In the serious, violent NHL, Shack played with a wink & a smile

Published July 28, 2020

I don’t have an Eddie Shack story, per se. Just like I don’t have a Babe Ruth story. Doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the legend.

But at least I saw Shack, who died the other day at age 83 from cancer, play in the NHL. Only with Shack, he didn’t so much “play” hockey as he “committed” it.

Baseball has had more than its fair share of “flakes” and clown princes throughout its history, mainly because the game itself is played at a lazy pace, is non-contact and lends well to goofing around and self-deprecation.

Hockey has had some characters, but so many of them in a psychotic way. Hockey’s flakes have often been guys who you’d want on the ice as much as possible, for off it, who knows what they’d be capable of doing. What else do you expect from a sport where aggravated assault is punishable by a two minute breather?

Eddie Shack played a violent sport in a cartoonish way, and I don’t mean that to disparage him whatsoever. Shack’s hockey world was like the movie “Slap Shot”—over the top with physicality and showmanship.

The ditty, “Clear the Track! Here Comes Shack,” created by hockey announcer Brian McFarlane, didn’t create the persona of Shack; the song was born from it. And it perfectly captured the “bull in a china shop” way that no. 23 roamed the ice.

Shack’s greatest success—personal and team—came with the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs clubs of the 1960s, with whom Eddie won four Stanley Cups. Though he was never a big goal scorer, Shack potted 11 or more goals in five of the seven years he spent in Toronto during the Leafs’ heyday (1960-67).

Shack was also comical looking. Even before he grew the bushy mustache that would become his trademark late in his playing career, Shack stood out for his big nose, stork-like posture and occasional devilish grin on the ice. They listed Eddie as a left winger, but the truth was that you could find him anywhere on the ice at any given moment, often crashing into someone or something.

Sudbury hockey legend Eddie Shack, dies of cancer at age 83 ...
Shack as a Buffalo Sabre, being Eddie Shack

Shack is most closely associated with the Leafs, for his two stints and nine seasons in Toronto. But Eddie was a vagabond for the other eight years of his 17-season era, with short, two-to-three year appearances with five other NHL teams (Bruins, Kings, Penguins, Rangers and Sabres) between 1959-75.

I only saw Shack play in person once—in November 1973 at Olympia Stadium when he was back with the Leafs for his final two years in the league. I don’t remember much of the game, a 5-4 Red Wings win, but I do remember sitting in one of the end zones and being eager to see Eddie take the ice for his first shift. I kept watch for him all evening, and sure enough, Eddie all but climbed on someone’s back and got two minutes for his efforts.

Shack’s legend didn’t end when he hung up his skates. He became one of Canada’s most popular ex-athletes-turned-pitchmen, popping up in a variety of TV commercials, the mustache bushier than ever and his mischievous cackle properly captured by the cameras and microphones. Shack was also beloved for his being approachable at public appearances, signing autographs and engaging with fans for hours on end.

Everything is so serious anymore. Pro sports is not excluded from this truth. Even baseball’s goofballs seem to be fading away with time. We don’t have flakes and free spirits so much as we have immature brats. They don’t make us laugh—they make us roll our eyes.

Eddie Shack wasn’t hockey’s only loose cannon—far from it. But he played a fast, physical, sometimes angry game with a wink and a smile. You got the impression, when you watched Eddie play, that even he didn’t know where he was going and what he was doing—or what would happen next.

It was refreshing, that’s for sure.

Misplaced fears over non-existent ‘tanking’ poisons NHL Draft lottery

Published June 29, 2020

If you enjoy the thrill of risk taking and getting the doo-doo scared out of you, here’s something for you to try. Wander into any professional sports locker room and suggest to the athletes that they lose games on purpose to improve their team’s draft position. See how that works out for you.

I’ll say it in plainer terms: There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Tanking.

If you’re somehow not familiar with the term, “tanking” refers to a joint effort by everyone associated with a professional sports franchises to deliberately lose games so they can get the highest possible draft choice.

Balderdash!

The competitive fire at the professional level, the pride associated with it, is too intense. These are athletes who’ve been competing in their respective sports since they were in grade school. They hated to lose in Little League and in Pee-Wees; you think their hatred of losing has gotten diluted throughout the years?

And you think that they’d compromise their competitiveness for the benefit of a higher draft choice? Please.

The competitive fire isn’t just about the team. Not everyone is a star, guaranteed a roster spot from year to year. In fact, more players than not are competing not only for the team, but for their own existence as a pro. Ask those players how much they care about where their team drafts after the season.

I know I won’t be able to get through to many of those who hold the tenet of tanking as truth. That’s OK. My knowing that they’re wrong is good enough for me.

Now, do front offices set themselves up for some lean years? Of course. It’s called rebuilding. If you’re a sports fan in Detroit, especially, you’re more than familiar with this tactic.

Red Wings Nation is in a kerfuffle because their team, despite its horrific record in 2019-20, recently participated in the embarrassing NHL Draft Lottery, only to end up with the fourth overall pick.

Sadly, the NHL lottery (as in the NBA) was established as an overreach in response to the aforementioned tanking philosophy—the one I just debunked.

If you need more convincing that the tanking philosophy in the Red Wings’ case is a fallacy, you need only look at their roster. The Red Wings didn’t tank; they just played their schedule to the best of their abilities, and 17-49-5 was the result—because that’s as good as they could do.

The NHL’s lottery was even more of a debacle because the screwy system—based on odds-making straight out of Casino Hell—enabled a TBD playoff team to be awarded the first overall pick.

A playoff team!

If you care to try to make sense out of this, click here.

All draft lotteries should be abolished, forthwith. They’re based on a false concept. It’s one thing for teams to shed talent due to financial concerns, thereby leaving a severely disadvantaged roster to take on the rest of the league. Again, it’s called a rebuild. It’s another thing entirely—and this is the false part—to brazenly declare that the athletes themselves are giving anything less than their all.

Placeholder sweepstakes: What the No. 1 pick would mean to each ...
Consensus no. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere

The Red Wings got jobbed. I think most hockey people would concur. But leave it to a former no. 4 overall pick to take the high road.

“To be honest with you, not surprised,” Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said in the wake of the lottery’s destruction. “We had an 18.5 percent chance of winning the first pick. So realistically, I’m prepared to be sitting here today not talking about the first pick. I’m not really surprised. The bottom eight, or the eight playoff teams, had a 24.5 percent chance combined of getting the pick. So the odds were better that the first pick went to the bottom eight than it did us.”

Well, that’s just plain wrong.

So a team that made the playoffs will add consensus #1 overall pick, forward Alexis Lafreniere, who was No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters. That’s just great.

The draft order isn’t designed to reward losing. It’s designed to maintain competitive balance as much as possible. How teams choose to use their draft picks is on them. Ryan Leaf, anyone?

I have seen on social media that the Red Wings aren’t necessarily getting a lot of sympathy from NHL fans across the country. That’s understandable. Despite missing the playoffs for five straight years now, the Red Wings were a bastion of stability and success in the league for more than two decades prior to their downfall, which some folks are clearly enjoying tremendously.

But is MLB better when the Yankees are bad? Is the NFL better when the Raiders stink?

This won’t be popular with the Red Wings haters, but the NHL needs a good team in Detroit—if for no other reason than for those in the Winged Wheel to wear the black hats.

This isn’t to say that the Red Wings will get nothing but scraps at no. 4 overall. Far from it. If the organization has shown anything since the late-1980s, it’s been proficiency at drafting.

No matter. The NHL tripped over the blue line with this one. The lottery either has to go entirely, or it has to be weighted much more heavily toward the worst team getting the highest draft pick.

Thanks, but no tanks.


Howard’s limp to finish line unlike other Red Wings’ careers

Published March 2, 2020

This is not how a typical longtime Red Wing career has ended.

The star players who carried the team during the salad days of Hockeytown—i.e. from 1997-2008—have pretty much gone out on top when Father Time caught up to them. They didn’t turn into cautionary tales of players who hung around too long.

Only a bad back knocked Henrik Zetterberg, 38 years old, out of the game. When Z was forced to retire in 2018, it wasn’t because of lack of production. Pavel Datsyuk went home to Russia in 2016 (also at age 38)—not because he was out of place on an NHL roster, but because that’s where his heart lie.

Nicklas Lidstrom might still be playing in the NHL today, even at age 49, if he so desired. Lidstrom was hardly the picture of dilapidation when he hung up his skates in 2012 at 42 years young.

Even Stevie Yzerman, when he retired back in 2006 at age 41, was probably not truly finished, should he have chosen to continue playing.

What’s happening now to Jimmy Howard is sad, really.

Jimmy is going to turn 36 later this month and he’s having not only the worst season (by far) of his 15-year NHL career, he’s having an historically bad year—league-wide.

He will likely retire after this season. It will be a mercy kill.

Howard is 2-23-2 (he hasn’t won since before Halloween) with a grisly 4.20 GAA and unsightly save percentage of .882.

Old Red Wings haven’t died in recent years—they’ve just faded away. But Howard is limping across the finish line, his struggles front and center. No dignity. Going out with a whimper, Jimmy is.

In January of last year, I opined that Howard’s Red Wings career would come to an end after the 2018-19 season, if not before. I wrote that is legacy wearing the winged wheel would be complicated to describe, given how the trajectory of his career overlapped between the Cup-contending days and the team’s transition into have-nots.

But in March 2019, the Red Wings re-upped Howard for one season, at $3.4 million. It was yet another example of one of the teams in town not paying me any mind.

Unfortunately, the way this is ending for Howard isn’t all that complicated at all.

He’s looked every bit of his 35 years this season. Yes, his team is lousy but that hasn’t kept the Red Wings’ other goalie, Jonathan Bernier, from playing reasonably well.

Howard’s legacy will now be one of a player who hung around one year too long.

The Red Wings have precious little goaltending depth in their organ-eye-ZAY-shun. That lack of depth contributed greatly to then-GM Kenny Holland’s decision to hitch his train to Howard for another season.

Say what you will about Holland, but it’s unfair to pin this on him. No one saw Howard turning into a human sieve so suddenly. The beatdowns have robbed him of confidence and if you think that’s not as important to guys in their mid-30s, you’re mistaken.

Howard isn’t just fighting the puck, he’s being bulldozed by it. On too many nights he’s played as if there’s a soccer goal behind him. On the nights he’s starting, it’s maybe even money on whether he’ll survive for all 60 minutes. Coach Jeff Blashill has pulled Howard as much as a baseball manager changes pitchers.

It hasn’t been pretty.

You know it’s bad when it’s beyond the booing stage, which it is now at Little Caesars Arena. The barrage of goals that Howard allows are now met with indifference. Maybe even a sense of compassion.

Have the Red Wings played poorly in front of Howard? Is the Pope Catholic?

Image result for jimmy howard

Yet this is more than just a goalie being victimized by his teammates’ malfeasance. Howard, as the Red Wings’ last line of defense, has been cringeworthy in his performance.

This isn’t how longtime Red Wings finish. It hasn’t been, in recent years.

Blashill talked about his goalie after Howard was pulled yet again in a 7-1 thumping at the hands of the Minnesota Wild on Friday night. Howard surrendered five goals on 17 shots.

“I’d like to go and give him an effort where we don’t give up many chances and try to get his game back going,” Blashill said. “I think that there’s a responsibility of the team to do that. We didn’t start the game to help him.”

Howard’s teammates, just like the coach, have done their best to cover for him verbally after the games. He’s had too long of a career with the Red Wings for them to do anything else. To their credit, the players point the fingers at themselves first—often, exclusively.

But Howard is too often the elephant in the dressing room. His teammates have failed him, but also vice versa. Howard is 2-23-2 and winless since Oct. 29 for a reason, and it’s not only explained by poor defensive zone play.

What we’re seeing is the coming apart at the seams of a once-All-Star caliber goalie. And it hasn’t been pretty.

A month and a half ago, Howard tried to put on a brave face.

“I know I can do it,” Howard said. “Sooner or later the hard work is going to pay off, I believe. I can’t over-analyze things. Quit thinking out there and use my hockey instincts. You just have to believe that sooner or later you’re going to come out of it. You keep playing. You hope that the bounces start going your way.”

That was in mid-January, and nothing has changed since. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.

This isn’t how old Red Wings finish. It hasn’t been.

For Howard, the season can’t end soon enough. What a way to end a career.

Ayres’ unlikely turn in net reminds of NHL’s ‘small sport’ charm

Published February 25, 2020

Only in hockey. Hell, only in the National Hockey League.

You’ll never be watching a Major League Baseball game where the call goes out to the paying customers, “Is there a relief pitcher in the house?” You’ll never see an NFL game paused while a team scurries to find an emergency quarterback in the stands. When’s the last time you saw a spare point guard run down from the mezzanine and get suited up to enter an NBA match?

Only in the NHL.

It was a story that transcended the sports pages last weekend. Forty-two year-old David Ayres, a Zamboni driver and practice goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was pressed into action–even preserving a victory—when the visiting Carolina Hurricanes lost both their dressed goalies to injury on Saturday night.

In football, in the event that multiple QBs go down with injury, there is a player on the roster appropriately identified as the “disaster quarterback.” Maybe the most known example of this catastrophe came in the 1965 NFL playoffs, when the Baltimore Colts’ Tom Matte, a running back, dusted off his QB skills from high school and college and went under center, leading his team to a 13-10 overtime loss to the Packers.

But hockey has no such provision. At least the NHL doesn’t. No one on an NHL roster is trained to put the big pads on and go between the pipes.

The practice of calling for a rank amateur to tend goal dates back to the post-war years.

The six-team NHL typically only carried one goalie per squad. And in typical hockey fashion, that meant that if the netminder went down with injury, one of two things happened: The game stopped and everyone waited until the hurt goalie was nursed back to health or he responded to the smelling salts, or the designated emergency spare (every arena had one) would suit up.

Lefty

Ross Wilson was the Red Wings trainer from 1950-82. One of his duties was to make the crude masks that the goalies of the 1960s wore, including for the great Terry Sawchuk. But “Lefty” was also the designated spare goalie at Olympia Stadium, no matter which team needed his services.

Lefty played goalie in juniors and in the minor leagues, so he wasn’t a beer league guy. Wilson got into three NHL games as an emergency spare goalie, and the amazing thing about that isn’t just that it was three games—it’s that it was only three games. But we’re talking an era where Hall of Famer Glenn Hall once started 502 consecutive games.

Wilson’s job as trainer was to patch up the damaged goalie, and when that failed, Lefty was to don the gear and get in front of the cage himself.

Image result for lefty wilson
Lefty Wilson

Wilson’s NHL career (you can see it here) stretched from 1953 to 1957, with all games played at Olympia. On Oct. 10, 1953, he suited up for the Red Wings in relief of Sawchuk, playing 16 minutes of a loss, though he surrendered no goals. On Jan. 22, 1956, Lefty slipped on a Maple Leafs sweater and filled in for an injured Harry Lumley, playing 13 shutout minutes in another losing effort. Finally, on Dec. 29, 1957, Wilson became a Boston Bruin for 52 minutes, replacing Don Simmons in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie, stopping 23 of 24 shots. All totaled, Lefty made 32 saves in 33 shots in 81 minutes, for a career GAA of 0.74 and a save percentage of .970.

Not bad for three starts spread over more than four years!

In Wilson’s day, that kind of emergency goalie thing was hardly an anomaly. There was no romance or cuteness to it. It was just the way of the world. Today, Ayres’ turn in net (as well as that of accountant Scott Foster, who at age 36 suddenly became a Chicago Blackhawk) is so abnormal as to put hockey in front of people who normally don’t know a puck from a Ding Dong.

The big time sport with the small time feel

The Ayres and Foster stories are endearing because they underscore how ice hockey has never completely shed its reputation as being a sport played on frozen ponds by humble people who are, as much as you can be in professional sports, the every man. And that’s a good label to not be able to shed.

Hockey, even after the players started getting paid, remains a sport of an unusual dichotomy. The stakes are high but still so much of the game is low key and connects with its fans.

I remember being in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room at the Joe Louis Arena in 2009 after they beat the Red Wings in seven games to win the Stanley Cup. Not long after the celebration on the ice, I wandered in to find Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin sitting by himself at his locker stall, the prestigious Smythe Trophy sitting on a card table (!) a few feet away, also by its lonesome. So there Malkin and I chatted, as he sipped orange juice (!), talking about winning the most hallowed trophy in all of professional sports.

Only in hockey. Only in the NHL.

Deliberate Yzerman won’t toss red meat to fans, who need to get used to that

Published Jan. 13, 2020

If any hockey executive who’s active in the NHL today knows about patience and trusting the process, it’s Steve Yzerman.

It took Yzerman 14 years to taste Stanley Cup champagne as a player, from the time he entered the league as a soft-spoken, wide-eyed rookie in 1983, to that June night in 1997 when the Red Wings ended their 42-year Cup drought.

In those 14 years, 11 of which were spent with he as captain of the club, Yzerman held countless post-game and post-series interviews at his locker stall, trying to put into words the sting of the Red Wings’ latest playoff exit.

There surely must have been moments when he felt that maybe he simply wasn’t fated to be a champion. He wouldn’t have been the first superstar to never hoist Stanley.

But the Cups came eventually for Yzerman in Detroit—three of them as a player and one as a team executive.

Yzerman saw the pitfalls of the attempts at a quick fix with the Red Wings in 1985-86, when GM Jimmy Devellano was given owner Mike Ilitch’s checkbook and told to go to town. Jimmy D signed a plethora of college and NHL free agents in the summer of ’85, trying for a shortcut to winning hockey after more than a decade of ice follies. It failed. Miserably.

Yzerman saw the attempts at copping a Cup with a roster filled with hardworking role players in the Jacques Demers years. It failed, though not nearly as miserably.

It was only after the Red Wings hired a Hall of Fame coach and dotted the roster with Hall of Fame players (of which Yzerman was one), that the pinnacle was finally reached.

Yzerman is, at his core, still that shy, soft-spoken man. A deliberate speaker who chooses his words carefully. There were times in those post-mortems as a player, where the emotions were high and the sweat and tears real, that Stevie was barely audible.

Yzerman is sure to frustrate many Red Wings fans of today, it says here.

Image result for steve yzerman"

The hockey team is merely one of four professional teams in Detroit that are undergoing a rebuild. The city’s fans are at their wit’s end. Losing has come fast and furious. Every player worth his salt in this town is battling injury, or so it seems. It’s an ugly scene.

The fans want quick fixes—or at least quicker. They’re tired of being patient, even though that’s the only thing they can be at this juncture. To paraphrase Casey Stengel, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

But Yzerman won’t do anything rash in his role as Red Wings GM, which he assumed in April 2019. He’s not a bull in a china shop. He never has been, and he isn’t about to start now.

The fans want the coach fired, for one. Jeff Blashill is in his fifth year behind the bench for the Red Wings and a salient argument could be made (and I’ve tried to make it, more than once) that his time has come and gone.

The fans want trades to be made, sooner rather than later. They want the newer draft picks to be with the Red Wings yesterday. In essence, they want to see, in short order, the “right stuff” that they believe Yzerman the GM possesses. And they want to see it right now.

But that’s not how Yzerman operates and it’s not what the fans are going to see—the same fans who were all-too-eager to see predecessor Kenny Holland take a hike.

Instead, they’ll see the same guy (Yzerman) that they saw for 22 years as a player, and have seen from afar in his work as Tampa Bay’s GM. Patient. Deliberate. Insightful. No move made without considering every consequence—both short term and long term.

Last week, Yzerman sat down with Red Wings radio voice Ken Kal and gave a midseason assessment of the worst team (by far) in the National Hockey League. And, true to Stevie’s way, there no words of fire and brimstone. Nothing to get the fans’ juices going. He predictably didn’t throw them any red meat.

“My plan isn’t to be passive,” Yzerman said in the closest thing to showing signs of impatience. “I’m looking for ways to build for the future and trying to acquire draft picks or prospects or young players that can come into the organization sooner or later.”

Not sexy stuff. But smart, and true hockey people know this to be the case.

On first round draft picks Joe Veleno (forward, 2018) and Mo Seider (defenseman, 2019), Yzerman said, “Do we bring up the (Joe) Velenos and (Mo) Seiders and give them a feel for the NHL? I won’t say absolutely you’re going to see this player or that player here, but I think it’s safe to assume that at some point some of these young guys will get up here and play some games as the season winds down.”

Measured words. Typical Yzerman.

But it’s the fate of Blashill that has the fans the most riled up. And here is where Yzerman might be the cause of some frustration.

Yzerman pointed to injuries, which might drive some customers nuts. The team has played without top defenseman Danny DeKeyser for nearly the entire season while key forwards Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou have missed extensive time, though in the latter’s instance, the production has been subpar even when healthy.

“We’ve had injuries from day one of training camp,” Yzerman said in his reasoning for not necessarily holding the coaching staff’s skates to the fire. “The injuries make it really difficult to really know what you truly have.”

But don’t characterize Yzerman’s deliberate approach as his being slow on the uptake. He’s taking notes. He’s making his assessments. He’s getting his feel for the pulse of the organization.

He’s just not doing it with the recklessness and rancor that some fans would like to see. And he never will.

Today’s sad sack Red Wings recall the 1970s to this old-timer

Published Dec. 11, 2019

Red Wings hockey in the 1970s was a combination of theater of the absurd, the Twilight Zone and Keystone Kops. As someone who lived through it all with an all-too-clear memory of the entire debacle of a decade, I never thought I’d see anything quite like it ever again.

But with this season’s Red Wings team tripping over the blue line on a nightly basis, and losing every game seemingly 5-1, it prompts this old-timer to fire up the wayback machine.

So join me, won’t you, on this Magical Mystery Tour of the Ice Follies, Red Wings style.

‘A bad feeling’

Gary Bergman didn’t know much about his new coach. But in the summer of 1970, the Red Wings’ veteran defenseman got a sneak preview of the disaster that was about to befall the Red Wings under Ned Harkness, the college coach hired away from Cornell the previous spring.

“He came over to the house, introduced himself and everything was fine,” Bergman recalled years later.

But then Harkness started to talk about his hockey philosophy, and to illustrate, he began rearranging the furniture in Bergman’s living room.

“My chairs, sofa, the whole room, were used to depict players and positioning,” Bergman said. His wife walked in, saw her living room was a wreck, and shook her head. “I had a bad feeling,” Bergman, who was mystified, said.

Bergman’s bad feeling is justified. Harkness quickly loses the players with his college rules and approach. He fights with star center Garry Unger about the length of Unger’s hair. Almost half the team is traded and the other half wants to be traded. Owner Bruce Norris’ attempt to be progressive and bold with the Harkness hiring ends up being garish.

Total meltdown in Toronto

On Jan. 2, 1971, the Red Wings went into Maple Leaf Gardens and got thumped, 13-0. The Leafs scored seven goals in the third period. The Red Wings didn’t throw a bodycheck all night. The players were trying to get Harkness removed as coach. The Toronto ordeal followed a petition the players submitted to GM Sid Abel, requesting that Harkness get the ziggy.

It worked—sort of. Abel tried to fire Harkness but was told by Norris that he lacked that authority. Abel was pointed in his criticism of Harkness. “I don’t know how to evaluate him as a coach because I don’t think he is one,” Abel told the press.

Rebuffed in his attempt to fire Harkness and a loser in a power struggle with Red Wings executive Jim Bishop, whose background was in lacrosse, Abel resigned in protest about a week after the Toronto game. Harkness indeed was removed as coach—but only because Norris promoted him to GM. Former Red Wings defenseman Doug Barkley, whose playing career was cut short due to an eye injury, took over as coach. In Gordie Howe’s last season as a Red Wing, the team finishes 22-45-11.

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The 1970-71 Red Wings; the first team I remember following on a daily basis.

Coach Fats

It’s Nov. 7, 1973. Teddy Garvin, promoted from the Red Wings’ farm system, is the new coach, replacing the unjustly fired Johnny Wilson. The Red Wings, under the overwhelmed Garvin, are 2-8-1.

Harkness decides to fire Garvin and replace him with captain Alex Delvecchio. Fine.

But NHL rules don’t allow an active player to be coach, so Fats has to retire before accepting the coaching job. Which he does, but not in time before the Red Wings’ game against the Flyers at Olympia Stadium that night.

Can you say awkward? Norris asks Garvin to coach, after firing him.

Garvin is behind the bench, but after the second period he leaves the arena. Injured forward Tim Ecclestone finishes the game as “coach.”

Marcel Mar-no

It’s the spring of 1975. Dynamic center Marcel Dionne, a Red Wing since 1971, wishes to play out his option and flee Detroit, broken by the team’s dysfunction. Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke, who never met a star he didn’t like in any sport, woos Dionne with big money and the sun of Southern California.

Dionne signs but there’s the matter of compensation from the Kings. The league settles on aging defenseman Terry Harper and rugged forward Dan Maloney. The Red Wings get rooked.

To add insult to injury, Harper, a former Cup winner with the Canadiens, refuses to report to the Red Wings, citing their mystifying ways. But eventually Harper is coaxed into showing up, though he does so after training camp in 1975. Dionne flourishes in Los Angeles on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Anyone for tennis?

It’s the summer of 1976. Red Wings high-scoring right winger Mickey Redmond, shut down since January with a bad back, is spotted playing tennis in suburban Detroit. Photos of Mickey on the courts appear in the local papers. GM Alex Delvecchio isn’t happy. Redmond is mad at the media. The two former teammates stop talking to each other.

Redmond ends up being done as a player. He tries a comeback in 1979 but it lasts about a week in training camp.

Another Wilson tries his hand

It’s January 1977. The Red Wings are once again pulling up the rear in the NHL. Delvecchio, by now the GM as well as coach, tires of doing both jobs and resigns with the team 13-26-5. He does that Red Wings thing again of promoting a minor league coach—this time Johnny Wilson’s brother and fellow ex-Red Wing, Larry Wilson.

Wilson has a reputation of running grueling practices and vows to instill toughness. To say that the Red Wings didn’t respond to Wilson is a gross understatement. They cross the finish line under Wilson by going 3-29-4 in the season’s last 36 games, which is his career NHL coaching record.

Rogie!

It’s August 1978. The Red Wings enjoyed a sort of “resurgence” the previous season, under rookie GM Ted Lindsay’s leadership. They make the playoffs, win a series, then get blasted out by the powerhouse Canadiens in five games.

Lindsay, in an ill-advised move, signs 33-year-old goalie Rogie Vachon from the Kings as a restricted free agent. Worse, Lindsay submits a ridiculously lowball offer to the Kings as compensation. The Kings want young star center Dale McCourt. An arbitrator, who can only choose one offer or the other, has no choice but to award McCourt to the Kings.

McCourt fights the decision, taking the NHL to, um, court, costing the Red Wings gobs of money, along with league-wide embarrassment.

The Red Wings play with both McCourt and Vachon while the legalities play out, but it doesn’t help. Vachon is awful—a totally washed up goalie with dwindling confidence. On opening night against the Blues, Rogie surrenders six goals on 14 shots, which sets the tone for his two seasons as a Red Wing.

McCourt wins his case and stays in Detroit, with the Red Wings relaying Andre St. Laurent and two first round draft picks to Los Angeles. One of those draft picks ends up being defenseman Larry Murphy.

The Red Wings follow their Cinderella season with a 23-41-16 record, and there will be no playoffs for them again until 1984. Lindsay is stripped of his GM duties in 1980, coaches the team, and loses that job as well after a 3-14-3 record behind the bench.

The 1970s began as “Darkness with Harkness” and ended with the Red Wings in pretty much the same state of disarray in 1979. It was quite a ride. Kind of like a never ending freefall. Every time you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you were proven wrong.

After so much success between 1992-2015, I never thought I’d see truly bad Red Wings teams again—teams that could cause me to recollect the 1970s Dead Things.

I guess I was wrong.

The end of the coaching line for NHL’s Prickly Pear?

Published Dec. 2, 2019

In a sport filled with lines of all sorts, it was one of the most legendary.

“You hate the guy for 364 days,” it goes (and I’m paraphrasing), “and on the 365th day, you lift the Stanley Cup.”

It was uttered by a former Montreal Canadiens player, speaking of iconic coach Scotty Bowman, who led Les Habitants to four straight Cups (among five overall in Montreal) between 1976-79. And Scotty, as the speaker above indicated, didn’t exactly make a lot of friends along the way, amidst all that winning.

Bowman left a trail of disgruntled, offended players in his wake, but a great deal of those dudes are also wearing multiple rings on their calloused fingers. I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that it was worth what Bowman put them through.

Scotty was a master of the good old-fashioned tactic of messing with your head, to hear his former players say it. And Bowman didn’t just pick on the third and fourth liners. In Detroit, no less than Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan could count themselves among Scotty’s victims of his cranial craft.

But Bowman won. A lot. Nine Stanley Cup-winning teams had Scotty Bowman as their coach, across three franchises.

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Today’s NHL not conducive to Babs’ style

But Bowman’s tactics might not play today. In fact, they probably wouldn’t. Just ask Mike Babcock. Actually, ask those who played for him. It won’t be a G-rated conversation, to warn you.

Babcock got the ziggy in Toronto a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs in the throes of a six-game losing streak and the players near revolt. It wasn’t supposed to end that way in Toronto, but with Babs, that’s the chance you take when you hire a man of his ilk.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a fact that most hockey fans in Toronto know more readily than their wedding anniversaries or their kids’ birthdays. And today, some four years and change after hiring Babcock, the Leafs are arguably no closer to sipping from hockey’s chalice than before they pulled a Brinks truck up to Babs’ house.

Leafs braintrust, led by, ironically, Shanahan, was drinking a cocktail of desperate and urgent (enabled by deep pockets) when they inked the free agent coach away from Detroit back in the summer of 2015. It wasn’t a bad move, really.

Babcock, at the time, was the hottest coaching commodity in the NHL, despite the Red Wings’ downward trend when the Leafs reached out. He had three Cup Finals under his belt, winning one and coming extremely close to winning another on two occasions, in Detroit and Anaheim. He won at the international level as well, being the only coach to capture gold medals at the World Junior Championships (1997), the World Championship (2004) and the Olympics (2010 and 2014).

His coaching success was clear and not to be argued. Now, as far as his methods…well, that’s where your non-G-rated conversations begin.

Alienating, shaming players

In Toronto, it came to light that Babcock’s treatment of rookie Mitch Marner in 2018 was beyond reprehensible. The coach asked Marner to record the slackers on the Leafs roster, but then Babcock went public with those identified, telling the so-called slackers that Marner was the source. Babcock subsequently apologized to Marner, but the damage had been done.

Babcock’s relationship with Leafs star Auston Matthews wasn’t warm and fuzzy, either, which makes Matthews the rule rather than the exception.

This column isn’t designed to post a laundry list of those who Babcock offended and how (just Google Mike Commodore/Mike Babcock for some fun). It’s to openly question whether Babs will ever coach again in the NHL.

The expansion Seattle franchise has been mentioned on the Interwebs as a possible destination for Babcock, whose hefty, eight-year contract was swallowed by the Leafs with four years remaining on it.

I suppose an expansion club could be interested in hiring a big name like Babcock, but does his toxicity extend so far that even a newbie team would stay away?

The pundits in Toronto who cover the Leafs (plus the fans, who have been through hell and high water with that franchise) have hinted that Babs’ style and strategies are outdated and no longer a winning recipe in today’s progressive NHL. That’s not even taking his prickly nature into account.

Mike Keenan, sort of a Scotty Bowman Lite, was the Billy Martin of the NHL—taking his act across damn near half the league, where at each stop it would inevitably flame out after a short shelf life, despite periods of genuine winning. Keenan’s poor relationship with players, especially the stars, finally caught up to him until finally no NHL team would give him the keys to their dressing room.

Not even winning the Cup in 1994 with the Rangers could keep Keenan in employ, as he resigned later that summer after a contract dispute with GM Neil Smith.

Mike Babcock doesn’t have to coach anymore. He is likely set financially at age 56. Maybe we’ll see him someday in a TV studio as kind of a Barry Melrose type.

But if Babcock wants to coach, it might not matter. Unlike Bowman and, to a degree Keenan before his act tired, teams might not be beating down Babs’ door as they would have in 2015. While Babcock did lift the Leafs a notch or two, his teams in Toronto went 0-3 in playoff series.

The NHL’s Prickly Pear may have pissed off his last player.

Grapes stepped out of his lane and into the doo-doo

Published Nov. 13, 2019

No matter on which side of the fence you reside when it comes to the incredibly polarizing cashiering of commentator Don Cherry by Sportsnet, i.e. Hockey Night In Canada, one thing should be clear: Grapes has only himself to blame.

Freedom of speech doesn’t equate to the freedom from the consequences of said speech. And Cherry, who got the ziggy for wandering out of his hockey lane and ranting about immigrants under the guise of Canadian patriotism, pushed his agenda too far on the air last Saturday. No one told him to do it.

Cherry’s has been the Mouth That Roared on HNIC for decades, doing his between-periods “Coach’s Corner.” And those unfiltered types almost invariably stray from their primary purpose, only to step into doo-doo in the process.

Comparison to ‘Jimmy the Greek’

Sometimes the moment is unguarded and outside the studio, as was the case with Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, whose offhand comments about black athletes during a TV interview at a Washington, D.C. restaurant in January 1988 got him fired by CBS.

But in Cherry’s case, the remarks tumbled out of Grapes’ mouth like a gumball from a dispenser, in the studio, in familiar territory for him. To wit:

“I live in Mississauga [Ontario]. Very few people wear the poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears the poppy. … Now you go to the small cities. You people … that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life. You love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price for that.”

The key words in Cherry’s spiel were “You people,” because Grapes was referring to immigrants. But beyond that, the framework of his diatribe was that, in Don Cherry’s world, there’s only one way to show patriotism: by wearing the poppy. To not do so is, by extrapolation, to be unpatriotic.

There’s nothing wrong with Cherry’s passion and support for Canada’s military veterans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And, it being on the virtual eve of Remembrance Day, one can argue that it was topical.

But not really. Because it wasn’t about hockey.

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‘Hockey Grapes’ = no harm, no foul

Don Cherry didn’t stay in his lane. He strayed, and into the doo-doo he stepped.

Cherry, love him or hate him, has been entertaining hockey fans for nearly 40 years on HNIC and with his short-lived TV show in the 1980s, “Don Cherry’s Grapevine.” His boisterous, loudmouth persona plays well with hockey enthusiasts. His frequent fawning over his three favorite players—Bobby Orr, Doug (Dougie) Gilmour and Steve (Stevie) Yzerman—became legendary.

Even Cherry’s unbridled disdain (since softened slightly) for players not from North America was winked at. While a form of hockey xenophobia, there was no real harm done. So Don Cherry hates European players—so what? As more players dotted NHL rosters who weren’t from Canada or the United States, it was obvious to everyone (except maybe Cherry himself) that Grapes’ vitriol was nothing more than a losing battle and made him look rather silly. But it was all in good fun.

Cherry liked a good on-ice scrap. So what? He took the perhaps antiquated stance that the more fighting there was in the game, the less stick work there was. No harm, no foul.

He didn’t like players who wore face shields. So what? Everyone knows that among professional athletes, hockey players are among the last you could accuse of being less than manly. That was just Grapes being Grapes.

His repartee on the air with his foil, Ronnie MacLean, gave Canada maybe the country’s best entertainment duo since Wayne and Shuster were at their peak in the 1950s and ’60s. MacLean was Cherry’s straight man. Loudmouth boobs always like to have quiet, unassuming folks around them. MacLean sat right next to Cherry but yet he was barely there. Still, you couldn’t imagine Don Cherry on camera by himself; he needed someone to function as a sounding board. MacLean filled that role perfectly, if quietly at times.

‘Non-hockey Grapes’ = potential danger

Cherry is 85 and it’s amazing, frankly, that it took him this long to step into the doo-doo. But therein lies the lesson: If Grapes had only stuck to hockey, he’d be on the air this Saturday night, on schedule.

This isn’t to say that sports commentators can’t mention, at all, anything that isn’t directly related to their respective areas of expertise. But Cherry didn’t know when to stop. He could have paid his respects to his beloved country and its warriors without going out of his way to berate those who don’t “wear the poppy.”

With nothing to lose now, Cherry has doubled down on his remarks. Those who thought that Grapes would curl into a ball, apologize and beg for his job back, have probably never watched 30 seconds of any randomly selected “Coach’s Corner” segment. The closest Cherry has come to offering a mea culpa was in saying that he maybe should have “used different words.”

He shouldn’t have used different words. He should have not ventured into the territory to begin with.

To talk in hockey terms as they do with goalies who let in a soft goal, perhaps Grapes would like to “have that one back.” Maybe even he of the big mouth wishes that he had exercised some degree of self-restraint.

As for the polarization, the support for Cherry is palpable. Social media has mostly rallied around Grapes. He’s saying what Canadians are thinking, his supporters insist. Maybe. But maybe not all Canadians. Maybe not even the majority of Canadians.

Those same supporters have started online movements to petition for Cherry’s reinstatement. They wonder what the big kerfuffle is all about. Cherry’s critics wonder why his supporters can’t understand the kerfuffle.

But one thing remains. Don Cherry would still be employed if he only chose to not stray too far from hockey. He stepped into the doo-doo and once you do that, you can’t unstep from it. And the clean up is messy and smelly.

Dear Abby: What happened to you?

Published Oct. 13, 2019

If Justin Abdelkader’s career didn’t go in the toilet, there wouldn’t be any question about who the next Red Wings captain would be, as there is now.

The team is currently going with four alternates, as there’s apparently some hesitation in pinning the “C” on Dylan Larkin, as has been bantied about for quite some time.

But the point should be moot. The Red Wings shouldn’t be considering going all Steve Yzerman/1986 on Larkin, the 23-year-old wonder.

The C should be Abdelkader’s. But not only is Abby unworthy, his role on the team is undefined.

Summer of 2016: Lock him up!

Full disclosure: I wanted the Red Wings to lock up the MSU grad in the summer of 2016, ensuring that he not be able to test the free agent waters. I felt strongly that Abdelkader was a future team captain, due to his grittiness, nose for the net, his heading into his prime and his tenure with the Red Wings (he debuted in 2008).

The Red Wings took my (ahem) advice, and signed Abdelkader to a seven year, $29.75 million deal in 2016. Captaincy after Henrik Zetterberg’s waning but brilliant career seemed to be the logical next step.

But the Abdelkader who we knew at age 29 when he inked his big contract, has vanished. Poof!

He’s on the wrong side of 30 now (he’ll be 33 in February) and I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see the same no. 8 as we did pre-contract. Ever.

But why?

Before 2016’s deal, Abby was about as complete a forward as you could hope to have in the NHL. He had popped in 42 goals the previous two seasons. He had amassed 192 penalty minutes. But more than those tangible numbers were the intangibles.

Abdelkader was hard to play against. He agitated. He got under people’s skin. He was always around the puck—in the corners, in open ice. Even on the nights when he didn’t register a point, you knew he had played. He made his presence felt.

All that is gone now.

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No identity, no presence

Abdelkader once had an identity. Now, he doesn’t. Gone are those intangibles. He’s just another forward. On many nights he’s invisible. The hard numbers went down the tubes as well. In the three seasons combined after signing the big deal, Abby has scored just 26 goals. This season is the same as those three: zero goals in the Red Wings’ first five ganes.

Because this nosedive into oblivion has coincided with the Red Wings’ rebuild and the emergence of youngsters like Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Betuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou et al, Abdelkader almost seems to get a pass from the fans and the media. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a free agent signed away from another team, like the Stephen Weiss debacle a few years ago.

Abdelkader, by all rights, should be booed out of town. He’s committing larceny every night in plain view. But because the team is in transition, all is forgiven, I guess.

By all accounts, no one in the Red Wings organization has given up on Abdelkader. Coach Jeff Blashill, just before the season started, spoke of Abby playing “on the verge of recklessness.” Blashill commented that just because a guy who once scored 20 goals hasn’t done so in a while, it doesn’t mean that he can’t do it again.

Those are either words of encouragement or of grand delusion.

Untradeable

To his credit, Abdelkader, in a fit of self-reflection, knew that his recent play has been unacceptable, and thus engaged in an intense off-season training regimen.

“More focus on speed and quickness,” said Abdelkader of his training. “The game’s so fluid, so fast, I’m just making sure I’m giving myself the best opportunity to go out and be the player I know I can be.”

The trouble is, the player that Abdelkader thinks he can be, might not be the player he is now able to be. Hockey players who are about to turn 33 typically don’t find the fountain of youth and turn back the clock.

But what else can the Red Wings be, other than patient? They can’t trade Abby, with this $4.75 million payroll hit per season and with three years left on his contract after next spring. At least, they can’t trade him without swallowing large portions of the deal whole.

They could cut him, but that simply hasn’t been the Red Wings’ style, although with new GM Steve Yzerman on board, you never know.

Abdelkader is holding the team hostage now. Believe it or not, despite his rotten production since 2016, he still holds the cards. His past performance gives management a glimmer of hope that he can recapture some of that, yet his most recent body of work suggests otherwise.

The big contract may be an albatross for the Red Wings, but it’s a lifeline for Abdelkader’s roster spot.

What I don’t understand is the lack of physical presence and the disappearance of his agitating, grating ways. Why did that have to go away with his scoring production? Honest to goodness, on many nights after a game I couldn’t tell you whether Abdelkader was in the lineup or not. If you had falsely told me that he was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, I would have believed you.

In a way, maybe this is all moot. Abdelkader doesn’t represent the future of the Red Wings. And he’s not why the team has missed the playoffs the past three springs.

But wouldn’t it be nice if, during this transition, Abdelkader could go back to being Abdelkader—even a little bit? Wouldn’t that help the cause in the short term?

Forget being the next captain of the Red Wings. All we wonder now is, how long can Justin Abdelkader remain on the team?

It’s quite a tumble, I tell you.

OK to add MLB Line to list of fine Red Wings’ forward trios of the past

Published Oct. 6, 2019

It’s one of the most iconic photographs in Detroit sports history, and indeed in all of hockey history.

Three forwards, in their blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest, in mid-skate, closely bunched, smiling and looking down at the ice at a puck of which they are fully controlling.

I have no idea how many takes it took to capture the image, but you know the one. Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. The Production Line. A wonderful take on the car industry in the Motor City, as well as the offensive prowess of that legendary, Hall of Fame trio in the late-1940s, early-1950s.

One of my prized possessions is the photo, signed by all three Red Wings. You can have it, if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

The Red Wings had another iteration of the Production Line in the late-1960s. Howe was still on the right wing, but center Alex Delvecchio and left wing Frank Mahovlich flanked no. 9. They were the Production Line II.

Great lines of the past

The history of NHL hockey is adorned with many forward lines who earned nicknames. There was the Bruins’ Kraut Line of the 1940s, so named because of the German ancestry of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer.

The Rangers of the 1970s had the GAG (Goal a Game) line of Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert. The Sabres in that time had the French Connection (Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert). And on and on.

The Red Wings of 1987-88 used an unusual combination of Gerard Gallant, Steve Yzerman and Bob Probert to march to the league’s semifinals—a season in which Yzerman scored 50 goals for the first time in his career and Probert had a career year, potting 29 goals (despite 398 penalty minutes!) and breaking Howe’s franchise record for points in one playoff year (21).

The famous forward lines have lost their zing as coaches in the league frequently shuffle wingers and centers like playing cards, often within the same game.

MLB line?

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Yet the Red Wings of today have a line that I doubt coach Jeff Blashill will fool around with too much.

In Saturday night’s 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in their season opener, the Red Wings’ trio of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi terrorized the Preds, figuring in four of the five goals.

In their last nine games dating back to last season, that line has tallied an astounding 47 points. Incidentally, the Red Wings are 7-2 in those games.

Get used to this unbalanced scoring for the Winged Wheelers, at least for the near future. Mantha, Larkin and Bertuzzi (they need a nickname, by the way) are, without question, the Red Wings’ no. 1 line—the same way that of the Aaron brothers, Hank is the no. 1 home run hitter.

But that’s OK. The Red Wings are building something, and unlike their counterparts who kick around baseballs in Comerica Park, the hockey rebuild has definitive light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. And it isn’t emanating from the equally proverbial oncoming train.

So while the other forwards—a mix of kids and veterans—get their sea legs and occasionally chip in a goal or two, the MLB line (working title) will be happy to be the dominant point producers.

“For us as a line, it’s huge,” Mantha said of the opening night onslaught of production. “We just right away come back to where we left off last year. It’s exactly what we wanted. This game just proves that we’re meant to be a first line together and hopefully we can stick around for the whole season.”

Are you listening, coach?

“They know how to play together,” Blashill said after Saturday’s game. “They kind of feed off each other. Dylan kind of drives the line with his energy. Bert is greasy, he’s skilled, he’s smart. And Mo has that great skill package. They’ve been a really good line together. They enjoy playing together and we’re going to need them to be great.” 

Other forwards must contribute

The Red Wings have other veteran forwards who, in their careers, have bobbed to the surface offensively with fine years. But most of those guys are well into their 30s. This is a full-on rebuild. The Frans Nielsens, Justin Abdelkaders, Darren Helmses and Val Filppulas likely won’t be in Detroit—or even active players—when GM Steve Yzerman’s project comes to fruition.

So it’s the MLB line or bust for now, on most nights. Veteran mucker Luke Glendening chipped in with a fine goal Saturday night as well, but make no mistake: the league will be filled with game plans for the Red Wings that pretty much will say, “Stop those no. 1 guys and we’ll take our chances with everyone else.”

The Predators, who accumulated 100 points last season and made the playoffs yet again, are considered one of the top teams in the West. But they had no answer for the MLB kids on Saturday. In fact, the Preds haven’t been able to figure out the Red Wings, period, lately. Saturday’s win was Detroit’s sixth straight in Nashville and the Preds are 1-10 against the Red Wings in their last 11 meetings. Go figure.

The chemistry of a successful forward line in hockey ought not to be underestimated. The game is so fast, so knowing the little things about your linemates such as where they like to position themselves in the attacking zone, how they like the puck to be served to them and so forth, is critical. There’s also a certain trust factor involved.

Mantha, after Saturday night’s first period, told Fox Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson that the MLB line is having fun and really enjoys playing together. “We’re three different types of players,” Mantha said, but in hockey that’s considered a positive for a forward line. Opposites really do attract.

The rest of the league will design its defense to do what it can to shackle the MLB line. That’s a given. But if the Red Wings can find some semblance of offense from their myriad of other forwards, the rebuild could take a big stride this season. Andreas Athanasiou, he of 30 goals scored last season, didn’t play on Saturday, don’t forget.

One down, 81 to go. Since the MLB season was so unkind to Detroit fans in 2019, it’s only fair that those initials bring a ray of sunshine on the ice this winter, eh?