The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Toronto. But for years, the Hall had a satellite office in Detroit.
If you didn’t feel like jumping on Highway 401 or the train in Windsor, and you wanted to see hockey relics, you just needed to venture to Joe Louis Arena—specifically the Red Wings dressing room.
The players weren’t in the Hall, but that was only because they had yet to retire. Certainly, that was their post-playing destination.
The names above the cubicles in those days—from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—were a Who’s Who of the NHL.
Yzerman. Hull. Shanahan. Hasek. Lidstrom. Robitaille. Murphy. Larionov. Fedorov. Chelios.
Everyone was 35 years old, or older. Everyone had won Stanley Cups, somewhere. Everyone had their ticket already punched to the Hall.
The Red Wings were so old and experienced in that time frame, the official team drink was Geritol.
But oh, did they win.
Stanley Cups were won in 1997, 1998, 2002 and then, after a pause to re-load the roster, in 2008.
Even the coach for three of those Cups, Scotty Bowman, was HOF-bound.
They could have erected statues outside the dressing room for the players suiting up inside.
Back then, you could be arrested for being young and playing for the Red Wings.
Youthful players were bargaining chips in those days for the league’s trading deadline. The Red Wings drafted smart, developed even smarter, and then just when you were ready for the NHL, you got traded for someone with gray hair.
There was no salary cap. GM Kenny Holland needed only to dial his boss, Mike Ilitch, tell the owner how much pizza dough it was going to take to sign the highest profile free agents, and thy will be done.
It seemed like the Red Wings had nobody on their roster less than 30 years of age.
When the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) took effect starting with the 2005-06 season, the days of the blank checks were over with. Each team would have to budget. Free-spending teams like the Red Wings—the New York Yankees of hockey—now had ceilings.
It was like telling Hitler to stop invading.
Holland managed to steer the Red Wings through the waters of salary caps and budgets to the tune of 2008’s Cup and darn near another one a year later.
But the team was still mostly made up of veterans. Youngsters were few and far between.
The Red Wings kept making the playoffs—22 years in a row now and counting—but the graybeards started to fall by the wayside after the 2009 Cup Finals.
Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood and Tomas Holmstrom were some of longtime Red Wings who hung up their skates.
Then Nick Lidstrom called it quits in 2012, which sent many fans into a frenzy of panic.
A quick look at the roster after all this churn saw a bevy of players who dared to be in their 20s.
Certainly the Red Wings would dip, most folks thought. The team was too young, too inexperienced.
Save for Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi and newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, the 2013-14 Red Wings were shy on veteran presence.
The modern era Red Wings didn’t win four Stanley Cups and all those playoff games with kids.
It’s still in question whether this season’s Red Wings will continue the playoff-making streak, but if they do, they’ll have to do it with key contributions from youngsters.
The Red Wings aren’t used to this. Coach Mike Babcock isn’t used to this. GM Holland isn’t used to this. And the fans most definitely aren’t used to this.
“This” is seeing a bunch of young, fast players in red sweaters, creating havoc, scoring goals and flying around the ice. “This” is a reliance on a new wave of players, many of whom started the season in the minor leagues. “This” is an exciting batch of kids that might, just might, be the core of a Cup-winning team in the not-too-distant future.
For now, though, it’s about making the playoffs this spring.
Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are four of these exciting young players. Their average age is 23. And they are becoming an annoyance to play against.
Nyquist has a knack for scoring big goals. Tatar is immensely talented and looks like the Red Wings’ next puck wizard after Datsyuk, who is basically playing on one leg thanks to a bad left knee. Zetterberg isn’t playing at all, due to a herniated disc in his back that recently required surgery.
Jurco and Sheahan, who was the team’s first round draft choice in 2010, have hockey smarts beyond their years and create plenty of scoring chances with their passing skills.
In a season marred by injuries, these four young players are tasked with keeping the Red Wings in the playoff hunt. It’s on them now. Reinforcements aren’t really on the way.
Free agent bust (so far) Stephen Weiss is only just now on the verge of returning from a sports hernia injury that has kept him sidelined for over two months.
Datsyuk plays on one leg, Zetterberg doesn’t play at all.
Johan Franzen has just played his first two games after missing 25 of 26 with post-concussion symptoms.
Darren Helm has been in and out of the lineup—mostly out—with a variety of injuries.
Even the goalies—Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustvasson—have missed considerable time due to various physical maladies.
But the four kids are healthy as horses right now. And they’re eager. And they’re having a blast.
It just may be that the Red Wings’ fate—playoffs or not, and then how far they go in the post-season—is directly tied to how Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco and Sheahan perform.
In recent weeks, their production has saved the team’s bacon.
This reliance on so many young players is not how the Cup-winning Red Wings teams back in the day got it done.
But partly out of necessity and partly due to the fact that these kids can flat out play, today’s Red Wings are daring to take a path to the playoffs that the franchise has never had to try.
Out with the Geritol, and in with the Flintstones vitamins.