<
>

Blame Canada if Wings miss playoffs

The Red Wings honored Olympians before the game Wednesday. Then Detroit fans got back to cheering on their own team and worrying about the playoffs. Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty Images

DETROIT -- Who would have thought that after 18 consecutive postseason appearances -- including back-to-back stops in the Finals the past two seasons -- the Detroit Red Wings would begin March fighting for their playoff lives?

But that's exactly where they are and, well, it's a bit unnerving for the good folks of Hockeytown.

"Injuries," 22-year-old fan Andrew Nendrzychi said. "We've had a lot of injuries this year. More than I can ever remember."

Indeed, with seven players placed on injured reserve before Christmas -- including star forward Henrik Zetterberg -- the team started 2010 having already surpassed the 187 man games missed because of injuries it suffered all of last year.

But I gotta tell ya, while I don't question whether injuries have contributed to Detroit's current predicament, I can't ignore the nagging little voice in the back of my head that keeps repeating two words: Blame Canada.

I don't mean in the way Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano blames Canada. (He feels the compacted NHL schedule to accommodate the Olympics is part of the reason for his team's rash of injuries.)
No, I'm blaming Canada because so many people who are critical to the Wings' success were involved with Team Canada.

I'm not hating because the U.S, finished second. I'm just offering a theory as to why the Wings are barely holding on to eighth in the Western Conference.

Usually when we talk about the Olympics, we focus on the toll it takes on the players and the split loyalties between NHL team and country that occurs when a tournament is held midseason. Then there's the drop in focus that can happen when teams take two weeks off. But as I peel back the layers regarding the Red Wings, I can't help wondering if it was some of the team's leaders, and not the players, who were distracted most by the Olympics.

Think about it. Canada finished seventh at the 2006 Games, a disastrous showing for the country that gave the world ice hockey. The team was so bad it was blanked in three of its last four games, despite having $97 million in NHL talent. As there is with basketball in the U.S., there was a lot of pressure for the country to reclaim its sport -- especially since these Olympics were in Vancouver.

The GM of Canada's Redeem Team? Steve Yzerman, who was the vice president of operations when the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008. A few months after Yzerman helped Detroit win its 11th Cup, Canada tapped him to restore his country to Olympic glory. The coach of Team Canada? Mike Babcock, also known as the coach of the Detroit Red Wings. Babcock also brought along members of his staff to help Canada reclaim the gold.

That's an awful lot of NHL brainpower from one team being used for something that doesn't help the team. Um, correction: didn't help the NHL team. Canada, as we know, did all right.

Representing your country on any world stage is an incredible honor, and I don't begrudge Yzerman or Babcock for taking pride in doing so. Just as I'm sure the good folks in Toronto are not upset that Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson worked very hard to get Team USA into the gold-medal game. But with all due respect to Ontario, the Leafs haven't been to the playoffs since 2004, so it's doubtful fans would be that shocked if they were left out of the party this year.

But Detroit? We have expectations like Dickens when it comes to the Wings. It was barely 10 minutes before the cheers during pregame introductions for Michigander and Olympian Ryan Kesler turned to boos because he scored against the Wings, silver medal be damned. Heck, I'm sure quite a few folks in Hockeytown were thinking about the Cup before Team USA had showered after losing Sunday to Canada.

That's how you earn the name "Hockeytown."

Again, I'm not discounting the impact injuries have had on the year; the seven players who ended up on the IR early in the season accounted for 314 points last year. That's a lot of points and experience out of the lineup. But it's hard to serve two masters, and even Babcock himself said Canada not winning gold would have hurt more than losing in the Stanley Cup finals. That's the kind of thing you don't mind hearing when your favorite team has a comfortable division lead heading into spring. But after a lackluster performance in Detroit's 6-3 loss to Vancouver on Wednesday -- a showing in which the team was sloppy, soft defensively and visibly lacked urgency -- knowing the coach could have started the year with bigger fish to fry is bothersome.

Babcock is clearly one of the top coaches in the league, and I do not doubt his ability. But he's also human. This is why I believe it is fair to wonder whether his ability to keep the team focused was somewhat compromised because of the pressure he faced back home before the Olympics. Just how many anytime minutes with Yzerman were used discussing Team Canada, as opposed to the struggling Wings, leading up to Vancouver? And did that split focus land Detroit on the bubble?

"Every point is crucial, and we're fighting for our lives," said winger Jason Williams. "We just have to try to and play together and bring it every night."

Hopefully without the weight of an entire country on some of their shoulders, it will be easier for everyone to have a single focus. The last time the Wings missed the playoffs, Sidney Crosby was a toddler.

"Yeah, they probably started the year a little distracted with the Olympics and all, but that's over and our guys are back, so now we can make a push," said fan Paul Lakin.

I sure hope so.

I would hate to think Canada's gold might have cost Detroit another shot at the Cup.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »