For the Red Wings, the Road is where the heart is

The NHL has enjoyed flipping jersey color assignments throughout its history.

In the 1950s, home teams wore white. Then in the 1960s, the league decreed that home teams would wear dark jerseys.

Not to be  outdone, the 1970s came along and home teams went back to wearing white jerseys. This remained the norm until after the lockout, in 2005–which is where we are today, with home teams back to wearing dark sweaters.

Maybe the Red Wings are confused.

In their past eight games inside the cozy–and outdated—confines of Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings are 1-5-2. In contrast, on the road, the team is 7-1 in the month of January.

Simple solution: have the Red Wings wear white sweaters at the JLA. Because apparently they’re color blind.

Winning on the road in any professional sports league is supposed to be a challenge. The goal is usually modest—break even on the road and try to clean up at home.

But Jeff Blashill’s team is doing this backwards—it’s running roughshod over opponents in their own buildings.

And the Red Wings are performing at the Joe like hockey’s version of the Washington Generals basketball team.

All that’s missing is the sound system blasting “Sweet Georgia Brown” when the Winged Wheelers’ opponents step onto the ice at JLA.

This schizophrenic on-ice behavior presents a classic glass is half-full/half-empty conundrum.

Should we admire the Red Wings’ ability to storm into opposing arenas and mop the ice with their foes, or should we be worried that the good guys are losing at home more than a husband trying to win a fight with his wife?

The half-full scenario is that in the playoffs, winning on the road is a must. No team wins the Stanley Cup by going undefeated at home and playing miserably away from it. So the Red Wings’ current hot streak away from Detroit is a good sign, right?

But wait—if the team soils its own ice surface, then how can it have a true home ice advantage this spring?

Hmmm.

Red Wings on road

Pavel Datsyuk pursues the puck in New York during Monday night’s 4-2 win over the Islanders

The Red Wings won another in foreign territory on Monday night—cleaning the New York Islanders’ clocks, 4-2. It was the team’s last game before the upcoming All-Star break.

The schedule was very home-heavy for the Red Wings pre-Christmas—and they played very well at JLA for the most part in 2015—so with all the road games looming in the 2016 portion of the schedule, the team knew, to a man, that the effort would have to be stepped up in order to keep its playoff path on track.

But 7-1 on the road and 1-5-2 at home in January? Isn’t that taking things to the extreme?

“If we weren’t 7-1 (on the road), who knows where we’d be,” said Brad Richards, who opened the Red Wings’ scoring on Monday night with a power-play goal.

“There was a lot of urgency, a lot of realization we had that good schedule heading into Christmas and we would have to come out of it on the other side and put together a good effort on the road – and we’ve done that,” Richards, a two-time Stanley Cup champion—including last year with Chicago—added.

OK, so the Red Wings seem to have this road thing figured out, but how about taking advantage of some home cooking now and again?

What do we have to do—toss coney islands and bottles of Vernors onto the ice instead of octopus?

But this is probably nothing more than a mid-season anomaly. The NHL is a long, 82-game season and teams plow through it like salt trucks after a blizzard. You’re going to get hot and cold—at home and on the road.

In the playoffs—where the Red Wings (25-16-8, 2nd in Atlantic Division) appear to be headed for a 25th consecutive year—you can pretty much toss teams’ home and away records out the proverbial window anyway. The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been sports’ shaken-up Etch-a-Sketch—everyone gets a clean slate and unlike the NBA, low-seeded teams can worm their way into the Cup Finals—and win.

But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Red Wings, after the All-Star break, won a home game here and there.

Break out the whites at the Joe!

First-year coach Blashill not about to be the guy who fouls up Red Wings’ culture

It’s been so long since there’s been dysfunction with the Red Wings, that we’ve lost a whole generation of cynicism.

After dinosaurs like yours truly perish, all we’ll be left with are a bunch of millennials who were born with a silver hockey stick in their mouth.

The Red Wings are 40-plus years past the days of “Darkness with Harkness.” We haven’t been able to truly rail against the franchise’s ineptitude on a regular basis since everyone was wearing bell bottoms and mood rings.

We’re a quarter century into a stretch of nothing but winning, playoff hockey—and four Stanley Cups, plus two Finals appearances.

Sometimes I miss the days of dysfunction.

Sometimes I wish I had been writing about sports when GM Ned Harkness bugged star center Garry Unger about the length of his hair. That would have been a hoot.

I would have loved to pen a column about how the Red Wings sloppily changed coaches in 1973 by firing Ted Garvin and naming player Alex Delvecchio as his replacement—except Alex hadn’t retired yet and league rules forbade a player from also coaching. So Garvin had to coach that night—AFTER he’d been given the ziggy. Teddy left midway through the third period. Injured player Tim Ecclestone finished coaching the game.

What a humdinger that was.

Oh, to have been a sportswriter when GM Ted Lindsay signed 33 year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon as a free agent, only to come perilously close to losing young center Dale McCourt as compensation to the Los Angeles Kings.

Those Lindsay teams were fun. Teddy signed the likes of Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson to bully opponents—kind of like how Teddy did as a player, only without the talent.

But then Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 and after a few false starts, it’s been nothing but win, win, win.

As a writer, where’s the fun in that?

At least when the Red Wings lost Mike Babcock to free agency, there was hope that the new coach would come in and foul things up, finally.

No such luck.

Jeff Blashill has stepped in and as the Red Wings did when Bryan Murray came on board and when Scotty Bowman arrived and when Dave Lewis replaced Scotty and when Babcock replaced Lewis, the team hasn’t missed a beat with a new coach.

Again.

Blashill has his team playing good hockey right now, despite the loss in Los Angeles on Monday night, which snapped a four-game winning streak (all on the road).

As a coach, it’s easier to win in any pro sport if you have the players. That’s true. But what’s happening with the Red Wings is further validation that it’s maybe just as much about the system and the culture as it is anything else.

This isn’t to take anything away from Blashill, who was Babcock’s replacement in waiting at Grand Rapids. Actually, it’s praise for Blashill, because even though there might be a great culture in Hockeytown, you can still be the guy who screws it up if you don’t handle things with aplomb.

Blashill made the right move in accepting a pay raise in Grand Rapids with the promise that he wouldn’t pursue an NHL head coaching gig, knowing that Babcock might leave after the 2014-15 season, when his contract expired.

It was the right move because how many coaches can be set up so well for success as you can with the Red Wings?

Coaching, as you know, has all the job security of a snowman in the summertime. The late, great Earl Lloyd once said, after agreeing to coach the Pistons in 1971, “It’s funny. As a coach, as soon as you sign a contract you’re also signing your termination papers.”

So true.

So when a coach has a chance to join a team with a winning tradition and an owner’s commitment to spend and a GM who’s among the best

Jan 7, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) talks to assistant coach Jeff Blashill on the bench against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Blashill’s year as a Babcock assistant is paying dividends now.

in any sport, with a scouting department that makes the other teams’ look like a bunch of Mr. Magoos, you jump at it.

Or, you bide your time and wait for it to open up, as Blashill did.

The wait was worth it, as Blashill would surely admit.

This isn’t to say that Jeff Blashill won’t, someday, be given the ziggy as coach of the Red Wings. But GM Ken Holland has only fired one coach in his 18 years on the job—Lewis, and that was more because of the misfortune of following a legend like Bowman than anything else, because Lewie had two outstanding regular seasons as coach.

But if Blashill gets canned, it won’t be anytime soon and it might be because the two sides got tired of each other, rather than because of any ineptitude. It might not even be a firing—it could be Babcock-like in its circumstance.

The Red Wings have not been the perfect team by any imagination this season, but they’re kings of the road and Blashill has displayed a tender knack for knowing when to push and let up. He demands accountability, albeit not with the same in-your-face style as Babcock did. Blashill has handled his delicate goaltending situation perfectly, if you ask me.

The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.

But that’s nitpicking.

Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.

There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.

First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.

There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.

Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?

Just asking.

In a test of goalie endurance, Mrazek has pulled ahead of Howard

The pucks went into the net fast and furious. The red light went on behind the goalie so often, he got a sunburn on the back of his neck.

It was a rough night at the office for Glen Hanlon, but with typical aplomb befitting him, he was able to crack wise about it afterward.

“Who replaced the net behind me with a soccer goal?” Hanlon quipped.

Hanlon, the ginger who played between the pipes for the Red Wings from 1986-1991, was in net on February 23, 1988 when the Philadelphia Flyers stormed into Joe Louis Arena and smacked the Red Wings, 11-6. Hanlon allowed 10 of the 11 goals that night.

But Hanlon put that nightmare evening behind him and scored two shutouts in his next four starts.

Hockey players are known for wearing the “C” on their sweater but it may as well stand for “confidence.” Never is that more true than with goalies.

You know goalies—that odd breed of athlete.

Hockey goalies are either nuts or savants. They either know something we don’t, or they’ve been sniffing the goal post paint.

Why else would you suit up and face vulcanized rubber discs fired at you?

The mental aspect of the position has swallowed some netminders whole. Even the Hall of Famers have had their moments—and by that I mean, where they could be fitted for a straitjacket.

Glenn Hall once played in over 500 consecutive games, without a mask, which makes him the Supreme Nut. And Hall went through a ritual before every game where he would throw up, like clockwork. It was every bit as normal as Brendan Shanahan tapping the blade of his stick for good luck as he stepped onto the ice every night.

Roger Crozier retired briefly, in his 20s. The reason? The stress of being a goalie threatened to consume him.

Jimmy Rutherford once told of having dreams where pucks were flying at him from all different directions, all at the same time.

Dominik Hasek is a very nice man, but he’s crazy, too. Hasek was as quirky as Felix Unger.

So don’t try to tell me that goalies are the same as everyone else walking this planet.

But it all comes down to the big “C”—confidence.

If you lose it as a goalie, you can’t stop a beach ball. And the net behind you turns into a soccer goal.

Petr Mrazek, the Red Wings goalie for whom you want to buy a vowel, has morphed into the team’s no. 1 netminder. It’s been a non-hostile takeover, but a takeover nonetheless.

Coach Jeff Blashill began the season with good intentions. He alternated goalies, a la the great Boston Bruins teams of the early-1970s.

But lately, Mrazek has been the man. He’s the one playing with confidence. Mrazek has started three straight games, which under Blashill is akin to Glenn Hall’s streak.

Jimmy Howard is no. 2. He’s the one with the shrinking “c” on his sweater.

Howard’s last two starts have ended the same way—with him on the bench, wearing a baseball cap.

On December 22, Howard started at home against New Jersey and 14 minutes and three goals later, his night was finished.

A week later in Winnipeg, Howard lasted 31 minutes and surrendered four goals. His save percentage in those two games combined was .650, which is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 12.

Howard hasn’t seen the ice since, as Mrazek is playing with flair and with the big “C.”

When it comes to confidence, by the way, you won’t find a goalie in the NHL with much more of it than what Mrazek has.

Confidence—some call it swagger—has been Mrazek’s calling card from the moment the Red Wings scouts first saw him play in the Czech Republic.

The Red Wings nabbed Mrazek in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, which is about right. The Red Wings have made a killing in the later rounds over the past 25 years or so. It’s as if their scouts knuckle down when other teams’ start to lose interest.

Mrazek hates to be scored upon, and not because of fear of the red light—because of disdain. Teammates marvel at his intensity, even in practice.

Petr Mrazek

Mrazek has seized the Red Wings’ no. 1 goalie job—or so it would appear.

Now, no goalie likes to be scored upon. This is hardly a trait unique to Mrazek. But Mrazek’s brimming confidence/swagger raised the team’s eyebrows when they scouted him, and nothing has changed since.

Mrazek pitched two shutouts at the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s playoffs, when coach Mike Babcock chose the kid over the veteran Howard to be his post-season goalie. And had the Red Wings survived that first-round series, Mrazek no doubt would have remained the no. 1 guy throughout the playoffs.

Blashill took over last summer and he said polite things about Howard, who is going to be 32 years old in March. Then Blashill declared an open competition in training camp, and to the coach’s delight, his decision about who was no. 1 was rendered excruciating, mostly thanks to Howard’s solid play. The 23 year-old Mrazek was up to the task, as expected.

So Blashill decided that his decision on who would be the primary starting goalie would be…neither man. Hence the alternating goalie system out of the gate.

But like a long distance foot race, the younger man is pulling ahead.

Mrazek threw a shutout at the Devils on Monday night, so it would make sense that Blashill will start the Czech for a fourth straight game, at San Jose on Thursday.

As for Howard, it can’t help his confidence that seven of the 20 most recent shots he’s seen have eluded him, and that he’s been pulled in two straight starts.

But Howard is a goalie, and goalies are used to having their confidence ebb and flow. They all know that when they sign up for the job. And they do so, gladly.

Because they’re kooky.