Requiem for the Red Wings…
It’s obvious that I’ve been around too long when I arrive at the realization that I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of three dynastic versions of my favorite hockey team. The once-dominant National Hockey League squads of which I speak are:
1. The 1949-1957 Detroit Red Wings.
2. The 1961-1966 Red Wings.
3. The 1996-2012 Red Wings
And before I leap into the challenges posed by my opening statement, I wish to undermine my own claim with a couple of quick corrections. The first is that I was NOT around, thank God, for the assembly and rise of the first Wings gang. 1954 was the magic year — we all have had our own personal year of suddenly inhabiting our brains and coming ‘of age’ about life and sports — that the red “on“ light first shined full-time in my head. What a year to collect all the trading cards and pay attention to all the games. And what a town to do it in — the Detroit of a 19-year old Al Kaline; a border city that was the focus of the entire hockey world thanks to the continuing supremacy of a championship Red Wings team and the powerful magic of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay; the full and rip-roaring arrival of professional football via a Lions team that buckled its swash — and was seeking an unprecedented third straight NFL World’s Championship — behind national poster boys Bobby Layne and Doak Walker. It was a grand year. Glorious.
One other self-imposed conclusion exacted by my claim is the obvious conjecture … presented as ‘fact’ … that the 2012 Detroit Red Wings are the “team too far,” the last installment, the final link of the glorious chain of hockey victory and personal achievement gifted to the city by the family Ilitch.
It is, I fear … “it” being Red Wings dominance … all over but the shouting. And that shouting is being heard, and will be heard, in places like Nashville that are new to hockey supremacy. The continuing glory of the Red Wings, alas, is to be no more. The accessible pocketbook of Mike Ilitch that fired the third Wings dynasty has been pushed shut by NHL honcho Gary Bettman, and his damnable salary cap has pretty much eliminated aggressive ownership as a factor in on-ice performance. For seasons to come, teams representing … say … Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg and (sigh) Nashville will enter annual play with rosters drawn exactly along the same lines as Detroit’s, peopled and paid and presented just about precisely alike … as might be done in the communist world.
What we witnessed here for hunks of three decades — the dramatic victories and soaring celebrations that accompanied names like Yzerman, Federov, Shanahan, Hull, Hasek, Konstantinov, Lidstrom; with consecutive seasons of 100-point performance and assured Stanley Cup placement — looks to have gone the way of the streetcar, the Olympia, Tiger Stadium, and Mr. Belvedere’s incredible television stardom.
Sadly, what I claim to be the last team of the Red Wings third dynasty ended their dominance in very disappointing style. It’s weird enough that when the team has failed in Cup play during the 1996–2012 run, the blame has almost always somehow been placed at the feet of a mediocre goalie that locals SWEAR has displayed — in defeating our boys — just about the most amazing goalie work in hockey history.
The latest pretender to have apparently hypnotized, astonished, and miraculously bedeviled the Wings and their fans — Rinne, of course, write it down because there’s as much chance that he’ll be play himself out of the league as into the Hall of Fame in years to come — beat the locals by somehow stopping, say, 41 shots to a mere 17 by his Nashville mates. Did I say “somehow” stopping? Well, just standing there in front of long lobbed shots is one way to somehow overcome a shot advantage. He “stood on his head” against the Wings! How many truly great saves can you remember him making?
On the other hand, how many times did the Red Wings hand the puck over to the Predators behind their own net, and let Nashville coast in and score on Wings’ goalie Jimmy Howard without a defender in sight? Our beloved team — and they have earned that love, from top to bottom, after practically being run out of the league by Colorado and New Jersey in the mid 1990s — caved in on themselves, sadly, this year. They were outplayed, out-coached, out-hustled … a sad and painful close, perhaps, to that proud and historic run.
If I am correct in my painful claim … Red Wings excellence will be sorely missed. But where might help come from? The Wings, we all know, do not play the kind of aggressive, even bloody, hockey that is thrown onto the ice during Stanley Cup play. Nasty power forwards, and big and punishing young defensemen (seen any play against the Wings in recent years?) seem plentiful around the NHL.
In the good old days of Steinbrenner-like spending by some hockey owners, the Red Wings could cure on-ice shortages by bidding for available talent. And top players usually wanted to come to Detroit — for big pay by a first-class organization, to share winning ways, to travel in style, to hoist one of the four Stanley Cups that were won here in that dynastic span cited. Practically all of those perks have been voided by the new NHL.
Just earlier this season it was rumored that free-agent Nashville Predator players, big and nasty defensive types, might be picked off by the Wings after the ‘12 playoffs. After all, wouldn’t those perennial also-rans wish to join the superior Red Wings squad? … wish to play for a team with a real chance to cop the Cup?
How do those possibilities look now? Oy.
If my assumptions are correct … and let’s hope I’m dumb as a slug, an absolute moron … we may be looking at so-so seasons to come. At Red Wings teams that may struggle just to qualify for Cup play. Or possibly not get there at all. Beyond the obvious phenomenal play of Datsyuk, the dependability of Zetterberg, Howard’s potential and some young promise on defense … the team must look to overcome age and size problems by utilizing home-grown talent. They are a great organization, they may do that … but will they? Can they?
And will they do it well enough to remain near the top of the NHL mountain … swatting away team after team composed of young and tough — and big — Cup seekers?
Let’s hope, real hard … as in hoping by praying …that I’m wrong. Real wrong. It has happened before…
PS: A final adjustment. My second Red Wings “dynasty,” the teams of 1961-’66, contains no Stanley Cup winners. Should that disqualify them? Well, those teams played in the Cup Finals four times in six years, and should have won at least two of those heart-wrenching series, particularly after losing at home in overtime in 1964, and again in ‘66. Each Detroit squad featured Gordie Howe, the greatest player in hockey history, at the peak of his play. A rival player listed the NHL Original Six franchises of that era as “Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Gordie Howe.” Nuff said.