- Scott Burnside, NHL
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It's been fashionable over the past couple of seasons for hockey observers to predict the decline of the Detroit Red Wings. Fashionable, but, as it turns out, wildly premature.
Although they have not enjoyed the playoff success to match their recent regular-season performances, the Red Wings remain one of the NHL's elite teams, on and off the ice.
Owners Mike and Marian Ilitch keep a low profile, although they are closely connected with the team. When defenseman Jiri Fischer nearly died on the ice at Joe Louis Arena last season, Mike Ilitch was among those who visited the defenseman in the hospital and ensured him whatever the team could do for him, it would. More than just platitudes -- it is the team's way.
Detroit is one of the rare NHL teams that has been able to reinvent itself without the benefit of high draft picks or enduring an appreciable drop-off in regular-season performance.
Since 1995, the Red Wings have won three Stanley Cups in four finals appearances. This season, the Red Wings are challenging once again for the Presidents' Trophy. And they are doing it without Steve Yzerman, who retired in the offseason, and with the surprise return of netminder Dominik Hasek.
If they enter the playoffs atop the league standings, it would mark the fourth time in five NHL seasons they would do so. Their berth in 2007 playoffs will be their 16th straight, the longest current streak in the NHL.
True, they have failed to advance beyond the second round since their most recent Cup win, in 2002, but the Red Wings remain the envy of many teams, both in terms of their on-ice success and strong bond with their fans.
Long before there was Hockeytown, there were the Dead Wings. As difficult as it might be for this latest generation of Detroit fans to understand, the Wings were one of the NHL's worst teams for many years. From 1967-1982, the Red Wings missed the playoffs 15 times.
"We were giving away cars in the 1980s to get people into the rink," recalled GM Ken Holland, who joined the Wings front office in 1985 after his career as a mostly minor-league goaltender came to an end. "There wasn't a lot of interest in the team. We were the Dead Wings."
If there was a defining moment off the ice, it was the Ilitches' purchase of the team in June of 1982. Their first hire was current senior vice president Jim Devellano, who had cut his teeth working with Al Arbour on Long Island.
A year later, the Red Wings drafted a kid named Steve Yzerman with the fourth overall pick in the draft, and the first piece of what would ultimately be a dynastic puzzle was put into place.
If Yzerman would become the long-term face of the franchise, Holland credits the late-1980s arrival of tough guys Joey Kocur and Bob Probert with helping to re-establish the team's identity and its connection with the fans. The oft-troubled pair were known, among other things, as the Bruise Brothers, and marked the return of blue-collar hockey to the ultimate blue-collar town. The Bruise Brothers' legacy would live on with the popular Grind Line that allowed Darren McCarty, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby to become household names and help the Wings win three championships between 1997 and 2002, the first of those titles ended a 42-year drought.
At the same time, charismatic coach Jacques Demers was helping shape a hard-working team that twice advanced to the conference championships in the late-1980s. Demers was followed briefly by Bryan Murray before Scotty Bowman arrived in 1993 and led the team to those three Cups before he retired.
"We may have started something but they certainly didn't stray," Demers said. "They're just a great organization. They have a philosophy and they keep to it."
Over the past decade, the Red Wings have been the closest thing the NHL has had to a dynasty, and the bar has been raised exceedingly high for the team.
While they have not gone into a decline as many predicted, the Wings have not been able to follow up stellar regular seasons with strong playoff showings. There are a number of factors, including the retirement of Bowman, the game's greatest coach, following the Wings' 2002 championship.
Long-time assistant Dave Lewis took over for the 2002-03 season, but with Hasek in retirement, the Wings were stunningly swept in the first round by Anaheim. The following season, they were dumped by Calgary in the second round in a series that saw Yzerman suffer a serious eye injury that sucked the life out of the team. Lewis was dismissed after the Calgary series. Following the lockout, new coach Mike Babcock led the Wings to a surprise Presidents' Trophy, but they were knocked off by the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in six games.
Have the recent disappointments been a function of Bowman's departure or the fine line that separates winning from losing in the NHL? Both perhaps. The Wings have also been hurt by some terrible luck, too.
In the days after Detroit's 1997 Cup win, a limousine crash robbed them of hard-hitting defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, who was disabled in the crash. Last season, the Wings lost Fischer, the promising young defenseman who suffered near-fatal heart failure during a game at Joe Louis Arena. Both defensemen might well have played another eight or 10 seasons, so their loss is incalculable.
Then, there was the Hasek kafuffle, which saw the Czech goalie come out of retirement at the start of the 2003-04 season, displacing Curtis Joseph. Hasek lasted only 14 games before pulling the plug on the season, but the hangover seemed to permeate the club for the balance of the campaign.
This is actually a movement in three parts.
When Holland acquired netminder Hasek from Buffalo for Slava Kozlov and a first-round draft pick on July 1, 2001, he was the envy of all GMs. Hasek had established himself as the world's premiere netminder with an Olympic gold medal and a slew of Vezina Trophies to his credit. But the small-market Sabres could not afford him and the Red Wings could.
To some, it was checkbook hockey and an example of how the system needed to change. For the Wings, Hasek was all they had hoped for. He led the league with 41 regular-season wins, and was rock-solid in the playoffs as he and the Wings out-dueled arch-rival Colorado and Patrick Roy in a thrilling seven-game Western Conference Finals. The Cup finals series vs. Carolina was anticlimactic, but it was a fitting backdrop for what appeared to be Hasek's final NHL game.
But a year later, Hasek decided he wanted more. The Wings still owned his rights, and although Holland paid big dollars to bring in free agent Curtis Joseph to replace Hasek before the start of the 2003-04 season, he was loathe to let Hasek simply walk away to another team. So, Hasek returned for training camp, upsetting the Wings' usually steady apple cart. At one point, Joseph was sent to the minors, leaving the netminding duties to Hasek and another starter-in-waiting Manny Legace. Hasek played only 14 games that season.
With the lockout, it appeared Hasek's career was over. But he returned to the NHL, signing with Ottawa, where he played spectacularly until an injury at the Olympics put an end to Hasek's season. When Holland decided Legace wasn't the man to lead the Wings back into contention, he found a barren goalie market. But after a series of conversations with players and the front office, Holland brought back Hasek and signed him to a one-year deal, a deal that has the Wings poised for another Cup run.
For 1,514 regular-season games and another 196 postseason contests, there was one Red Wing. His name was Steve Yzerman. A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Yzerman remains very much a part of the Wings' identity, moving into a front-office role after announcing his retirement this past offseason. He has attended the World Junior Championships and board of governors meetings, learning the management ropes and earning the GM post for Canada's entry in this year's World Championships in Moscow.
But as much as Yzerman continues to cast a shadow over the team, the challenge for Babcock and the players has been to find someone to fill that void. That person is defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the first to wear the captain's "C" other than Yzerman since 1986. In some ways, Lidstrom is the Swedish Yzerman. His soft-spoken off-ice persona belies a passion for the game that has seen him win four of the past five Norris Trophies. He's been runner-up for the award three times and will undoubtedly be a finalist again this season.
At age 36, he, like Yzerman, has only played for the Red Wings. And, like Yzerman, he leads by example, something many players espouse but few back up. Despite the recent departures of mainstays like Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull and Darren McCarty, Lidstrom's ability to help maintain the winning dynamic in the dressing room is a testament to his leadership skills.
One of the reasons many believed the Wings were headed for a post-lockout fall was the perception that they simply bought their way to success. Without question, the Red Wings had the financial wherewithal to acquire and keep players like Hasek, Shanahan, Hull, Chris Chelios, Wendel Clark, Larry Murphy and Luc Robitaille.
But part of the reason the team has been able to bring in those types of players is because it has been able to draft and develop a startling number of elite NHLers. The Wings' scouting staff unearthed Lidstrom (53rd overall in 1989), Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall 1999) and Tomas Holmstrom (257th in 1994). The team's last top-10 pick was Martin Lapointe, who was taken with at No. 10 in 1991.
Drafting well reflects what has been the team's most important attribute for the past 20 years: stability.
The team's philosophy on developing players has likewise been remarkably consistent for more than a decade. Because players like Yzerman and others have enjoyed long careers, the pressure to rush players has been modest. Datsyuk, Zetterberg and top defensive prospect Niklas Kronwall, who was the AHL's defenseman of the year during the lockout, have been allowed to mature before assuming prominent roles with the team.
Thus, the Wings have been able to avoid an inevitable "rebuilding" phase.
"This is a man's league, and if you want to win, you can't rush the process," Holland said. "You've got to take one step at a time.
"A culture of leadership of has been created down there," Holland said. "Now, we need to find a way to keep going. The younger players have learned that it's about team success," not personal statistics.
With Detroit's young core in place, there is no reason to think its status as an elite team will change anytime soon.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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