Sunday, February 08, 2009

Zetterberg, Holland Put Legitimacy On A Bombastic Town Nickname

It’s a nickname that I’m still not totally comfortable with, but I suppose it’s time for me to admit it: it’s not going anyway anytime soon. Detroiters aren’t about to relinquish it, no matter how misguidedly it was acquired.

Pittsburgh is a gritty, blue-collar, hard-working city, just like Detroit. Steel City, and with good reason. The football team proudly wears a bastardized version of the U.S. Steel logo on its helmets. Even the town’s name smacks of beer, dirty hands lifting those mugs, and lunch pails: Pittsburgh. It’s a city whose name you say with a sneer.

You can call PittsburghSteel City” with impunity. Everyone has my permission.

But here comes the one that makes me wince.


We’ve declared ourselves such in Detroit. If others in other cities are aghast that we’ve claimed an entire sport as our own, well, I don’t blame them. Is there a Football City? A Basketball Burg? A Baseball Village?

Yet in Detroit, we lay claim to hockey as ours and ours alone, apparently.

I’ll say it again: I wonder what the good folks in Montreal must think of such a travesty. Last I looked, no team in the NHL can touch the Canadiens’ 24 Stanley Cups won. Huh. Funny that Montreal isn’t “Hockeytown”, don’t ya think?


But then I thought of it another way. Steel City is apt because of all the, well, steel that’s produced in Pittsburgh. Hollywood is “Tinsel Town” with loads of logic. Boston is “Beantown”, and that’s OK by me, too. Heck, I was fine with “Motor City” for Detroit – so why did we need “Hockeytown”?

But using the above reasoning, I can abide Hockeytown, I suppose – but only because of this hypothesis: if they make steel in Steel City, then can we say that Detroit churns out hockey people?

The answer is unequivocally, yes.

Pittsburgh makes steel. Detroit makes hockey people. So, makes sense.

Two examples nudge me this morning as to the scope of the Red Wings’ dominance in the hockey-making business.

Henrik Zetterberg is, as they say, one of the “home grown” Red Wings. That is, he was drafted by the team (210th overall in 1999), and has played only for the Red Wings in his career. And, thanks to an outrageous (but deserved, nonetheless) contract he signed last week, Zetterberg will retire as a Red Wing, some 12, 13 years hence. Or longer. He’ll be the next Steve Yzerman in that sense.

Zetterberg inked a 12-year deal (yeah, I said 12) to remain with the Red Wings through the 2021 season. When I look at 2021, I start to get all Arthur C. Clarke and Buck Rogers. Will they even have hockey in 2021? Or will it be some game played up in space, like an episode of The Jetsons?

Regardless of where they play it, or with what equipment (jet packs on the players’ backs?), Zetterberg will play it in Detroit, for the Red Wings. You can insert a gallows joke here about whether Detroit will be around in 2021, but let’s not get cynical here, OK?

Zetterberg is the second-best player, right behind Nicklas Lidstrom, on a team loaded with stars. And he was due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. There really wasn’t much concern that Z would flee the Red Wings for greener rinks, but you never know. Funny things have happened in sports once that free agency status gets reached. Better to lock up your star players before any other team can get its mitts on them.

So the Red Wings did, because that’s what they do. They keep people around who are worth keeping. Which isn’t that easy to do under today’s CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) with the Players Association, with its hard salary cap that forces budgeting.

It took creativity to keep Z around while at the same time not gobbling up too much salary cap space.

Holland (above) got creative in keeping Zetterberg (top) a "Red Wing for life"

Enter the second example of Detroit’s hockey-producing ability.

General Manager Ken Holland authored himself quite a deal with Zetterberg. The 12 years was mainly so that the Red Wings could keep Z’s annual salary hit within reason, thus allowing for more money for other of the team’s stars. It was brainy, creative, and typical of Holland, who only happens to be among the top executives in all of sports.

Holland, too, is “home grown.”

He played a few games for the Red Wings in the mid-1980s, as a goalie. Suffice it to say that he was no Terry Sawchuk between the pipes. Heck, he was no Jim Rutherford, either. It was clear that goaltending wasn’t going to be Holland’s path to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

So the Red Wings convinced him to give up trying to stop pucks, and start looking for others who could.

Holland became a scout, being assigned to the western part of Canada, from where he hailed. His charge was to visit towns with names that even sounded cold and desolate and tiny, and dig himself up some hockey players who could, one day, don the Winged Wheel on those blood red sweaters.

He did that quite well, and earned himself some promotions. Eventually, Holland rose to the post of Scouting Director. Then, after the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup in 1997, Holland was promoted again, this time to General Manager. He hired the best scouts in the business. He found Zetterberg, after all, after 209 other players had been drafted in 1999.

The naysayers had a field day. They were rubbing their hands and ready to pounce. How could a rookie GM co-exist with the veteran, stubborn coach, Scotty Bowman? A lot of those folks didn’t give Kenny Holland an ice rink’s chance in Hell to succeed.

Three years ago, even after Holland’s brilliance had helped the Red Wings capture two more Cups, there was a stray naysayer out there. Me.

“Now we’ll see,” I screamed in print in a now-defunct magazine, “what kind of GM Ken Holland really is!” I also took my concerns to the Internet, several times.

My implication was thus: working under a new CBA in 2005, with its salary cap, would Holland have the chops to navigate it? After all, his previous success was aided by the Red Wings’ determination to spend and spend, much like baseball’s New York Yankees. Let’s see Holland do it with a budget!

He did.

Another Cup in 2008. Still some clever trades. Still some smart signings. And all done under the new CBA’s restrictions.

Take that, Eno!

I mentioned Hall of Fame earlier, and it was on purpose. Holland, it says here, is headed for enshrinement, as an executive. So is Zetterberg, in the more traditional role of player. Both home grown guys. Both “Red Wings for life.”

Both products of, ahem, Hockeytown.

No comments: