Jack Adams looked like a lot of things, but a hockey coach wasn’t necessarily one of them.
He was a rotund man with a bulbous nose, a wearer of wire-rimmed glasses. He was one of those haggard-looking men who could never have been young. He could have been a heavy in a gangster film.
If Adams put skates on, he surely could never have seen them past his jelly belly.
Adams ran the Red Wings from behind the bench and behind his desk. He was coach from 1927-1947 and general manager from 1927-63. He presided over the glory days of the 1950s, when the Red Wings were virtually perennial league champions and more than occasional Stanley Cup winners.
The Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in the ‘50s and early 1960s was in Edmonton. Adams, according to Ted Lindsay, would walk around the team train and the dressing room with a pair of train tickets to Edmonton sticking out of his breast pocket, plainly visible.
“You see so many 5-on-3s these days,” the erstwhile left winger Lindsay told me back in 2006 as we chatted during a hockey roundtable discussion. “Back in my day, if you took a second penalty to put our team down two men, Adams would threaten to send you down to Edmonton. Or, he would just send you there.”
Adams coached in the days when the Red Wings were a mostly veteran team that had precious little roster space and ice time for young players. He didn’t suffer youthful indiscretion easily.
The time of Jack Adams and the Red Wings’ heyday of the 1950s was not dissimilar to the Detroit teams from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s.
Scotty Bowman, then Mike Babcock, didn’t have to walk around with train tickets to Grand Rapids stuffed in their breast pockets. The Red Wings were a team of Hall of Famers, steeped with playoff experience.
Today, Babcock coaches a different group.
The coach can’t roll out four lines, each stocked with talent, skill and purpose, like he did when he first came to Detroit in 2005. Because of injuries, it’s a challenge to find 12 healthy forwards to dress each night, period.
Because of injury, Babcock doesn’t have Pavel Datsyuk and he doesn’t have Henrik Zetterberg. Because of retirement, Babcock hasn’t had Nick Lidstrom for a couple years. He doesn’t have the Danny Cleary or Mikael Samuelsson that he had seven or eight years ago—as each of those forwards are now mere shells of their former selves.
Stephen Weiss, the free agent signed away from Florida, is injured, and even when healthy, Weiss was proving to be fraudulent.
Babcock’s team has been held together with baling wire and duct tape—and diapers and baby powder.
The leader by process of elimination now is 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, signed away last summer from Ottawa. Alfie’s two decades in the league has proven to be even more valuable than expected when the Red Wings inked him.
Back in 2007, when covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, I wrote a column that playfully asked where in the dressing room the Red Wings were hiding their fountain of youth. It was a time during the post-season when the team was getting key contributions from a collection of players whose ages were much closer to 40 than to 30. Some had already passed 40 with flying colors.
The team didn’t win the Stanley Cup that spring, but it did the following year and came a goal away from winning it again in 2009. In a way, that seems like a million years ago.
The Red Wings of today are now a collection of young, eager, energy-filled kids who started the season in Grand Rapids and figured they’d likely end it there.
Babcock is in un-chartered territory here, coaching this group of players. Behind the bench, he’s used to tapping guys on the shoulder who have resumes, not who need to show ID at the bar.
But the push for a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance this season, while uneven and at times frustrating, hasn’t required Babcock to wave train tickets around.
While some of the veterans have faltered or been hurt, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings have provided depth and an “aw, shucks” mentality that is a desired antidote to the pressure being felt at this time of the year.
While experience is terrific, there’s also something to be said for never having been there before.
Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco are four forwards whose buzzing around the ice and “It’s great to be young and a Red Wing” attitude is help lifting Babcock’s team into playoff contention.
This is another place where Babcock and the veteran players remaining on the roster are not familiar.
The Red Wings are used to being in the playoffs when the puck drops on Opening Night in October. Their January-March games have meant little in the standings. Their over/under for points never dipped below 100.
But at this writing, the Red Wings have 13 games remaining, and every one has playoff implications. The team has been scrambling for the post-season since Thanksgiving. There is no cruising; there is no resting guys for the playoff grind.
And you know the NHL.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have been the playground for teams whose scratching and clawing for the few remaining berths in the season’s final weeks have led to terrific post-season success.
The talent-wealthy and elite have often been drummed out in the early rounds by teams who’ve been playing, essentially, playoff hockey for weeks.
The Red Wings have been on that side of the coin before, and the finality when the horn sounds and there is no more hockey to be played, while the so-called lesser team whoops it up, is no fun.
For all the thrills and Stanley Cups since 1997, there have been some long summers in Hockeytown as well, with seasons ruined by “Cinderella” teams.
It’s quite possible that Mike Babcock, Stanley Cup winner, junior World Championship winner and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist coach, won’t be leading a team into the playoffs next month. It’s that dicey for the Red Wings now.
If the Red Wings don’t qualify, it won’t be because they were torpedoed by the silly mistakes made by the young. It will simply be because they weren’t good enough—a team decimated by injuries that didn’t quite have enough skill to squeeze in.
That might make the summer seem not so long, after all.