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?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Holmstrom Proves It: Hockey Players Are Nuts

When is someone going to officially declare that hockey players are certifiably nuts?

I mean off-their-rocker nuts, totally and completely out of their minds?

It’s a sport played by Kamikazes, who zoom around an ice rink surrounded by non-giving hardwood boards, with sharp objects all around them: skates, sticks, corners of elbows and teeth—those that haven’t been spit out on the bench, that is.

You think football players are tough? Maybe so, but they also have all their marbles, because the NFL hasn’t seen a leather helmet since World War II. The face mask started to come into vogue in the 1950s.

Jacques Plante, the legendary Hall of Fame goalie, tried to put a thin, flimsy mask on his face in the mid-‘50s and was all but mocked out of the league. It wasn’t until Plante took one too many vulcanized rubber discs between the eyes and refused to play without facial protection that Montreal coach Toe Blake consented to the wearing of the mask—with conditions.

If Plante had trouble seeing the puck, Blake said, then the mask was history and so was Plante if he had a problem with Toe’s disclaimer.

Plante could see the puck—or, he told his coach that he could see the puck.

Not that any of Jacques’ brethren followed his lead right away.

Goalies continued to mostly go maskless until, unbelievably, the 1970s. Only then did the last few bare-faced netminders vanish.

I always thought a goalie not wearing a mask, facing pucks being fired around his head at upwards of 75 MPH, was akin to a race car driver refusing to wear a seat belt.

While all this insanity in hockey was going on, the NFL did away with leather helmets and as the years went on, the quality of the headgear got increasingly better.

Meanwhile, the NHL eschewed helmets like a dieting woman waving off a slice of cheesecake.

A few wore them, and they too were derided, as Plante had been. Again, not until 1979 did the NHL mandate helmets for its players. But there was a grandfather clause that said players who signed contracts before ’79 had the option to wear helmets or not.

That’s why Red Wings fans were treated to the balding head of Harold Snepsts from 1985-88.

The hockey players' shoulder pads until the Reagan administration were a rumor.

Don’t get me started on visors.

Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s Jackie Robinson—the league’s first black player—was in Detroit several years ago, sponsoring an initiative to get more African-American kids playing hockey in the inner city.

I knew of O’Ree, of course, but I didn’t know that he hid the fact that he was blind in one eye.

Come again?

“Oh yeah,” O’Ree told me as we chatted in a RenCen lounge. “I was afraid if they found out I couldn’t see in one eye, they wouldn’t let me play anymore.”

The irony is that because we’re talking hockey, not only would they have let O’Ree play, the powers that be might have sent their scouts looking for more one-eyed prospects.

Hockey players lose teeth, have their faces gashed open and break their legs—sometimes all before the first intermission. They might miss a shift or two—or however long it takes a doctor to pull, stitch or set whatever needs to be pulled, stitched or set.

Toronto defenseman Bob Baun beat the Red Wings in the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals with an overtime goal—playing on a snapped ankle.

O’Ree played with one eye.

Amazingly, there has been only one fatality in a game—that of Minnesota’s Bill Masterton, in 1968, whose head hit the ice after a check. And we’re talking about 100 years of this ice hockey stuff.

Masterton’s death, by the way, had no effect on players wearing helmets. They continued to not don them.

I remember watching video of Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk bleeding from his neck like a wide-open faucet after his carotid artery was slashed by a wayward skate. I can still see the white ice below his neck turn deep red within seconds.

Malarchuk almost died, but he kept playing after his neck healed.

If you need more convincing that hockey players are coo coo, look no further than the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom.

Holmstrom played in his 1,000th career NHL game Friday night. Good for him. That’s not an insignificant milestone.

But that also means that Holmstrom has subjected himself to 1,000 games of being hacked, whacked, face-washed and throttled—not to mention putting himself in the crosshairs of powerful slap shots from the point.

Holmstrom is that guy you’ve seen camping out in front of opponents’ nets since 1996 with utter disregard for his own well-being. Nothing good can come from stationing yourself where Holmstrom does during a hockey game, but a whole lot of bad can happen.

Well, there is one good thing that comes from it: scoring goals.

Holmstrom, before Friday’s game, had scored 240 goals in the NHL. I’ll bet 200 of them have come with a very expensive physical price to pay.

Holmstrom isn’t the flashy goal scorer who uses sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors to deposit pucks past goalies while nary being touched.

Oh no.

Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.

You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?

Holmstrom is the typical hockey player—which means he’s as crazy as a box of yo-yos. What does he think of all the abuse he’s endured for 1,000 games?

"It's fun, for sure,” he told the Free Press the other day. “People just are like, 'Congratulations, 998, 999. One to go.' Frequent reminders. It's fun."

I’m telling you, these guys are looney.

Congratulations, Tomas—you crazy SOB.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Eli's Coming

The supposedly vaunted New England Patriots, the closest thing to an NFL dynasty since the 1980s 49ers, haven't won a Super Bowl in seven years.

Meanwhile, Eli Manning and the New York Giants have won two in that time frame---actually, in the past five NFL seasons.

Both times, the Giants made the Pats their patsies.

Is this a baton passing we're witnessing? A changing of the guard? Out with the old, in with the new and all that rot?

Eli Manning is all the rage now, as he should be. He's up, 2-1, in Lombardi Trophies over his big brother, and is just one behind Hall of Fame-bound Tom Brady, whom Eli victimized twice.

Could Eli follow both those quarterbacks into Canton? Will we one day see the kid toting his own bust, posing for photographers in front of the Hall?

As Keith Jackson would say, "Whoa, Nellie!"

Super Bowl success does not, as some would have you think, punch you a ticket into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it could help you scalp your way in.

Eli Manning has the most time left in the NFL of he, Peyton and Brady. And as impressive as Eli has been, growing up before our very eyes, any HOF talk is premature.

Let's see if he can grow some facial hair first, for example.

Remember when the Giants were the team all Lions fans wanted to play in the playoffs? Remember when the Lions' loss to the Packers on the regular season's final Sunday was rued, because it meant a trip to New Orleans instead of New York?

Remember the fury in Motown when it was announced that Eli Manning was named to the Pro Bowl instead of Matthew Stafford?

Hey, remember when it looked like the Giants might not even make the playoffs?

From such humble post-season beginnings did Eli lead his team to Super Bowl XLVI glory.

There's something different about Eli as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

He's got a lot of "Aw, shucks" about him, number one.

The championship quarterback is supposed to be a cocky, reckless gunslinger who is in TV commercials and on the covers of video games. He is supposed to be tall, Hollywood-handsome and frequently seen with a striking beauty on his passing arm.

He makes guarantees and kicks his offensive linemen in the shins when they don't block. He tells the coaches how to coach and gets into the face of a receiver who breaks off his route too early.

The championship QB isn't supposed to shake his head in wonder of what he just accomplished---he knew it all along.

Eli Manning still looks like the 12-year-old little brother whose hair the adults ruffle after they realize that he's in their presence---after fawning over the big brother.

"That's cute, kid, the way you throw a football," the adults say. "Now go take a bath while we talk to your brother."

Eli Manning plays in New York. That's about as bodacious as he gets, and that's just a matter of geography. He wanted to play there, of course---but mainly because he didn't want to play in San Diego.

Truth is, Eli would be out of place in both cities.

He's not a New Yawker and he's not a California beach bum. Unless the NFL opens up shop in Des Moines, I don't know that he fits in anywhere.

But he has authored two stunning, gripping, game-winning Super Bowl drives, in the final minutes, staring down the barrel of Brady's gun both times.

Eli Manning doesn't fit in anywhere, except under center.

Is he a Hall of Famer? No, not yet.

But, to quote Three Dog Night, "Eli's comin'!"