It was October, 1969 and Bill Gadsby, the venerable NHL Hall of Fame defenseman, was two games into the second season of his coaching career with the Detroit Red Wings.
In Gadsby’s first season wearing the whistle around his neck, the Red Wings finished a respectable if not spectacular 33-31-12.
But season two saw Gadsby’s Red Wings jump out of the gate with a 2-0 record, winning at home against Toronto and on the road in Chicago.
After the Chicago game, team owner Bruce Norris wrapped his arms around Gadbsy in the Red Wings dressing room.
“Bill, you really got the boys playing!” Norris told Gadsby. Yet the next day, Norris called Gadsby into his office and gave his coach the ziggy, that Detroit word for when a coach gets fired.
When I interviewed Gadsby about the firing, nearly 40 years had passed and he still didn’t really know why Norris canned him.
“(Norris) said that he was looking for a more modern-thinking coach,” Gadsby told me, not that he understood what the owner meant. Not long after the 1969-70 season ended, Norris introduced his new, presumably more modern-thinking coach to the public. Ned Harkness, fresh off the campus of Cornell University, bounded into town and hockey wouldn’t be the same in Detroit for years.
Bill Gadsby had unwittingly launched, with his firing, 17 years of a coaching carousel with the Red Wings. Between Gadsby in 1969 and Jacques Demers, who was hired in 1986, the Red Wings burned through 15 coaches — almost one per year.
The days of coaching instability with the Red Wings are long gone. Since 1993, when Scotty Bowman took over behind the bench, the Red Wings have had just three coaches in 21 years: Bowman for nine, Dave Lewis for two, and (drum roll please) …
When the puck drops on October 9 to start another NHL season in Detroit, Mike Babcock will be starting his 10th season as Red Wings coach. He will have surpassed Bowman for third place in franchise coaching longevity, behind only Hall of Famers Jack Adams (20 years) and Sid Abel (11 years).
It’s hard to believe. Seems like it was just yesterday when Babcock was brought in to replace Lewis in 2005 after the one-year NHL strike had ended. Babcock won the Stanley Cup in his third year in Detroit, and almost won another the following year. But since 2009, the Red Wings haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Whether Babcock can get the Red Wings into the playoffs for a 24th consecutive year next spring, and then make a deep post-season run for a change, will be largely determined by a group of kids, a few savvy veterans, a goalie who lost his way last year and maybe a 41-year old winger.
How’s that for a witch’s brew?
Then there’s the matter of Babcock himself. The coach is in the final year of his contract, and barring a miracle, there won’t be an extension signed before Opening Night, after which both Babcock and GM Ken Holland say negotiations will cease until after the season.
This is a period of uncertainty for the Red Wings, and the last time you could accurately say that after training camp broke was probably over 20 years ago. “Uncertainty” in this case is defined as not being completely sure what to make of this season’s team. Will it make the playoffs? If it does, will it last more than one round? Heck, is it Stanley Cup-worthy? Or will the wheels completely fall off, ushering in an era of rebuilding?
All of the above have been mentioned as possibilities by the puckheads across North America. But I say, with uncertainty comes some fun, too. With youngsters like Riley Sheahan, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco, combined with the old reliable types like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, this year’s blend should be interesting to watch.
Last year, thanks to injuries, the Red Wings poached the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, sometimes just to cobble together 18 skaters that night.
It worked. The kids brought energy and desire without a hint of complacency. Nyquist, for his part, went on a goal scoring binge after the All-Star break.
But the success of the younger players last year can be partly explained away by the fact that no one in the league really knew who they were.
That won’t be the case this season.
Babcock’s stable of youngsters won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this time around. There’s too much video in existence. Too many coaching eyes of the opposition have been laid on the kids.
On defense, Niklas Kronwall leads a seven-man crew that will have to work very hard if it hopes to crack the league’s top 10-15 blue line corps. Big Jonathan Ericsson might be on the verge of a breakout year. Rookie Xavier Ouellet impressed in camp and could crack the top six, should one of the others falter or gets hurt.
In goal, Jimmy Howard is coming off a mediocre season but he says that he feels as good as he’s ever felt heading into a season, both physically and mentally. Jonas Gustavsson is the official backup for now, but don’t be surprised to see charging Petr Mrazek, 22, get a few games in at the NHL level—and don’t be shocked if Mrazek starts to push Howard before long for dominion in goal.
And, for a change, we don’t necessarily know who the Red Wings coach will be after this season. Ahh, that brings back memories.
What in the name of Wayne Maxner is going on around here?
2014-15 prediction: 40-30-12, playoffs—and a Babcock contract extension.