Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘Hockey’ Category

Ilitch and his pizza dough made Detroit a city of champions once again

In Hockey on February 11, 2017 at 4:06 am

Published February 10, 2017

Before the Stanley Cups, before the World Series appearances, there were the Detroit Caesars.

Before Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, there was Ronnie Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes and Tex Collins.

Before the NHL and MLB, there was the APSPL—the American Professional Slo-Pitch League.

The Caesars owner was the Steinbrenner of the APSPL. He spent big bucks to hire the best softball players in the midwest.

Now, you might think of softball players as overweight guys with beer bellies slamming home runs left and right and needing an oxygen tank halfway to second base.

You’d be right.

But in order to win championships in professional softball, you still need the best overweight guys with beer bellies. And the Caesars owner made sure of that.

They say that two things are seldom realized: your worst fears and your wildest dreams.

Michael Ilitch had built a pizza empire but he was, in his heart, a frustrated baseball player. His wildest dreams meant that he would one day play in the big leagues.

Unrealized.

So Ilitch set out to live vicariously through other professional athletes. The Caesars—named after his pizza stores—were the first team to make Ilitch, in an indirect way, a champion athlete.

Ilitch, a then-48 year-old rags-to-riches entrepreneur, was the owner of the Caesars—and his softball team powered its way through the APSPL to win consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978.

Ilitch (foreground, far left) celebrates the Detroit Caesars’ APSPL championship in 1977.

 

The aforementioned players live on forever in Detroit Caesars lore. There are websites about the team. The Caesars are a delicious footnote in Detroit sports history.

They played at Memorial Field in what was then known as East Detroit (Eastpointe now). To add some spice to Caesars games, Ilitch signed former Tigers Jim Northrup and Norm Cash as players in 1978.

Even back then, Mike Ilitch was signing big names. It was the start of his fetish for the high profile, superstar signings that dotted his ownership with the Red Wings and the Tigers.

I’m not certain, but I bet that Ilitch was the best owner in the APSPL.

But despite his success in pro softball, Ilitch was still largely a low-profile guy when his name started being bandied about as the potential new owner of the Red Wings in late-1981.

Ilitch at the time was known as a pizza baron—not as the championship-winning owner of the Detroit Caesars. Ilitch probably sold more Little Caesars pizzas in a week than the number of fans who went to his softball games during an entire season. If I’m exaggerating, it’s not by a lot.

The Red Wings had been owned by the Norris family for a quarter century, but the franchise had been in poor shape for several years when Ilitch inquired about its availability. The pizza baron and ex-minor league baseball player would have preferred to buy the Tigers, but John Fetzer hadn’t put the team up for sale.

Bruce Norris, however, was willing—indeed, even eager—to listen to potential buyers of his hockey team.

The Red Wings were a mess in the summer of 1982 when Ilitch was announced as the new owner. The team had qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in the previous 12 years.

The price tag? Eight million dollars.

Today $8 million might buy you a third line forward or a utility infielder. But in 1982 bucks, eight million was a lot of money.

If Ilitch couldn’t have the Tigers, then the Red Wings, he figured, were the next best thing. So he scraped up the pizza dough to make the purchase from Norris.

Ilitch, when he bought the Red Wings, didn’t have Yzerman. He didn’t have Lidstrom. Heck, he really didn’t even have Kris Draper.

The dearth of talent on that 1982-83 Red Wings team was fascinating in its breadth. There were so few players that you’d pay to see, that Ilitch gave away cars in between periods to put some fannies into the seats. He ran other promotions designed to distract you from the disaster taking place on the ice.

It’s almost forgotten now, but Ilitch’s first Red Wings hire was probably his best Red Wings hire—ever.

Jimmy Devellano was a squeaky-voiced rink rat who helped build what would become a dynasty with the New York Islanders, first as the team’s scouting director and eventually as assistant GM to the great Bill Torrey.

The Isles had just won their third straight Stanley Cup when Ilitch tabbed Jimmy D to be the first GM of Ilitch’s Red Wings ownership.

Devellano took over what was, essentially, an expansion team in Detroit. That’s how far the Red Wings had fallen under the Norris family.

Ilitch hired Devellano, stayed out of Jimmy’s way, and let him do in Detroit what he had done on Long Island.

It was Devellano who hired Jacques Demers as coach in 1986, believing that Jacques was the right guy to coach the young talent that Jimmy D was cobbling together in Detroit. Demers was; the Red Wings made the Cup semi-finals in each of Jacques’ first two seasons.

And it was Devellano, by now Executive Vice President, who went to Ilitch in the summer of 1993 and told the owner that he had this old friend in hockey who could be gotten as coach. A man who Devellano first came to know when Jimmy worked for the St. Louis Blues as a young scout while his friend was the Blues coach.

That’s how Scotty Bowman became coach of the Red Wings.

Mike Ilitch wanted to win at all costs—literally and figuratively. No name was too big; no check was too expensive to write.

It worked with the Red Wings, to the tune of four Stanley Cups. The list of players who came through Joe Louis Arena during the Ilitch ownership reads like a mini Hockey Hall of Fame.

Image result for mike ilitch stanley cup 1997

20 years after the Caesars championship, Ilitch hoists the Stanley Cup on June 7, 1997.

No less than nine of the players listed recently in the Top 100 in NHL history played for the 2001-02 Red Wings—Ilitch’s third Cup-winning team. That’s astounding.

Ilitch drafted some of them but he signed a whole bunch of others as free agents. It was the era before the salary cap. And Mike Ilitch’s checkbook was whipped out more than excuses for being late.

It worked with the Red Wings but it didn’t quite with the Tigers, which Ilitch purchased in 1992.

The brass ring eluded Ilitch in baseball. I think he’d have swapped the four Cups for one World Series title but it wasn’t meant to be. The Tigers went to two WS (2006 and 2012) but did pratfalls in both, to the tune of a 1-8 combined record.

In one of his last public appearances, at the signing of pitcher Jordan Zimmermann a year ago November, Ilitch said, “I’m tired of just getting to the World Series. I want to win the damn thing.”

Mike Ilitch is dead. The World Series quest will go down as another dream of his unrealized.

But he built a pizza empire, won his softball and hockey championships, poured money into the city and made millions of folks proud to say they were from Detroit.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a statement released this evening, said of Ilitch’s passing, “The Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown.”

Indeed.

Mike Ilitch just wanted to win. He wanted to win in professional softball. He wanted to win in the NHL. He wanted to win in MLB and he wanted to win for the city of Detroit. His commitment to doing so was unparalleled by any team owner in the city’s history. He may not always have spent his money wisely, but who ever has, when the ultimate prize was considered the be-all, end-all?

“When we hired Scotty Bowman, everything changed,” Ilitch once said.

Wrong.

Everything changed in the summer of 1982.

It was the best $8 million any man has ever spent.

 

Larkin Has Chance to Follow in Yzerman’s Footsteps, Some 32 Years Later

In Hockey on October 2, 2015 at 6:43 pm

It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.

He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.

Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.

Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.

Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.

Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.

The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.

Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily,  I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.

I stepped on someone’s foot.

I immediately turned around to apologize.

“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.

I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.

It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.

WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.

I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.

I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.

What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.

He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.

Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.

He smiled sheepishly.

“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.

Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.

For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.

Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.

Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.

No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.

That streak might come to an end.

dylan-larkin-9-24-15-229032becff65fff

Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.

New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.

Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.

That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.

And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.

The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.

But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.

In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.

This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.

Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.

There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.

Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.

The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.

But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.

The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.

The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.

So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.

So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.

Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?

Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.

“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”

You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.

Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.

GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.

But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.

Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.

They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.

Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

In Hockey on June 15, 2015 at 3:22 am

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.

Babcock’s Unprecedented ‘Winning’ Tour Comes Down to Money, After All

In Hockey on May 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

In Hockey on August 17, 2014 at 4:45 pm

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.

Fair enough.

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.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

Babcock’s Hard-Charging Ways Not Why Free Agents Spurned Detroit

In Hockey on July 19, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ’em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

Torres’ Big Hat is the Jacques Plante Mask of Today

In Baseball, Hockey on July 4, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Jacques Plante had had enough.

Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, had taken the last puck off his unprotected face in an NHL game.

It was November 1, 1959.

Earlier in the season, Plante—who was the most innovative goalie in league history—had been experimenting with a crude form of a hard fiberglass face mask in practice. At the time, every goalie in the six-team NHL played without any facial protection. It was like racing cars without a seat belt, but there you have it.

During team practices, Montreal coach Toe Blake begrudgingly allowed Plante to wear the mask, which was a creepy-looking, haunting thing with a mouth hole that resembled the “Scream” masks of today.

But Blake forbade Plante to wear the mask in an actual game, fearing that the protection would cut down on his goalie’s span of vision.

Finally, coach and goalie had a showdown. It came during the Canadiens’ tilt with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Plante suffered a broken nose when New York’s Andy Bathgate, who had one of the hardest shots in the league, blasted a puck off Plante’s bare face.

The six-team NHL employed six goalies in those days. There were no backups. Plante knew that, and he leveraged that fact to his advantage.

As he was getting stitched up to return to the game, Plante told Blake that he was going to wear the mask. The coach disagreed. Plante said that if he wasn’t allowed to wear the mask, he wasn’t getting back onto the ice. Blake seethed but he relented in the face of Plante’s hockey blackmail.

What happened next reminds me of what is happening to San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres these days.

Torres is getting grief for donning MLB’s new protective hat for pitchers. The bulky head gear is designed to cushion the blow in case a pitcher takes a line drive off the noggin. In some cases, the hat could be a life saver.

But safety took a back seat to mocking, as the sight of Torres in the oversized hat—and granted, it takes some getting used to—spawned a furor on social media and even in the broadcast booth.

They were laughing at Alex Torres and his big hat, heartily so.

Some have even questioned Torres’ manliness.

This is not unlike what Plante faced as he returned to the ice at the Garden that November night in 1959, wearing his goofy-looking mask.

Plante was derided by the fans, who hooted and hollered at him as he took his place in the goal crease. The players weren’t exactly supportive, either.

As in Torres’ case, Plante’s courage was called into question.

No goalie wore a face mask!

But Plante did a lot of things that no goalie prior to him had done.

Plante was the first netminder to confidently handle the puck outside of the crease with his stick. He was the first to shout instructions to his defenseman. Plante is also credited with being the first goalie to raise his arm, signaling his teammates that icing was being called. He was the Thomas Edison of hockey.

Of all of these innovations, the goalie mask by far is Plante’s legacy.

Plante didn’t care what the fans thought of the mask. He didn’t care what his coaches, teammates and the other players in the league thought. The only thing Plante cared about was his own well-being.

As it should have been.

Coach Blake told Plante he could wear the mask until the broken nose’s cut healed.

But Plante and his mask didn’t lose. The Canadiens beat the Rangers, 3-1, on November 1, 1959 and what followed was a 12-game unbeaten streak, all coming with Plante’s face protected.

One night, against Detroit, Blake ordered the mask off and the Canadiens lost. The next night, the mask was back on Plante’s face and Montreal won.

Not that hockey people are superstitious or anything.

Like Plante was with his mask in 1959, Alex Torres is steadfast in his intent on continuing to wear the oversized baseball hat.

While with Tampa Bay a year ago June, Torres was summoned into the game after teammate Alex Cobb was drilled in the skull by a liner off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer.

The incident shook the lefty Torres to his core.

“When I came into the game, (Cobb) was already on his way to the hospital,” Torres told FoxSports.com. “That was a really tough moment, after the pitching coach [Jim Hickey] said I was going to pitch after that happened.

“I was really shaking. My legs were shaking. It’s not easy to take that off of your mind, especially when you’re there. It was a really bad moment. A really bad situation.

“I don’t want to spend three or four months on the disabled list, or to not be able to play baseball again.”

Makes sense to me.

Plante’s mask idea didn’t catch on right away. After he debuted the mask in 1959, goalies continued to go bare-faced for almost a decade before the protective mask became a league staple.

Today, if a goalie dared to play without a mask (it’s against league rules anyway) he’d be mocked just as much as Alex Torres is being today for wearing the protective baseball hat.

Torres believes that the big hat will eventually be accepted.

“In the future, you’re going to see a lot more pitchers in the big leagues wearing it,” Torres was quoted on MLB.com recently.

Granted, Torres’ big hat isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing a baseball player can wear.

And Jacques Plante’s original mask was, by today’s standards, rather hideous.

Yet today the goalie mask reflects the wearer’s personality and creativity. The paint jobs on them are amazing in their detail and in their flair.

It could be presumed that MLB’s protective hat for pitchers (or anyone else who wants to wear it) will evolve. It might not look, five years from now, like it does now on Torres’ head.

This isn’t a fashion statement, anyhow.

“I don’t want to wait for someone to hit a line drive right to my head before I start wearing it,” Torres says of his big hat. “I don’t want to lose two or three months because I got a concussion. Why not wear it if I have it right now?”

Good question.

In the great press box in the sky, Jacques Plante is grinning broadly.

Peters Latest Product of Babcock’s Growing Coaching Tree

In Hockey on June 22, 2014 at 1:14 am

From the time they started whacking at a vulcanized rubber disc on ice, the professional hockey coaches were all by themselves behind the bench. Sometimes they served the dual role of player AND coach. But never did they have any help calling out lines, setting up a power play or designing a penalty kill.

That all changed in 1972, when Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero hired an interloper of sorts.

Mike Nykoluk, a career minor league player who appeared in 32 NHL games in his rookie year of 1956-57 but who spent the rest of a 16-year pro career in the American Hockey League, was brought in by Shero to serve as the NHL’s first-ever assistant coach.

The rest of the league didn’t follow suit very readily.

Every team other than the Flyers had one man behind the bench. Nykoluk, for several seasons, was the lone wolf when it came to assistant coaches.

Gradually, other NHL teams took the plunge—the Flyers winning two straight Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75 likely didn’t hurt—and by the time the 1980s began, pretty much every club employed at least one assistant and sometimes two.

That was ironic, because when the ’80s arrived, Nykoluk had graduated to head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a job he held from 1981-84.

But the idea of a so-called “coaching tree,” i.e. one man spawning assistants who would become head coaches in their own right, is a new concept in the NHL, and the one doing the spawning is Mike Babcock.

Babcock, the Red Wings coach since 2005, has been quietly sending assistants off to other NHL clubs to run their own show.

The latest is Bill Peters, who was named head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes the other day.

Peters served a three-year apprenticeship under Babcock before accepting Carolina’s offer to replace the fired Kirk Muller.

“I’ll take the culture of winning in Detroit with me,” Peters told the Detroit Free Press before being introduced in Raleigh.

It’s a culture that several others before Peters have taken with them from Detroit.

Todd McLellan (San Jose), Paul Maclean (Ottawa) and now Peters (Carolina) are Babcock assistants-turned-NHL-head coaches, and Jeff Blashill (Grand Rapids) and the late Brad McCrimmon (Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) are two other Red Wings assistants who, since 2008, have left the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to become head coaches.

Babcock is the first head coach in the NHL to have so many assistants move directly from his team to another as a head coach, somewhere, with no stops in between.

Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman didn’t have a coaching tree, per se. Many of Scotty’s former players became head coaches in the NHL, but Bowman’s roster of assistants only produced Dave Lewis (who succeeded Scotty in Detroit in 2002) as a head coach who moved into that role immediately after working for Bowman.

The idea of a coaching tree isn’t new in Detroit, however.

Chuck Daly may have been the Prince of Pessimism when he coached the Pistons from 1983-92, but he was also the King of Opportunity for various assistants.

Dick Harter (Charlotte 1988), Dick Versace (Indiana 1989), Ron Rothstein (Miami 1988) and Brendan Malone (Toronto 1995) were all Daly assistants who became head coaches.

The Hurricanes’ hiring of Peters, who interviewed with two other teams as well, might be the most prominent example of Babcock’s coaching tentacles wrapping themselves around the NHL.

The Hurricanes have been scuffling for years, often on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, having missed the postseason in all but one year since their only Stanley Cup was won in 2006.

They could have gone for an established, regurgitated head coach. They could have hired a recently-retired player. They could have just gone for a name, period.

But new GM Ron Francis, who knows a thing or two about the effect of a coach in the NHL, given that Francis played 23 seasons in the league, went with Peters, who is none of the aforementioned type of candidate.

This tells me that when you have “I worked for Mike Babcock” on your resume, that packs a wallop.

“You have to take the time to go through it and make sure you get the right guy,” Francis told the media at Peters’ introductory press conference, “and that’s what we did.”

But Peters only received a three-year contract from Francis and the Hurricanes, which is a little on the chintzy side. Maybe that’s the rookie coach effect.

No matter. Peters continues the trend that Babcock, perhaps unwittingly, has established: work for me and you’ll have your own team to helm in due time.

There’s more irony dripping from Peters’ hiring by Carolina, and that’s Babcock’s own status in Detroit.

His contract expires at the end of next season, and in two NHL cities—Pittsburgh and Toronto—writers who have noticed Babcock’s status with great interest have pumped for their teams to poach the Red Wings’ coach next spring.

The feeling here is that Babcock will sign an extension with the Red Wings, maybe as soon as within the next 30 days.

Meanwhile, the hunt is on—again—for an assistant coach in Detroit.

If you’re wanting to run your own team someday, it looks like the best path to that is to serve as an assistant to Mike Babcock.

Five coaches since 2008 would concur.

 

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.

 

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?