Archive for Hockey
Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.
He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.
The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?
Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.
Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.
He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.
He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.
His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.
But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.
Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.
There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.
Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.
But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.
It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.
The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.
So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.
The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.
In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.
That bottom feeding blogger was I.
The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.
The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.
The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.
Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.
So that was your turnaround.
You want some winning against all odds stuff?
How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?
All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.
Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…
When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.
Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.
So that was one side.
The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.
And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.
I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.
Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.
Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.
Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.
“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.
He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.
So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?
Isn’t that what they do every year?
It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?
The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.
The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.
The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.
For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.
Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.
The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.
So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.
The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?
Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.
The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.
There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.
There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16 of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).
But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.
These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.
Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.
The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.
This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.
The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.
Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.
Springtime hockey in the Motor City.
The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.
This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.
Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.
The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.
The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.
The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.
Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.
So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.
But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.
The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.
And where is Dennis Rodman these days?
They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.
Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.
Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.
The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.
Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?
But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.
Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.
The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.
The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.
Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.
But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.
In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.
That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.
With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.
It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.
Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!
The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.
If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.
So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.
Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.
“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.
But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.
Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.
After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.
Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.
Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.
But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.
That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.
Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.
“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”
I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.
Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.
So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.
No. 14 in red and white.
Jack Adams looked like a lot of things, but a hockey coach wasn’t necessarily one of them.
He was a rotund man with a bulbous nose, a wearer of wire-rimmed glasses. He was one of those haggard-looking men who could never have been young. He could have been a heavy in a gangster film.
If Adams put skates on, he surely could never have seen them past his jelly belly.
Adams ran the Red Wings from behind the bench and behind his desk. He was coach from 1927-1947 and general manager from 1927-63. He presided over the glory days of the 1950s, when the Red Wings were virtually perennial league champions and more than occasional Stanley Cup winners.
The Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in the ‘50s and early 1960s was in Edmonton. Adams, according to Ted Lindsay, would walk around the team train and the dressing room with a pair of train tickets to Edmonton sticking out of his breast pocket, plainly visible.
“You see so many 5-on-3s these days,” the erstwhile left winger Lindsay told me back in 2006 as we chatted during a hockey roundtable discussion. “Back in my day, if you took a second penalty to put our team down two men, Adams would threaten to send you down to Edmonton. Or, he would just send you there.”
Adams coached in the days when the Red Wings were a mostly veteran team that had precious little roster space and ice time for young players. He didn’t suffer youthful indiscretion easily.
The time of Jack Adams and the Red Wings’ heyday of the 1950s was not dissimilar to the Detroit teams from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s.
Scotty Bowman, then Mike Babcock, didn’t have to walk around with train tickets to Grand Rapids stuffed in their breast pockets. The Red Wings were a team of Hall of Famers, steeped with playoff experience.
Today, Babcock coaches a different group.
The coach can’t roll out four lines, each stocked with talent, skill and purpose, like he did when he first came to Detroit in 2005. Because of injuries, it’s a challenge to find 12 healthy forwards to dress each night, period.
Because of injury, Babcock doesn’t have Pavel Datsyuk and he doesn’t have Henrik Zetterberg. Because of retirement, Babcock hasn’t had Nick Lidstrom for a couple years. He doesn’t have the Danny Cleary or Mikael Samuelsson that he had seven or eight years ago—as each of those forwards are now mere shells of their former selves.
Stephen Weiss, the free agent signed away from Florida, is injured, and even when healthy, Weiss was proving to be fraudulent.
Babcock’s team has been held together with baling wire and duct tape—and diapers and baby powder.
The leader by process of elimination now is 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, signed away last summer from Ottawa. Alfie’s two decades in the league has proven to be even more valuable than expected when the Red Wings inked him.
Back in 2007, when covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, I wrote a column that playfully asked where in the dressing room the Red Wings were hiding their fountain of youth. It was a time during the post-season when the team was getting key contributions from a collection of players whose ages were much closer to 40 than to 30. Some had already passed 40 with flying colors.
The team didn’t win the Stanley Cup that spring, but it did the following year and came a goal away from winning it again in 2009. In a way, that seems like a million years ago.
The Red Wings of today are now a collection of young, eager, energy-filled kids who started the season in Grand Rapids and figured they’d likely end it there.
Babcock is in un-chartered territory here, coaching this group of players. Behind the bench, he’s used to tapping guys on the shoulder who have resumes, not who need to show ID at the bar.
But the push for a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance this season, while uneven and at times frustrating, hasn’t required Babcock to wave train tickets around.
While some of the veterans have faltered or been hurt, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings have provided depth and an “aw, shucks” mentality that is a desired antidote to the pressure being felt at this time of the year.
While experience is terrific, there’s also something to be said for never having been there before.
Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco are four forwards whose buzzing around the ice and “It’s great to be young and a Red Wing” attitude is help lifting Babcock’s team into playoff contention.
This is another place where Babcock and the veteran players remaining on the roster are not familiar.
The Red Wings are used to being in the playoffs when the puck drops on Opening Night in October. Their January-March games have meant little in the standings. Their over/under for points never dipped below 100.
But at this writing, the Red Wings have 13 games remaining, and every one has playoff implications. The team has been scrambling for the post-season since Thanksgiving. There is no cruising; there is no resting guys for the playoff grind.
And you know the NHL.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have been the playground for teams whose scratching and clawing for the few remaining berths in the season’s final weeks have led to terrific post-season success.
The talent-wealthy and elite have often been drummed out in the early rounds by teams who’ve been playing, essentially, playoff hockey for weeks.
The Red Wings have been on that side of the coin before, and the finality when the horn sounds and there is no more hockey to be played, while the so-called lesser team whoops it up, is no fun.
For all the thrills and Stanley Cups since 1997, there have been some long summers in Hockeytown as well, with seasons ruined by “Cinderella” teams.
It’s quite possible that Mike Babcock, Stanley Cup winner, junior World Championship winner and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist coach, won’t be leading a team into the playoffs next month. It’s that dicey for the Red Wings now.
If the Red Wings don’t qualify, it won’t be because they were torpedoed by the silly mistakes made by the young. It will simply be because they weren’t good enough—a team decimated by injuries that didn’t quite have enough skill to squeeze in.
That might make the summer seem not so long, after all.
He was wearing a smart leather jacket, hair still damp from a post-practice shower. It was one of the last team workouts before the playoffs began. Spring hockey, the best kind of hockey, was on the horizon.
But first, there was the matter of a nod to history.
Nicklas Lidstrom and I stood as spectators in the Joe Louis Arena concourse, as the Red Wings were about to unveil the new sculpture of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. The date was April 10, 2007.
We were scrunched together, players and media alike, awaiting the drapery to be pulled from the white bronze piece of artwork that depicted Howe in follow through after a shot.
Lidstrom, unassuming in his version of street clothes, kept his eye on me, even though I was slightly behind him and to his right. He appeared to not want to lose sight of me.
Moments earlier, in the Red Wings’ dressing room, I had asked Lidstrom for a few words. I was writing for a local sports magazine at the time, and my assignment was to get a feel for the team’s mindset as the playoffs beckoned.
Lidstrom, ever the gentleman, apologized, but with a rider.
“I can’t do it now, but right after the ceremony,” he told me.
We all were herded upstairs, near the Gordie Howe Entrance. The way Lidstrom kept looking at me, I got the feeling that he was more concerned about our chat than I was.
Not long after the unveiling, Lidstrom approached me and the brief interview began, as he promised.
He didn’t know me from Adam, although I’m sure he’d seen me in the locker room before—and would see me again.
But the point is, Nick Lidstrom made good on his word, even to an ink-stained wretch.
They’re going to have another ceremony tonight at the Joe, and this time Lidstrom won’t be merely a spectator. This time, the nod to history is a nod in his direction.
Number 5 gets hoisted to the rafters tonight, taking its rightful place next to 1, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19 as retired Red Wings jersey numbers.
1. Terry Sawchuk, the best goalie ever and the most dour. Perhaps, at the same time, the best at what he did and the most unhappy while doing it.
7. Ted Lindsay, who had the most appropriate nickname for his on-ice persona and the most inappropriate for when he was off it—Terrible Ted. Never has the NHL seen someone who so lived up to his moniker as a player and so lived down to it as a person.
9. Gordie Howe, who is still one of the few hockey players any man on the street can actually name. The bumpkin from Saskatchewan who made good.
10. Alex Delvecchio, who played the game with quiet grace. Fats wasn’t spectacular, but somehow he always ended up with 25 goals and a bushel of assists every year.
12. Sid Abel, who centered the Production Line between Howe and Lindsay. Old Bootnose, who served the Wings so well as a coach, GM and TV commentator in addition to his years as a Hall of Fame center.
19. Steve Yzerman, who immediately comes to mind in Detroit when anyone says “The Captain.” Never has the Red Wings franchise employed a player who played with more grit and heart than Stevie Y.
Lidstrom joins these greats tonight, his jersey settling in nicely way up high. It won’t be out of place.
If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.
The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him ”a Genius in Spikes.”
Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”
Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.
Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.
As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?
The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Toronto. But for years, the Hall had a satellite office in Detroit.
If you didn’t feel like jumping on Highway 401 or the train in Windsor, and you wanted to see hockey relics, you just needed to venture to Joe Louis Arena—specifically the Red Wings dressing room.
The players weren’t in the Hall, but that was only because they had yet to retire. Certainly, that was their post-playing destination.
The names above the cubicles in those days—from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—were a Who’s Who of the NHL.
Yzerman. Hull. Shanahan. Hasek. Lidstrom. Robitaille. Murphy. Larionov. Fedorov. Chelios.
Everyone was 35 years old, or older. Everyone had won Stanley Cups, somewhere. Everyone had their ticket already punched to the Hall.
The Red Wings were so old and experienced in that time frame, the official team drink was Geritol.
But oh, did they win.
Stanley Cups were won in 1997, 1998, 2002 and then, after a pause to re-load the roster, in 2008.
Even the coach for three of those Cups, Scotty Bowman, was HOF-bound.
They could have erected statues outside the dressing room for the players suiting up inside.
Back then, you could be arrested for being young and playing for the Red Wings.
Youthful players were bargaining chips in those days for the league’s trading deadline. The Red Wings drafted smart, developed even smarter, and then just when you were ready for the NHL, you got traded for someone with gray hair.
There was no salary cap. GM Kenny Holland needed only to dial his boss, Mike Ilitch, tell the owner how much pizza dough it was going to take to sign the highest profile free agents, and thy will be done.
It seemed like the Red Wings had nobody on their roster less than 30 years of age.
When the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) took effect starting with the 2005-06 season, the days of the blank checks were over with. Each team would have to budget. Free-spending teams like the Red Wings—the New York Yankees of hockey—now had ceilings.
It was like telling Hitler to stop invading.
Holland managed to steer the Red Wings through the waters of salary caps and budgets to the tune of 2008’s Cup and darn near another one a year later.
But the team was still mostly made up of veterans. Youngsters were few and far between.
The Red Wings kept making the playoffs—22 years in a row now and counting—but the graybeards started to fall by the wayside after the 2009 Cup Finals.
Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood and Tomas Holmstrom were some of longtime Red Wings who hung up their skates.
Then Nick Lidstrom called it quits in 2012, which sent many fans into a frenzy of panic.
A quick look at the roster after all this churn saw a bevy of players who dared to be in their 20s.
Certainly the Red Wings would dip, most folks thought. The team was too young, too inexperienced.
Save for Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi and newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, the 2013-14 Red Wings were shy on veteran presence.
The modern era Red Wings didn’t win four Stanley Cups and all those playoff games with kids.
It’s still in question whether this season’s Red Wings will continue the playoff-making streak, but if they do, they’ll have to do it with key contributions from youngsters.
The Red Wings aren’t used to this. Coach Mike Babcock isn’t used to this. GM Holland isn’t used to this. And the fans most definitely aren’t used to this.
“This” is seeing a bunch of young, fast players in red sweaters, creating havoc, scoring goals and flying around the ice. “This” is a reliance on a new wave of players, many of whom started the season in the minor leagues. “This” is an exciting batch of kids that might, just might, be the core of a Cup-winning team in the not-too-distant future.
For now, though, it’s about making the playoffs this spring.
Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are four of these exciting young players. Their average age is 23. And they are becoming an annoyance to play against.
Nyquist has a knack for scoring big goals. Tatar is immensely talented and looks like the Red Wings’ next puck wizard after Datsyuk, who is basically playing on one leg thanks to a bad left knee. Zetterberg isn’t playing at all, due to a herniated disc in his back that recently required surgery.
Jurco and Sheahan, who was the team’s first round draft choice in 2010, have hockey smarts beyond their years and create plenty of scoring chances with their passing skills.
In a season marred by injuries, these four young players are tasked with keeping the Red Wings in the playoff hunt. It’s on them now. Reinforcements aren’t really on the way.
Free agent bust (so far) Stephen Weiss is only just now on the verge of returning from a sports hernia injury that has kept him sidelined for over two months.
Datsyuk plays on one leg, Zetterberg doesn’t play at all.
Johan Franzen has just played his first two games after missing 25 of 26 with post-concussion symptoms.
Darren Helm has been in and out of the lineup—mostly out—with a variety of injuries.
Even the goalies—Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustvasson—have missed considerable time due to various physical maladies.
But the four kids are healthy as horses right now. And they’re eager. And they’re having a blast.
It just may be that the Red Wings’ fate—playoffs or not, and then how far they go in the post-season—is directly tied to how Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco and Sheahan perform.
In recent weeks, their production has saved the team’s bacon.
This reliance on so many young players is not how the Cup-winning Red Wings teams back in the day got it done.
But partly out of necessity and partly due to the fact that these kids can flat out play, today’s Red Wings are daring to take a path to the playoffs that the franchise has never had to try.
Out with the Geritol, and in with the Flintstones vitamins.
The news that the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference should have been announced by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not a league spokesman.
The Five-Star General of choice should have gotten up, like in a military briefing, and announced that the Red Wings’ years-long occupation in the West was finally over with.
It’s peace for our time. We don’t have to fear fear itself anymore. The Korean War is ended. It’s pulling out of Vietnam, without Saigon falling.
The Red Wings’ mission out west has been completed. The NHL is letting the Winged Wheelers pull up their stakes from Los Angeles. That time share in Anaheim is going up for sale. They won’t need the guest house in San Jose.
Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it’ll have to survive without the Red Wings. The oxygen masks marked “Denver” can be put away.
No more looking around Dallas—Dallas—for good ice. The Alberta twins, Calgary and Edmonton, and their 9:30 p.m. Detroit starts won’t be missed.
So long, Minnesota. We hardly knew ye. St. Louis and the Gateway Arch? We’ll miss your breweries but not much else. Somehow we’ll have to live without that hockey Mecca, Phoenix.
Columbus will have to go back to being that town where Ohio State University calls home. Nashville? Love your music, loathe your hockey tradition.
Finally, there’s Chicago. Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “Chicago, we’ll miss you most of all.”
But the soon-to-be truncated rivalry with the Blackhawks—which began when they were the Black Hawks—isn’t enough to make the Red Wings grow wistful for the West.
No more 10:30 p.m. Detroit starts. No more playoff games watched by hundreds of thousands who showed up as bleary-eyed zombies the next morning at work.
The Red Wings have carried the West long enough. Their occupation has ended. General Bettman says it’s OK for the Red Wings to join the East.
Fittingly, the news came down this week, with the Red Wings making one of those lovely Western Canada swings through Alberta. They reacted so giddily, you half expected that they would drop their hockey sticks and run to Philadelphia.
Or Boston. Or New York. Heck, even New Jersey, and no one runs to New Jersey unless they’re in the Mob.
The Red Wings are moving to the East for the 2013-14 season. It’s all part of the realignment that was signed off on by the players association.
It’s Christmas in March for the Red Wings and their fans, particularly those old enough to remember the Original Six, when a trip “out west” meant you were taking the train to Chicago and Detroit.
The Red Wings will be placed in a division with four, count ‘em, four, Original Six organ-eye-zayshuns.
Detroit. Montreal. Toronto. Boston. And the New York Rangers are just a division away. Only the Chicago Blackhawks, from the O-6, are left behind in the West. The Blackhawks are a dynamic hockey club with a wealth of young talent, and they started this season with a streak of getting points in their first 24 games. It’s their turn to prop the West up.
That’s what the Red Wings did, you know—prop up the West. Don’t let anyone in the league offices in New York tell you otherwise. But the NHL loved having the Red Wings playing all those games in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones.
The Red Wings, with their expansive fan base and their Stanley Cups and their annual appearance in the playoffs, papered the houses, from the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to the arenas in San Jose and Anaheim, and all the way to Columbus. Especially Columbus.
For two decades, the Red Wings’ success was a boon to the attendance out west. It wasn’t unusual to see more blood red and white jerseys in the seats than those of the home teams.
Those days are done. The Red Wings will be rekindling rivalries that go back to before World War II.
The fans are beside themselves. They’re rubbing their hands together at the prospects of seeing the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs and the Bruins in Joe Louis Arena more than once every Leap Year.
The beauty of the move is that, finally, the powers that be saw the value of having the Red Wings in the Eastern Time zone.
It’s what’s best for the NHL, really.
The timing couldn’t be better. Look at the standings. All four of these Original Six brethren—even long-suffering Toronto—are good teams. It’s not just that they share lineage, they’re highly competitive.
NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.
Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.
I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.
You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.
Not all the teams in the new division are filled with tradition, but that’s OK. The Red Wings will also be joined by Florida, Tampa Bay (though Yzerman is the GM), Buffalo and Ottawa. But as Bettman pointed out, the Florida markets are filled with transplanted Michiganders.
The winners, clearly, are the Red Wings and their brand in this league gerrymandering. No more jet lag, and during the playoffs, no less. Fox Sports Detroit will enjoy higher TV ratings. A road trip from Toronto to Detroit is back in play, and vice versa.
The Red Wings’ mission out west is complete. They’ll be able to get through a hockey season without spending half of it waiting for their bodies to adjust to the time.
You miss games in L.A.? I guess you’ll have to wait until the Finals.
It’s become an annual tradition. Look back at 12 months of tripe and pick out the stuff that I either got very wrong, very right, or that makes one think I might be onto something (or on something, whichever).
So without further ado, here’s the Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno for 2012.
On the state of the Lions after their 45-28 playoff loss in New Orleans:
“There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.”
Yet that’s exactly what GM Marty Mayhew did, for the most part, as his draft was less than spectacular. And you saw what happened.
On what the Tigers should do in the wake of the Victor Martinez knee injury:
“Is there a Martinez on the list?
The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.
The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.
The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.
So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.
Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.
But Vlad won’t hit .330, and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.
Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.
My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.”
They didn’t sign Guerrero for a year. They signed Fielder for nine.
On the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom playing in his 1,000th career game:
“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 games.
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?”
Sadly, Holmstrom hasn’t been able to add to his total, thanks to the lockout. And it’s no sure bet that he’ll be back, anyhow.
On the status of Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch:
“Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.
Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?
Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.
Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?”
Jackson had a breakout year of sorts, and Boesch…didn’t. Shows you how much I know.
On the off-season (up to that point) of Lions GM Mayhew:
“Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.
The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.
Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.
His off-season, thus far, has been A+.”
That was BEFORE the draft, which wasn’t very good, to say the least. And Mayhew is suddenly on the hot seat, perhaps.
On Pistons (then) rookie point guard Brandon Knight:
“Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.
“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.
“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”
There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.
Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.”
Knight this season, at times, appears to be regressing, or at the very least, not progressing as much as hoped.
On the dreaded retirement of Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, after it was made official:
“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 (LA and New Jersey).
The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.”
And there STILL haven’t been any games played since, to see what life post-Lidstrom is like.
On Pistons big man Greg Monroe, as said by frequent “Knee Jerks” guest and former Pistons player and coach, Ray Scott:
“It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.
“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.
For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.
Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.”
Nothing that Monroe has done this season indicates that Coach is wrong.
On the Lions’ consistency:
“So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.
All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.”
On the hype over Quintin Berry:
“Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.
Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.
But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.
Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.
Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.”
Berry faltered, as I expected, though his spot on the 2013 roster seems secure, for now.
On Tommy Hearns’ induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame:
“Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.
He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.
But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.
Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.
For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”
I think we can all agree that this was long overdue.
On the worry over the Lions’ lack of a bona fide running attack:
The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.
Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?
It makes no sense.”
I stand behind this, despite 2012′s 4-12 record.
On the MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout:
“Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.
Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.
It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.
Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.
If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.”
Thankfully the right decision was made!
On the future of Lions RB Jahvid Best, and his role in today’s NFL, when it comes to concussions:
“Some have suggested that Best hang up his spikes and call it a career, despite his tender age and this being just his third pro season. The brain is nothing to be trifled with, they say. Maybe because of Best’s youth, he should consider retirement.
Best has given no indication that he will retire. Lions fans, eager to see what Best can do for an extended period of time, haven’t exactly blown the horn for retirement, either.
No matter what Best’s fate turns out to be—short-lived career or full recovery and longevity—the NFL has a problem on its hands.”
The NFL needs to work on better helmets, among other things. Best won’t be the last player imperiled.
On the Pistons using big men Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond at the same time:
“Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.
Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.
Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.
Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.
It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.
About time the Pistons tried it.”
Coach Lawrence Frank has been trying it more, with success, and to the pleasure of the fans.
On Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who I obviously soured on after the beginning of 2012:
“But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.
Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”
But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.
“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.
The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.
Just like their coach.”
It’s been reported that Schwartz’s job is “under review” by the Ford family, largely because of this kind of stuff.
On Matthew Stafford’s inconsistency:
“The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.
Too many errant throws.
It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.
The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.”
Though I certainly didn’t foresee an 0-8 second half.
On the Tigers’ signing of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and the future of Rick Porcello:
“High profile, expensive free agent pitchers, as soon as the ink dries on their signature, become as unpredictable as tomorrow’s weather. Their arms get fragile. They need a GPS to find home plate. They spend more time on the disabled list than eggs on a grocery list.
But if you’re going to have an embarrassment of riches anywhere on your roster, then it may as well be in your starting rotation. You could do worse.
The Tigers can now trot out, weekly, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and a pitcher to be named later, who might as well be Dontrelle Willis. The critique is that they’re all right-handed (except for Willis). But that’s like saying the one thing wrong with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is that they all wear number 12.
In a business where teams struggle to even name four starting pitchers, the Tigers have four who could lead many rotations in baseball. The Tigers are so rich in starting pitchers that they actually have six of them.
Ricky Porcello, the oldest 23-year-old pitcher in baseball, will apparently battle it out with lefty Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation. But there should be no battle here. Keep the southpaw Smyly, whose ceiling is ridiculously high (witness what he did in Game 1 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, after the Tigers were waylaid by Jose Valverde in the ninth inning), and trade Porcello.”
Time will tell, but I maintain that Porcello is more valuable as trade bait than as a long reliever.
On the city’s two octogenarian sports owners—Mike Ilitch and Bill Ford:
“The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.
Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.
But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.
Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.
Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.”
Anyone want to disagree with that?
So there you have it. The highlights (and lowlights) of another year of scribbling.
Hope you have a great 2013!
Wax up the sleigh. Check it for flight. Shine St. Nick’s boots. Make sure Rudy’s nose is bright and squeaky clean.
Test the GPS. Gather the weather reports. Check the sack for rips. Tell Mrs. C not to wait up.
It’s gonna be another long night, but then it always is on December 24.
The jolly, old, fat man is set to make his annual trek. Chimneys the world over wait. Fireplaces are about to be pounced on.
Santa has something for everyone, or so they say. Keeping the faith, I’m going to accept that statement as fact. So, with that in mind, let’s see if he can find room in his big, red pack, upon his back—as Andy Williams sang—for these goodies.
For Calvin Johnson, a new NFL record, but more importantly, a football team worthy of his gargantuan talent.
For Matthew Stafford, highlight reels of Slinging Sammy Baugh and Fran Tarkenton, so the kid knows that you don’t have to have perfect “mechanics” to be a winner in this league.
For Jim Schwartz, a general manager who will draft him some defense.
For Rick Porcello, a team who wants him.
For Jhonny Peralta, a new nickname: The Kitchenette, because they say he has no range.
For Torii Hunter, nothing—because he already had his Christmas when he signed with the Tigers.
For traffic lights throughout Metro Detroit, Anibal Sanchez’s timing.
For Alex Avila, health and happiness—and for him, they’re one and the same.
For Miguel Cabrera, the abolition of sabermetrics.
For Tigers fans, also nothing—because they already have their new third base coach.
For Tommy Brookens, the new third base coach, the best of luck.
For the NHL, coal in its hockey boot.
For Mark Dantonio, a quarterback.
For Brady Hoke, a headset.
For Joe Dumars, a slashing, scoring small forward in the draft, because it sure isn’t on his current roster.
For Lawrence Frank, a book on the Pistons of the 1960s—oh, wait, he’s already writing the remake.
For Andre Drummond, the career of Shaquille O’Neal, because Ray Scott told me that Andre reminds him of a young Shaq.
For Greg Monroe, the career of Bob Lanier, because (see above).
For Pistons fans, a new RV, because you can all fit in one.
For George Blaha, some recognition (finally) as a damn good football play-by-play guy.
For Charlie Villanueva, no regrets.
For Tayshaun Prince, a nice twilight so his career will be properly book-ended.
For all of us working stiffs, the longevity of Jim Brandstatter.
For all of us husbands, Brandy’s marriage, too.
For Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder’s smile at the next Thanksgiving table.
For Notre Dame football fans, you don’t get anything—your prayers were already answered.
For NHL fans, never Fehr.
For Alex Karras’ legacy, a diabolical plan to gain induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For Miguel Cabrera, whatever he wants.
For Dominic Raiola, a seven-second delay.
For Ndamukong Suh, peace.
For Louis Delmas, two good knees.
For the two Vs, Vinnie Goodwill and Vince Ellis (Pistons beat writers), a thesaurus to help them describe what they are forced to watch nightly.
For Jerry Green, many more Super Bowls.
For Rob Parker, see Dominic Raiola.
For Mark Sanchez, the hell out of New York.
For Toronto Blue Jays fans, somebody to pinch them.
For Chicago Cubs and Lions fans, a support group.
For Billy Crystal, the only known celebrity Los Angeles Clippers fan, a winner.
For Billy Crystal’s movie career, the same, for it’s as overdue as are the Clippers.
For Magic Johnson, all the success with the Dodgers as he had on the basketball court.
For the San Francisco Giants, the antithesis for Magic.
For Linda McCoy-Murray, happiness with her new man. But he’ll never write like Jim.
For Jim Leyland, we folks off his back already.
For our daughter, anything she wants, because she tamed Oakland University as a freshman like she had ice water in her veins.
For my wife, see Charlie Villanueva.
For all of you who read me every week, a year’s supply of Zantac.
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.