Sunday, February 19, 2012

Red Wings Draw "21" In More Ways Than One

Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena, as the clock’s final few minutes ticked off, 21,000-plus fans stood and shouted, as if they were at a blackjack table at one of the city’s casinos.

“Twenty-one!! Twenty-one!!”

It was a night where no one left early to beat the traffic. The score was out of hand, but that was the point.

The Red Wings were about to put the Dallas Stars away and, thus, ring up their 21st straight home victory.

Just the latest accomplishment by the best franchise in pro sports.

And appropriate that the chant be “21!”—because that’s also how many consecutive seasons the hockey team from Detroit will have qualified for the playoffs after this 82-game season is in the books.

I wonder if we truly appreciate and understand what it is that we’re seeing here with this Red Wings—as they say in Canada—"organ-eye-ZAY-shun."

It’s not just that the Red Wings qualify for the postseason as reliably as Punxsutawney Phil rises from his hole every February 2nd. It’s that the Red Wings don’t just make the playoffs—they annually expect to be the last team standing in June, hoisting the Stanley Cup over their sweaty heads.

With the exception of 1991, when the streak began, there hasn’t really been a year among the 21 straight playoff appearances when the Red Wings haven’t been in the discussion as serious Cup contenders. Oh, they’ve been more serious in some years than others; but for the most part, you would be remiss to exclude them from at least the Final Four conversation.

There have been first-round disappointments and Finals heartbreaks, and wins and losses in series in between. But can you think of a spring when you didn’t think they could go all the way?

It has no precedent in sports, really. The Celtics of the 1960s were an amazing unit that racked up championships like dirty dishes at a diner during the lunch rush. But even the Celts didn’t make the playoffs 21 years in a row.

The Yankees of the 1940s and into the ‘60s were almost annual World Series pre-season picks. But they had some down years mixed in, when they weren’t a factor in the pennant race.

Les Canadiens du Montreal—winners of the most Stanley Cups on Earth—never put together two decades straight of championship-caliber teams.

The NFL’s dominant teams are neatly segmented into decades. The team of the 1950s (Cleveland); the 1960s (Green Bay); the 1970s (Pittsburgh); the 1980s (San Francisco); the 1990s (Dallas); and the 2000s (New England). But no 20 years of consecutive excellence for any of them.

What haven’t the Red Wings provided us since 1991?

Record-setting seasons? Check (the 1995-96 club won a league-record 62 games).

Stanley Cup Finals appearances? Check (six of them, including four wins).

Individual stars/future Hall of Famers? Check, check, check and dozens more checks.

Player development? Check (an unbelievable amount of the Red Wings’ key contributors were drafted in the lower rounds; Tomas Holmstrom, who recently played in his 1,000th game and who has 240 goals, was a 10th-round draft pick).

Stable, competent management? Check (the hierarchy of owner Mike Ilitch, VP Jimmy Devellano, GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill have been working together since the Reagan administration).

Last spring, however, it looked like some of the Red Wings’ luster was tarnishing.

After a second round exit in 2010, the Red Wings trailed the San Jose Sharks—their 2010 vanquisher—three games to none in the second round of 2011.

Too old! The window has closed! The Red Wings’ time has passed! The end of an era!

And that was from the fans, uttered on sports talk radio and the like. The national pundits joined in, too.

Nobody gave the supposedly old and decrepit Red Wings a prayer to make the Sharks series competitive.

But Detroit won Game 4 and then stole a stunning victory in Game 5 in San Jose. In Detroit for Game 6, the Red Wings played as if they refused to accept that the Sharks were the better team. It was a tight, low-scoring affair that saw the Sharks edge in front in the third period by a goal, despite not being the best team on the ice that night.

The Red Wings sneered at their supposed fate and stormed back to snatch Game 6 and force a Game 7 that had earlier in the series been as expected as a man winning a fight with his wife.

The Sharks held on and captured the series, but I don’t know that I’d ever been as proud of a Red Wings team as I was after they made the unthinkable thinkable.

Just when you thought they were old, done, over with as a dominant NHL team. Last year, the Red Wings struggled to win at home. They were a very mediocre 21-14-6 at the Joe, which is the NHL’s way of saying they were 21-20.

Not done with giving us thrills and chills, this year’s Red Wings have again made Joe Louis Arena a house of horrors for opponents. They again lead the entire league in total points.

If you can come up with some sort of NHL record, this Red Wings "organ-eye-ZAY-shun" is likely to break it. And they have yet again, besting the 1930 Bruins and 1976 Flyers for most consecutive wins at home in one season.

“Twenty-one!! Twenty-one!!”

People often ask me if I ever think I’ll see the day when the Lions win the Super Bowl. Before I answer them, I remember that there was a time where I never dreamed I’d see the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup, let alone four.

Joe Louis Arena was barren, devoid of fans and excitement. The biggest cheers came during intermission, when cars were handed out for free by a desperate Ilitch ownership, in its formative years.

I remember knocking off work several times in 1985-86 and deciding, on a whim, to head up I-75 from Taylor to downtown and catch a Red Wings game, all by my lonesome. Parking was a breeze. There was no line at the box office. I paid my 15 bucks and sat in the lower bowl. I could stretch out quite comfortably.

The Red Wings would lose, but that was OK. It was NHL hockey on a shoestring, without the crowds. I could skip to the refreshment stand and get back to my seat and barely miss any action.

I thought of those days as I gazed out from the press box, covering Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Finals, during a stoppage of play. How far this franchise has come, I thought.

The Red Wings lost on that night, too.

They haven’t done much of that over the past 21 years, have they?

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