Sometimes, a firing of a coach in the world of sports is a mercy killing.
Sometimes, the coach knows that it’s time.
Dick Vitale practically heaved a sigh of relief when Pistons owner Bill Davidson rendered the ziggy in early-November, 1979, relieving Vitale of his coaching and de facto GM duties.
Vitale’s promise of Pistons Paradise and ReVitaleization, which he crowed about when he was hired in May 1978, had turned into a ghoulish joke after 18 months, 94 games, 34 wins and the stripping of the franchise’s future thanks to ill-advised trades of the team’s draft picks.
“Mr. Davidson probably saved my life. And I’m not exaggerating,” Vitale would later say about his stomach troubles and health while he tried to endure the losing.
It was a summer’s afternoon in 1990 when Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch paid a visit to his coach, Jacques Demers.
It was an emotional meeting. Both men openly wept.
Ilitch gave Demers—who won the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year two years in a row (1987-88)—the ziggy after a so-so 1989 season and missing the playoffs in 1990.
But Demers later credited Ilitch for being “a man about it” and for delivering the news in person. Demers also admitted that his time in Detroit had gone stale and the Red Wings needed a new voice.
The new coach was Bryan Murray. It’s a tent pole moment in Red Wings history because when Murray took over the Red Wings prior to the 1990-91 season, it marked the last time that so few experts and fans expected anything out of a Red Wings team.
Only the most optimistic of fans can truly say, in their heart, that the 2016-17 Red Wings can make some real noise.
Only the delusional can look at this team and see serious advancement in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring.
The timing of this crossroads in franchise history is potentially very unfortunate.
If the Red Wings sink into a several year rebuild/reload scenario, it will overlap with the team’s move into new Little Caesars Arena next fall.
The thought of missing out on the revenue from playoff games in their new ice palace for several seasons must rankle Ilitch and his family.
But it might be a necessary evil, for the Red Wings to be a mediocre, middling team until the youth kicks in.
They’ll drop the puck tonight in Tampa to launch another NHL season—the Red Wings’ 90th in Detroit, dating back to 1926-27 when they were known as the Cougars.
It’s fitting in a way that this potentially crossroads season starts in Tampa.
In the Lightning executive suite high above the ice, watching the action, will be GM Steve Yzerman.
Yzerman cut his teeth as a Hall of Fame player wearing the Winged Wheel and he was a front office apprentice in Detroit after he hung up his skates. Some would say that the student has lapped his mentor, Red Wings GM Ken Holland.
As the Red Wings enter a season of the unknown—they could squeeze into the playoffs or finish at least 10 points out—Yzerman has built a consistent Stanley Cup contender in Tampa.
Stevie Y has only been on the job for six years, and it’s not like the Lightning were a league powerhouse when he took over.
Ironically, the Red Wings could learn a thing or two from Yzerman, who is now entrenched as one of the NHL’s best and most admired front office men.
Yzerman’s Lightning have blasted Holland’s Red Wings out of the playoffs the past two seasons.
In defense of Holland—who’s been the GM since 1997—and his lieutenants, the Red Wings have never been a mediocre team under Kenny’s watch. This whole rebuild/reload thing is new to him. I’m not sure that he’s wired for it, or up to the task. I also doubt whether he’s terribly interested in it.
Last spring, Holland tried to brace the fans in Hockeytown to expect some less-than-spectacular things from their hockey team.
In August, Holland went one step further.
“There are probably five or six teams that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders” this season, Holland told NHL.com. “After that five or six, there are 20 teams without much difference between them. We’re in that group of 20.
“Certainly there are lots of questions about our team.”
Despite its reality, it was also a stunning admission from a man who loathes to do anything other than show the utmost confidence in his team. Since he took over the GM duties 19 years ago, Holland has only known winning and Cup contention.
This can’t be easy for him—emotionally and functionally.
Ken Holland isn’t wired to transition a veteran, elite team into a young, mediocre squad trying to find its way.
The Red Wings, if things aren’t planned well, could become the NHL’s version of the Oakland Raiders—a proud team with iconic uniforms and logo whose mystique wore off long ago.
If things really go to pot, the Red Wings could also become the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been bumping into themselves for over 20 years.
Fans are growing weary of Holland, and I wonder if Holland is growing weary of the Red Wings.
He’ll always be a Red Wing at heart but maybe he’d be better served somewhere else.
Somewhere like Ottawa, where the Senators are on their seventh opening night coach in 10 years—an NHL record.
Coaches aren’t the only people who know when their time has come to move on.