They’re about ready to start another National Hockey League season. Or, as it’s known around these parts, the Playoffs Pre-season.
They’ve become 82-game annoyances, these NHL regular seasons for the Red Wings. But they play them, because the contract says so and players’ stats need to be updated and Mike Ilitch needs to pay for everything, after all.
That, and it gives folks a halfway decent shot at seeing their team play in person without having to break into their 401-(k)s and other investments.
Chris Chelios once told me as much.
It was a couple springs ago, the playoffs finally ready to start. Another 82-game annoyance over and done with, the Red Wings somehow able to stay interested enough to ring up another of those sparkling regular season records. You know the kind: 50+ wins, not that many losses, few goals against, lots of goals for. Tons of points. The usual.
We were allowed into the Red Wings’ inner sanctum as they peeled off their gear after the last practice before the Real Deal – the playoffs – began. I settled next to Chelios, and he started telling me of the boredom he just had to work through from October to mid-April.
“I’m not really much of a regular season guy,” he said. “The playoffs are what I live for.”
If those sound like the words of some sort of hockey snob who’s only mostly known success, then sue him, for Chelios at the time was 45 and I can understand his having his fill of games in Columbus or Minnesota in January. Nothing like Hockeytown in the springtime.
“It’s nice to have all the wins and get the points,” Chelios continued as he tossed the sweaty stuff into a nearby pile that was growing exponentially by the minute. “But these are the playoffs now. New season.”
And this – more of the usual: “I think we have a really good team. I’ll put this team up against any.”
You can pretty much take those last two sentences and apply them to any one of the Red Wings’ previous 14 seasons to this one.
It’s all about winning Stanley Cups in Detroit nowadays. It used to be about making the playoffs. Before that, it was about not doing anything too terribly embarrassing.
They used to say the same about Montreal: win the Cup or else. The “or else” part was pretty reliable. Despite all their success, the Canadiens were never shy to change coaches, especially after Scotty Bowman left in 1979. Most of the coaches had French names befitting the Quebec city. But their heritage didn’t help them if they didn’t deliver. They have words for “throw the bum out” in the French language, too.
But the Canadiens haven’t been Cup champions since 1993, when our old friend – and Frenchman, natch – Jacques Demers guided them to the chalice. I’ve complained about the Hockeytown moniker for Detroit, truth be told, because I don’t know how you can lay claim to that when you’re still far, far behind the Canadiens in terms of Stanley Cups won. But the marketing suits started that jazz up in the mid-1990s, it caught on, and the city’s hockey fans seized on the title. So we’re Hockeytown in Detroit – but only lately. I still don’t think two good decades following three bad ones gives you that status, but whatever.
Yet I’ll say this: every year since 1993, and I mean every year, the Red Wings go into the playoffs as a legitimate Cup threat. They might not always get out of the first round, but the pre-playoff expectations are there. And they’re deserved. In any given year, you really can’t come up with more than one or two teams that would seem, on paper anyway, to have a better shot at winning the whole deal than the Red Wings.
The great Wings teams of the 1950s didn’t have that long of a stretch of championship contention. Neither did the Lions’ near-dynasty of the same decade.
In other cities, you’ll find a handful of teams who can rival the Red Wings’ current streak. The Canadiens of the 1950s, ‘60s,and ‘70s had good runs in each decade. The Yankees in baseball, of course, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s.
These are times that you should tell your children about, and their kids.
“I remember when the Red Wings, every year, had a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup,” you can tell them as they gaze up to you, wide-eyed – for who knows what state the hockey team will be in at that point. “Yes sir. If they didn’t win the Cup, the season was considered a failure.”
From Ilitch to GM Ken Holland to coach Mike Babcock, they all know the drill: the Red Wings exist to win Stanley Cups. Some teams bravely talk like that. The Red Wings just do it.
Our other teams have played at being champions for brief times. The Lions won a few in the ‘50s. The Pistons have won three since 1989. The Tigers have sprinkled their four World Series triumphs over 73 years. All have had decent runs of respectability and peripheral contention.
But the babies who were in diapers the last time the Red Wings were playoff outsiders are now graduating high school. We’re in danger of rearing an entire generation who’s never known anything BUT playoff hockey in Detroit. The horror of it all!
So what did the Red Wings do within weeks of winning their fourth Stanley Cup in the past 11 years? They simply went out and snagged one of the stars from their vanquished Finals opponents – Marian Hossa of the Penguins – and signed him to a one-year deal, staying under the salary cap, somehow. The rich got richer.
“I come to Detroit to win a Stanley Cup,” Hossa said before the ink dried on the contract.
Don’t they all?