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Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Detroit Red Wings
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Detroit Red Wings History
By Ted Kulfan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Ted Kulfan
All rights reserved.
DETROIT IS HOCKEYTOWN
If there was any doubt about Hockeytown's existence, on this warm summer day in June, those questions were answered emphatically and clearly.
The city of Detroit had its problems, probably more than other big cities. Unemployment was rampant because of the continuing collapse of the auto industry. The mayor was on his way to being booted out of office. The future looked grim.
But Detroit still had its hockey, specifically the Red Wings.
And as nearly a million metropolitan Detroit residents came downtown to celebrate winning the 2008 Stanley Cup championship, they also could have been celebrating Detroit reaffirming itself as the true Hockeytown simultaneously.
"There were times I had to wipe away some tears," said Chris Osgood, after arriving at Hart Plaza, the site of the rally. Osgood,
the rest of the team, members of the coaching staff and front office, and some former Wings stars had just been driven in parade-like fashion down Woodward Avenue, and fans lined up five or six deep in some spots, cheering on their hockey heroes.
"Some of the guys who've done it before, like after they won in 2002, were trying to explain to the other guys what it would be like," said Niklas Kronwall, who wasn't part of the 2002 championship team. "But words can't describe it. It was something you'll never forget, all the people."
The term "Hockeytown" was born in 1996 just before the Wings would go on to win two consecutive Stanley Cups. From the long, storied tradition of the Wings organization, to the numerous junior hockey leagues in the area, to the close proximity to Canada, to the numerous hockey players who've become part of the fabric in the community, all these factors made Hockeytown a truth, not just something an advertising agency (Bozell Worldwide, in this case) accurately created.
Detroit was, and is, Hockeytown.
From the thousands of Wings jerseys at Joe Louis Arena, with the names of Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Howe on the back, to thousands of school-age kids heading to the rink weeknights and weekend mornings — often with their parents chugging along, dragging equipment — wearing their city's hockey colors on a jacket with the American and Canadian flags intertwined on the sleeve, Hockeytown is a way of life in Detroit.
"A lifestyle or philosophy" is how Steve Violetta, the Wings' senior vice president of business affairs, describes it. "Not necessarily a location."
There aren't many U.S. cities where a free-agent signing or trade in June, July, or August by the local hockey team is hotly debated in newspaper forums and talk radio. In Detroit, it is.
In Detroit, the town's quarterback is actually the No. 2 toughest position. You don't want to be the Wings' goaltender, especially during playoff time. Every goal against is analyzed and scrutinized.
Legends like Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe, and Nicklas Lidstrom are revered in a rich sports town such as Detroit, more than any football-playing Lion or basketball-playing Piston.
"It's something that's been built up over the years," general manager Ken Holland said.
How popular are the Wings, and how strong is the Hockeytown hold in the state of Michigan?
Consider this. The team has taken its training camp to Traverse City, a gorgeous resort-style town in northwestern Michigan every early September for the last 10 years.
The Wings hold a weeklong (or slightly less) series of scrimmages and practices, along with the minor leaguers and junior players who've been drafted.
Traverse City residents more than open their arms for the Wings. Many residents will take a week off from work to volunteer to shuttle players from Centre ICE Arena back to the resort the organization occupies. Fans from all over the state, and everywhere else, flock to see the Wings in this little hamlet.
"We've had people travel here from nearly 40 states and Canada," said Pete Correia, the training camp coordinator who was pivotal in bringing the training camp north from Joe Louis Arena. "People will plan their vacations, take a few days off, but it continues to grow in popularity."
All the sessions are usually sold out. Further, before the Wings arrive, the team's top prospects play in an eight-team tournament against other organizations' top young players in a weeklong tournament that whets the appetites of hockey fans in the region.
"Those are the future NHL players right there," Correia said.
Those games, too, are usually sold out. But in the end it's the Wings the fans want to see.
"It really shows you how deep the passion is all over the state of Michigan," coach Mike Babcock said. "It's really something to see."
The last few years before the 2008 Stanley Cup victory, just how much of a Hockeytown Detroit was, or had become, was free to debate.
An organization that had more than 10,000 on a waiting list for season tickets suddenly didn't have a list at all. Sellouts had stopped.
Ratings for the games had fallen as the town grew to love the baseball Tigers, who had unexpectedly gotten to the 2006 World Series.
Directly after the 2004–2005 lockout, hockey suddenly wasn't as popular in Detroit.
"There were probably a few reasons for it," said Lidstrom, one of the most popular Wings and a longtime fan favorite. "The lockout probably didn't help, and the economy is another reason."
Few American cities are as dependent on a sole business as Detroit is on the auto business. And when General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler began gradually sinking in 2005, so did ticket sales for all local sports teams, especially the slightly higher-priced Wings.
Add the retirement of Steve Yzerman after the 2005–2006 season, a young, talented roster that hadn't won a Stanley Cup nor truly connected yet to the local fan base, plus residual bitterness over the lockout, and you had a perfect storm of issues.
Hockeytown? Sure, but maybe not as passionate as before.
The economy was still a problem in 2008, even more so than ever. Foreclosures were rampant in metro Detroit, with former automakers losing their homes while watching their savings vanish.
But on a hot, humid day in June 2008, after the organization's 11 Stanley Cup was won, Hockeytown was on top of the world again.
"When you see all the fans out there celebrating, wearing their jerseys and raising their arms shouting, you know this is Hockeytown," Wings forward Jiri Hudler said.
There really is something about those brilliant red-and-white sweaters, the winged wheel, the history in those jerseys that makes the Red Wings' brand so special, especially among hockey fans in North America, even the world.
Same goes for the New York Rangers. Or the Boston Bruins. Or the Chicago Blackhawks. And for sure the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
They, the Original Six, the six franchises from which the National Hockey League exploded to what it is today. They are the bedrock of the league. The base.
And in Detroit, just like in those other Original Six cities, there's a certain pride in being the first ones there to the party. The rivalries, dynasties, and legendary players that skated during the Original Six days — 1942 to 1967 is generally regarded as the heyday in the minds of many hockey historians — are special to fans even now. That's not always the case in other sports.
It seems the past is treasured a little more among hockey fans — in Detroit just as much as in other places.
"Being in an Original Six city, the feeling is a little different when you go to play," said Wings defenseman Brett Lebda, who also happened to grow up in Chicago and followed the Blackhawks. "The history in these places is amazing. Hockey means a little more."
For as illustrious career as Brett Hull had in the NHL, one of his most treasured experiences was playing for the Red Wings, an Original Six team.
"There is something to that," said Hull of the entire Original Six mystique and aura.
Wings Fans All Over
As many Wings fans as there are in the state of Michigan, there's nearly as many, it seems, in other arenas across North America — places like Tampa Bay and Phoenix, where Coyotes management rose ticket prices to Wings games to curtail the amount of Wings fans in the rink, and cities like Washington and Atlanta, both arenas where Wings jerseys outnumber the home team's colors. And don't forget South Florida and Raleigh.
The Wings are often referred to as the New York Yankees of the NHL because of the tradition, history, and success of the organization and the cavalcade of stars on the present-day rosters.
"It really is amazing when you go to these different rinks and see all the Wings fans in the seats," Wings defenseman Chris Chelios said. "A lot of them are transplants from the Detroit area in these other cities. But being an Original Six team, the success of the Wings over the years, it's a team a lot of fans follow."
Fans in opposing rinks, wearing their Red Wings sweaters, will throw octopi onto the ice, symbolizing another Wings victory. They'll cheer Wings goals and be indifferent when their home team does anything positive. Chants of "Let's Go Red Wings!" thunder from the upper bowl of these supposed enemy arenas.
More than a few players opposing the Red Wings in these situations have complained to reporters about how conditions are similar to playing yet another road game, in actuality. "I'm sure it could be a little frustrating," forward Henrik Zetterberg said.
But not nearly as frustrated as Wings fans were after the lockout when the NHL went to a division-heavy schedule, with few games against the rival Eastern Conference. For three consecutive summers, when the actual schedule was unveiled, Wings fans railed against the idea of Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues (the only good thing was the Blackhawks, too) playing four times each at Joe Louis Arena. On the other hand, the Eastern Conference Rangers, Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Canadiens played at Joe Louis Arena only once in three seasons (the Wings would go to those rinks once, also). Some years, depending on the division from the East the Wings were scheduled to face, the Wings wouldn't play those teams at all.
Wings fans felt commissioner Gary Bettman and the powers that be in the NHL were trying to abolish the Original Six tradition totally.
"We're seeing the same teams all the time, and not the teams everyone around here wants to see, the teams many fans grew up with," said Margy Bishop, of Dearborn Heights, a longtime Wings fans who enjoyed the Original Six days.
Fans and front-office personnel also were disappointed with the schedule matrix.
Owner Mike Ilitch, general manager Ken Holland, and senior vice president Jimmy Devellano all felt the schedule was a major reason attendance declined after the lockout, with Wings fans tiring of seeing the same Western Conference teams over and over.
"One week, a few of the Eastern teams were on the schedule, and there was a buzz throughout the city, the rink, in the locker room," Holland said. "You could really sense it."
Players do indeed sense a buzz when facing an Original Six rival. "There's a different kind of spark in the arena, and it carries onto what's happening on the ice," Wings forward Kirk Maltby said.
Long Live Tradition
You want to get an idea of what the Original Six means? The atmosphere when the Wings travel to Chicago or Toronto can pretty much sum it up.
When the Wings play a game in Toronto, you'll see many fans take the train in Windsor, just across the Detroit River, and make the four-hour trek to Maple Leaf country. They'll do so with their Wings jackets, hooded sweatshirts, Wings duffel bags, and of course Stanley Cup championship caps.
They'll walk around the city streets of Toronto easily recognizable. And on game night, they're not afraid to be vocal in a hostile hockey environment as in Toronto.
Same goes with Chicago. No example could be as perfect as January 1, 2009, the date of the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, with Wings and Blackhawks fans milling around before the game, soaking up the atmosphere (and beer in Wrigleyville corner bars), and pretty much embodying what was right about the NHL ... and the Original Six in particular.
These franchises have been in existence for more than 75 years. Grandparents and great-grandparents could talk about players they'd marveled at. Fans didn't care much for the opposing team, but there was a grudging respect.
Two Original Six teams in the spotlight.
"The way it should be," Chelios said.
Simply put, they had a hand in revolutionizing the way the game is played in the NHL. The puck-possession style these five players adhered to transformed the way the game was played, particularly for the Wings, who had a heavy Russian influence on their roster in the late 1990s and would continue to be dominated with that influence as late as the 2008 Stanley Cup championship season.
When coach Scotty Bowman put together forwards Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, and Slava Kozlov, along with defense-men Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov, it was the start of something much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
"Nobody had ever played that way in the league before," said former Wings coach Dave Lewis, an assistant on three Stanley Cup teams that were influenced by at least a few of the Russian players.
Bowman put the five together on the ice on October 27, 1995, in Calgary, and the Wings won 3–0. Fittingly, the Russian unit contributed a goal: Kozlov scored after no-look passes from Fedorov and Konstantinov.
Bowman lived, breathed, and studied hockey as much as anyone during his days as an NHL coach. He was intrigued by the Russian system of possessing the puck, keeping it away from the defense, and felt it was a style that could work in the NHL, particularly with the group of Russians the Wings had.
But to bring it all together, the Wings needed one more playmaker, a conductor. And when Bowman acquired Larionov from the San Jose Sharks in 1995 (for Ray Sheppard), no player could have been a better fit. Larionov was the last piece in a puzzle that culminated with consecutive Stanley Cup victories. "He was one of the most intelligent players I've ever played with," Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He wasn't a big player, but his smarts helped him get so much success."
Bowman learned the Soviet hockey system would keep groups of five together to maintain and build chemistry. He would do the same with this group of five Russians on the Wings.
"We've had great success, and Europeans have been a big part of that," general manager Ken Holland said. "When Scotty put together the Russian Five, that was really the start of the Red Wings we see today. It even had an impact on how we developed our drafting philosophy and scouting philosophy."
From the start, when Larionov, Fedorov, Kozlov, Fetisov, and Konstantinov would hold on to pucks for seconds on end during practice, then the game, the rest of the Wings players were as dazzled as anyone else. "When they first started playing together, everybody on the bench would just watch them and couldn't believe what we were seeing," forward Kris Draper said. "Igor had a way of slowing everything down. It all goes back to the way he saw the game, the vision he had on the ice, and his ability to slow things down."
How dominant was the unit that first season?
One need only look at the plus-minus statistics of each. Konstantinov led the league with plus-60 (on the ice for 60 more goals scored than goals against at even strength). Fedorov (who won the Selke Trophy that season as the league's best defensive forward) was plus-49. Larionov and Fetisov were both plus-37. Kozlov was plus-33.
With 644 points in 14 NHL seasons, Larionov was a fine player in the NHL. But he earned much of his acclaim in Russia as part of the greatest national teams ever assembled. By the time Larionov arrived in Vancouver, he was slowly trending toward the downside of his career. Although a fine, unique player, hockey fans could only imagine what the Russian KLM Line with Larionov, Sergei Makarov, and Vladimir Krutov could have accomplished in the NHL.
"To me, there was no disappointment," Larionov said.
"Igor has had a tremendous impact on hockey at both the international and NHL levels," Holland said. "He was one of the most intelligent players to ever play the game."
Larionov excelled on those teams, along with defenseman Fetisov. The two were pioneers for other Russian players to enter the NHL.
"For so many years he [Larionov] was a great player in Russia, then he came over here and was a great player, too," said Pavel Datsyuk, who regards Larionov as a mentor.
In Datsyuk's rookie season in 2002, Larionov took Datsyuk under his wing, having Datsyuk live in his house. Larionov taught him how to open a checking account in the United States, got Datsyuk to begin speaking the language, and helped get him a driver's license.
Simply put, Larionov taught Datsyuk about NHL life on and off the ice. "Very much so," said Datsyuk, who admires Larionov to this day. "He helped me so much. Not just a great hockey player, Igor is a great man, too. He helped so many young players.
"He's just a classy guy."
Excerpted from Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Detroit Red Wings by Ted Kulfan. Copyright © 2009 Ted Kulfan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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