There's more to the Wings' success than international intrigue
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.
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• Hradek's instant analysis: What a finish! Sidney Crosby's desperation backhand shot nearly eluded goalie Chris Osgood. If the Pens had tied it, the old retractable roof at Mellon Arena might have popped off. Blog
WATCH/LISTEN• Cherry, Melrose break down Wings' Cup win
• NHL Minute: E.J. & Scott's analysis
• Melrose: The best team won it all
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