5 Most Painful Seasons in Detroit Red Wings History
We know about the storied history of the Detroit Red Wings. The Original Six franchise has 11 Stanley Cup titles and is currently riding a streak of 22 consecutive playoff appearances.
Then there are years you don’t often hear about.
In 87 years as a member of the NHL, Detroit has seen its share of good times and bad and is quite familiar with the concept “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Being the victim of some monumental upsets, playoff letdowns and a stretch when they were known as the “Dead Things,” some memories still haunt the Detroit faithful. While they’ve certainly been spoiled with their club's recent success, it is important to remember the bad times to keep things in perspective.
With that in mind, here are five of some of the most painful seasons in Detroit Red Wings history.
5. 2002-03 Playoff Exit
While the regular season was a dream cruise for the Detroit Red Wings, it became a nightmare that ended so quickly, fans weren’t sure what happened.
Coming off of their third Stanley Cup title in six seasons, Hockeytown was buzzing for another championship repeat. Detroit finished the 2002-03 regular season with 110 points and was second in the Western Conference behind the Dallas Stars.
In the first round of the playoffs, the high-powered Red Wings were swept by the seventh seeded Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. After leading the NHL in goals for during the regular season, Detroit managed only six goals in the four-game series.
Anaheim would advance to the Stanley Cup Final and lose to the New Jersey Devils in seven games, but the Red Wings were eliminated in the quarterfinals for the second time in three seasons.
It may not have been unbearable for the entire season, but as a defending Stanley Cup champion, it was certainly embarrassing.
A painful postseason exit like this one made the extremely successful regular season feel like a waste.
4. 1966-67 Season
After a mediocre start to the year, Detroit was able to hang around the playoff picture while attempting to earn a fifth consecutive playoff appearance. It was during a stretch from Nov. 13 through Dec. 29 that Detroit would go 4-14-1 to drastically hurt its playoff chances.
It was during the final two months of the season that the Red Wings would succumb to their doom, losing 15 of 22 en route to a fifth-place finish.
It was the beginning of a 17-year stretch where Detroit would only qualify for the playoffs twice, an era which the team was known as the “Dead Things.”
3. 1970-71 Season
Detroit owner Bruce Norris brought in historic collegiate coach Ned Harkness to assume the head coaching duties from Sid Abel, even after a 95-point season the year before. Abel remained as general manager, but not for long.
Harkness brought with him a two-way style of hockey that Detroit’s veteran players—including Gordie Howe—were not fond of. A petition to have Harkness fired was brought to Abel; he in turn took it Norris and was subsequently fired.
Harkness would assume the role of general manager and hand off coaching duties to Doug Barkley. Over the course of the season, Harkness would trade stars Frank Mahovlich to Montreal and Garry Unger to St. Louis, angering and confusing an already frustrated fanbase.
In just one season, Detroit saw two of their top players traded, two different head coaches, two different general managers and Howe’s final season in Detroit.
The Wings finished 13th in the league, ahead of only the California Seals. It was the beginning of a 13-year era in Detroit nicknamed “Darkness with Harkness.”
2. 1976-77 Season
This season was horrifying for anyone who experienced it, and for those who haven’t, you may not want to read any further.
The team was in such disarray that on-again, off-again coach Alex Delvecchio was fired and replaced by Larry Wilson for the team’s final 36 games. Overall, the team would finish dead last—in an 18-team league—with a record of 16-55-9 and miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
Under Wilson, the club went just 3-29-4, finished an appalling 3-35-5 after the New Year and totaled a dreadful minus-126 in goal differential. Wilson would not return as head coach the following season and was replaced by Bobby Kromm.
Unfortunately, there is still one more year in Red Wings history that can be considered worse than this.
1. 1985-86 Season
Neale was behind the bench for 35 games and was fired after an 8-23-4 start in which the Wings didn’t earn their first win until their 10th game of the season (1-8-1).
Brad Park, who had retired as a player the season before, led the team to a measly 9-32-2 record in his 45 games, ultimately finishing the season 17-57-6.
It’s amazing to consider the success the Detroit Red Wings have enjoyed over the last few decades and to learn of such a tumultuous time in their history.
If there is anything the Red Wings know, it’s that the agony of defeat or the embarrassment of futility can only be rectified with the sweet satisfaction of success.