Commentary

There's more to the Wings' success than international intrigue

Updated: June 6, 2008, 4:06 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Like most endeavors, professional sports tend to be copycat phenomena. So in the wake of Detroit's fourth Stanley Cup championship in 11 seasons, other NHL organizations are taking a look at how the Red Wings did it and asking: What can we learn from that?

Or at least they should be.

Granted, the perspective can change from year to year and overreaction is as risky as not paying attention at all to the champions' methodology, but something still can be learned when looking back at how previous champions won.

In 2006-07, Anaheim won it all with a physical edge, wincing at, but at least living with, the occasional brain-lock and needless penalties as part of the overall package. Reading too much into that by trying to add toughness wasn't necessarily the way to go for some teams in the next season.

This time, the Red Wings' approach is more about a long-range, organizational approach that goes back over a decade, and spans both the pre-cap and post-cap NHL eras. But the Wings also were the NHL's least-penalized team in the regular season, at 11.4 minutes per game, in this case signifying skill and discipline, rather than meekness. The Ducks, meanwhile, were the most-penalized, both in their championship season and in 2007-08. That's separate from sport's most testing playoff run, but it's one measure of the teams' approaches.

One of the ironies in the Motor City, where the economy has been affected negatively by consumer willingness to buy cars from automakers based outside North America, is that the Wings have thrived in part because of their savvy in spotting and importing foreign talent.

"The evolution of our team really started in the mid-90s, when Scotty [Bowman] put the Russian Five together and started playing what we call puck possession," Wings general manager Ken Holland said in Dallas during the Western Conference finals.

"We're continuing to draft European players, I think for a couple of reasons. One, it's the style we like to play. Two, when you pick late in the draft, North Americans are really picked over. So you can take North Americans, but the skill level isn't quite as high and we've gone to Europeans. Obviously, we've had a lot of success over there."

For nearly two years, the possibility of Nicklas Lidstrom's becoming the first European captain to raise the Cup has been much noted. Both during the buildup and the aftermath, we've perhaps overstated the significance of that because a lot of the myths being put to rest haven't been advanced by anyone with a brain for many years.

In fact, we've been talking for so long about the "soft-Swede" stereotype being out of date, saying it's out of date has become a cliché. It has been out of date for … well, virtually forever.

For years the subject has been broached with those "people say" or "some say" qualifications, in effect raising the issue, without expressing support for it. (Ever notice how "people" and "some" are the biggest idiots on the planet? I would pay money to hear one coach or player interrupt a question from a media type about "people say" or "some say" with the following: "Who says that?")

And even on the leadership front, a European with a "C" on his sweater taking the handoff from Gary Bettman has been just a matter of time, rather than a contradiction of conventional wisdom. One of the most amazing abilities of the Stanley Cup has been its ability to cast its spell over Europeans as well, and now that we're into the generation of European players who have been dreaming of the NHL from the first time they put on skates, that's all the more true. The raising of eyebrows over Russians and Swedes' getting so excited over Olympic gold medals or even world championship triumphs ignores the realities that North Americans can do the same thing, and international competitions still can be viewed on this side of the Atlantic as referendums on the state of the game.

As internationalized as the NHL talent pool has become, and as enriched as the NHL has been by the look to Europe, there still are remnants of the preference for both North American talent in general and Canadians specifically.

The difference between the NHL of 25 years ago and the NHL of today on that front is it has little to do with disdain for European talent, but about access to, familiarity and a comfort level with players who have played under pro-style rules in Medicine Hat. This is a reality that also can lead to the undervaluing of players of any nationality who are on track for, or who are in, NCAA hockey in their draft years.

The Wings suited up 11 Europeans in Game 6 of the finals and they lined up the right ones. The resulting 2008 roster is a masterfully constructed mix that's more about overall vision and spotting value, than a geocentric outlook.

[+] EnlargeRed Wings
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesChemistry and team bonding have been a large part of the Red Wings' success.
In 1989, the Wings claimed Lidstrom with the No. 53 overall pick and followed that up with their choice of Sergei Fedorov with the No. 74 overall pick. There still was no guarantee at that time that Russian players could come to North America, and Fedorov was considered to have defected when he left the CKSA Moscow team before the 1990 Goodwill Games.

The Wings drafted Pavel Datsyuk in 1998, in the sixth round and in 1999 they took Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh round. Datsyuk didn't come to North America until he was 23, and Zetterberg was 22 in his rookie season. Johan Franzen was a third-round choice in 2004, when he was 24.

But it isn't as simple as saying: "Take Europeans!" Other teams have taken many Europeans who haven't panned out. The examples are so numerous that it's perilous to start pointing them out, because it's hard to stop. But the Wings' one-time biggest rival, Colorado, took Russian Mikhail Kuleshov in the first round of the 1999 draft and followed that up with Slovaks Branko Radivojevic and Kristian Kovac, Swedes Sanny Lindstrom and Anders Lovdahl and Finn Riku Hahl -- all while Zetterberg still was on the board. Only Radivojevic is in the NHL -- on the Wild -- and he never played a game for Colorado. That's a snapshot and perhaps unfair for that reason. For one thing, go back long enough and the Quebec organization blazed some trails with the Stastnys' defections from what then was Czechoslovakia -- but there are many other examples of the Wings' savvy.

"I think the other advantage we've had is that we haven't had to rush people into the lineup," Holland said. "Our players have had a foundation when they've showed up. But we like a certain type of player. Obviously, they have to compete hard, but we like hockey sense, we like skills and they are the types of players we look for."

Stylistically, the Wings have won with that puck-possession style that is easy to admire, but difficult to emulate because it requires such an abundance of skill. Teams can try to play that way and fail miserably. But that said, coaches who give up too easily and try to mitigate talent gaps, equate team play or discipline to an inflexible adherence to a system that still embraces dumping it in and cycling as the only way to go should be paying attention.

"Puck possession" is the buzz phrase, but it's got as much to do with having an open mind and trust as it is banking on playing keep-away and having it culminate in tic-tac-toe passing and back-door tap-ins. The hybrid, puck-moving defensemen should be more prized than ever because of the Wings' skill there.

And then there's the matter of goaltending. Rather than devalue Chris Osgood's contributions, both in 1998 and 2008, the smarter thing to do is concede that he "fit" -- and that was especially true this time around. He was liked and trusted by his teammates, but he also reinvented his game, adopting more of the butterfly approach on the way to his renaissance. He's not a great goaltender, but he now twice has been validated, and perhaps that should show savvy organizations that while it might be among the most important positions in sports, the chemistry and overall picture issues come into play there too.

Also, in the wake of the implementation of the cap, the Wings showed that a careful working of the system still creates un-level ice, only in part because of self-imposed caps below the ceiling elsewhere.

The Wings have made it all work.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."