In Toronto, Babs continues his own hat trick: Win, Anger, Annoy

Published Jan. 13, 2018

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t even appeared in a Finals since ’67. For most of these past 50 years, the franchise hasn’t really been all that close to sipping champagne from the silver chalice that is Stanley.

The hockey old-timers in Toronto can recall, vividly, the slapstick ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s, which wasn’t much different than Darkness With Harkness in Detroit over the same time frame. The Leafs and the Red Wings were mostly league fodder in those years—it’s just that in Toronto, the Leafs were fodder with more panache.

Mike Babcock sat at the rostrum in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and glared, steely-eyed, at the media and the television cameras. It wasn’t his scowl; it was his regular face. If Babcock was a food he’d be a prickly pear.

Babcock had just been introduced as the Man Who Was Going to Save the Toronto Maple Leafs—from themselves, really. The Leafs were a long-running league joke when Babcock left the sinking ship that was the Red Wings to hop aboard another that had already capsized in Toronto.

Babcock grabbed the money—who wouldn’t—but at least in Toronto, the Leafs organization knew they needed bailing out. President Brendan Shanahan, so smart it’s scary, was beginning his reclamation project and knew that in order to speed things up, he may as well hire the best coach in the business.

Babcock was brought into Toronto with pomp and circumstance rarely bestowed upon anyone involved with hockey, which is very niche and has always struggled to find folks who have acquired a taste for it. It’s the sushi of sports.

With his scowl, er, regular face, Babcock minced no words when speaking directly to the fans the day of his introduction.

“There’s going to be pain,” he said, and it wasn’t a warning. It was fact. “Make no bones about it. There’s going to be pain.”

Just like that, Babcock dashed the hopes of any Leafs fans who thought he was going to swoop in and bring their team to Cup contention in short order. Enjoy my hiring, he said, but now you just sit and wait. This is going to take time.

Well guess what?

Babcock is in Year Three and already the Leafs are becoming a force in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, drafting a franchise player like Auston Matthews in 2016 didn’t hurt. Neither did getting rid of yesteryear’s franchise player, Phil Kessel. Everyone who knew that a puck isn’t inflated knew that Kessel, long rumored to be a coach killer, wouldn’t last long under Babs. And, Kessel didn’t. He was traded to Pittsburgh not long after Babcock was hired.

There was indeed some pain in Toronto after Babs was hired, but it didn’t last long.

The Leafs went from 68 to 69 points in Babcock’s first season, but then leaped to 95 points last year after Matthews’ arrival and secured a playoff berth (first round loss to Washington).

This season, the Leafs are battling with the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, which is being turned into a runaway by first place Tampa Bay, aka Stevie Yzerman’s team.

So we have ex-Red Wings galore here: Shanny, Stevie and Babs. And they’re all passing their old team as if it was standing still.

But there is some enjoyment in all this for Red Wings fans, albeit in perhaps an eye-rolling way.

In Toronto, the fans are a little annoyed with Babcock. So are the players.

Sound familiar?

The fans think he falls in love with certain players and gives them too much ice time and not enough to the fans’ favorites. The players couldn’t wait for their union-mandated five-day vacation to arrive earlier this week. They could use a break from the coach’s scrutiny.

Babcock is, in many ways, the Scotty Bowman of his time.

Neither man will ever be held up as a cuddly teddy bear by their players. Neither will be accused of being a “players’ coach.” Neither will be missed by many players when they leave for their next project.

But they will win.

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Babcock did it with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when few thought it was possible, getting to Game 7 of the 2003 Finals.

He did it with Detroit, and even though the Red Wings were set up to win when he arrived, how many times has that been the case but the team doesn’t actually win? A Cup was won in 2008 and almost again in 2009.

Now Babcock is taking on perhaps his most daunting challenge of them all in the NHL and he’s winning yet again. And he’s ticking people off again. Typical.

But Shanahan, who as I mentioned is as cerebral as any hockey man I’ve met, doesn’t care about the ticking people off part. He played for Bowman, don’t forget, and Shanny and Scotty had their moments.

It also didn’t hurt Shanny’s cause that in addition to hiring Babcock, he brought in Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello to add yet another brilliant hockey mind to the organization. Shanahan’s hiring of Lamoriello wasn’t merely payback for the latter drafting Shanny as Lamoriello’s first-ever draft pick in 1987 with the New Jersey Devils.

But back to Babcock.

It’s rather humorous, to me, that a fan base that contains many folks who weren’t even born the last time the Leafs won the Cup, are crabbing about Babcock’s style and doling out of ice time. The man is resurrecting the franchise and is the best thing to hit the ice in Toronto since George Armstrong and Johnny Bower, and they’re complaining?

Even the media in Toronto, which has been subjected to the Ice Follies for a long time in that town, are questioning Babcock’s methods —with Matthews, of all people.

As for the players griping, that’s to be expected and is par for the course.

And to nobody’s surprise who knows even a thimble full of info about the NHL, Babcock looked at the Leafs’ bye week begrudgingly.

“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” he told “You and I both know that’s not happening.

“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there. We need the points.”

Mike Babcock was smart enough to know when to leave the Red Wings, and even smarter to choose Toronto, money notwithstanding. If he brings a Stanley Cup to that city, all will be forgiven—from the fans to the media to the players.

It’s like what one of Scotty Bowman’s players said about him during the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.

“For 364 days a year, you can’t stand the guy. And on the 365th, you raise another Cup over your head.”

The hockey denizens in Toronto, bereft of any greatness for 51 years, ought to zip it and let the genius do his work.


Why Jeff Blashill should go

Published Dec. 2, 2017

The easiest way to dismiss the Red Wings is to say that they’re simply not good enough.

That would be a quick, nice and tidy way to wash your hands of them. On to the next topic!

It’s true that the Red Wings aren’t very good. They weren’t predicted to be very good before the season began, and after coming out of the gate with a 4-1 record, they’re proving the prognosticators to be correct.

They lack several top-flight defensemen. They struggle to score because they don’t have enough “finishers,” as they say in the hockey world. I like to call them “snipers.” Same thing. The goaltending can’t be trusted, no matter how much you’d like to believe in Jimmy Howard. They can’t win in overtime to save their souls.

All true.

But what’s the most damning about the Red Wings isn’t their lack of talent. It’s their lack of heart.

Same old tired refrain

“We have to fix it.”

“We have to clean that up.”

“We played stupid hockey.”

“We have to be better.”

These are the same, tired refrains pouring out of the dressing room from the players and the coach after the latest uninspired loss.

The Red Wings like to play 20 minutes of hockey per night. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and play 40. It takes them two games, at least, to cobble together 60 good minutes.

The 20 minutes they play may come in the first period, they may come in the second period, they may come in the third period. And it’s not even 20 consecutive minutes, necessarily.

The rest of the time?

“We have too many passengers,” is how the coach summed up a recent loss.

Jeff Blashill is trying really hard, I believe that. He’s tried calling out young Anthony Mantha. He’s tried withholding ice time from Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin. He’s tried juggling lines, until he stopped. He’s implored his club, via the media, to step it up.

Nothing’s really worked.

Blashill, to his credit, isn’t delusional. He didn’t arrive at training camp at Traverse City trying to sell the fan base a bill of goods about his hockey team. He didn’t portend that the Red Wings were a playoff team—not even a no. 8 seed. He didn’t take the “Why not us?” mentality that some coaches use when their players aren’t as talented as others in the league—a smoke and mirrors tact to get them to believe in themselves.

Blashill, from the jump, warned anyone who would listen that the Red Wings would have to work their collective asses off to get every stinking point they could muster this season. He knew he wasn’t coaching the 2002 Red Wings.

It’s fair to wonder if everyone was listening to the coach’s warning except the players.

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Veteran players free from Blashill’s wrath

I’m not usually one of those “fire the coach” types, especially mid-season. But firing the coach mid-season is a professional sports fetish. And I’m getting close to advising the Red Wings to break the glass and reach for the alarm.

The Red Wings haven’t sacked a coach mid-season since they released poor Harry Neale from his bondage the day before New Year’s Eve in 1985, replacing him with the ill-equipped Brad Park.

In fact, the team hasn’t even canned a coach, period, since they didn’t renew Dave Lewis’ contract after two seasons of following in Scotty Bowman’s skate steps, in the summer of 2005.

But how many times do we have to hear Blashill and his players say the same thing, loss after loss?

Well, what would you have them say, you might ask me.

Good question. Which is why the coach should be on the hot seat.

If the refrain is the same, and if it seems to center around effort and loss of focus during games—which it does, then whose fault is that?

I notice that Blashill has tried a lot, but he hasn’t tried calling out any of his veterans. Instead, he’s picked on poor Mantha, a 23-year-old kid who’s still trying to grow into his body, let alone grow into a consistent NHL player. The coach has picked on Larkin and Athanasiou.

Free from scourge has been anyone over the age of 25. I find that odd.

I understand the desire to challenge the kids and give them a baptism by fire into the ways of the National League. But that’s only who Blashill has publicly called out. I haven’t seen any reduction of ice time from players who have more than three years’ tenure in the NHL. For example, I haven’t heard Blashill say—not once—that Justin Abdelkader needs to step it up. And Abbie has been a passenger too often since inking his big contract a couple years ago—a contract that I endorsed.

I haven’t seen Blashill park Jonathan Ericsson’s butt on the pine despite one goofball play in his own zone after the other.

I haven’t heard Blashill wonder where his veteran leadership is.

It’s easy to hold young players’ skates to the fire. And it’s fine to do so, to a degree.

The Red Wings aren’t very good. That’s true. But they also don’t bring forth a total effort very often. That’s true, too.

Too much bad, unfocused hockey

The other night against the Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena—their new home and where they rarely win—the Red Wings played a decent first period then came out for the middle stanza in a fog. You half wondered if they consumed a huge meal in the dressing room during the intermission.

The Canadiens, who haven’t been world beaters this season and who were missing some key players, looked like the Firewagon Hockey Habs of the 1950s or 1970s. They skated circles around the dazed Red Wings.

The reporters needn’t have bothered to enter the dressing room afterward for quotes. They only needed to cue up their saved recordings from any game of their choosing this season.

Jeff Blashill in his third season of coaching the Red Wings. He’s following a tough act in Mike Babcock, but too often, the team hasn’t responded to Blashill. It may not be his fault. But when was the last time a coach got fired because things were expressly his fault?

Country Club culture

The Red Wings appear to need a new voice. They appear to need a swift kick in the hockey pants. It’s fair to theorize that too many “key” players don’t respect the coach as they should.

The Red Wings right now are victims of their own winning, Kumbaya culture. The culture where everyone is a Red Wing for life and gets a job after their playing days are done, should they want one—even the fourth line players. The culture where no one gets fired and pluggers like Luke Glendening get awarded fat contracts. The culture where there’s no true fear for your job. The culture that merely points to the Winged Wheel on the sweater and thinks that’s enough. The culture where you merely promote the minor league coach instead of conducting a real search.

The Red Wings are run like a country club in a league that requires a less privileged atmosphere from time to time.

You can’t only call out the kids while the veterans get off scot-free, for example.

Since this is a culture issue, the coach can’t solely be at blame. Culture starts at the top of an organization, not at the middle.

So what I’m proposing isn’t likely.

I’m proposing that the Red Wings let Jeff Blashill go and look for a coach—outside the organization with zero ties to the Red Wings (not even a fan of the team as a kid)—who won’t put up with the nonsense we see on an almost nightly basis. Someone who couldn’t care less if they ruffle the feathers of Justin Abdelkader or Jonathan Ericsson or Gustav Nyquist.

I’d suggest John Tortorella but he’s not available. But someone like Torts, who whipped the sad-sack Columbus Blue Jackets into shape almost immediately when brought in midway through the 2015-16 season.

I don’t think Red Wings GM Kenny Holland—who is also quite complicit here—has the temerity to fire Blashill, a friend. Especially not during the season.

But he should.

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

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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.