Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Zetterberg's Down Year Must Be an Aberration for Red Wings to Succeed

I suppose that Bill Shakespeare wrote a run-on sentence or two. Michelangelo surely must have dabbed on orange when he meant to use red. Somewhere there exists a can of film showing Sir Laurence Olivier flubbing a line.

Ted Williams had a down year once, although a pinched nerve in his neck was the main culprit, not the curve ball.

So given all that, it's easier to abide Henrik Zetterberg scoring a measly 23 goals last season.

Zetterberg, the Red Wings' destructive left winger from Sweden, is a player next to whose name you write in 30 goals, at least---before the season starts. It's never a prediction, it's just telling the facts ahead of time.

Prior to the 2009-10 season, Zetterberg and 30 goals were hockey's peanut butter and jelly.

Hank's goal total for the previous four seasons went like this: 39, 33, 43, 31. Power play goals read 17, 11, 16, 12.

But then came '09-10, and it was like Zetterberg's soft hands got left out on the counter and became hard.

Twenty-three goals? Zetterberg can score 23 goals by the All-Star break in a good year. He can pump pucks into opposing goals like a roofer with a nail gun.

It gets worse. Of Zetterberg's 23 goals last season, only three came with the Red Wings enjoying a power play. You heard me.

Maybe it was all a case of crooked shooting. Zetterberg's shots on goal total in 2008-09, when he scored 31 goals, was 309. Last season, it was...309.

Same number of shots, eight fewer goals, and nine fewer power play tallies.

If the Red Wings are to return to territory with which they're very familiar, i.e. hockey in June, they need Henrik Zetterberg to be, well, Henrik Zetterberg.

All last season, Zetterberg was slightly off. He never quite found his rhythm. Then injuries hit the Red Wings harder than a M*A*S*H* unit, and Z maybe tried too hard to lead the team offensively. He was Henrik Zetterberg in name only.

But it was a diluted, watered down Zetterberg. He was Pavarotti singing with a head cold.

Zetterberg is one of the Red Wings who marveled at all the spare time they had this summer, what with being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last spring. He got married, spent some time in Sweden, and to hear him tell it, he was looking at his watch the whole time.

"It's like, after awhile, I couldn't wait to get back to Detroit and back to hockey," Zetterberg told the media last month of his longer-than-usual summer, and his time spent in his native country.

The Red Wings need Zetterberg to shake off last season's truncated output and be the straw that stirs the drink. Or, since this is hockey we're talking about, he needs to be the spoon that mixes the slush.

Coach Mike Babcock plans on putting Zetterberg back on the same line as center Pavel Datsyuk, rather than keeping them split up. Both players like the idea, and why not? It's fun to play with the puck and not letting the other team have it.

Babcock can reunite Zetterberg and Datsyuk because the Red Wings' forward depth chart is an embarrassment of riches. The coach can hoard his two superstars on the same line because lines two through four would never be mistaken for chopped liver.

So being back with Datsyuk, alone, should increase Zetterberg's production.

As talented as the Red Wings are up front, they still need that catalyst. Think the Lakers without Magic Johnson, the Yankees without Derek Jeter.

With Zetterberg humming along in high gear, the rest of the Red Wings' forwards should be all that much better.

Some players would be thrilled to have "23" listed under their stats column that says GOALS. Zetterberg looks at 23 like a Democrat looks at Ann Coulter.

Twenty-three goals? Zetterberg can score that many with one hand tied behind his back. It's a small number for him, one that ought to embarrass him. The three power play goals are a Scarlett letter.

But they all had a down year, the great artists and superstar athletes.

Note that I didn't pluralize that.

Zetterberg had his.

Goalies, we now return you to your regularly scheduled nightmares.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lions Prove Again to be What the Doctor Ordered

The problem with the Lions is that they're available without prescription.

You don't need a junkie to score a dose, when you find yourself ailing and in need of a pick-me-up victory.

For years, the Lions have been the NFL's elixir---something you take when you're feeling punky.

I can't imagine that there was real, genuine panic in and around the Twin Cities after the Minnesota Vikings fell to 0-2 after last week's loss to the Miami Dolphins. Disappointment? Sure. Anxiousness? Probably a little bit.

But panic?

How could there have been, when the best cure-all since Dr. Jonas Salk accidentally discovered penicillin was on the schedule for Week Three?

If you're the other team, and you need a win to chase away the doldrums, you take the Detroit Lions, wash them down with a glass of water and wait.

Sometimes the Lions kick in right away; other times, you have to wait three quarters for results, occasionally even longer.

But the Lions always come through. They're the NFL's Tylenol 3 to the other 31 teams' migraines.

The Vikings were sniffing, sneezing and coughing on their way into their dome Sunday morning. The 0-2 start hit them like a ton of bricks. Something was going around the NFL and the Vikings had caught it. The Cowboys, 49ers, and a bunch of other teams had been inflicted, too.

The Vikings took a healthy dose of Detroit Lions and, a few hours later, they were feeling much better.

You watch the Lions and you can kind of see them in sepia tones, moving in super-fast motion with the occasional caption card, like the old Keystone Kops flicks in the days of silent movies.

Leading the Vikings 7-0 on Sunday and having just forced a nice three-and-out, the Lions were poised to get the ball back. Punt returner Stefan Logan awaited the booted ball.

I see the play now in sepia, in fast motion. The caption card flashes on the screen, the calliope music playing in the foreground.




Logan, running toward the football, diverted his gaze away from the ball and by the time he un-diverted it, the football was bouncing off his fingertips and into the arms of the eagerly awaiting Vikings kick coverers.

The Lions' generosity continued on the very next play when they declined to cover Percy Harvin, and QB Brett Favre hit the wide open receiver for a 23-yard touchdown.

More sepia tones. More calliope music.

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson torched the Lions for an 80-yard TD run in the third quarter. It was the sort of big play that the Lions swear after every game they can't afford to surrender and yet manage to, the very next week.

More Keystone Kops images.

Lions QB Shaun Hill threw not one but two interceptions in the Vikings' end zone, in the waning minutes of the game.

The Lions are the medication that never stops working.

It all added up to another of those 24-10 type losses in Minnesota, the kind beset with suicidal football plays and interceptions. The Lions have been losing that way in Minnesota for 13 years now.

After the game, there were a lot of "We can't keep doing that" and "We're better than that" quotes coming from Lions players, quotes that keep getting printed, as if they're full of profundity---or as if we've never read them before.

If the Lions are subscribing to the "take one step backward to take two steps forward" method of improving, Sunday's game was the step backward---presuming you recognize the closes losses in Weeks One and Two to be the two steps forward.

However they step, the Lions are 0-3. They were close twice, and not so close yesterday.

Doesn't matter. This is the NFL, where the weak are eaten and moral victories are for losers.

Just another Sunday in Minnesota for the Lions. The spread was Minnesota giving 11 points, and they still covered.

Someone could have made a mint hawking the Lions off the back of a truck.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tough Guy Downey Back for More Red Wings Glory

He has been Rocky Balboa on skates, complete with sequels.

He’s a twist on an old joke.

“I went to a hockey game and Aaron Downey broke out.”

Some hockey players stay in the NHL because of their soft hands. Downey has hung around because of his calloused fists.

Downey is 36 years old, and he attended Red Wings training camp on a tryout last weekend—probably on his own dime.

Downey is the quintessential “enforcer,” that hockey word for pugilist, goon, tough guy, miscreant. He pounded his way into the league and is trying to scratch and claw to stay in it.

Downey has not a prayer of making the Red Wings, but that isn’t stopping him from trying. The Red Wings forwards are a symphony and Downey is Metallica. He’s the one you circle in those “Which of these things doesn’t belong?” children’s puzzles.

For years, the Red Wings have hemmed and hawed as to whether they need an enforcer type. The organization has been torn between letting the skill players do all the damage, or to inject a bruiser occasionally to, as coach Mike Babcock likes to say, “keep the flies off.”

Downey was the Red Wings enforcer three seasons ago, when the team won the Stanley Cup. He managed to appear in 56 games that season, about 70 percent of the schedule. No one gave him any chance of making that squad, either.

Downey was a Cup winner with the Red Wings in 2008
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

"I know the odds are stacked against me,'' Downey told’s Ansar Khan last week about making the Red Wings this season. "But I just turned 36, the odds have been stacked against me my whole life, ever since I was a 16-year-old going to juniors.''

Last year, the Red Wings tabbed longtime enforcer Brad May to keep the flies off, but May was gone by the second half of the season, the team’s will to keep a tough guy having waned, as it usually does.

Yet Downey, who was out of hockey last season, dialed up Red Wings GM Ken Holland in early summer and asked if he could tag along to training camp.

Holland said yes, even though he was out of range of Downey’s right cross.

Downey’s journey back to the NHL would appear to be so ridiculous in its unlikelihood that even Sylvester Stallone would laugh at you if you tried to pitch it as a Hollywood script.

Downey was a borderline NHL player even when he was on a roster, when he was two years younger.

But YOU tell him he should quit and go home.

"I came here as a long shot in '07-08 and made the team because I had a good training camp, brought some energy, brought some toughness,'' Downey told Khan. "For some reason, a spot seemed to keep opening up. I just found a way to keep hanging around and hanging around.

“I love this place,” he said of the Red Wings organization. “I won a (Stanley) Cup here.”

It’s true. Aaron Downey’s name is engraved on hockey’s silver chalice, fair and square.

Detroit has been home to some of hockey’s toughest characters.

Need I mention Terrible Ted Lindsay, who was 5’7” but who played 7’5”?

There was Howie Young in the 1960s, whose colorful life off the ice could have sold out Olympia, too.

The 1970s gave us Dennis Polonich, another shrimp whose fists kept him in the NHL longer than his skill alone would have.

You already know about Bob Probert and Joey Kocur, the first tag team in the NHL.

But as the Red Wings got more skilled and talented, as their forwards acquired the maddening ability to pilfer the puck and keep it to their hearts’ content, the need for a box office draw pugilist—and that’s what a lot of those guys were, let’s face it—lessened.

That’s all well and good, but the other NHL teams didn’t get the memo. They looked at the Red Wings, saw no “tough guys” per se, and started taking liberties.

The fans cried foul. They wanted vengeance.

Hence the hiring of skill-deprived players like Downey, May, and Brad Norton in recent years, though you could tell that management’s heart wasn’t really into it.

So, why does Downey think he can become a Red Wing again? It’s like hamburger asking filet mignon for a tryout.

First, Downey dropped 15 pounds.

"I have no idea why I was even carrying that weight around in the first place,'' he said. "I think it might have been an ego thing, just to say you're 225 because you're a heavyweight in the league. Nowadays, with the training, you don't have to be 225 pounds anymore to fight a guy who's 240. I can be 210 pounds—faster, leaner, and meaner."

Second, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said something to Downey that resonated.

"I remember Mike saying last year… that you don't necessarily have to be a heavyweight to play in the NHL, but you got to be quick,'' Downey said. "It's all about finishing your checks, it's all about getting there first and creating that energy.''

So, Downey kept in shape during his year out of hockey, dropped the weight, and worked on his quickness. Cue the theme from “Rocky”; roll the montage.

"It's not necessarily all about fighting, it's about finishing your body checks with speed and being able to get in on a forecheck and make a first body check, so that defenseman doesn't necessarily put that pass where he wants to put it,'' Downey said. "I can do that better than I have my entire career.''

With the Red Wings deeper than an Olympic swimming pool at forward, Downey’s only possible salvation to resurrect his NHL career is to sign a two-way contract, which would put him with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, and hope to get called up during the season.

Downey played in the Red Wings’ exhibition opener in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

He got into a fight in the first period.

Yo, Adrian!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dantonio's Episode Unlikely to Change His Colleagues' Behavior

What happened to MSU football coach Mark Dantonio was sobering, but about as surprising as tomorrow's sunrise. What should be causing chin rubbing and head scratching is why this doesn't happen more often.

The heart attack that Dantonio suffered following Saturday's thrilling victory over Notre Dame---ANY victory over Notre Dame is thrilling in my book---has brought coaches to their public all over the country, mainly in the form of their weekly press conferences.

They've all said the same thing, basically.

They've offered their best wishes for Dantonio and his family. They've acknowledged that this is a tough business that they're in, and full of pressure. They don't deny that they could be the next victim, though they hope not, of course.

Then they've gone back to their 18-hour days and sleeping on the couch in their office and watching film until they're bleary-eyed.

The head football coach at the college and pro levels is like the race car driver. No matter how many of their brethren are struck down, they're right back at it the following weekend.

I'm grateful but amazed that this doesn't happen more often. Coaches in football and basketball, especially, drive themselves bonkers. Train your eyes on the basketball coach next time you're at a game. Watch nothing else. You'll be witness to a series of tantrums that would put a two-year-old to shame.

How more of them don't keel over is a wonder.

Not long after Northwestern football coach Randy Walker tragically passed away in 2006, I was on the phone with then-MSU coach John L. Smith.

Smith gave me the usual somber analysis about his fallen colleague.

That's when I hit him cold.

"But coach, you're not going to change the way you do your job, are you, despite what happened to Coach Walker? You're going to keep working 18-hour days."

Smith sheepishly chuckled and admitted that I was right; he wasn't about to change one iota.

Not to be morbid, but half of the Division I-A coaches could drop dead tomorrow and it wouldn't change how the other half go about their business.

Mark Dantonio was lucky. Sometimes the human heart gives you a warning sign to change your ways, whether it's diet, exercise, smoking, what have you.

Sometimes it just quits on you, leaving a widow and a grieving family.

The procedure that Dantonio underwent---the placement of a stent to open up a closed artery---is fairly common nowadays. As far as heart episodes go, this one was on the lower end of the danger spectrum.

So how will Dantonio respond to this warning sign? Will he take his foot off the gas pedal a little bit? Will his return to work be a return to work as before, or will "normal" take on a new meaning?

But Dantonio isn't the proper gauge of the response to this incident. It happened to him, and you can't hit closer to home than that.

The bigger question is, how will his coaching comrades respond to what happened?

My guess is that they've already responded. They've taken their moment to speak to the local press, maybe say a prayer or two for the MSU coach and his family, and reflect.

Then it's back to the office for another 18 hours of film, practice, and recruiting.

You can take a man out of coaching, but you can't take coaching out of a man.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lions 0-2, But We've Seen Worse 0-2s in Detroit

So, is Matthew Stafford four points better than Shaun Hill? You'd like to think so.

Stafford, the Lions' franchise, sat in the coaches' box at Ford Field Sunday, his ear hooked up to some sort of a gizmo, and he looked down below at the game that broke out midway through the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sadly, he was as useful as the late Bobby Layne, the man whose high school Stafford attended in Texas.

Stafford's injured right wing was up in the nose bleeds of the coaches' box, absolutely of no use to the Lions, who tried mightily to mount a monumental comeback against the Eagles---trailing 35-17 then, in a flash, getting within 35-32 and with the football after recovering an onside kick.

Less than two minutes remained. The Lions had the ball on their own 43---about 25-30 yards away from legitimate field goal range.

Layne would have been licking his chops.

They say ole Bobby never lost a game---time just ran out on him.

That may be so, but time didn't run out on Hill---he just couldn't pull off the heist. Four straight incompletions after the onside kick, the Lions were toast and 0-2, but not as bad an 0-2 as they've been recently.

Could Stafford have done it? Could the second-year kid have somehow marched his team the necessary yards to give Jason Hanson a shot at tying the game?

Hell, could Stafford have gone one better, and actually led the Lions to a game-winning touchdown?

That's what they're asking today, around the water cooler and on Twitter and that's what the topic will be on the afternoon drive time radio shows and into the evening.


What would Matthew have done?

Hill, the gutsy backup who has 1/10th the flash of Stafford, 5/10th of Stafford's talent but 10/10th of the fight, threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions---one in the end zone---and when the stage was the biggest, Shaun didn't run out of time, he ran out of answers, and completed passes.

Make no mistake---the Eagles were reeling. They lost on Opening Sunday and their season flashed before their eyes. A ghoulish Lions comeback was looming. A nasty plane ride back to Philadelphia awaited them. Philly sports talk radio was about to blow up.

The onside kick recovered by the Lions made things awfully uncomfortable for the Eagles. Two Lions TDs and 15 points weren't lovely, but you recover the onside kick and the game is over.

The onside-kicked football hit the Eagles player in the numbers, but the operating word is "hit", not "caught." The Lions pounced on it. Never was momentum, that overused sports word, any bigger.

Oh, to be able to see Stafford in such a situation! That's what the Lions drafted him for---to seize that sort of an opportunity and be the hero. You win enough of those kinds of games and they start saving a spot for you in Canton.

But Stafford was in a Lions t-shirt and several stories up from the field, where the players down below look like electric football guys.

It was Hill who would have to somehow nudge the Lions the needed yards for a field goal try.

Nothing really came close to materializing. Hill's passes weren't all that close to being completed, and what had moments before been a potential league-wide drama unfolding, suddenly turned into another exodus of Lions fans to the exits. If Ford Field was a balloon, it would have been flitting around in the air aimlessly, its air let out.

Bobby Layne wouldn't have thrown four straight INCs. And maybe not even Stafford would have, even though Hill has been in the league longer.

It's tempting to look at the final moments of yesterday's Lions game and declare that the injured Stafford would have led the team to glory.

And, screwy as it may seem, that's progress, folks.

It's progress in Detroit to believe that your starting QB would have pulled off a stunning comeback.

Ever since the miracle against Cleveland last November, Stafford has believers. But he has to keep doing it to legitimize the faith shown in him.

The other question they're asking today is, "Barry Who?"

OK, maybe not to that extreme, but this kid Jahvid Best is something else. All he seems to do is score touchdowns, which is a pretty nice feature to have if you're a football player.

Best, when given some daylight, ran through, around, and by the Eagles like a video game football player. It was a remarkable bounce back from his 14-carry, 20-yard performance of a week ago.

The Lions have scored six TDs and Best has five of them. He turned a simple screen into a 75-yard touchdown romp, and when was the last time a Lions RB pulled that off?

I think you know the answer to that loaded question.

The Lions are 0-2, but have been outscored by just eight points, total. It's not as odiferous of an 0-2 as we've seen in the past.

But Shaun Hill isn't Bobby Layne, and he's not even close to being Matthew Stafford, frankly. Hill is a serviceable backup who is absolutely better than the No. 2 guys the Lions have paraded through town in recent years.

That's progress, too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Many Happy Returns? Not for Lions in Recent Years

First, let me say that I know it’s not a job for the faint of heart, or for anyone who prefers his body with all his bones connected and his stuffing inside, where it belongs.

You don’t have to tell me that returning kicks in the NFL is sport’s version of Russian Roulette.

I know it’s a job that must have originally been given to the loser of a bet, or to the last man to arrive at the field before kickoff.

I’m well aware that the return man is a staph infection, and the 11 men on the kicking team are penicillin.

It’s not an easy gig, by any means. Yet, I find it incumbent to complain about the lack of quality return specialists employed by the Detroit Lions since the 21st century began.

But my crabbing isn’t solely done just to vent or to be contrary. There is a distinct cause and effect between the Lions’ return game and their overall lack of success.

The Lions start every possession in bad field position, it seems. They haven’t had anyone who can move the ball north of the 20 yard line on kickoffs with any consistency since slippery eels like Glyn Milburn and Mel Gray wore Honolulu Blue and Silver.

That was a long time ago.

Punt returning is a similar joke. With the Lions’ return men of late, a fair catch is a victory.

Mel Gray, off to the races yet again, in 1994
(Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images)

It didn’t used to be that way. In fact, even when the Lions were bad before Matt Millen (and they were), at least we had kick returns to look forward to.

Some of the most electrifying kick returners in NFL history have worn the Lions’ colors.

It takes a different type of man to agree to return punts and kickoffs. And when I say different, I mean totally nuts, cuckoo, off his rocker, stark raving mad.

There isn’t anything quite like it in sport, returning kicks, unless you’re going to count being a tennis ball, a hockey puck, or anything else that gets smashed and smacked around a playing surface.

The return man must first show no regard for his own health, or for his anatomy as God originally designed it. He must have the gene of a skydiver who knows his chute was put together by gorillas, yet decides to jump out of the plane anyway.

Let’s take kickoffs, or as they could otherwise be called, Human Demolition Derbies.

The kicking team races as fast as it can down the field, after getting a running start before the kicker’s foot even connects with the ball. We’ll call them Train A.

The return team chugs ahead, sometimes joining hands—perhaps for comfort and support—and strives to gain momentum. We’ll call them Train B.

The return man catches the football and aims to go from zero to 60 in less than five seconds. We’ll call him the Pinball.

Train A and Train B collide, and the Pinball tries to slither through the mayhem and emerge intact. Sometimes he does and he’s the one sprinting toward the end zone, running as if his pants are on fire.

But most times he gets clobbered by the effects of the wreckage from Train A and Train B colliding, and he’ll be the one planted into the turf somewhere near the 20 yard line.

The return man knows he has 11 men trying to get on SportsCenter and trying to impress coaches—all they have to do is clean his clock with a hit designed to knock the wind out of his body and halfway to Timbuktu.

So that’s the kickoff.

It gets worse.

The punt return man is often not the same as the kickoff return man, because usually he’s even crazier.

NFL punters are trained to boot the football high and far. While the rest of his teammates practice real football, the punter spends hours doing nothing but kicking footballs high and far. The higher and farther, the better.

Especially higher.

The higher the kicked ball, the more “hang time” it has, the more time the punter’s 10 comrades on the field have to think of how hard they’re going to blast the returner.

Here’s why the punt returner is even more looney tunes than the kickoff return guy.

The punt returner can’t do a damn thing until the football falls into his arms after its high, far journey through the air. The thundering herd of kicking team members can be heard and felt, yet all the punt return man can do is wait for the football and say some Novenas.

After he catches the football, the punt returner has less than a second, roughly, to figure out where the heck he wants to take it. He is charged with finding holes through which to run, in a split second with 10 screaming banshees running down the field hoping to place him in an NFL Films highlight reel for the ages.

It’s no wonder that you so often see the punt returner actually run backwards initially, toward his own end zone. Call it survival instinct.

I’ve always wanted to know what’s going through a punt returner’s mind as he waits for the football to fall from the sky, knowing what awaits him after he catches it.

So you see, I know it’s not the most desirable of vocations. Returning kicks is like jaywalking at the Indianapolis 500.

But the Lions used to have some great return men.

In the 1960s, there was Bobby Williams and Lem Barney, who was Deion Sanders before Deion was out of diapers.

Barney played into the 1970s, dazzling us with return feats of amazement.

In the 1990s, the Lions had Mel Gray, who was the only return man I’ve seen who was made of mercury. In six seasons with the Lions (1989-94), Gray took seven kicks back for touchdowns, including three kickoffs in ’94 alone.

After Gray came Milburn, who wasn’t quite as effective as Gray, but who was a legitimate threat to break free.

In the 2000s, the Lions have been returning kicks politely. Their return men frequently collapse to the ground easily. They’ve been as elusive as a turtle, and as slippery as flypaper.

In 2010, there’s a new kid back there fielding kickoffs. His name is Stefan Logan and he’s the size of a matchbox. Maybe the Lions are hoping it’ll be 20 yards before anyone finds him, let alone tackles him.

Logan had one decent return last Sunday, just before halftime—and just before the ill-fated sack of QB Matthew Stafford. Beyond that, he didn’t show me much.

None of them have, for more than a decade now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

They're Baaaaack! Red Wings-Blackhawks Again a Premier Rivalry

Some thoughts as the Red Wings get ready to start training camp...

They're separated by about 300 miles but they may as well be joined at the hip this hockey season, and for many more.

When it comes to the world of sports, the Detroiter and the Chicagoan don't have much use for each other. Much of the vitriol comes from the cities' teams always finding themselves in the same division.

In basketball, the Bulls and the Pistons have had some of the most infamous knock-down drag outs in NBA history. Same division.

In baseball, the Tigers and White Sox scramble to beat each other every year, even if it is for the right to finish second to the Minnesota Twins. Same division.

In football, Lions-Bears matchups date back to FDR, George Halas as a player, and leather helmets. Same division.

In hockey, the for-too-long dormant Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry has been awoken, and it's got the countenance of John McEnroe on the wrong end of a linesman's call.

Same division, natch.

Back in the day, Red Wings-Blackhawks used to be Red Wings-Black Hawks. Then someone in the Chicago hockey organization, many years ago, decided to consolidate the team nickname to the one word "Blackhawks."

But it hardly mattered how you spelled it---the Chicago hockey franchise was barely relevant for most of the 2000s.

It was during this time when the Red Wings routinely beat the brains out of the Black Hawks/Blackhawks. They were in the same division but not in the same class.

The Red Wings started winning Stanley Cups once again in 1997---won four of them to date---while the Blackhawks were so bad off they even traded their favorite son, Chris Chelios, to Detroit in 1999.

I know hockey doesn't always get the love from the fans or the media, so allow me to remind you that the Blackhawks trading Chelios to the Red Wings was akin to the Red Sox throwing up their hands and dealing Carl Yastrzemski to the Yankees at the trading deadline.

Chelios went on to win two Cups wearing the blood red jersey of the Red Wings, while the Blackhawks struggled to find color photographs of the last team in their history to hoist hockey's silver chalice.

The Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry was among the league's best, once upon a time.

Maybe it sprouted in the playoffs in the mid-1960s, when the Red Wings assigned a minimally-talented forward/defenseman named Bryan Watson with the task of shadowing Blackhawks' star left winger Bobby Hull.

Watson was in Hull's face, chest, hips, and likely jostled him for space at the urinal during that playoff series, won by the Red Wings---largely because Hull was severely limited by Watson's blanket coverage.

It was Hull himself who had a name for his shadow Watson.

"Super Pest," Hull called Watson.

"Bugsy," Gordie Howe and Andy Bathgate of the Red Wings called their teammate, and that nickname stuck.

The rivalry went into hibernation in the 1970s---mainly because the Red Wings were the bad team---but was reborn in the 1980s, when the two teams met in the playoffs in 1985, '87, and '89. The Blackhawks won two of the three series.

They played each other twice in the playoffs in the 1990s---the Blackhawks winning in 1992, and the Red Wings winning in the Conference Finals in 1995.

Shortly thereafter, the Blackhawks went into the tank, while the Red Wings became a mini-dynasty.

They had gone 14 years without seeing each other in the post-season until the 2009 Conference Finals, won by the Red Wings. It was a series in which the young Blackhawks, many of whom had never experienced the NHL playoffs before, were schooled on post-season hockey by their elder statesmen opponents.

In 2010, their lesson learned, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Welcome to The Rivalry---Part III.

We started with Bugsy Watson draped over Bobby Hull. Now we have young, exciting forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and company as defending champs, going up against the older, still proud, still-damn-good Red Wings.

As if Detroit and Chicago sports fans didn't have enough reasons to hate each other.

This is going to be a doozy for the NHL for years to come. Rumors of the Red Wings' death have been greatly exaggerated.

Thanks to a second round KO last spring, the Red Wings have had much more time off than they're used to getting. It got so weird that superstar center Henrik Zetterberg got married to a beautiful Swedish TV personality, and was STILL hunkering to get back to Detroit to get into hockey mode.

The Red Wings are rested, re-energized, and deeper than they were last year. They've added veteran center Mike Modano, veteran defenseman Ruslan Salei, and have welcomed back forward Jiri Hudler after one year playing in Russia.

The rookie goalie Jimmy Howard is now simply goalie Jimmy Howard, a playoff series win under his belt.

No one is injured (yet). All-World defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom not only is back for another kick at the can at age 40, he's another who enjoyed his long summer and who can't wait to get started.

The Blackhawks lost some key personnel from their Cup-winning outfit, but turnover is inevitable in today's salary cap world. Make no mistake---they're still a very good team.

Marty Turco is the new Blackhawks goalie, and you could do worse than to plug him in.

It almost makes you long for the days when the Central Division teams played each other eight times a season.

But we'll have to be satisfied with six, which promise to be six of the most raucous, cantankerous, thrilling regular season games in the NHL---this season and beyond.

Red Wings-Blackhawks is back as a legitimate NHL rivalry.

The War of I-94.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Win or Lose, Stafford's Shoulder Just as Messed Up

Here's all you need to know about the state of pro football in Detroit.

In San Francisco, when it comes to the 49ers, they have "The Catch."

In Detroit, when it comes to the Lions, we have "The Catch?"

Contrary to the belief of the rabble rousers on sports talk radio, the Internet, and around the water cooler, the most cataclysmic thing that happened in Sunday's Lions-Bears game---if you're a Lions fan---wasn't The Catch? by Calvin Johnson in the waning seconds.

Whether Johnson's leaping, almost-heroic effort was a touchdown or not in your eyes, it really doesn't mean a hill of beans.

Even if Johnson had completed his due process of catchdom, even if the Lions in turn would have ended their 20-game road losing streak, so what?

Quarterback Matthew Stafford's shoulder would have been just as mangled.

We can talk about The Catch? until we're Honolulu Blue in the face, but it's wasted breath.

A) The call isn't being reversed. This one won't even make it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's desk. This wasn't a Jim Joyce situation. Joyce misinterpreted the difference between safe and out when he yanked a perfect game from Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. The game officials in Chicago correctly interpreted a silly rule.

B) Stafford's throwing shoulder is mangled.

C) And the shoulder of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is mangled.

D) See B and C.

The Lions fan rides a rollercoaster every Sunday and one Thursday every football season. Only this time, yesterday in Chicago, the rollercoaster became the Demon Drop.

For in about 60 seconds of game action, the Lions went from the prospects of going into halftime leading 14-3 with their starting QB healthy, to hanging on to dear life to a 14-13 lead, and their franchise quarterback on the shelf for weeks.

Just. Like. That.

That's how long it took for the Bears to turn a Humpty Dumpty screen pass into an 89-yard touchdown romp, and for Stafford to get pile-driven into the turf, fumbling the football---a fumble that the Bears converted into a field goal.

The sight of Stafford wincing and struggling to his feet after the sack by Julius Peppers, the QB's right arm hanging motionless as he walked gingerly to the sideline, was enough to cause the same reaction as if you deeply inhaled a rancid container of milk.

Stafford's arm was made for slinging, not for a sling.

But that's where it was when he came out for the second half.

To Lions fans, seeing Stafford's arm in a sling is like opera fans seeing Pavarotti come out after intermission with duct tape over his mouth.

If the game was held in Ford Field, the fans would have demanded a half-game refund.

Stafford's understudy, the veteran Shaun Hill, is better than most second-string guys the Lions have carried recently. Hill has a 10-6 record as an NFL starter, and his TD-to-INT ratio was 23-11 going into yesterday's game.

That's all well and good, so it's not like the Lions are entrusting the quarterbacking to someone like, well, Drew Stanton. or Dan Orlovsky. Or J.T. O'Sullivan.

But Hill isn't Stafford. The football season is now officially on pause in Detroit. The Lions have a replacement player at the worst possible position.

If you're keeping score at home, or at Beaumont Hospital, that's two knee injuries and two shoulder injuries for Stafford in a season plus one game in the NFL.

The Lions have played 17 games in the Stafford Era, and he's missed six-and-a-half of them.

That's too high a percentage of absences.

And that percentage is about to fatten. Stafford will surely miss Sunday's game against the Eagles, and likely one or two more beyond that.

Is he too fragile, already? Is he the (God forbid) Carlos Guillen of the Lions?

That's not to determine right now. It's far too early. What if Stafford doesn't miss a game for two more years? You never know.

Stafford's injury once again puts left tackle Jeff Backus in the spotlight. Many fans would like to put Backus under another kind of light---the kind produced by a magnifying glass and the sun.

Backus told reporters how awful he feels that he let Peppers blow by him for the fateful sack.

"To think that (Stafford) got hurt because of my man sacking him makes it 1,000 times worse," was among the quotes attributed to Backus in the post-game accounting.

Umpire Joyce felt awful after denying Galarraga his perfect game, and it worked; Tigers fans showed him some love the next afternoon.

Don't hold your breath waiting for a similar reaction by Lions fans to Backus, the 10-year tackle who's been able to hold a starting NFL job simply because the Lions haven't had anyone else. His longevity certainly hasn't been due to a career laden with Pro Bowl appearances.

But in fairness to Backus, this was Julius Peppers we're talking about, not some no-name rummy. And Lord knows those rummies have had field days at the Lions' expense.

The Lions without Stafford are Eggs Benedict without the Hollandaise sauce; a bath without bubbles.

The season is on pause until Stafford returns. The games will count in the standings, of course, but does anyone really care? The Lions weren't going to the playoffs, anyway. But they're not nearly as much fun to watch without No. 9 behind center.

Now, a little more about The Catch?

The NFL's rule regarding the "process of the catch" reminds me of baseball's infamous "pine tar" rule. Remember that?

George Brett of the Royals hits a seemingly go-ahead homer in the ninth inning in Yankee Stadium in 1983. But Yankees manager Billy Martin asks the umpires to invoke the pine tar rule, which governs how much of the sticky stuff can be smeared onto a bat.

The umps make the measurement, determine that there is, indeed, too much pine tar, and they call Brett out---causing the most famous on-field meltdown by any player in any sport, bar none.

But MLB relented eventually, and, acknowledging that the pine tar rule was embarrassingly silly, gave Brett his home run back. The two teams finished the Royals victory weeks later.

What happened to the Lions and Calvin Johnson should never happen again. The definition of a catch in the end zone should change to the more sensible and reasonable, "both feet in bounds with possession, ball breaking the plane of the goal line."

If the football pops loose AFTER the above requirements are met, doesn't matter. It's a catch.

It should be no different than determining whether a ball carrier has broken the plane of the goal line with the football. As soon as that invisible plane is "broken," the officials signal touchdown.

The officials got a wrong rule right in the case of Calvin Johnson v. Chicago Bears.

Time to change the laws.

Yet, that's small potatoes. As happy as the Lions would have been to win the game, as much as the fans would have loved it, you can't smile and cheer forever.

Sooner or later, it would have been time to remember the sight of Matthew Stafford, his golden arm in a flimsy sling, the Lions' season on pause until he returns.

So you see, it's not really about The Catch? in Detroit.

It's about the sack that hurt the shoulder that put the golden arm in the flimsy sling.

The Catch?


The Sack.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Stafford, Lions Have Best QB Prospect in 50 Years

The football helmet was suddenly an airborne missile. It was flung across the locker room, narrowly missing its target—the head of the defiant quarterback who just helped orchestrate a defeat of numbing magnitude.

The helmet bounced off the wall, its hurler steaming mad, loaded for bear.

The Lions of the 1960s were a schizophrenic bunch. They had a swarming, mauling defense that, in some years during the decade, was among the very best in the NFL.

But the Lions were also a plodding offensive unit who seemed to play with one arm tied behind their backs.

And one of the leaders of the Lions defense got fed up with the smug, kiss-my-ass attitude of the quarterback in the wake of a crushing defeat in Green Bay in 1962, and took it upon himself to use Milt Plum’s head as a target for helmet-flinging.

Alex Karras was fit to be tied. The Lions had a big game in the palms of their muddy hands on the Packers’ home field, and needed only to run the clock down and punt the football deep into Green Bay territory—leaving the Pack little time and a whole lot of real estate to traverse.

But Plum was ordered to try a pass to get one last first down.

The field was sloppy. The pass call was risky at best, downright stupid at worst.

The Lions’ intended receiver slipped and fell down. The Packers’ Herb Adderly intercepted, and sloshed his way into field goal range. Moments later, Paul Hornung kicked the football square and true and just like that, the Lions were losers.

After the game, in the Lions’ morgue of a locker room, Karras demanded to know who called such a boneheaded play.

Plum told him that it wasn’t any of Karras’s business.

That’s when Alex lost it and threw his helmet across the room, missing Plum’s noggin by inches.

Such was the Lions defense’s distrust and ill will toward the incompetent offenses back in the day.

The Lions of ’62 might have been one of the best teams in NFL history not to qualify for the post-season. They were 11-3. The Packers finished 13-1—their only loss being a shellacking put on them by the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

But if the Lions hadn’t taken leave of their senses in Green Bay on that dreary October afternoon, both they and the Packers would have finished 12-2, and a playoff would have been needed to determine the Western Division winner.

In 1962, there was no Wild Card. If you wanted to play past the regular season, you had to win the division. So teams with records like 11-3 were just as out of it as teams who were 3-11.

Just the Lions’ rotten luck!

The distrust of the offense by the defense would continue for years after that horrific loss in Green Bay—a loss that might have stolen from the Lions a chance to play for the World Championship in December.

“I was absolutely violent,” Karras related about the 1962 loss in Green Bay to the Free Press’s George Puscas years later. “Joe Schmidt was absolutely violent,” Karras added, referring to the Hall of Fame linebacker.

“On the plane ride home, it was so bad that even the writers, who were usually like pall bearers to us, were trying to cheer us up,” Karras told Puscas.

“After that loss, we had the feeling that no matter how good we were, something or someone was going to ruin it for us.”

For nearly 50 years, Karras’s words have rung true.

For almost every one of those years, it’s been the Lions’ lack of a competent NFL quarterback that’s done them in—someone that even the defense can trust and get behind.

The NFL today is a quarterback’s league. If you have one, you have a chance. If you don’t, the season is 16 nervous breakdowns.

The competent NFL quarterback has to be confident but not cocky; strong-armed but deft; mobile but elusive; unflappable but focused.

He has to be the steadying hand on the team’s rudder—the reliable captain who can navigate the ship through the choppiest of waters. His teammates have to look at him and be reassured, not darting for the life jackets.

You want to win in the NFL? Then you’d better have a quarterback who everyone believes in, from the top of the organizational chart to the last man on the practice squad.

The quarterback is the central nervous system of his football team.

When he looks at his teammates in the huddle, they have to see General Patton and Wyatt Earp and Muhammad Ali, all rolled into one, staring back.

In the NFL, you can’t hide not having a good quarterback. You’d be better off trying to cover a 600-pound gorilla with a bikini.

For 48 years, from the moment in Green Bay when Alex Karras, Joe Schmidt, and the rest of the Detroit defense wanted to eviscerate the team’s quarterback, the Lions have been unable to find a signal caller worth—to steal from the old Vice President John Nance Garner—a warm bucket of piss.

Another NFL season begins Sunday. The Lions are in Chicago, to play their annual game in the Second City against their longtime rivals, the Bears. Chicago has been a rare place where the Lions have actually found some success in recent years. The Lions won there in 2004 and 2007—pretty heady stuff for a team that handles the road like a rear wheel drive car in wintertime.

Behind center will be Matthew Stafford, the Lions’ best stab at filling the quarterback role since Bobby Layne wore No. 22 and played without a face mask.

Stafford is the unchallenged, unquestioned leader of the Lions, in just his second season. He’s the closest thing to Elway and Montana and Favre and Manning that the franchise has ever had. By far.

Stafford is handsome, football smart, possessor of a cannon for an arm, and with leadership skills beyond his tender age. He has everyone’s trust in the Lions organization.

The Lions haven’t had a real, genuine NFL quarterback in over 50 years and this kid Stafford is going to make this town go crazy.

His coaches speak glowingly of the progress he’s made from Year One to the dawn of Year Two. They talk of him and you get the feeling that they want to let you in on a secret that they’re keeping.

You get the feeling that they want to tell you that Matthew Stafford is going to be, sooner rather than later, the very best quarterback in the entire NFL.

The coaches almost can’t contain themselves when they talk about Stafford.

Stafford has more offensive weapons this year, including a dynamite running back (Jahvid Best), and he’s developing a rapport with ace receiver Calvin Johnson.

Matthew Stafford is going to make Detroit go crazy.

You get that feeling.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Forcier's Pity Party Should Make Him an Ex-Wolverine

The beaten down quarterback sat all by his lonesome, a towel draped over his head, perhaps in shame. It was as if a force field was around him, because there wasn't a teammate within 10 yards of him, on either side.

On the sidelines, teammates of the beaten down quarterback laughed and smiled, whooped and hollered. Their football program needed a big win on opening weekend in the worst way, and they had gotten it. After months of QB speculation and the bitter taste of 8-16 over the past two seasons and the pall of NCAA violations and the alleged uncertainty of the coach's future, it's likely that the jocularity on the sidelines was just plain relief.

The scoreboard read Michigan 30, Connecticut 10.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz!

Had you tuned into the broadcast late, you would have thought that the beaten down quarterback had just thrown a boatload of interceptions and because of his ineffectiveness, the team had been let down.

But the beaten down quarterback hadn't even played.

Instead of joining in the frivolity, instead of standing in front, on the sidelines, shouting encouragement and congratulating his fellow signal caller, Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier chose to make the Wolverines' opening day win over UConn all about...Tate Forcier.

Maybe Forcier wasn't pouting. Maybe he wasn't feeling sorry for himself. Maybe he was silently happy and busting buttons over the Wolverines' win and over QB Denard Robinson's record-setting afternoon.

But it sure didn't look like it.

The ABC cameras were all too eager to show us shot after shot of Forcier sitting on top of an aluminum bench, far away from his teammates, as commentators Sean McDonough and Matt Millen took notice.

The camera shots started coming at us well into the second half, when Michigan's fate against the Huskies looked certain. Forcier, just weeks after his wings were stripped from his blue helmet for being less than a team player, appeared to be holding a private pity party.

Immediately after the game, the rumors began. Forcier would be leaving Michigan, transferring to a school that would, presumably, hand him a starting QB role on a silver platter.

Forcier's dad tried to quell the transfer talk. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, at his Monday presser, downplayed Forcier's body language. Rodriguez acknowledged Forcier's disappointment at not starting Saturday's game---a decision the coach supposedly made the day before the game---and said he expects such disappointment. Then the coach mocked the brouhaha made by the TV folks.

I have no idea what, if anything, was said to Forcier in the wake of his failure to join in the celebration on Saturday. Maybe the kid was indeed spoken to.

But here's the thing: Robinson is clearly more of a Rodriguez-type quarterback for the offense RichRod wants the Wolverines to run. And I don't believe for a second that Rodriguez made his decision as late as he says he did.

Rodriguez, it says here, knew for quite some time that he was going to start Robinson. I just don't think he wanted Denard to have too much time to think about it. I think it was by design that Robinson got the short notice, and it worked out brilliantly.

Back to Forcier.

Tate Forcier isn't the quarterback for Rodriguez's offense, and there's no crime in that---on the part of either party. But if Forcier is serious about transferring, then he'd better know that it's one thing to want to transfer, and quite another for another school to want you.

You don't think other programs might think twice about taking Forcier in, after his towel-draped pouting jag last Sarurday? You think they want a kid who, if he doesn't get his way, runs to his room, locks the door, and plops onto his bed, sobbing?

Forcier needs to grow up.

This young man is going to encounter loads more of disappointments in his life. There can only be one quarterback on the football field. And as he starts his career in the work force after college, he'll find that there can only be one candidate hired for the jobs he seeks.

And he won't always be the guy who gets picked.

So Forcier is disappointed about not starting at quarterback for Michigan. I get it.

But, tough!

Rodriguez ought to kick him off the team. What use does the coach have for Forcier? The kid is clearly not in the plans; at least, that's what appears to be the case.

Forcier told some media types after Saturday's game that he's as good as gone from Ann Arbor.

Fine. No hard feelings.

But if he thinks that his behavior was a good marketing tool for his admittance into another major college football program, then Tate Forcier has even more to learn than I thought.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Michigan-Ohio State TWICE In Football? Never!

Some things are simply meant to be done once per year.

Thanksgiving. Christmas. Cleaning out the garage. Flossing.

And Michigan playing Ohio State in football.

What’s this I hear about the Big Ten/Twelve?

What’s this I hear that thanks to the new divisional alignment, Michigan and Ohio State have been separated, playing in two different divisions? What’s this I hear that because of this heresy, Michigan and Ohio State may sometimes play twice—once at the end of the year, as usual, and again the following week in the Big Ten/Twelve Championship Game?

U-M/OSU, Part II—after a one-week intermission?

Say it ain’t so, Jim!

Jim is Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten/Twelve. He’s the screwball who is presiding over this trampling of tradition.

Delany says he was afraid that, by keeping Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, the two schools would never get a chance to play for the conference championship.

Two words for you, Jim.

OK, I can’t use those two, so I’ll use these: WHO CARES?

Let’s get something straight about Wolverines and Buckeyes clashing on a gridiron.

It’s almost less about winning than it is about peeing in the other team’s Wheaties.

In Michigan-Ohio State, the loser feels worse than the winner feels good. For 364 days, the losing team has its insides gnarled. It’s 51 weeks and six days of cloudy skies and wind and rain. Your team loses and it’ll be a year, at least, until you’re able to crack a grin.

There’s nothing worse than being the loser of Michigan-Ohio State on the last football weekend in November. So you can imagine how the Wolverines fans are doing nowadays, their team unable to beat the Buckeyes more than once over the past nine years.

I submit that when you win a Michigan-Ohio State game, you feel little more than relief and satisfaction. When you lose, you feel like you just swallowed lye.

So what could be sweeter than to have Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, if for no other reason than to give one school the chance to ruin the season for the other?

That’s what Michigan-Ohio State has often been about—pouring sugar in the other team’s gas tank.

Nothing can do that better than to play the other guys with a chance to knock them out of contention for the Big Ten/Twelve title.

Let’s face it: The scales have tipped in the conference. It’s no longer the Big Two/Little Eight anymore. Ohio State is still elite, but Michigan is scuffling.

So the chances of Michigan and Ohio State meeting as divisional champs seem to be dwindling, though it could still occur on occasion—setting up the scenario where the schools would play twice in one season.

Doesn’t matter. There should NEVER be a scenario where Michigan and Ohio State play twice in the same year, much less on successive weeks. Let the loser feel lousy for a year!

On the other hand, there should ALWAYS be the possibility that Michigan or Ohio State could ruin the other’s chances of being divisional champion, thus knocking them out of a conference championship contest.

I get the winner-take-all camp, who desires to see The Game still have a chance at being a conference decider. But under the new alignment, that would necessitate there being TWO The Games.

For whatever reason, Delany and others looked at the tradition of having Michigan playing Ohio State on the season’s last weekend as being an “either or” thing. In other words, “You can have your ‘The Game’ on the last week, but only if we split the teams into separate divisions.’"


Why not have both?

Why not keep the schools in the same division, AND keep The Game on the final weekend?

So Michigan will never play Ohio State for the conference championship under that scenario.

Once again, WHO CARES?

Either school will savor a Big Ten/Twelve Championship whether it comes against Iowa or Purdue or Nebraska. It would be the scrumptious dessert after a meal of Wolverine or Buckeye the week prior.

And if a scuffling Michigan or Ohio State is able to derail the other’s championship dream for that season?


Look, I know that ALL conference games count in the conference standings, regardless if they’re played against divisional rivals or not. And yes, that means that a team can still rain on another’s parade from the other division.

But how about when both Michigan and Ohio State end up on even footing—and yes, it will happen again. When that happens, if they’re both in the same division, things are likely to come down to the winner of Michigan-Ohio State being division champs, and moving on to the conference title game.

Loser gets those gnarled insides. As tradition dictates.

You’d have Michigan play Ohio State from separate divisions, and the loser getting another crack at it a week later?

It should never work that way.

Did Nixon get another try at Kennedy a week after the 1960 presidential election? Did they hold another Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony a week later so Susan Lucci could have another shot?

Hey, did MLB allow the Red Sox to play the Yankees again after Bucky Dent broke the Beantowners’ hearts?

Michigan should play Ohio State once, and once only, in football every year.

The winner can move on. The loser can bounce off the walls for a year, for all I care.

You win that game, you feel great. You lose it, your world comes to an end for 364 days.

That’s what Michigan-Ohio State football is all about. It’s “See ya next year,” not “See ya next week.”

You can’t have a proper Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry if the loser gets to feel better about themselves in 168 hours.

Delany coughed up the football on this one, I’m sorry.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Chelios's New Role Par for the Red Wings' Course

The Detroit Red Wings do a lot of things well—win hockey games, take care of their players, represent the Original Six with aplomb. They show up to the playoffs every year and it’s never as an afterthought, like someone slipping into an elevator just before the doors close.

Four Stanley Cups since 1997, plus some close calls that could have brought that number to five or six.

Now the Red Wings are becoming a feeder program for team and league executives.

Brendan Shanahan, an NHL Vice President.

Steve Yzerman, GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And now Chris Chelios, the newest Red Wings front office man.

It’s not likely to end there.

What might defenseman Nick Lidstrom be asked to do, when he hangs up his skates—assuming he returns to Sweden? The NHL could use Lidstrom in their hierarchy, perhaps as an ambassador or liaison to hockey in Sweden or elsewhere.

You think Kris Draper will just fade away? I can see him as a coach or in the front office in Grand Rapids, a few years hence.

I can just picture Chris Osgood traipsing to Traverse City every September to work with the team’s young goalies.

The Red Wings aren’t just a hockey team, they are a hockey institution, literally. It’s where you go to be educated about the game and contribute to hockey society after your playing days are done.

Joe Louis Arena may as well add some ivy onto its old brick walls and a build a campus bookstore and student lounge inside. Players shouldn’t get a playbook, they should get a syllabus.

Look at GM Ken Holland.

Holland was a struggling minor league goalie when the Red Wings secured him from the Hartford Whalers organ-EYE-zay-shun (this is hockey; gotta pronounce it correctly). In 1985, Holland finished his brief NHL career with the Red Wings, who saw something in his intuition for the game and groomed him as a scout, starting in his home turf of Western Canada.

One thing led to another, and before long Holland was back in Detroit, learning how to be a hockey manager (hockey people don’t say GM) under Scotty Bowman, no less.

After Bowman had held the dual roles of coach and manager from 1994-97, it was decided that Holland was ready to take over the managing.

The transition was seamless; the Red Wings won another Cup in 1998, Holland’s first year as manager.

Look at assistant GM Jim Nill.

Nill was acquired as a player late in his career, and when he retired, the Wings again saw something and made Nill an offer to stay in the organ-EYE-zay-shun.

Before long, after also going the scouting route, Nill ended up as Holland’s right hand man and as the Red Wings’ draft specialist.

Look at advanced scouting director Mark Howe.

Howe joined the Red Wings in 1992 as a 37-year-old geezer looking for another kick at the can, after two failed Finals appearances with the Flyers.

The Red Wings made the Finals in Howe’s last year as a player (1995) but were swept by the Devils.

No matter. Howe wasn’t allowed to fade away, either. The Red Wings made him a scout, too (see a pattern here?), and true to form, Howe was eventually promoted to advanced scouting director, which means he’s in charge of scouting upcoming Red Wings opponents in the regular season and playoffs.

Howe, thanks to the initial post-playing job offer, wears four championship rings, albeit all gained in Armani instead of on skates.

Look at advanced scout Pat Verbeek.

Howe was Verbeek’s boss, essentially. Patty Verbeek, known as The Little Ball of Hate as a player, was in the Red Wings’ scouting department ever since retiring from the NHL several years ago, until Yzerman hired him away to work for the Lightning.

The highest-profile examples of this Red Wings-as-an-institution of higher hockey learning thing of course are Shanahan, who’s doing marvelous work for the NHL, and Yzerman, who’s gaining his footing as the Lightning’s new man in charge.

Tuesday, Chelios officially retired as a player and joined the Red Wings front office. His role is still being defined, as Yzerman’s was when he retired in 2006. But Holland said Chelios will advise Holland, will advise coach Mike Babcock, and will work with the team’s defenseman prospects. For now.

Holland is still a relatively young guy—not in his 60s yet. He won’t budge from Detroit anytime soon, but the Red Wings are starting to send former players from the ice to the executive washrooms of their own team, other teams and even the NHL itself.

It’s yet another affirmation of the Red Wings’ place as a beacon of hockey smarts and its status as the best organ-EYE-zay-shun in the NHL, by far.