It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.
A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.
As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.
Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.
“You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.
Ilitch seemed unaware.
“It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.
His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”
I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.
In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.
The announcement made little fanfare.
Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.
Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.
“As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”
Devellano made good on his promise.
So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.
Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.
It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.
Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.
In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.
Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.
Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.
But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.
The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.
The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.
Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.
Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.
Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.
It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.
Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.
But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.
The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.
Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.
It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.
Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.
Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.