Greg Eno

Babcock Turns Bad Hand He Was Dealt Into Yet Another Playoff-Ready Team

In Hockey on April 20, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.

He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.

The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?

Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.

Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.

He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.

He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.

His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.

But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.

Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.

There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad after chicken you-know-what.

Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.

But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.

It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.

The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.

So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.

Babcock qualifies.

The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.

In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.

That bottom feeding blogger was I.

The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.

The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.

The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.

Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.

So that was your turnaround.

You want some winning against all odds stuff?

How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?

All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.

That’s OK.

Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…

When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.

Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.

So that was one side.

The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.

And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.

I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.

Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.

Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.

Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.

“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.

He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.

 

Mushroom Treatment Awaits Dumars, Who Should Be Glad to Get Out

In Basketball on April 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Some 43 years after Gordie Howe got it, looks like another Detroit sports legend is about to get the “mushroom treatment.”

Old-timers will remember this one. The Red Wings, after Howe retired in 1971, gave him a job title—Vice President—and an office inside Olympia Stadium.

Gordie didn’t find the new “job” all that enthralling.

“They give me the mushroom treatment,” Gordie said to reporters back in the day about his new role, in words that reverberate to the old-timers—yours truly is guilty as charged—to this day.

The mushroom treatment, Gordie?

“They keep me in the dark and every so often they dump (manure) on me.”

The Red Wings’ pathetic effort to keep the franchise’s—and perhaps the sport’s—greatest player in a meaningful role lasted just two years before Gordie got tired of the mushroom treatment and came out of retirement to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons, Mark and Marty.

Gordie would play professional hockey for seven more seasons—six in the WHA and one last go-round in the NHL.

So now it appears that the mushroom treatment is being dusted off and brought back out of the dark office, so to speak.

Joe Dumars’ tenure as Pistons president and GM effectively ends at the final horn of Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City. His contract, which officially expires at the end of this dreadful (again) season, will apparently not be renewed.

But that’s not all.

Dumars, it is being reported, will take an advisory position with the Pistons. It is shaping up to be a do-nothing, strictly titular job that will have no influence over the thinking—and I use that term loosely here—of owner Tom Gores and his Platinum Equity minions.

The Pistons are going to be giving Joe Dumars, one of the team’s iconic players, the mushroom treatment.

Let’s hope he doesn’t put up with it for two years, like Gordie Howe did with the Red Wings.

Maybe this will be Dumars’ way of slowly fading from view and from our consciousness. Maybe there is method in his madness. Frankly, if I were Joe, I would have told Gores to take his adviser role and shove it where a basketball doesn’t fit.

That, of course, isn’t Dumars’ style.

Maybe we’ll see Joe on TV sometime soon, perhaps as a studio analyst for NBA TV or ESPN. The cast of characters on those two networks is filled with ex-players but not really any executive types. Joe is both, but his playing days ended some 15 years ago. He’d bring a different perspective.

We’ll see.

But today isn’t so much about Dumars’ future as it is about his recent past.

As the Joe Dumars Era, Part II winds down this week, it’s easy to do the “What have you done for me lately?” thing. I’ve been guilty of it already, in the wake of the news that broke last week that Dumars likely wouldn’t be coming back as team president/GM.

But then I got to thinking about what it is that Dumars is leaving. And he should be thankful that he’s going.

In too many horrific ways, current ownership reminds me of the Pistons circa 1978.

Bill Davidson, still finding his way as Pistons owner—he bought the team out from a group of investors in 1974—was clueless about the sports ownership thing in ’78.

Davidson moved the Pistons from Cobo Arena downtown to the cavernous Silverdome in Pontiac in time for the 1978-79 season.

To help augment the move from a PR standpoint, Davidson took leave of his senses and bowed to pressure from local riff raff, such as sports columnists, and hired Dick Vitale to be coach and de facto GM in the spring of 1978.

Vitale fed Davidson—and those same columnists—a line of bull and miraculously, his suspect stomach, which supposedly forced him to resign his gig as U-D’s coach in 1977, all of a sudden got all better in time for him to take the Pistons job.

Davidson bought the bull and, dazzled by the allure of hiring Vitale—who at the time could have been elected mayor of many cities around town—the owner gave Dickie the keys.

Of course, it all blew up in Davidson’s face just 16 months later and Vitale got the ziggy, but not before leaving a path of destruction to the franchise in Dickie’s wake.

The Pistons were a circus in those days, and Dickie Vitale was the leading clown under the big top.

The Pistons are back to being a circus again, but this time the owner is the biggest clown.

The Pistons, right now, are beneath someone of Dumars’ stature, and I have been one of Joe’s harshest critics in recent years. In fact, I was browbeating Dumars before it became fashionable to do so.

The Pistons are a joke, being run by an absentee owner who directs his Platinum Equity Dweebs—Phil Norment and Bob Wentworth, Detroit’s PEDs—to keep an eye on the franchise in Detroit while the owner hobnobs in TinselTown.

The Pistons were absentee-owned by Fred Zollner, who was based in Florida, when Davidson bought the team in 1974. Forty years later, they are again owned by someone who barely sees the team play in person.

Dumars, I have a feeling, may be somewhat relieved that his run as a Pistons executive has ended. The difference between Davidson’s personality and style, and that of Gores, couldn’t be much further apart. I also have a feeling that Dumars knows that what Tom Gores knows about sports ownership could fit into a thimble.

All this being said, Joe Dumars is certainly not without culpability for what the Pistons franchise has become since their last appearance in the NBA’s Final Four in 2008. There is blood on his hands, for sure.

But that’s what it has become on the basketball court. And the Pistons, today, are more than just broken on the court. They are broken upstairs, and the confidence level as to whether Gores can hire the right person to fix things from the top down can’t be terribly high among the fan base.

Nor should it be. Gores is a clown under a big top.

But the owner can stuff those words down my throat and reverse his image if he somehow, by hook or by crook, makes a good hire (or two) this off-season.

Pistons fans are pretty united that when it comes to turning points in team history, the biggest came on December 11, 1979, when Davidson, stung by Vitale’s turbulent tenure, hired Jack McCloskey off the Indiana Pacers bench (assistant coach) to be the team’s GM.

By the end of the next decade, the Pistons were starting a three-year run in the Finals, winning two of them.

Gores could make a great hire this summer. Because you know what? Davidson hired McCloskey off a recommendation.

The recommendation came from Dick Vitale.

So you never know.

Red Wings in the Playoffs? So What Else is New?

In Hockey on April 12, 2014 at 7:27 pm

So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?

Isn’t that what they do every year?

It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.

The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.

The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.

For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.

Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.

The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.

So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?

Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.

There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.

There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16  of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).

But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.

These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.

Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.

The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.

This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.

The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.

Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.

Springtime hockey in the Motor City.

The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.

This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.

Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.

The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.

The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.

Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.

So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.

But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.

And where is Dennis Rodman these days?

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