With old pal Gallant behind bench, don’t bet against Vegas

Published Nov. 18, 2017

The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t your father’s NHL expansion team.

They don’t catch their skates on the blue line. They don’t lose 12-2. They don’t spend 60 minutes every night chasing the puck like they have blindfolds on. They don’t look up at the scoreboard as soon as the National Anthem is done playing and see themselves trailing 2-0.

The Golden Knights don’t do any of those things. In fact, they’re playing as if they’ve been in the league for 10 years.

The Golden Knights have cooled a little since their 8-1-0 start, but at 11-6-1 they’re making a mockery of what being a freshman NHL team used to entail.

I come from the days of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, an expansion team that won a grand total of eight games in their maiden season, with only one of those wins coming on the road.

The NHL has expanded a bunch of times since those laughable Caps, but never has a brand-new team taken the league by storm as the Golden Knights have this year.

The Golden Knights play at T Mobile Arena, where they’re 7-1 and averaging nearly 18,000 fans a night. They have no history and are building their legacy game by game. Yet not only could Las Vegas’ new NHL team qualify for the playoffs as an expansion team, they could (gulp) win the Pacific Division. As I write this, the Golden Knights are just one point behind the first-place Los Angeles Kings.

You wanna bet against a team that plays in Vegas? What is that even like?

Under Gallant, unprecedented expansion team success (so far)

Granted, the NHL doesn’t currently throw its expansion teams to the wolves the way the league used to do back in the day, when all first-year franchises were put behind the 8-ball when it came to building a respectable roster. Expansion teams were bringing a knife to a gunfight every night.

Hence those ’75 Capitals, with a roster dotted with players who would have been hard-pressed to qualify for other NHL teams’ minor league affiliates.

Still, even though the NHL has rejiggered the way newbies can procure NHL-ready talent from the drop of the first puck, for the Golden Knights to be doing what they’re doing is unprecedented. They became the first league expansion team to win seven of their first eight games, to wit.

So who coaches these guys, anyway?

Ah, yes—our old pal Gerry Gallant.

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Gallant, after a suspect firing in Florida, is living the good life in Las Vegas.

 

There’s a reason why Gallant wasn’t out of work for very long after being given the ziggy by the Florida Panthers almost a year ago (Nov. 27, 2016).  Gallant was snatched up by the Golden Knights just five months after being let go by the Panthers.

I think the Panthers will come to rue the day they let Gallant go, if they haven’t already.

Gallant led the Panthers to a 47-26-9 record and an Atlantic Division championship in 2015-16, but Florida lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Islanders, who joined the NHL as part of the league’s third expansion in 1972.

But after a mediocre 11-10-1 start last November, new Panthers GM Tom Rowe fired Gallant. This morning, the Panthers woke up with a 7-9-2 record. Just saying.

This isn’t Gallant’s first rodeo with a brand new NHL franchise. He was minding his own business as an assistant coach for the fourth-year Columbus Blue Jackets in 2004 when head coach Doug MacLean was fired, elevating Gerry into the big chair. Gallant spent parts of three seasons as the Jackets coach, then eight years after his last game coached in Columbus, he returned to the NHL as head coach of the Panthers in 2014.

Gallant won 38, then 47 games in his two full seasons in Florida, yet the Panthers, an expansion franchise themselves (Class of 1993) that hasn’t exactly been synonymous with on-ice success, broomed Gallant.

It didn’t take long after Gallant was fired in Florida for fans in other NHL cities to pump for Gerry as their team’s new coach—even if there wasn’t a vacancy.

One of those teams’ fan bases was Detroit’s.

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In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Gallant played the tough second to Steve Yzerman in Detroit.

“Gallant envy” runs throughout league, including in Detroit

Red Wings fans clamored for a time, before Gallant was announced in Las Vegas, for the team to cashier Jeff Blashill and hire old no. 17 to take Blash’s place.

It was more than mere nostalgia that drove the “Hire Gallant” sentiment. It was more than remembering the 207 goals that Gerry scored while playing for the Red Wings—many of those coming while patrolling Steve Yzerman’s left side, when Gallant and Bob Probert were sandwiched around Stevie and “kept the flies off him,” as former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock would say.

The pro-Gallant feeling that other teams’ fan bases have is based on the reputation Gallant has as being very Babcock-like behind the bench: a winner who is tough, who is not your friend but who is also fair. Babcock himself has been described as a modern day Scotty Bowman type—a coach that players might curse under their breath but under whom also enjoy great on-ice success.

“Players really, really enjoy playing for (Gallant),” Yzerman, now the GM of the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning, said recently about the Golden Knights’ success under Gerry, which doesn’t surprise Stevie in the least. “He’s not easy, by any means. He’s not your buddy, but he’s straight forward and he’s honest.”

Gallant is consumed by hockey. “It’s his whole life,” ex-teammate Yzerman said. But even an old-time hockey guy like Gallant can’t truly explain the eye-opening, early-season success of his Golden Knights.

“I’m surprised that we’re playing as well as we’ve played,” Gallant recently told SI.com.

Don’t bet against Vegas

What Gallant is doing in Vegas—and it’s part of why he’s coveted by envious fans of other teams—is he’s keeping his players relaxed, hungry and getting them to believe in themselves. That’s a trifecta that not every NHL coach can pull off.

Knights center Jonathan Marchessault has more experience than his teammates in playing for Gallant, because he did it in Florida as well.

”He wants us to be loose, make plays and have confidence; and I think that he gives us confidence,” Marchessault said recently. ”For a coach, it’s kind of rare. You’re scared to do mistakes. But with Turk (Gallant’s nickname), it’s not like that. He wants you to try hard and if you do a mistake, at least you do it while you’re trying hard.”

The Knights do have one expansion team quality, however: they’ve already used five goalies in 18 games. One of them is grizzled veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh. Fleury has only played in a handful of games so far, but team management understood that it can’t hurt to dot the roster with guys who’ve tasted the NHL’s ultimate measure of success.

Gallant himself never won a Cup as a player, but he played on two Red Wings teams that made the Final Four (1987 and 1988). At his best as a player, Gallant was known as one of the league’s upper echelon power forwards—a guy who could score 30 goals, fight and keep the opponents honest. He was Brendan Shanahan in Detroit before Brendan Shanahan.

Can the Golden Knights keep this up? They’re an expansion team, for crying out loud. Don’t they know that their place is among the league’s dregs?

Not according to Gerry.

“I want my guys coming here with a clean slate every day,” he says. “We don’t worry about what we did yesterday, we worry about what we’re going to do tomorrow and the next day. We know we got a long way to go and we know if we let up one bit we’re not going to win hockey games. If we continue to play the way we’re playing right now, then we can beat any team, any given night.”

So far, 11 times in 18 games, the Golden Knights have done just that.

How dare they!

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Almost 37, Z still wears the ‘C’ with aplomb

Published September 30, 2017

He’s not the last man standing from the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup team. In fact, he’s not even the last Swede standing from that championship club.

But Henrik Zetterberg is still a relic. His sweater—in hockey, it’s not a jersey, it’s a sweater—should be behind glass in a display at the new Little Caesars Arena. The Red Wings would love to do that, except for the fact that Zetterberg is still wearing it.

He wore it 82 times last season—every regular season game. Zetterberg wore it for all 82 games in 2015-16 as well, and for 77 games the season before that. The older he gets, the more durable he gets. He’s the opposite of a battery.

He’s also the Red Wings’ most complete player. Still.

That’s a fact but it could be taken two ways.

The optimist would say that it’s a nice story that Zetterberg, who’ll be 37 in ten days, can claim that designation. The cynic would say that it’s an indictment of the team’s roster that one of the league’s AARP members is the team’s best player.

No matter how you choose to look at it, Zetterberg, who became team captain upon the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2012, is by far the Red Wings’ most consistent man on the ice on any given night.

“He always seemed to have the puck”

Zetterberg, who made his NHL debut in 2002, is another of the Red Wings’ star players who was far from being a top draft choice. He was the 210th player taken off the board (seventh round) in the 1999 Entry Draft.

The Red Wings’ super scouts in Europe, led by Hakan Andersson (who should be in the Hall of Fame, by the way), found Zetterberg during a tournament in Finland in 1999. And Z wasn’t the player that Andersson and then-assistant general manager Jim Nill came to see play.

Andersson wanted to have a look at a winger named Mattias Weinhandl. But Nill couldn’t keep his eyes off “this little Zetterberg guy who always seemed to have the puck.”

Yet Weinhandl was drafted far ahead of Z in 1999 (78th overall), after all. By the time the Red Wings took their turn in the seventh round, Zetterberg was still available and, remembering Nill’s impression from that Finnish tournament, the Wings took a flyer on the 18 year-old Swede.

Weinhandl, by the way, played in 182 NHL games, divided between the New York Islanders and the Minnesota Wild.

Zetterberg has exceeded that figure by 818 games, and counting.

His career total in games played stands at an even 1,000, with game 1K coming in the last game ever played at Joe Louis Arena.

Z’s current Iron Man status is even more amazing when you consider that when he was 33, Zetterberg had trouble staying on the ice, due to an assortment of injuries, primarily having to do with his back. He played in just 45 contests in 2013-14.

Back troubles are notorious for getting worse as a professional athlete gets older.

Zetterberg is getting older yet his back is getting better. Go figure.

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Zetterberg, at age 36, played some of his best hockey last season.

The ‘fine wine’ player

He doesn’t get up and down the ice as briskly as he once did, and speed was never his thing, anyway. Zetterberg relies now more on his brains than his legs. You don’t have to be a speed skater if you know the best routes to the puck. Age begets efficiency.

But despite the wear on his treads, Zetterberg still manages to be one of his team’s best forecheckers and penalty killers. He has what the hockey people call, a “smart stick,” which comes in handy when the years on the calendar are flying by with the speed you don’t possess on the ice.

The Iron Man status may be in jeopardy, though. Zetterberg hasn’t played in any of the Red Wings’ exhibition games yet, and will only suit up once before the regular season starts, due to a nagging neck injury.

Zetterberg notched 17 goals last season, but his 51 assists were the second highest total in his 14-year career. He was plus-15 in 2016-17, which came after he was minus-15 the season before—a plus-30 turnaround in one year.

The irony of Zetterberg’s career, and maybe it’s sad irony, is that after years of playing in the shadows of, in order: Steve Yzerman, Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, now that the Red Wings are truly Z’s team, there isn’t much to write home about in Hockeytown, aside from the team’s sparkling new ice palace.

During Z’s captaincy, the Red Wings have advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once, and last season, the much-ballyhooed playoff streak ended with a whimper.

This year’s Red Wings aren’t moving the meter of most hockey experts. One pre-season forecast after the other has the Red Wings finishing last in the Atlantic Division.

Cue the cynics once more.

“What do you expect, when the Red Wings’ best player is almost 37 years old?”

But Zetterberg didn’t choose when to be born. He can’t help it if he’s the team’s oldest player. And he certainly can’t be blamed for a nightly effort that rarely leaves anything to be desired.

A legacy of leadership

“I think Henrik will go down as one of the best winners of his era,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill told the media after that last game at JLA.

“He’s probably one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around in my life,” Blashill added. “His competitive desire is unreal. It’s not an outwardly competitiveness where he is real emotional — it’s just his ability to grind.”

Blashill’s comments sound like they could have been said about Zetterberg’s predecessors wearing the C—Lidstrom and Yzerman, whose leadership didn’t revolve around rah-rah speeches.

“I can’t hear what you say, I only hear what you do,” is how a long-ago pro football coach put it.

The Red Wings’ push to the make the playoffs near the end of last season didn’t seem to have much urgency. The team’s play on too many nights was uninspiring.

Except for the play of no. 40.

“You just go out and work as hard as you can,” Zetterberg said as the season was winding down. “I am just enjoying every day of being in this league. I’m having a lot of good fun with all the guys.”

Zetterberg isn’t a titular captain. He doesn’t wear the C out of reverence. He’s the team’s oldest player but he’s also its wisest. And, on just about every night, its best.

Age is just a number. Speaking of which, maybe Henrik Zetterberg will play in the NHL until his age matches the number on his sweater.

At the rate he’s going, who knows how good he’ll be by then?

Old Red Wings goalie Rutherford, tiny on the ice, is now a front office giant

Published May 27, 2017

Historically, the NHL goalie has been a bundle of raw nerves.

Glenn Hall used to throw up before every game, then down a glass of orange juice.

Roger Crozier went into brief retirement at the age of 25, suffering from stress, depression and pancreatitis.

Roy Edwards battled anxiety as hard as he did pucks.

Terry Sawchuk was the best goalie of them all, and also the most tormented, internally.

Jimmy Rutherford would wake up in a cold sweat, demonized by dreams of dozens of pucks being fired at him simultaneously.

It was about a decade after his retirement when I caught Rutherford in another moment of nerves.

Jimmy, the old Red Wings goalie during the debacle of hockey for the franchise that was the 1970s, was the general manager of the OHL’s Detroit Junior Red Wings at the time. I was directing TV coverage of the Junior Wings’ games. This was December, 1991.

A couple of days prior, Rutherford gave the ziggy to coach Andy Weidenbach, and named himself coach.

Jimmy’s first game behind the Junior Wings’ bench happened to coincide with one of the televised games. It was a snowy night, so nasty that the opposing team’s bus was running late to Joe Louis Arena. Jimmy hadn’t coached a game since he did so for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in 1987.

Rutherford, his goalie’s nerves kicking in once again, paced the hallway outside the Junior Wings’ dressing room, arms folded, staring at the floor. He was the loneliest man in Detroit. That’s when I caught him.

“What a night for this to happen, eh?” I said, smirking, knowing that he was nervous enough about making his coaching debut for the Junior Wings without the game being delayed.

Jimmy shrugged. “What can you do? I just want to get this over with.”

The Junior Wings won that night, in a game that started about two hours late.

Jimmy didn’t stay long in coaching. He found the executive washroom much more to his liking.

The Karmanos family, which owned the Junior Wings, ended up buying the NHL’s Hartford Whalers. Peter Karmanos tabbed Rutherford to be his GM in 1994, and Jimmy stayed in that position after the team relocated in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes.

Rutherford—they called him “Roach” in his playing days—was diminutive as a goalie (5’8”) but has become a front office giant in the NHL.

He built the Hurricanes into a Stanley Cup finalist in 2002 and the ‘Canes won the Cup in 2006.

In 2014, Rutherford was hired away by the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the four teams he played for in the NHL. In Pittsburgh, Rutherford won another Cup (2016) and now his team is back in the Finals.

Last year, Jimmy was named NHL General Manager of the Year. He’s the dean of the league’s GMs, having held the position for one team or another for the past 23 years.

Rutherford was the Red Wings’ goalie when the team was awful. He played his heart out, but the team in front of him rarely returned the favor. Pucks flew at him from all directions; hence his bad dreams.

Yet Rutherford holds the Red Wings record for most consecutive shutouts by a goalie—three—set during the 1975-76 season.

Sawchuk never did that. Crozier never did that. Neither did Hasek, Vernon or Osgood.

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Rutherford as a Red Wing in 1976.

It’s not a stretch to say that Jimmy Rutherford, beleaguered goalie turned NHL executive, should be a serious Hall of Fame candidate.

When he took the Penguins job in 2014, the first thing he did was fire the coach, Dan Bylsma, who won a Cup in 2009. Jimmy didn’t succeed in the front office by being afraid to be bold.

Jimmy, who’s 68 now, is in his autumn years as a front office man. In fact, upon accepting the Penguins gig, he indicated that his stay would be two, maybe three years. He wanted to groom the next GM and be that guy’s mentor.

“This is a job that most GMs would love to have,” Rutherford said when hired by the Pens. “I was very lucky and very fortunate at this point in my career that I could get this opportunity.”

The Penguins, no doubt, would have said, “Right back at ya, Jimmy.”

Penguins president Dave Morehouse was effusive in his praise when the team announced Rutherford’s hiring.

“Jim is one of the most respected executives in the National Hockey League,” he said. “He also exemplifies class and dignity. We started identifying candidates for the GM position a few weeks ago and we knew he was someone we needed to talk to.”

It’s been three years in Pittsburgh, with a Cup won and another possible. What about Jimmy’s original plan, to stay for three years and pass the puck? After all, Rutherford signed a three-year extension with the Penguins last July.

“I don’t really think about it, so I guess the fact that I’m not thinking about it, I guess it’ll be for a while longer, whatever that means,” he said when asked about succession plans a couple weeks ago.  “When I start to think about something, it doesn’t usually happen that quick. I usually think about it for quite some time.”

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Rutherford’s ability to retool the Penguins on the fly has the team on the verge of a second straight Stanley Cup, which hasn’t been done since the 1998 Red Wings.

The mentoring/grooming thing is bearing fruit now. The Buffalo Sabres recently hired Rutherford’s assistant, Jason Botterill, to be their GM.

But right now it’s all about hockey—not retirement or mentoring or reflection.

Another Cup is there to be won. It would be Rutherford’s third as a GM. Not bad for a goalie who played in exactly eight playoff games in his 13-year NHL career.

The nerves will return, of course, when the puck drops on Monday night for Game 1 of the Finals. Just as they were front and center during Game 7’s double overtime victory in the Conference Finals series against Ottawa.

If the Penguins win the Cup in a couple weeks, Jimmy Rutherford, the old goalie, should start thinking about preparing a Hall of Fame induction speech.

More nerves.

This time, the fans are right: Stevie needs to come home

Published April 13, 2017

Some guys just wear certain threads well.

Al Kaline looks splendid in the Old English D. Can you imagine Al wearing anything else?

How out of place was it to see Tony Dorsett wearing the orange of the Denver Broncos? Or Hank Aaron in those hideous Milwaukee Brewer duds?

Ask Boston Bruins fans what they think of Bobby Orr wearing the Chicago Blackhawks sweater and be prepared to duck.

Stevie Yzerman still looks good in the Winged Wheel, doesn’t he?

On Sunday evening, Yzerman donned the blood red sweater yet again, as the Red Wings alumni helped bid farewell to Joe Louis Arena.

The adoring faithful chanted “Come home Stevie!” as Yzerman stepped onto the red carpeted ice, raising a hockey stick at the Joe one last time.

The chant was obvious. The fans want Yzerman to be the Red Wings’ next general manager.

Yzerman still looks good in the Winged Wheel.

It’s been five years since Yzerman took the Tampa Bay Lightning GM job and folks around Hockeytown still refuse to accept the images of Stevie giving press briefings with the Lightning bolt logo behind him.

Red Wings fans still think of the Lightning job as Yzerman’s apprenticeship in being an NHL front office guy. In their minds, Yzerman learned some executive ropes with the Red Wings after his 2006 retirement as a player, then went to Tampa to ply his new trade, and so it’s time to come home, seasoned in the ways of managing an NHL team.

And you know what? They’re right. It’s time. If not now, then soon.

The fans’ trust in Red Wings GM Kenny Holland is at an all-time low. And with good reason.

Despite missing the playoffs for the first time since 1991, which was several years coming, Holland still seems to be resistant to the notion that the Red Wings are in for a significant overhaul.

The fans have been bracing themselves, and are now ready, for a new era of Red Wings hockey. Missing the playoffs this spring was almost cathartic—to them.

Holland doesn’t seem to have the chops, or the wherewithal, to plunge into the depths of this new challenge. He’s not used to it. He’s never done it before.

Holland has been the Red Wings’ GM since 1997. That’s an awful long time to be a front office guy in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business.

It’s admirable, and the Holland era has been marked with three Stanley Cups under his watch. But people and their ideas get stale. You can even say that the game passes them by.

The fans want Yzerman to replace Holland, and they want it yesterday.

The Red Wings could do worse.

Yzerman isn’t a Tampa guy. It’s not in his DNA. He still resides in the Detroit area. You can tell from his words and emotions that he doesn’t just bleed red, he bleeds Red Wing red. The Winged Wheel is tattooed onto his heart.

The Lightning didn’t even come into existence until Yzerman was 10 years into his playing career.

Tampa is nice. It’s sunny and warm during the hockey season. But is that hockey weather, really?

Yzerman is Canadian first, Detroit second. He knows his way around a shovel and an ice scraper.

He has two years remaining on his contract with the Lightning, but you know how it goes with sports contracts. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to wriggle out of them.

Yzerman is too modest, too humble, too polite to say anything remotely indicative that he’d like to run the Red Wings. He has too much respect for Holland, for one, and for a fellow GM second.

But if you pumped Stevie full of truth serum, he’d tell you that he’d be thrilled to do for the Red Wings as a manager what he did for them three times as a player.

Yzerman is a seasoned GM now. This isn’t some former star player who’s never stepped foot into an executive washroom who’s being drafted by the fans to learn on the job.

So we know that being a general manager is something that Yzerman enjoys. He built the Lightning into Cup finalists in short order. He has been, without question, a success in the Tampa front office. He’s drafted well. He made some bold coaching decisions.

Frankly, Steve Yzerman threw himself into the Tampa job as if he’d been an NHL manager for years. He looks to be a natural.

But he’s not a Tampa guy. Not for the long haul. He’ll never wear the lightning bolt on his sleeve, truly.

The pull of the Red Wings is strong for him, I believe. So strong, that if the Red Wings gave him a call, he’d listen. Hard.

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Yzerman bade farewell to the JLA on Sunday, and he still looks good in the Winged Wheel.

Then there’s the matter of the Ilitch family.

There are rumblings that as long as Christopher Ilitch is running the show, Yzerman-to-Detroit won’t happen, for whatever reason. And Mike’s kid has already come out publicly in full support of Holland.

But you know how public votes of confidence go in sports. I’ve seen them followed by a firing less than 24 hours later.

I have no idea if the “Chris Ilitch will never hire Steve Yzerman” thing is true, nor do I know why it would be. Yzerman was always like a son to Mike and Marian Ilitch. And Marian is still alive and kicking.

Holland isn’t the man for this challenge that the Red Wings currently face. I firmly believe that. Kenny needs to be with a team that’s on the verge of winning, or is still relevant. He’s not built for this. Or, he needs to be booted even further upstairs with the Red Wings than he already is.

I know it can be tricky to pump for a local hero to return to his roots. Those stories don’t always end well.

And I remember what happened when the fans and the media cried for Dickie Vitale to coach the Pistons in 1978.

Yet John Elway has done wonderfully with the Denver Broncos. Mario Lemieux has done the same with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jimmy Harbaugh has full support at Michigan after two seasons.

It can be done successfully.

Perhaps Yzerman, in his earlier days of retirement, would have been more reticent to take on the GM role with the Red Wings. He likely would have seen himself as ill-equipped and too green for such a job. I can buy that.

Yzerman isn’t green any longer. He’s wise in the ways of running an NHL team. He’s got to be more comfortable in his own skin now, wearing Armani and wing tips instead of Nike and skates.

The Red Wings are ripe for change. They’re moving into a new arena. Their playoff streak is over. The old guard is pretty much gone.

The front office, led by Holland, has become stale. There’s no crime in that. It happens to the best of franchises.

Yzerman represents not only change, but competent change. He’s bold. He’s got an eye for talent. He understands player development. He knows what makes a good coach, and what doesn’t.

Yzerman would be taking over the Red Wings in a period of decline, which is probably the way it should be. Expectations are the lowest now than they’ve been for over 20 years in Detroit. No honest fan believes the Wings are on the verge of greatness.

But there’s some young talent on the roster. There are enough veterans who can still play who can help the kids along.

Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard isn’t bare.

Ken Holland, as it was duly noted on social media, didn’t speak during the Joe’s farewell festivities on Sunday. Sometimes silence can be deafening.

Holland was holed away while Yzerman, who the fans think could walk from Detroit to Windsor on the river, took his bows and enjoyed his thunderous ovations.

It can be tricky to pump for local heroes to return. But it’s not a doomed proposition, either.

Yzerman is still under contract with the Lightning. So what? You think that’s ironclad?

The fans chanted it on Sunday night, and so it’s repeated here, now.

Come home, Stevie. The Red Wings need you. Again.

 

 

From Y to Z: Red Wings’ playoff streak was something

Published March 31, 2017

It began with a 25 year-old captain.

The underdog Red Wings were up on the heavily favored St. Louis Blues, 3-1, in a first round best-of-seven playoff series. It was the spring of 1991.

Stevie Yzerman was back in the playoffs, this time as a seasoned young veteran. His previous foray into spring hockey came as a young 21 year-old, rookie captain. The Red Wings shocked the hockey world with back-to-back conference finals appearances in 1987 and 1988.

A bitter first round loss occurred in 1989. The next year, the Red Wings missed the playoffs entirely.

But here were Yzerman and the Red Wings, on the verge of a remarkable upset of the Brett Hull-led Blues in 1991.

They say the fourth win of a playoff series is the hardest to get, especially for the team not favored.

It was true in 1991. So, so true.

The Blues got off the mat and won three straight from Detroit to advance.  Yzerman was just 25 but had already experienced six playoff failures. His quest for a championship was still looked at as a foolish one.

That’s when The Streak began.

Little did anyone know back in 1991 that the Red Wings would be annual participants in the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament for the next 24 seasons. Certainly even Yzerman himself wouldn’t have dreamed of it.

What follows are random thoughts that come to mind to this hockey oldtimer, yours truly, culled from the memory banks.

My memories, though, go much further back than 1991. I’ve followed the Red Wings since 1970, but to give you a rundown of the slapstick hockey in Detroit for much of the 1970s and 1980s would be another column entirely.

So we’ll stick to the years between 1991-2016, seeing as how the Red Wings have officially been eliminated from playoff competition this spring.

1991

The Red Wings finished 29 points behind the Blues in the regular season. Their first round series was supposed to be short and sweet for the Blues.

But then the Red Wings jumped out to that 3-1 lead and fans in Detroit got giddy.

Alas, the fourth win never came.

The Blues showed the Wings who was boss, winning the final three games by an aggregate score of 12-3.

Bryan Murray, hired the prior summer as coach/GM, carried with him to Detroit the stigma of his Washington Capitals teams under performing in the playoffs.

It happened again.

1993

Murray was behind the bench again. It was the first round again.

The Red Wings made a daring deal in mid-season, acquiring future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey from the Kings.

Murray’s team managed 103 points and so had the home ice advantage over Toronto, who finished with 99 points.

But after winning the first two games in Detroit, the Wings saw the Leafs rattle off three straight wins, including in overtime in Game 5 in Detroit.

But the Red Wings demolished the Leafs, 7-3 in Toronto in Game 6.

Then, in overtime in Game 7, Nikolai Borschevsky happened.

Borschevsky was standing alone in front of Red Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae, and deflected home a shot by Bob Rouse from the blue line.

The Captain was at a loss.

“I really don’t know what to say right now,” Yzerman said softly, his voice shaken, to reporters in a silent Red Wings dressing room.

It was about to get much, much worse the following year.

1994

Murray, stripped of his coaching duties, was still the Red Wings GM. And in an attempt to upgrade the team in goal, Murray called the Winnipeg Jets and swapped goalie for goalie—Cheveldae for MSU alum Bob Essensa.

It was a colossal failure.

Essensa was awful for the Red Wings in the playoffs, despite a first round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks.

Essensa was so bad that coach Scotty Bowman went with 21 year-old rookie Chris Osgood for Game 7 of a series that the Red Wings were supposed to breeze through.

Osgood, late in a tied Game 7, made an iconic mistake, leaving his cage to try to clear the puck along the boards. Moments later, Jamie Baker fired the disc into the open net before Osgood could make it back in time.

If 1993 was bitter, 1994 was gut-wrenching, especially for the kid goalie Osgood, who spoke to reporters through tears afterward.

The Essensa trade was Bryan Murray’s desperate gamble that backfired. And it cost Murray his job.

1995

The left wing lock. The wink from the bench.

Those images are poison to Red Wings fans.

The New Jersey Devils came into existence in 1982, having been transplanted from Denver, where they were known as the Colorado Rockies. And for many years, the Devils were a league joke.

“They’re a Mickey Mouse organization,” Wayne Gretzky once said of the Devils.

But by 1995, the Devils had emerged as a league stalwart, and they met the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals—the first finals appearance by Detroit in 30 years.

The series lasted just four games. But it was the longest, most excruciating sweep in Red Wings fans’ history.

The Devils played that annoying, exasperating left wing lock, and stifled the Red Wings’ vaunted offense for much of the series.

New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens plastered Detroit’s Slava Kozlov in Game 2 in Detroit, knocking Kozlov silly. The hit was devastating, yet clean.

Moments later, Stevens was caught by the TV cameras on the Devils bench, smirking and winking at the Wings bench. The message was clear: “Keep your head up, or you’re next.”

1996

Sixty-two wins. Thirteen losses. Seven ties.

The Red Wings set a new NHL record for league supremacy. They broke that of Bowman’s 1977 Canadiens team.

But in the playoffs, life was much harder for Detroit.

They went just 10-9. It took them 82 games to lose 13 in the regular season, and just 19 to lose nine in the playoffs.

The season ended in Game 6 of the conference finals in Denver. Claude Lemieux had destroyed Kris Draper into the boards earlier in the game, rearranging Draper’s face. The assault earned Lemieux an ejection.

But there was Lemieux on the ice afterward, celebrating with his Avalanche teammates.

Dino Ciccarelli minced no words in the Red Wings locker room after the series was over.

“I can’t believe I shook that bleep’s hand,” Dino said with disdain.

A new rivalry, maybe the best in NHL history, was born.

1997

Joey Kocur whispered into Brendan Shanahan’s ear.

“This is great, but the next one is even better,” Kocur told Shanny.

The brawling Kocur was playing in a beer league in December of 1996 when the Red Wings called him. In 1994, Kocur won a Cup with the New York Rangers.

Kocur got into shape and joined the Wings in January. As usual, Joey brought his fists and his tremendous strength to the party. I never saw Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Ever.

Shanahan scored the empty net goal that clinched the Western Conference finals over the hated Avalanche.

In the celebration on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, Kocur, with that ’94 Cup under his belt, whispered his words of wisdom to Shanahan about how a conference trophy compares to the Stanley Cup.

Four games later, the Wings ended their 42-year Cup drought.

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The Red Wings’ first Cup since 1955 was something to behold for Yzerman and his fellow skating troops.

1998

The former Red Wings defenseman was wheeled onto the ice in Washington in his chair. A cigar was thrust into his hand.

About a year after the horrific limousine crash that ended the career and dramatically changed the life of Vladdy Konstantinov, no. 16 joined his teammates in their revelry. The Stanley Cup, won yet again, was placed onto his lap by captain Yzerman.

That’s all.

2002

The Red Wings roster was a treasure trove of elite NHL talent. Hall of Famers left and right. Guys like Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille signed on in the summer of 2001 with the expressed intent of winning the Stanley Cup. GM Ken Holland traded for superstar goalie Dominik Hasek before the season.

And of course, there was Yzerman and Shanahan and Lidstrom and the legendary Bowman behind the bench.

So what do the Red Wings do?

They lose the first two games of their first round series to the stinking Vancouver Canucks in Detroit.

In Game 3 in Vancouver, Lidstrom fired a shot from center ice. And it went in.

The series turned, like a worm.

The Wings survived the Canucks in six games, then went on to a Game 6 in the conference finals in Denver, trailing the Avalanche, 3-2.

The game was famous for goalie Patrick Roy’s Statue of Liberty move, which turned into a goal for Shanahan, which helped lift the Wings to a victory.

Game 7 in Detroit was a blowout for the Red Wings, and a couple weeks later, another Cup was won after five games against the Carolina Hurricanes.

An early playoff disaster was averted, big time.

2003

Curtis Joseph hungered for a Cup.

The brilliant goalie was nearing the end of a storied career when he inked a big contract with the Red Wings not long after Detroit’s 2002 Cup victory. Hasek had retired, leaving a huge void between the pipes.

Enter Joseph.

But in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, the Red Wings simply couldn’t muster any offense against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who were coached by a guy named Mike Babcock.

The Red Wings found themselves down 3-0 in the series, and Game 4 in Anaheim went into overtime.

The Ducks won it, and Joseph collapsed to his knees in the crease, in disbelief. It wasn’t supposed to be like this when he signed with the Red Wings. A first round exit? A sweep? To the Ducks?

The Red Wings weren’t the only quacks against the Ducks, who advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Cup Finals before losing to New Jersey.

2008

I closed my laptop and stuck it back into its pouch. Dozens of fellow journalists stood up with me in the press box at Joe Louis Arena, prepared to venture to ice level to watch the Red Wings be presented with the Stanley Cup. I was covering the Finals games in Detroit for Bleacher Report.

The Red Wings led the finals series against Pittsburgh, 3-1, and led Game 5, 3-2, with less than a minute to play.

There were 34.3 seconds left on the clock when the Penguins’ Max Talbot jammed home a rebound past Chris Osgood, tying the game.

The Stanley Cup was put back into its case. The slew of writers and I sat back down and pulled our laptops back out, preparing for overtime.

How about three overtimes?

Veteran Petr Sykora ended the game and sent the series back to Pittsburgh.

It was a tired but determined group of Red Wings in the locker room after the game. I asked my share of “What happened?” questions then drove home, well past 1 a.m, wondering if I’d just witnessed the beginning of an epic collapse.

No fear—the Red Wings won the Cup in Pittsburgh less than 48 hours later.

But I didn’t get to see it happen in person.

2009

It’s a year after the disappointment of Game 5 in Detroit. The Wings and the Penguins are again meeting in the Cup Finals. Again I’m covering the games in Detroit, this time as an independent journalist.

And again I have a chance to see the Red Wings win the Cup on home ice.

And again it doesn’t happen.

The series is tied, 3-3 and the Red Wings and the Penguins are in a fierce battle on the ice. In the press box, the tension is palpable as well. Writers aren’t sure what angles to pursue.

Max Talbot, again, plays the role of villain in Detroit.

Talbot scores twice, and it’s enough to carry the Pens to a 2-1 win. The game ends with a flurry in front of Fleury—Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who is a brick wall while the Red Wings frantically fire the puck at the net in the final seconds.

But I do get to see the Stanley Cup paraded around the ice, even if it was by the wrong team.

I get sprayed with some champagne on the ice, and shove my voice recorder into the faces of Fleury, coach Dan Bielsma and owner Mario Lemieux. My friend Greg Shamus, a sports photographer working for the Penguins, does his thing nearby. Grizzled veteran forward Billy Guerin tells me that he’s just played his last game and will retire. A scoop.

Later, the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) sits on a card table in the Penguins dressing room. Its winner, Evgeny Malkin, sits a few feet away by himself, sipping some juice. It’s an oddly quiet, surreal, simple scene.

I sit down next to Malkin and we chat casually. The playoffs MVP with his trophy, and me. Only in hockey.

Again I drive home late at night, wondering “what if?” but still honored to have been personal witness to one of sport’s most hallowed traditions—the skating around the ice of the Stanley Cup by the winners.

2010-2016

I’m not including anything from these years because they were mostly anti-climactic and devoid of drama, save for 2013, when the Red Wings jumped out to a 3-1 conference semi-finals lead over the Chicago Blackhawks before capitulating, losing Game 7 in Chicago in overtime.

Most of 2010-2016 was spent making the playoffs for playoffs sake. Usually the Red Wings were drummed out in the first round.

The 25-year playoff streak started with a 25 year-old captain. It ends with Joe Louis Arena itself, which shutters its doors soon.

Before and between the four Cups won between 1997 and 2008, there was drama, heartbreak, emotional roller coasters and pulsating moments on the ice. The Red Wings won a ton of playoff series, but also lost a lot of them as well, many times as favorites.

There were some long summers but also ones filled with celebration until the next training camp.

In 2010, Shanahan told me about life as a hockey player during the playoffs.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

Throughout the streak, there were Hall of Famers on the ice and behind the bench. The parade of hockey stars that passed through Detroit is mind boggling.

It was a grand time.

For 33 seasons, Red has been nothing but maize and blue

Published March 17, 2017

In case you were wondering, Gordon Berenson didn’t get the nickname “Red” because of his goal scoring exploits in the NHL, but on November 7, 1968, he did light that crimson lamp six times.

They were already calling Berenson “Red” back then (because of his hair), when while playing for the St. Louis Blues, the center pumped six pucks into the net in Philadelphia in an 8-0 demolition of the Flyers.

To this day, almost 50 years later, Berenson remains the only visiting player in NHL history to score six goals in a single game.

It was 46 years ago and some change when the color red was further intertwined with Berenson.

In February of 1971, the Red Wings, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, traded “mod” center Garry Unger and winger Wayne Connelly to the Blues for winger Tim Ecclestone and center Berenson.

Unger was still a young, promising player in those days but he lost favor with coach-turned-GM Ned Harkness, so Ned traded him. The Red Wings got rooked in the deal, but that’s not Berenson’s fault.

Red was eight years older than Unger, for one. The Blues were automatically going to come out ahead based on the calendar alone.

Berenson played college hockey at Michigan, and led the Wolverines to the 1961 RPI Invitational Tournament championship. The trade to the Red Wings was a sort of homecoming.

Nobody called Berenson “Gordon” in his NHL days, and they certainly don’t call him that now, as he just wrapped up his 33rd season as coach of the Michigan hockey program.

It might be his last in Ann Arbor.

“I can tell you what it is,” Berenson told the Free Press.  “It’s similar to last year, where I’m going to have a meeting with (U-M athletic director) Warde Manuel. We talked Tuesday and we talked about revisiting the hockey team’s coaching situation after the Frozen Four and we’ll decide what’s best for the program.”

Red almost retired last year, but he decided to stay on as Manuel was beginning his first full year as Michigan’s AD.

Berenson is 77 now. He’s won over 800 hockey games behind the bench at Michigan, about twice as many as he’s lost. Few folks will be sadder to see Joe Louis Arena close than Berenson, whose teams were 109-48-5 in the barn that is shuttering its doors after this hockey season.

In 1971, when he reported to the Red Wings, Berenson’s Michigan ties were overshadowed by his being the guy the Red Wings got for Unger, who was a fan favorite (especially with the female fans). It wasn’t Red’s fault, of course, that he wasn’t Unger, and he was as sad to leave St. Louis as Unger was to depart Detroit.

The Red Wings were lousy and that didn’t help matters for Berenson, who was a grizzled veteran and a slick passer but he wasn’t nearly the dynamic goal scorer that Unger was and would continue to be for the Blues for many years to come.

But Berenson was a good Red Wing, and was eventually elevated to team captain. However, his years in Detroit were mostly remembered for being associated with mediocre hockey. “Darkness with Harkness,” they called it.

There was more irony to come involving Red Berenson and Garry Unger.

In December 1974, Berenson and Unger became teammates when the Red Wings traded Red to St. Louis for rugged forward Phil Roberto.

Berenson wore the Winged Wheel with grace and class, but he was always seen as the Red Wings’ loot in the Unger trade, and the fans often couldn’t see past all the goals that Unger was scoring for the Blues and therefore drew unfavorable comparisons.

Again, not Red’s fault.

The only thing red about Berenson, anymore, is his nickname. Maize and blue coarse through his veins.

Perhaps it’s fitting that if Berenson retires, it will coincide with the closing of JLA, where he coached for the Blues and for U-M since the building opened for hockey in 1979, literally. Berenson was the opposing coach when the Red Wings and Blues inaugurated the Joe on 12/27/79. Red was just two weeks into his NHL coaching career, having taken over for the resigned Barclay Plager.

Berenson coached the Blues thru the 1981-82 season (Coach of the Year in 1980-81). Then it was on to Michigan, who hired him in 1984.

He hasn’t left Ann Arbor since.

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Since 1984, Berenson has been Mr. Hockey at U-M.

 

In 2015, Berenson became only the fourth coach in NCAA Division I hockey history to record 800 wins. Along the way, there’ve been 11 Frozen Four appearances and two NCAA Championships (1996 and 1998). The Wolverines qualified for the NCAA tournament for 22 straight seasons between 1991-2012, an all-time record. Michigan also won 13 Great Lakes Invitational tournaments under Berenson.

With Berenson behind the bench, U-M hockey has been the best thing on ice in Ann Arbor since Scotch and water.

But his time at Michigan is clearly winding down. At 77, retirement seems to beckon, but you never know.

“There’s been nothing decided,” Berenson insists.

Oh, and what of that glorious night in November 1968, when Berenson made the Flyers see red six times?

“I hit a crossbar on another one — I had 10 shots on net and then I hit a crossbar,” he said.

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Berenson pops another one in on November 7, 1968, when he scored six times against the Flyers in Philadelphia.

“Glenn Hall was (our) backup goalie, and at the end of the game, when I came off, he said ‘Good game. At least you were plus tonight.’ They didn’t give you a lot of credit,” Berenson said.

After 33 years at Michigan and over 800 wins, let credit not be overdue now.

 

NHL’s latest foray into expansion is official: behold the Golden Knights of (Las) Vegas

Published March 2, 2017

Viva Las Vegas!

Yesterday, it became official. The National Hockey League, already bursting at the seams, added its 31st team when the Vegas Golden Knights successfully completed their initiation and became a full-fledged NHL franchise.

The Golden Knights can now sign free agents, make trades and conduct all other league business as do the other 30 clubs.

For whatever reason, the Golden Knights dropped “Las” from their city’s name.

The expansion draft will be held on June 18-20, just past the 50th anniversary of the NHL’s first, ambitious effort to balloon in 1967.

The league was a six-team, rough-and-tumble fraternity, still traveling mostly by train, 50 years ago today.

A western trip meant a game in Chicago. Teams played each other 14 times a season. That meant plenty of opportunities for bad blood and feuds to fester.

That cozy little league was turned on its ear in 1967, when the NHL doubled in size. The draft was held on June 6, 1967.

The trains were idled. Planes became the new mode of transportation, because the NHL became a coast-to-coast entity.

Los Angeles and Oakland were added. The Midwest was further represented by teams in St. Louis and Bloomington, Minnesota. Pennsylvania got two new teams, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Even the league’s color pallet exploded.

Before the ’67 expansion, NHL uniforms were various forms of brown, yellow, red and blue. That was it.

The new teams sported purple and gold and aqua and orange and baby blue and green.

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NHL’s expansion in 1967 introduced newfangled logos and colors that caused some fans to wear sunglasses to games.

Canadian hockey fans were annoyed because none of the new teams were based in their country, and hockey was Canada’s national game. Vancouver and Edmonton, especially, were seen as viable NHL cities because both towns had been longtime minor league franchises.

But it was the ownership in Montreal and Toronto who were partially to blame, because they were reluctant to cede any of their popularity in Canada.

The NHL put all of the new teams in their own division, guaranteeing that an expansion club would play in the Stanley Cup Finals. That decision wasn’t terribly popular.

The first 12 guys drafted from the existing NHL teams in 1967 were all goaltenders. The legendary Terry Sawchuk, 38 years old at the time, was the first name called, drafted by the Los Angeles Kings.

Some league observers worried that the NHL was biting off more than it could chew by doubling in size overnight. They feared a watering down of talent. The way baseball was expanding, i.e. gradually, was preferred by those folks.

The 1967 expansion started an avalanche of new teams in the NHL over the next seven years.

Vancouver—finally—was added in 1970, along with Buffalo. Long Island and Atlanta were added in 1972, and Kansas City and Landover, Maryland joined in 1974. The Original Six grew by 200 percent between 1967-74.

In retrospect, NHL’s fetish for expansion produced mixed results.

As expected, the 1968, 1969 and 1970 Finals were all won by Original Six teams, and also not surprisingly, all three series were clean sweeps.

The six new teams added in 1967 eventually batted .667 in terms of survival.

Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all made it, but Oakland moved to Cleveland in 1976 and eventually that franchise merged with Minnesota in 1978, with the North Stars moving to Dallas in 1993.

The expansion franchises in Vancouver, Buffalo, Long Island (now Brooklyn) and Landover (now DC) all survived, but the Atlanta franchise lasted just seven years before moving to Calgary. Kansas City made it just two seasons before moving to Denver—which eventually moved to New Jersey in 1982.

In 1979, the NHL absorbed four surviving teams from the World Hockey Association (Hartford, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Quebec City) and only Edmonton remains in its original form.

Atlanta had two cracks at the NHL and failed both times. Winnipeg, Minnesota and Denver are all on their second tries. Quebec City wants another kick at the can, too.

The NHL isn’t alone in its checkered history of expansion and franchise movement.

The NBA has also been a league filled with vagabonds and teams that have planted stakes rather than roots.

For its part, Las Vegas has been targeted as an NHL city for several years. But so was just about every other city that’s been awarded a league franchise. And many of them couldn’t hack it.

The NHL now has two teams in the desert, one in Texas and two in Florida. Not to mention three in California. The Golden Knights will be placed in the Pacific Division.

Is the NHL wise to expand?

Historically, the league’s success rate in adding new franchises isn’t the best. But the warm weather climate cities continue to survive, although the Arizona franchise is on, ahem, thin ice.

Expansion rules of today make it easier for teams to cobble together competitive rosters than in the days of 1967, when the new clubs pretty much only had their choice of the Original Six’s scraps and aging veterans.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, last November, expressed confidence in Las Vegas as an NHL entity.

“It’s another opportunity to continue to grow the game. It’s a market of over two million people that has a high visibility. We’re getting a terrific new owner in Bill Foley and a state-of-the-art arena (T-Mobile Arena). I think it’s going to enhance the league’s presence,” Bettman said.

We’ll see. Heretofore, the best thing on ice is Las Vegas has been Scotch and soda.