Thank You, Detroit Red Wings
Last week the Detroit Red Wings missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
Please re-read that. 25 YEARS!
When I was a kid, my 3 favorite teams were the Cleveland Force, Cleveland Browns, and the Cleveland Indians. I didn't have a favorite hockey team, but I liked Wayne Gretzky and I liked hockey on the whole. The Detroit Red Wings during the 1982-83 season were an abysmal 21-44-15, dead last in the Campbell Conference. It was their fifth consecutive season of coming in last in the Norris Division. Picking fourth in that 1983 NHL draft,* the Red Wings lucked out when the Minnesota North Stars chose center Brian Lawton as the #1 pick in the draft. Their target was a young Pat LaFontaine, who graduated high school in suburban Detroit. The Islanders then poached LaFontaine with the third pick and the Red Wings ended up picking the third center chosen that day, an 18 year old named Steve Yzerman.
Now I'm a fan of Pat LaFontaine's also, but his story is one for a different day. Steve Yzerman was a Red Wing, through and through, right from day one. The Red Wings were horrible so they didn't even send him to the minors his first season. During that season, my Grandmother bought me a Steve Yzerman t-shirt, and told me that Stevie Y was going to be special player. From that day on, the Red Wings were my favorite NHL team. Back in those days, it was hard to be a Red Wings fan, everyone talked about Gordie Howe and the glories of yesteryear. The 1983 Red Wings returned to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they still weren't very good. With a 31-42-7 record, I must remind you that 16 of the 21 teams made the playoffs, but the Red Wings were quickly swept out of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues, winning only one game in the process.
As a Cleveland sports fan, my youth was filled with disappointment. The Cleveland Force dissolved and I liked the Cleveland Crunch, but I didn't like the bastardization of the indoor soccer rules that the NPSL employed. The Cleveland Indians were perennial doormats that sold hope instead of wins. By the time the Indians were good and winning a hundred games, MLB cancelled the World Series. That turned me off of baseball for a long time. And the Browns, well everyone knows the story of greedy Art Modell and his rush out of the city in 1995, along with the on the field heartbreaks like, the Drive, the Fumble, blah, blah blah....
....during the late 80's and early 90's though, the Red Wings continued to improve and built their team around Yzerman, making him the Captain at the age of 21. For every two steps forward the Red Wings took, they still made some missteps (missing the playoffs in '86 and '90), but the team was always trending up as they continually added and upgraded pieces to compliment Yzerman.
By '94, the Red Wings were loaded with future Hall-of-Famers and they lost the Stanley Cup to the New Jersey Devils. Over the next 15 years, the Red Wings would return to the Stanley Cup Finals 5 more times, winning four ('97,'98,'02, & '08). Only 2 things kept the Red Wings from winning even more Stanley Cups, the Colorado Avalanche, a team of criminals and reprobates and Vladimir Konstantinov's limousine accident. The Captain, through it all, and up to the '07 season, was Steve Yzerman.
The Detroit Red Wings, a juggernaut of hockey consistency, continued to win for 10 more years past Yzerman, but as parts of the team retired, they became also rans. The dagger that finally killed the dynasty was when Pavel Datsyuk returned to Russia this past offseason. After Steve Yzerman retired, Nicklas Lindstrom and then Henrik Zetterberg were honorable captains that continued the tradition of Red Wings' excellence, but the Red Wings have been an old team since about the year 2000. At some point, the wheels had to come off the wagon. Ironically it was the same year that owner Mike Illitch passed away.
As of 2017, there are 58 Red Wings in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but in the 2002 season, the Red Wings were so stacked that it had potentially a dozen HOF'ers playing for them in that season alone:
Brandon Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datysuk, Tomas Holmstrom,
and Dominik Hasek
Players in Red are already in the Hall of Fame
My grandmother passed away a few years back and probably no team brought me greater joy than those first two Detroit Stanley Cup runs in '97 and '98. Sadly that was 20 years ago, but a quarter of a century of playoff runs is truly something special in all of North American sport leagues.
*I would be remiss to mention, in that same '83 draft, this time in the third round, the Detroit Red Wings chose a tough as nails enforcer named Bob Probert. His job was specifically to protect Steve Yzerman, and he did a damn good job of it. Unfortunately, besides being known for fighting, he was arrested for being an international drug smuggler and was a well known alcoholic. My Grandmother said to ignore those stories, he lived in the same development as her in Sylvan Lake,Michigan and Probert was the nicest guy in the world. For this story, let's just listen to my late Grandmother as he passed away of a heart attack in 2010.
Steve Yzerman gave the eulogy.
Above: The Author on 4/20/2017