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.

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