It was the summer of 1990, and Mike Ilitch made a phone call. Then he got into a car and made the executioner’s sojourn.
It was the same type of visit that Bill Davidson had once made to Dick Vitale’s house, some 10-plus years earlier. Inside the Vitale residence, the Pistons owner rendered the ziggy to his coach, pulling the plug on Dickie before the coach and de facto GM could do any further damage to the Pistons brand.
In 1990, Ilitch phoned Jacques Demers and before long the Red Wings owner was at his coach’s house, to render an emotional ziggy.
Four summers prior, Ilitch, with GM Jimmy Devellano as his muscle, shanghaied Demers from the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were becoming a force, and no small credit was given to Demers, the coach, for the upswing. The Red Wings were coming off a dreadful 17-57-6 season, and had burned through two coaches (Harry Neale and Brad Park); the latter’s relationship with Devellano being described as “like oil and water”—by Devellano himself.
So Ilitch went after Demers, hard, and the Red Wings might have bent some tampering rules in their zeal. The Blues cried foul, but the Red Wings ended up with Demers in the summer of 1986.
There was a step backward in 1989 (first-round playoff exit), but Ilitch stuck with Demers—even though a disturbing incident involving Red Wings players acting out at an Edmonton bar called Goose Loonies in the 1988 playoffs still rubbed some nerves raw in the team’s hierarchy.
But there had been no playoffs for the Red Wings in the 1989-90 season. This was no step backward—this was a flat-out fail. It was whispered that Demers was no longer connecting with his players. The dreaded tuning out.
So Ilitch made the phone call and the journey to Demers’ house. Inside, in what was described by both men as a wet-eyed meeting, Ilitch relieved Demers of his coaching job.
That was almost 23 years ago. The Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since.
Not only have they not missed the playoffs, the Red Wings have been strong Stanley Cup contenders for most of the past 21 seasons. Rarely did a spring go by where the hockey folks didn’t include the Red Wings on their short list of teams who could win it all.
In baseball, even the iconic New York Yankees haven’t gone the past 21 years as solid World Series contenders. No team in the NBA has been championship caliber every year since 1992. The San Francisco 49ers just snapped a 17-year Super Bowl appearance famine, and no NFL team has been “all that” for the past 21 years.
Yet here are the Red Wings, constantly finishing in the top 10 of the league standings. Sometimes they’d win a Cup along the way—four times since 1997, in fact.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy, with Nicklas Lidstrom taking his magic stick and his perfection and retiring to Sweden. We knew there’d be some struggling, with fellow defenseman Brad Stuart no longer around to add a steady physical presence.
We knew the front of the net would never be the same again, with the retirement of Tomas Holmstrom. We figured age might catch up with the players still around.
Sometimes it’s no fun to be right.
The Red Wings, after losing another at home on Friday to the Anaheim Ducks, are 7-5-2, but that’s just the NHL’s roundabout way of saying that the Wings are 7-7—seven wins, five regulation losses and two more losses in extra time (overtime and/or shootout).
Too often scoring goals is like pulling teeth—which is ironic, because in hockey, teeth aren’t pulled so much as they are knocked out.
The power play is often that in name only. Time was that you’d give the Red Wings an extra skater and it was like giving the Grim Reaper an extra sickle. Now, you take a penalty against the Red Wings with barely any impunity.
Players have been dropping like flies, which hasn’t helped.
Even line changes have become an adventure. Coach Mike Babcock has been yelling at his assistants almost as much as his players.
Turnovers are becoming commonplace. No more are the pinpoint, lasered breakout passes from behind the blue line to a forward past mid-ice, in stride.
The Red Wings used to play a selfish brand of hockey—meaning that they never let the other team have the puck. They cycled and passed and it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the basketball during “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
It’s become so hard for the Red Wings now.
No longer do teams step onto the Joe Louis Arena ice shaking in their skating boots. Gone is the intimidation factor at The Joe. The crowds are still sellouts, but it’s a polite crowd nowadays—19,000-plus who are sitting on their hands too often.
We knew it wasn’t going to be the same this season, but for a long time it was all conjecture, thanks to the labor lockout. The hockey season was always somewhere over there, past the horizon.
Then the labor strife was over and the NHL started playing games again, and all of Hockeytown’s fears are being realized.
The Red Wings are an ordinary team, no longer one of the league’s bullies. They win on some nights, lose on others. They are 7-7 and it befits them.
We knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk to the playoffs and that a long postseason run was anything but a given.
We knew all this, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see the Red Wings, certainly one of the best franchises in all of pro sports, morph into a pedestrian unit.
The 21-year playoff streak is in more jeopardy than a nerd’s lunch money on his walk to school.
The Red Wings win, the Red Wings lose. Comme ci, comme ça.
There hasn’t been so-so hockey played in Detroit since 1990.
How are you adapting?