Sunday, September 27, 2009

Red Wings' Run of Excellence Taken for Granted in Detroit

I was in New York, one of my favorite towns, and I started walking. It was a June day, some 18 years ago, and if you haven’t been to New York in June, then your life officially has a missing ingredient.

I set out around Times Square and headed north, up Sixth Avenue, from around 42nd Street. Maybe a half hour or so had passed when I decided to stop and look behind me, to see how much concrete I had covered.

The blocks and blocks of midtown Manhattan that I had engulfed boggled my mind.

Wow, I thought—did I really do all that?

It’s time now that certain people stop in their tracks and take a look back—at the Detroit Red Wings and what they’ve accomplished since 1991.

There are still old-timers among us—I’m not quite in that fraternity—who remember the 1950s, and how the Red Wings, along with the hated Montreal Canadiens, dominated the six-team NHL.

Back and forth the Red Wings and Canadiens went, seemingly handing the Stanley Cup off to each other every spring. It was like the Lions and Cleveland Browns in the same decade, only more so.

The Red Wings—they of Howe and Lindsay and Wilson and Kelly and Sawchuk, meeting the Canadiens of Richard and Moore and Geoffrion and Beliveau and Worsley—every late April for a showdown for the Cup.

The old-timers will tell you that this was the heyday of Detroit hockey. The Red Wings did win four Stanley Cups in six seasons, from 1949-50 thru 1954-55. And when they weren’t winning them, they were coming damn close.

But those Red Wings teams, as mighty as they were, filled with as many legends of the game as they were, did not do what today’s late-20th, early-21st century Red Wings are doing—with no signs of letting up.

In a town besmirched by its football team, abandoned for 13 seasons by its baseball team until 2006, and teased relentlessly by its NBA entry almost yearly, the Red Wings’ annual contention for hockey’s Holy Grail is accepted almost casually, with a feeling of entitlement oozing from its faithful.

I have never been a fan of the designation of “Hockeytown,” which the team encouraged its fans to use in describing Detroit, sometime around the mid-1990s. Those of you unfortunate enough to consider yourselves regular readers will attest that I’ve derided that self-aggrandizing moniker with stubborn consistency.

“Hockeytown.” HA!

The Canadiens have won over twice as many Stanley Cups as the Red Wings have managed—with both franchises’ timelines running almost concurrently.

So what does that make Montreal? “Chopped Livertown”?

The Red Wings play in Detroit, er, Hockeytown, and it’s a yearly ritual to set out in June and take in a hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. A game with Stanley Cup implications, of course.

The hockey denizens in town are aghast when their team doesn’t win the chalice.

I was on the ice at JLA, in the aftermath of last June’s Game 7 triumph by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Hockeytown was being vandalized by a group of happy Penguins and their families and staff.

Champagne was being sprayed into the expensive seats by Penguins players—who were soaking their own fans who made the trek from Pittsburgh, and who were hanging over the glass, trying to get blasted.

Player wives and children hugged husbands and daddies. Business-suited men and professionally-dressed women—presumably part of the behind-the-scenes functionaries—gleefully meandered on the same ice surface that, less than an hour prior, was being urgently skated on by dead tired Red Wings players trying to muster one more goal.

There were tears. There were hugs. There was hooting and hollering.

By the Pittsburgh Penguins!!

They had the temerity to win the Stanley Cup in Hockeytown. The horror!

The Red Wings of today have won four Cups in the past 11 seasons. In these modern days, that would qualify as a dynasty of sorts.

But there’s this.

Since the 1991-92 campaign—that’s 17 seasons in a row—the Red Wings have begun the post-season as legitimate Cup contenders. Not maybe contenders. Not “if everything goes perfectly” contenders.

Real, honest-to-goodness, they’re-likely-to-win-the-whole-darn-thing contenders.

For 17 straight springs.

The old-timers can’t boast of that kind of run from their 1950s Red Wings.

Nor can any team, in any sport.

Has there been the same legitimate World Series contender since 1991?

Not even the vaunted New York Yankees can say they were World Series ready in the early-1990s. And certainly no other team can lay claim to constant championship contention for 17 straight years.

The NBA has had its flavor-of-the-day dynasties—the Bulls of the 1990s, the Lakers of the early 2000s. And blips on the screen in between. But no NBA club has been consistently in the hunt since 1991-92.

The NFL, the League of Parity, purposely has constructed itself to prevent dynasties. And none of its teams can come close to describing itself as a Super Bowl contender—legitimately—on an annual basis since 1991.

But the Detroit Red Wings have gone into the playoffs every April, starting in 1992, with genuine hopes of raising the Stanley Cup two months later.

Every single year since 1992.

There have been first round knockouts, for sure. Conference finals meltdowns, yeah. Bizarre second round losses, absolutely.

And a couple of disappointments in the Cup Finals themselves.

But there have been those four Cups and deep playoff runs in most years.

Yet you won’t hear or read much about that in Detroit.

Instead, it’s always about why the Red Wings can’t, or won’t contend. Why the goal-tending will surely fail. Or some such worry.

A few years back, after the lockout, the league operating under a genuine salary cap for the first time, the haters were out in full force.

Let’s see how fast the Red Wings fall when their bottomless money pit is no longer to their avail, the haters said—many hailing from Hockeytown, USA.

This fall, the trendy thing to do is to pick the young, hungry Chicago Blackhawks to become the new rulers of the West. The worry du jour is all the free agents the Red Wings lost this summer.

It says here that the hockey fans in Detroit don’t know how good they’ve had it, in the time it takes a child to be born, grow up, and graduate high school.

They’ve been walking with the Red Wings for 17 blocks now, and it never occurs to them to stop and look back at all that’s been accomplished.

It’s a fan base that’s been spoiled rotten, and I wonder anymore how many of them know that we had another name for the NHL franchise in Detroit long before Hockeytown became all the rage.

The Dead Things.

Folks around here ought to remember from where their team came, and immerse themselves in the historical significance of what the Red Wings are doing at this very moment.

Because it ain’t been done, anywhere, since the great Yankees teams of the 1940s, ‘50s, and early-‘60s.

Yet they never called New York, the greatest of all our cities, “Baseballtown.”

They didn’t have to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're right, people need to put everything into perspective. People focus about the upcoming season, last night's game, and the daily news threads, and all we care about is what is going on right now, and the past was, well, history. It's like Game 7 happened, we were devastated, and then days later people carried on with there lives, like it was, oh, just another game. People need to stop being so critical of the greatest teams in sports. Let them win, have fun, but at the same time, look in that rear-view mirror and smile.