Archive for Hockey
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.
(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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.