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman arrived with the funny name and the manners of a young gentleman. He tiptoed around that first locker room in 1983, around the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare and Reed Larson, an 18-year-old who scored 39 goals as a rookie—a total which might have been more than the words he spoke that season.

It was early in that 1983-84 season that I, as a cub reporter, turned from the crowd gathered around sniper John Ogrodnick after a rare win for the Red Wings and spotted Yzerman, quietly dressing. He couldn’t have looked more unassuming.

I tried to chat him up, with some jocular words long forgotten by the speaker. I strained to hear him as he buttoned his shirt. He was mere months out of high school, after all.

Three years later Yzerman was a 21-year-old captain, the youngest in the league. We met up again, this time as I was set to direct him in a public service announcement for youth hockey at Joe Louis Arena that I had written.

He was three years older—a four-year veteran at that point—but not any louder, no less humble. He did take after take on the ice with the gaggle of kid hockey players recruited to be in the spot, exhibiting no impatience, acting not at all like a diva.

Twenty years later we met again, at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. He was four months into retirement and just a few weeks into his new gig as a front office suit. Again I tried to drag some words out of him. Again he was polite, humble and soft spoken. He greeted my wife as if he was meeting the Queen of England.

The generation moved along from 1983 to 1985, when the Pistons drafted a shooting guard from Natchitoches, Louisiana named Joe Dumars. Superstar point guard Isiah Thomas took to calling Dumars “Little Isiah,” even though Joe was a few inches taller.

Dumars was another who let his play do the talking. He carried a big stick. On a team of Bad Boys, Dumars was silent but deadly. He deferred but he didn’t shrink. Dumars punched the time clock for 14 years in Detroit, content to be an Indian on a team full of chiefs.

The generation rolled along. We’re at 1989 now.

The Lions, thanks to the inexplicable draft strategy of the Green Bay Packers, fall into a jitterbug back from Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders. Head coach Wayne Fontes stands in front of the curious media and declares Sanders to be the “No. 1 running back in America,” and this time no one cares to second guess the coach.

Sanders ends up becoming the best running back in Detroit, by far, and arguably the greatest in NFL history. But in a league often dominated by the boorish and the selfish, Sanders is a breath of fresh air. He’s quiet almost to the point of strange, but we lap it up in Detroit.

A league that brought you the spike is now made retro by Sanders, who is content to simply hand the football to the on-field officials after a touchdown, as if this was 1959, not ’89.

It was in 1994, at the peak of Sanders’ aura in Detroit, that I met him during the shooting of a clothing commercial for television. Sanders was in the middle of a wardrobe change when I poked my head in the dressing room at Barden Cablevision, where I was working in management.

“Mr. Eno,” Sanders said, grinning, with a firm grip of my hand. He acted like the honor was his to meet me, instead of the other way around.

The blip on Sanders’ career, of course, was that it ended so abruptly and the silence that we thought to be endearing while he was zigging through defenses that werezagging, turned out to be maddening in his stunning retirement.

The generation keeps moving, now on to 1991.

The Red Wings’ scouting people have done it again. They drafted, two years prior, a Swedish defenseman with the 53rd overall pick named Nicklas Lidstrom. Now it’s the 1991-92 season and Lidstrom is suiting up for the first time in the NHL, as a 21-year-old.

Lidstrom puts his suspenders and skates on in 1991, takes them off nearly 21 years later, and in between, wins more Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman (seven) than the number of killer quotes he produces for the media.

On the ice, Lidstrom is the chess player of defensemen, capturing the other team’s king with angles, strategy, knowledge and a stick that he uses like a surgeon wields a scalpel. He doesn’t throw more than a handful of body checks in over 20 years. Like Sanders for the Lions, Lidstrom somehow manages to play his entire career without getting hit hard by the other guys.

Lidstrom ends up as another Detroit superstar labeled with words like dignity, humility and grace. He becomes that leader by example who prefers to do his talking between whistles.

The generation that began in 1983 is about to close. But not before one more Detroit sports superstar amazes us with selflessness, even amidst the pinnacle of personal achievement.

Miguel Cabrera, Triple Crown winner, would rather that we not bring that subject up. As Cabrera closed in on the first TC in 45 years, he appeared embarrassed of his grandeur. He was Roger Maris, though not as tormented. Cabrera didn’t want the attention that his feat naturally attracted. If he was going to talk, he wanted to talk about the team.

His preference wasn’t always granted.

There has been nothing negative said about Cabrera as a teammate, by his teammates. He is another Detroit sports superstar without the diva gene.

We’ve been fortunate to have such talented men play for our teams whose dignity and grace somehow managed to equal or even eclipse their accomplishments.

Sometimes it’s good to be Detroit, indeed.

It has been the nature of labor relations in professional sports that the team owners are basically filthy rich fans with the emotional stability of Sybil and the fiscal restraint of a teenager.

The cycle runs something like this, from the owners’ perspective: 1) buy team; 2) spend like mad; 3) help get the league into a financial mess; 4) ask the players to bail us out.

The above corollary applies to any team sport. In baseball, from the days of handlebar mustaches in the late 19th century to the mid-1970s, owners held servitude over the players via the Reserve Clause. The ballparks may as well have been plantations.

The tyrannical rule baseball owners had over the hired help ended in 1974, when an arbiter’s ruling ushered in free agency. That’s when the owners turned from autocrats to unruly kids in a candy store, grabbing players off the shelves and gleefully spending.

Pretty much every labor dispute in pro sports can be traced to the owners’ inability to control themselves.

Yet it’s a hard sell to portray the players as sympathetic figures whenever words like “strike” and “lockout” start to get bandied about. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the owners’ lack of self-control—and huge salaries.

The National Hockey League says its owners are spending too much. That’s nothing new in pro sports. The owners always spend too much. The league is asking the players for revenue concessions. That’s nothing new, either.

This is becoming a familiar refrain.

2004 was eight years ago but it feels like yesterday. That was when the NHL said its owners were spending too much—and that it needed revenue concessions from the players.

The league lost the entire 2004-05 season to the lockout, and when the snow settled, the players had agreed to a salary cap for the first time ever, and they absorbed what was tantamount to a 24 percent, across-the-board salary cut. It was a face wash of the extreme kind.

The NHL re-opened in October 2005 with the words THANK YOU, FANS spray-painted on the ice in every rink in the league.

I wonder what they’ll paint on the ice next time. How about, THERE’S A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE?

At 11:59 p.m. Saturday night, barring a last-second goal, there will be a slight variation to the hockey fan’s cry.

“Lockout on!”

September 15 is the deadline for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). If one isn’t reached, Commissioner Gary Bettman says he has given the green light for the owners to lock the players out. Again.

Without the players, who are the talent, pro sports owners wouldn’t have a product. The owners would have to go back to their board rooms and corporate life, which is no less competitive, but who will pay $40 a head to watch a shareholders meeting?

The players make lots of money, yes, but only a fraction of what they’ve made for the owners and the league itself. All those ZETTERBERG and HOWARD and (still) YZERMAN jerseys you see being worn by fans at Joe Louis Arena? Those are “cha-chings” for the league. Every jersey sold with a player’s name sewn on the back equals more money into the NHL’s coffers.

The NHL scored a big win over the players during the 2004-05 lockout. Union solidarity cracked and crumbled like a cookie.

So when the CBA entered its expiring year in 2012, the league was like a skewed version of a Dickens story.

“Please, sirs, may we have another?”

Concession, that is.

Bettman and his 30 owner/lieutenants wanted to reduce the players’ cut of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 43 percent. That’s a slash of nearly 25 percent—a real BC two-hander.

There hasn’t been this much greed since Gordon Gecko.

Annual industry revenue, since the lockout of ’04-05, has increased from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. That’s nearly 60 percent. Yet it’s not enough for the suits. In addition to its revenue increase, the league also wanted the proletariat to decrease their take by a quarter.

But there are signs that this time, the NHL might be picking on the wrong union.

The speaker is Red Wings superstar Henrik Zetterberg, talking to the Detroit Free Press in Friday’s edition.

“I think we did enough last time, in ’04. Basically, we gave (the league) everything they wanted, and one of the reasons we did that was that we didn’t want to be in this situation again, and here we are again,” Zetterberg said. But then he finished his check.

“It’s the third lockout in I don’t know how many years now. Ever since Bettman came into the league offices, that’s been his way to handle the stuff. That’s not a fun thing, but that’s how he approached this. We’ve been ready. We’re ready to have a fight here.”

Zetterberg also said that the players union, under the leadership of veteran sports collective bargaining negotiator Donald Fehr, has been kept fully in the loop, daily, of any developments. That, Zetterberg said, has led to more solidarity—way more than what was present in 2004.

The NHL has come down from its initial demand of a 25 percent revenue cut for the players, but not by a whole lot. The current offer stands at a decrease from 57 to 46 percent—which is still about 20 percent in reduction.

For those holding out hope that somehow the paradigm will change and the owners will back off from their hard line and get the players back onto the ice in time for the scheduled beginning of the regular season, the news isn’t good.

Here’s Bettman:

“The thought was somehow (the players) got slammed in the negotiations last time. They didn’t. We made at the time what we thought was a fair deal. It actually turned out to be more fair than it should have been.”

Unless you were an NHL player.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when baseball owners ruled the serfs, women have been given the right to vote and a Civil Rights Bill was passed.

Bettman’s odd comments, made during a period of increasing revenue for the NHL, suggest that pro sports still need to catch up, while simultaneously being determined to go back in time.

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Since when did Hockeytown turn into the Second City?

What is happening here? The Red Wings being left at the altar? GM Kenny Holland having to return Mike Ilitch his checkbook?

No press conference? No blood red jersey with the name SUTER or PARISE stitched on the back in that very Red Wings font?

What free agent says no to the Red Wings? Who looks at 21 straight years in the playoffs, four Stanley Cups since 1997 (and almost a fifth), more tradition than Christmas, a packed house every night and says, “Thanks but no thanks”?

Who looks at Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and says there’s not enough to work with here? Who looks at Danny Cleary and Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi and decides there aren’t enough role players?

Or is it what they’re looking for and not seeing?

Nicklas Lidstrom? Well, he’s retired. This is true.

Brad Stuart? Gone, to San Jose. California kid returns home.

Jiri Hudler? Twenty-five goal scorer, off like a cheap suit, to the netherworld of Calgary.

The Red Wings lost out on the top two free agents of the class of 2012—winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter—after both of them chose to sign with the Minnesota Wild.

The Minnesota Wild?

 

Since when do the Red Wings lose out to the Minnesota Wild? Since when does anyone?

It’s like ice cream losing out to spinach. The high school quarterback losing the girl to the class nerd. The Israeli Army losing out to the Italians.

The headline should read “Sun to Set in East.”

The Red Wings would never say it publicly, but when Holland, special advisor Chris Chelios and owner Ilitch flew to Suter’s Wisconsin farm to give the official Hockeytown How Do last week, armed with a hefty contract offer and a diamond stick pen, they likely expected Suter to fly back with them.

Instead, Suter heard everything the Red Wings’ brass had to offer, looked over the 13-year, $90 million job offer, and said, “I’ll call you.”

As for Parise, the Red Wings made a pitch to him, too, but it was Suter into whom they were putting forth their best effort and faith.

It should have been a red flag—no pun intended—when Suter wasn’t a Red Wing by the end of the first day of free agency (July 1). In fact, it should have been a red flag that the Red Wings had to board a plane.

In the salad days of acquiring other teams’ defects, the Red Wings looked at their watch, waited for 12:01 a.m. to hit and placed a phone call to the agent of their quarry.

Back then, the player boarded a plane, not the Red Wings.

 

Yet here were the Red Wings, flying out to Wisconsin—Wisconsin!—playing the role of Suter’s suitor to help them absorb the loss of Lidstrom. They brought it all except a dozen roses and a 10-pound box of chocolates.

 

Suter and Parise, both with family connections to Minnesota (Parise’s dad, Jean-Paul, played for the North Stars in the 1970s), went with the Wild.

“We lost out to family,” Holland said. “It’s hard to beat out family,” and you wondered if he was trying to convince the press or himself.

Ahh, family, shmamily.

Did Luc Robitaille, with roots planted in southern California deeper than the black hole, let something silly like family stop him from signing with the Red Wings in 2001? Lucky Luc, with a singer/model/wife whose career screamed Hollywood, considered one thing and one thing only: Where can I get a Stanley Cup?

That’s why they all came to Hockeytown.

 

That’s why Brett Hull came, the same summer as Robitaille. Hull won a Cup with the 1999 Dallas Stars and wanted that feeling one more time before he retired.

That’s why Curtis Joseph came, the superstar goalie who signed in 2002, trying to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail for the first time in his brilliant career.

The Red Wings didn’t need but a few hours of free-agent time to land big defenseman and hometown kid Derian Hatcher (Sterling Heights) in 2003, the 6’5” behemoth who left the Stars so he could win another Cup, in Detroit.

 

The list goes on and on.

The Red Wings didn’t have to work as hard, with all of them combined, as they had to work to get Suter. And they still lost out.

 

The family thing is a convenient out for Holland and the Red Wings organization when it comes to missing out on the two biggest fish in the 2012 free-agent sea.

But family hasn’t mattered in so many past free-agent signings the Red Wings have orchestrated.

The Red Wings, since appearing in the 2009 Cup Finals, haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs. This spring, they had the ignominy of being the first team drummed out of the postseason, lasting a measly five games against the Nashville Predators, of all teams.

 

They lost Lidstrom to retirement, Stuart to—you guessed it—family as well.

Players are retiring and fleeing the Good Ship Red Wing; are they doing it because they sense a capsizing?

Did Suter and Parise look at the Red Wings’ chances for a Stanley Cup in the near future and not see anything that they couldn’t see with half a dozen other teams?

The Minnesota Wild haven’t made the playoffs since 2008—and that was just their third time since joining the NHL in 2000. They have been, until signing Suter and Parise, one of the NHL’s most irrelevant franchises.

 

But the Wild beat the Red Wings in this free-agent frenzy. Dewey defeated Truman this time.

This is foreign soil for the Red Wings. They almost don’t know how to react. In the past, money + Red Wings has = player of their choice.

Not this time.

So cancel the press conferences. Hold off on the jersey stitching. Put the checkbook away—it won’t be needed.

The Red Wings put up a goose egg. Suter and Parise threw a shutout at them.

It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. Because, for two decades, it hasn’t.

Hey, Hey, Hockeytown—there are at least two stars who don’t think you’re so nifty. Stick that in your five hole.

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Jun
03

Ex-Goalie Holland Has to Stand On His Head Post-Lidstrom

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First, you must know that the Detroit Red Wings aren’t a team. They aren’t a franchise.

They are, in hockey vernacular, an “organ-EYE-zay-shun.”

That’s your first lesson in hockey speak.

You can’t talk serious hockey unless you call the teams in the NHL organEYEzayshuns.

We Americans have it all wrong. We’re silly that way—using “team” and “franchise,” adorably.

OrganEYEzayshun.

Got it?

Ken Holland gets it. He uses the right word, pronounces it correctly, with the proper accents on the right syllables.

But that’s just the start of Holland and his hockey-ese.

Holland is the general manager of the Red Wings, but even that isn’t totally accurate. Canadian hockey executives drop the “general” and just call themselves managers.

Holland was at it again Thursday, when interviewed by Fox Sports Detroit after the Nicklas Lidstrom retirement press conference.

“I have been dreading this day ever since I became manager in 1997,” Holland told Larry Murphy and Ryan Field about Lidstrom calling it quits.

Manager Holland has joked that he would retire the same day that Lidstrom did.

Fortunately Holland isn’t going to follow through on that half threat.

The Red Wings are worse off today than they were before Thursday at 11 a.m., when Lidstrom, dressed in Armani instead of Nike, made the announcement that has been feared around Detroit for the past several summers.

Yet this dark cloud has a silver lining, for if there is anyone in hockey who can reanimate the Red Wings into a Stanley Cup contender in the wake of such dreadful news, it’s Kenny Holland.

Holland’s greatness as manager—owner Mike Ilitch called Holland “Number One” in the NHL Thursday—is maybe best defined by the fact that, for the most part, the NHL is filled with organEYEzayshuns who stumble and bumble for years, make a stab at excellence, then bob back below the surface. Some aren’t heard from for decades.

I mean, are the New York Islanders still in the league?

Holland has presided over 15 of the 21 straight years the Red Wings have made the playoffs since 1991. He’s kept the, ahem, team, in serious Stanley Cup contender status for every one of those 15 years. The end result hasn’t always been gratifying or satisfying, but heading into the playoffs, the Red Wings have been in Cup discussions every year since Holland became manager.

He’s done it in the salad days of free spending, sans salary cap, when the Red Wings were the Yankees of hockey and handed out almost as many checks in the offseason as the players did on the ice with their bodies.

And he’s done it in the salary cap era, i.e. from 2005 until now.

A word about the salad days.

There’s a misconception that says that all Holland had to do was beseech Ilitch for another check, fill in the amount, and stuff it into the hand of the free agent du jour. Then Holland could sit back and watch the Red Wings make a serious run for another Cup.

Doesn’t work that way.

The highest payrolls don’t necessarily equate into the best teams. Witness the 2012 Tigers, for goodness sakes.

Yes, free agents made a splash in Detroit hockey. The 2001-02 Cup-winning team had Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. But it also had Dominik Hasek (trade); Steve Yzerman (draft); Nick Lidstrom (draft); and Chris Chelios (trade).

Holland signs free agents but he also makes trades and has built a scouting department that has eyes like hawks.

Holland was a less-than-spectacular goalie struggling to stay on the rosters of two bad teams in the early-to-mid 1980s: the Hartford Whalers and the Red Wings. He failed in both instances. The Red Wings made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: please stop trying to be a goalie, and scout for us.

Holland hung up the trapper and stick paddle and started scouting, having been assigned to his native Western Canada.

Holland took to scouting like a fish to water—or a hockey player to ice.

For over 10 years, Ken Holland combed small towns in Canada and elsewhere, spending hundreds of hours in dimly lit rinks, looking for the next Gretzky, Lemieux or Yzerman.

But the greatness of Holland and his scouting eye—he kept getting promoted and started supervising other scouts—wasn’t his ability to find the next Gretzky; it was his knack for finding the next second or third line player. The next great grinder. The next penalty killer extraordinaire.

Holland kept scouting, kept hiring other scouts, and was building, behind the scenes, a feeder program for the Red Wings a la Branch Rickey in the 1940s and ’50s for baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals.

Suddenly it was the mid-1990s and the Red Wings were becoming hockey titans, under the thumb of coach/manager Scotty Bowman. By this time, Ken Holland was Director of Scouting, overseeing the whole shebang, from Sudbury to Omsk.

Then in the summer of 1997, after the Red Wings finally won the Stanley Cup after a 42-year drought, Bowman abdicated his manager throne. Holland was promoted, realizing his goal of being the manager of the Red Wings.

His ascension wasn’t greeted with very much enthusiasm—mainly because of who Holland was succeeding.

Bowman was a living legend, a seasoned coach AND manager. He coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Cups (four in a row from 1976-79). As a manager he was integral in building the Pittsburgh Penguins teams that won two straight Cups in 1991 and ’92, coaching the latter.

But Scotty wanted to concentrate on coaching, and he and Executive VP Jimmy Devellano, an old friend, felt that the goalie-turned-scout, Holland, was ready to manage.

The rookie manager Holland guided the Red Wings to another Cup in 1998, but despite making a couple of trade deadline moves to seal the deal, he never really got the credit, because many thought the team was really Bowman’s in every way.

The skeptics were silenced as the years went on, and two more Cups followed, in 2002 and 2008. Holland has kept the organEYEzayshun humming along, despite the advent of the salary cap in 2005. His scouting department continues to unearth players that the other 29 teams in the league seem to overlook.

Yet this might be Kenny Holland’s finest hour. The loss of Lidstrom to retirement presents a challenge unlike any Holland has faced before. Hell, unlike any manager has faced, in the history of the NHL.

Holland, the old goalie, has to stand on his head. He has to be the number one star. The future of the organEYEzayshun rests on his 56-year-old shoulders.

Good thing he’s not retiring, after all. At least the Red Wings have a fighting chance now.

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May
31

Lidstrom’s Stealth Perfection Irreplaceable

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When Nick Lidstrom first suited up for the Red Wings in 1991, George Bush was president—the first Bush. The Tigers’ first baseman was Fielder—the first Fielder. Joe Dumars was hard at work at the Palace—as a player. The Lions were having a season that would find them in the NFC Championship Game.

It was a long time ago.

In 1991, we had no idea that this Swedish defenseman, an NHL rookie, would grow up to be the greatest blueliner of his time—and maybe of all time.

It wasn’t like when Bobby Orr burst onto the scene in the 1960s. With Orr, greatness seemed inevitable. Orr was unlike anything we’d seen before. Before Orr, no defenseman made an end-to-end rush. No defenseman could skate like Orr. No defenseman could pass like Orr.

NHL defensemen before Bobby Orr treated the rink as if there was a force field beyond the center red line. They were among the worst skaters and were often placed on defense because of that lack of ability. Being a defenseman was like being the kid deposited into right field during a game of pickup baseball. Or the street football player who was told on every play to “go long.”

The NHL defensemen of the Original Six era scored exactly one goal each, every season. They had more bruises on their body from blocking shots than they had points. They had names like Doug Harvey and Leo Boivin and Moose Vasko. They were so heavy on their skates they created divots on the ice.

So when Orr arrived, it was like when the electric guitar first screeched on the nation’s 45s.

A guitar can do that?

A defenseman can skate? Shoot? Pass?

Nick Lidstrom snuck up on us. He didn’t do anything in a flashy way. He didn’t wow us. He didn’t reinvent the position, like Orr did.

All he did was play it perfectly—for 20 seasons.

That’s the irony of Lidstrom’s career, which came to an end in one of those press conferences in the bowels of an arena where the athlete toiled. The end came, as it always does, with the athlete wearing Armani instead of Nike and speaking into a single microphone instead of the cluster that is thrust at him in the locker room after the game.

When the news broke yesterday that there was a press conference called for today involving Lidstrom and GM Ken Holland, didn’t we all feel like we were told that the coach wanted to see us, and that we’d better bring our playbook?

We all knew. We tried to theorize that there was some reason, any other reason, for the presser.

But we all knew.

The irony is that Lidstrom was the Perfect Defenseman yet he managed to do so in a manner that rarely stood out.

When you ask a hockey person about what they liked most about Orr there is quite a menu.

When you ask a football fan about Barry Sanders and what they liked most, you might as well have a seat.

Back to the Red Wings: ask someone who watched Steve Yzerman play in Detroit for 22 years about Stevie’s characteristics and the superlatives will flow: toughness; determined; focused; warrior; leader; heart and soul.

But ask the same folks about Lidstrom and there’ll be yammering and stammering before the person finally blurts out “Perfect!”

Yes, that sums it up, but how can someone play his position perfectly yet leave so few words for us to use to describe the perfection?

It was clear that when we paid to see Barry Sanders, we paid to see him juke, twist, stop and start and split into two in order to avoid a tackle.

We paid to see Cecil Fielder hit a baseball over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium—or strike out mightily trying.

We paid to see Yzerman play on one leg, gut through a horrific eye injury, and grind his way over, around and past the Colorado Avalanche.

But what did we pay to see Lidstrom do?

Using a hockey stick like a skilled surgeon would wield a scalpel? Never being out of position? Seeing the rink like Bobby Fischer would see a chess board? Playing the angles like Minnesota Fats played the cushions?

Lidstrom did all of that, but it wasn’t “pay to see it” stuff.

Perfect isn’t exciting. We’re more enthralled by the imperfect with style and panache.

Lidstrom had neither style nor panache. He appeared to blend in, until you bothered to stop and recall a time when he made a mistake—and couldn’t think of one.

So what now, with the announcement of Lidstrom’s retirement this morning?

Well, the Red Wings can go out and sign free agent Ryan Suter. But frankly, they could sign three Suters and I’m not sure it would be an upgrade. And that’s no knock on Suter, any more than saying three Ford Mustangs aren’t an upgrade over a Lamborghini.

First, when discussing the Red Wings without Lidstrom, please refrain from using the R-word.

Replace.

You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.

All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.

But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now.

The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.

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May
06

Brodeur Still Chasing the Cup at Age 40

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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.

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Apr
08

NHL Playoffs’ Justice Not Always Fair

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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.

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Feb
19

Red Wings Draw “21″ More Than One Way

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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.

“Twenty-one!! Twenty-one!!”

It was a night where no one left early to beat the traffic. The score was out of hand, but that was the point.

The Red Wings were about to put the Dallas Stars away and, thus, ring up their 21st straight home victory.

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.

“Twenty-one!! Twenty-one!!”

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?

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