It’s another anniversary that I cannot believe has encompassed so many years–25 of them, as a matter of fact.
A quarter century has passed since the Red Wings iced the absolute worst team in the mostly glorious history of their venerable franchise.
Put an NC-17 rating on this post. Tell the kiddies to leave the room. You might want to make sure any senior citizens who may be floating about have taken their medication.
I’m going to tell you a story of a hockey team that stumbled through a season of horrors, made even worse because before it began, the Red Wings actually thought they had put themselves back on the map after so many years of drudgery.
Let’s step into the wayback machine, to the summer of 1985. Consider yourself warned.
The Red Wings were coming off two straight playoff appearances, but they were token. The NHL let the top four teams in each of the four divisions make the playoffs in those days, regardless of record. And it just so happened that the Red Wings were in a division that contained the Toronto Maple Leafs, a.k.a. the Toronto Maple Laughs.
The Red Wings couldn’t help but finish ahead of the Leafs in 1984 and ‘85, despite the fact that the Red Wings’ records in both years were nowhere near .500.
As a result, the Red Wings crashed the playoff party with teams that should have been golfing by February, if it weren’t for the Maple Leafs.
In 1984, the Red Wings were knocked out in the best-of-five first round, 3-1, by St. Louis. The next year, the Blackhawks blasted them out in three straight, every game a blowout.
That should have been a red flag.
Well, it was in a way, because GM Jimmy Devellano was given carte blanche to sign as many free agents as he could find. The Red Wings went on a spending spree, signing college free agents to lavish contracts—trivia answers like Ray Staszak and Tim Friday and Dale Krentz—as well as aging NHL veterans.
Owner Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough was being invested in question marks and has beens, but Devellano was told to spend, so he spent.
From the NHL ranks, the Red Wings signed a big forward named Warren Young from Pittsburgh. Young was coming off a career season in which he scored 40 goals—playing on a line with Mario Lemieux. That was another red flag that was missed, for the Red Wings had no one on their roster in Lemieux’s galaxy, let alone area code.
Also added were veteran defensemen Harold Snepsts and Mike McEwen.
Ilitch proudly told the media that his team was “going for it”, meaning gunning for the Norris Division crown.
The rest of the teams in the league scowled and crabbed, complaining that Devellano’s contract offers were falsely driving up the market.
There was a new coach, too—veteran hockey man Harry Neale, whose claim to fame was having coached the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association, and leading the Cinderella Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982.
Spirits were high in Detroit for their hockey team. Sports Illustrated, no less, did a big spread on the Red Wings just prior to the season opener.
Then they dropped the puck, and before too long it was evident that Devellano’s spending spree was going horribly wrong.
On opening night, the Red Wings blew a big lead at home and tied Minnesota, 6-6. Another red flag.
Two nights later, also at home, the Red Wings got hammered by Boston, 9-2.
Two nights after that, it was off to Buffalo, where they lost to the Sabres, 6-1.
After a 4-3 loss at home to Winnipeg, the Red Wings traveled to Minnesota and the North Stars laid a licking on them, to the tune of 10-1.
Chicago came in and beat the Red Wings, 6-2. Then Vancouver visited and waltzed out of Detroit with a 5-0 win.
After nine games, the Red Wings were 0-8-1, having surrendered an astounding 58 goals—more than six per game.
Yes, it really was as bad as the record indicated. The Red Wings didn’t play defense; they all but wore matador costumes and waved opposing teams toward their net. Which would have been halfway sufferable if they had some decent goaltending, but the Detroit netminders—Eddie Mio and Corrado Micalef primarily—were Swiss cheese on skates.
Neale, by the end of October, wore the same tired, shellshocked look on his face during every post-mortem as he tried to explain away another blowout defeat.
By mid-December, the Red Wings had given up 10 goals in a game on four separate occasions.
The free agents were all busts. Young proved that he wasn’t half the player the Red Wings thought he was, sans Lemieux. Snepsts tore up a knee in December. McEwen was useless and was traded just after Christmas. The college kids were, well, college kids.
There was one college free agent signed in the summer of 1985, however, who made something of himself in the NHL—a kid from RPI named Adam Oates.
The day before New Year’s Eve, the Red Wings put Neale out of his misery, firing him in what was widely considered a mercy killing.
The blend of rookie free agents, veteran free agents, and holdovers from the previous years was more dysfunctional than the guest lineup for a season’s worth of Jerry Springer shows.
To replace Neale, Devellano hired Brad Park, the veteran, Hall of Fame defenseman who finished his brilliant career with two years as a Red Wing.
Park told folks close to him that he could “have this thing turned around in six weeks.”
Brad Park made a much better defenseman than he did a prognosticator—and a coach.
The Red Wings were 8-23-4 when Park took over. Six weeks later, when Park boasted he’d have things “turned around,” the Red Wings had compiled a 4-15-1 record under their new coach.
On March 14, in Edmonton, the Oilers drilled the Red Wings, 12-3—the fifth time the team surrendered double digits in goals in a single game.
When the season mercifully ended, the Red Wings had won 17, lost 57, and tied six. They gave up a mind-boggling 415 goals—more than five a game.
Not long after the season, Devellano fired Park, too. Jimmy D and the ill-equipped coach didn’t get along at all.
“We were like oil and water,” Devellano explained after giving Park the ziggy.
That summer, Devellano bended the rules and recruited the St. Louis Blues coach to come to Detroit to truly “get things turned around.”
Jacques Demers bounced into town, full of vim, vigor, and a French-Canadian accent never before heard out of a Red Wings’ coach’s mouth.
Demers, with his short, cropped hair, eyeglasses and mustache, was a trenchcoat away from looking like Inspector Clouseau.
But Demers did get things turned around; one year after the 1985-86 debacle, the Red Wings made the first of two straight appearances in the Conference Finals.
It’s a testament to Ilitch that he stuck with Devellano despite the train wreck that was the 1985-86 season. Lots of GMs would have been told to go away and never return after such a misjudgment.
But Devellano was allowed to stay and try it again—the right way, via the draft and with eagle-eyed scouting.
The rest, as they say, is history.
So the next time you watch today’s Red Wings play the game with the typical skill and grace seen around these parts for the last two decades, remember that 25 years ago, the Joe Louis Arena ice surface was soiled by a team so bad, the organization could have charged folks to leave and made a mint.