Today's sad sack Red Wings recall the 1970s to this old-timer

Published Dec. 11, 2019

Red Wings hockey in the 1970s was a combination of theater of the absurd, the Twilight Zone and Keystone Kops. As someone who lived through it all with an all-too-clear memory of the entire debacle of a decade, I never thought I’d see anything quite like it ever again.

But with this season’s Red Wings team tripping over the blue line on a nightly basis, and losing every game seemingly 5-1, it prompts this old-timer to fire up the wayback machine.

So join me, won’t you, on this Magical Mystery Tour of the Ice Follies, Red Wings style.

‘A bad feeling’

Gary Bergman didn’t know much about his new coach. But in the summer of 1970, the Red Wings’ veteran defenseman got a sneak preview of the disaster that was about to befall the Red Wings under Ned Harkness, the college coach hired away from Cornell the previous spring.

“He came over to the house, introduced himself and everything was fine,” Bergman recalled years later.

But then Harkness started to talk about his hockey philosophy, and to illustrate, he began rearranging the furniture in Bergman’s living room.

“My chairs, sofa, the whole room, were used to depict players and positioning,” Bergman said. His wife walked in, saw her living room was a wreck, and shook her head. “I had a bad feeling,” Bergman, who was mystified, said.

Bergman’s bad feeling is justified. Harkness quickly loses the players with his college rules and approach. He fights with star center Garry Unger about the length of Unger’s hair. Almost half the team is traded and the other half wants to be traded. Owner Bruce Norris’ attempt to be progressive and bold with the Harkness hiring ends up being garish.

Total meltdown in Toronto

On Jan. 2, 1971, the Red Wings went into Maple Leaf Gardens and got thumped, 13-0. The Leafs scored seven goals in the third period. The Red Wings didn’t throw a bodycheck all night. The players were trying to get Harkness removed as coach. The Toronto ordeal followed a petition the players submitted to GM Sid Abel, requesting that Harkness get the ziggy.

It worked—sort of. Abel tried to fire Harkness but was told by Norris that he lacked that authority. Abel was pointed in his criticism of Harkness. “I don’t know how to evaluate him as a coach because I don’t think he is one,” Abel told the press.

Rebuffed in his attempt to fire Harkness and a loser in a power struggle with Red Wings executive Jim Bishop, whose background was in lacrosse, Abel resigned in protest about a week after the Toronto game. Harkness indeed was removed as coach—but only because Norris promoted him to GM. Former Red Wings defenseman Doug Barkley, whose playing career was cut short due to an eye injury, took over as coach. In Gordie Howe’s last season as a Red Wing, the team finishes 22-45-11.

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The 1970-71 Red Wings; the first team I remember following on a daily basis.

Coach Fats

It’s Nov. 7, 1973. Teddy Garvin, promoted from the Red Wings’ farm system, is the new coach, replacing the unjustly fired Johnny Wilson. The Red Wings, under the overwhelmed Garvin, are 2-8-1.

Harkness decides to fire Garvin and replace him with captain Alex Delvecchio. Fine.

But NHL rules don’t allow an active player to be coach, so Fats has to retire before accepting the coaching job. Which he does, but not in time before the Red Wings’ game against the Flyers at Olympia Stadium that night.

Can you say awkward? Norris asks Garvin to coach, after firing him.

Garvin is behind the bench, but after the second period he leaves the arena. Injured forward Tim Ecclestone finishes the game as “coach.”

Marcel Mar-no

It’s the spring of 1975. Dynamic center Marcel Dionne, a Red Wing since 1971, wishes to play out his option and flee Detroit, broken by the team’s dysfunction. Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke, who never met a star he didn’t like in any sport, woos Dionne with big money and the sun of Southern California.

Dionne signs but there’s the matter of compensation from the Kings. The league settles on aging defenseman Terry Harper and rugged forward Dan Maloney. The Red Wings get rooked.

To add insult to injury, Harper, a former Cup winner with the Canadiens, refuses to report to the Red Wings, citing their mystifying ways. But eventually Harper is coaxed into showing up, though he does so after training camp in 1975. Dionne flourishes in Los Angeles on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Anyone for tennis?

It’s the summer of 1976. Red Wings high-scoring right winger Mickey Redmond, shut down since January with a bad back, is spotted playing tennis in suburban Detroit. Photos of Mickey on the courts appear in the local papers. GM Alex Delvecchio isn’t happy. Redmond is mad at the media. The two former teammates stop talking to each other.

Redmond ends up being done as a player. He tries a comeback in 1979 but it lasts about a week in training camp.

Another Wilson tries his hand

It’s January 1977. The Red Wings are once again pulling up the rear in the NHL. Delvecchio, by now the GM as well as coach, tires of doing both jobs and resigns with the team 13-26-5. He does that Red Wings thing again of promoting a minor league coach—this time Johnny Wilson’s brother and fellow ex-Red Wing, Larry Wilson.

Wilson has a reputation of running grueling practices and vows to instill toughness. To say that the Red Wings didn’t respond to Wilson is a gross understatement. They cross the finish line under Wilson by going 3-29-4 in the season’s last 36 games, which is his career NHL coaching record.

Rogie!

It’s August 1978. The Red Wings enjoyed a sort of “resurgence” the previous season, under rookie GM Ted Lindsay’s leadership. They make the playoffs, win a series, then get blasted out by the powerhouse Canadiens in five games.

Lindsay, in an ill-advised move, signs 33-year-old goalie Rogie Vachon from the Kings as a restricted free agent. Worse, Lindsay submits a ridiculously lowball offer to the Kings as compensation. The Kings want young star center Dale McCourt. An arbitrator, who can only choose one offer or the other, has no choice but to award McCourt to the Kings.

McCourt fights the decision, taking the NHL to, um, court, costing the Red Wings gobs of money, along with league-wide embarrassment.

The Red Wings play with both McCourt and Vachon while the legalities play out, but it doesn’t help. Vachon is awful—a totally washed up goalie with dwindling confidence. On opening night against the Blues, Rogie surrenders six goals on 14 shots, which sets the tone for his two seasons as a Red Wing.

McCourt wins his case and stays in Detroit, with the Red Wings relaying Andre St. Laurent and two first round draft picks to Los Angeles. One of those draft picks ends up being defenseman Larry Murphy.

The Red Wings follow their Cinderella season with a 23-41-16 record, and there will be no playoffs for them again until 1984. Lindsay is stripped of his GM duties in 1980, coaches the team, and loses that job as well after a 3-14-3 record behind the bench.

The 1970s began as “Darkness with Harkness” and ended with the Red Wings in pretty much the same state of disarray in 1979. It was quite a ride. Kind of like a never ending freefall. Every time you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you were proven wrong.

After so much success between 1992-2015, I never thought I’d see truly bad Red Wings teams again—teams that could cause me to recollect the 1970s Dead Things.

I guess I was wrong.

The end of the coaching line for NHL's Prickly Pear?

Published Dec. 2, 2019

In a sport filled with lines of all sorts, it was one of the most legendary.

“You hate the guy for 364 days,” it goes (and I’m paraphrasing), “and on the 365th day, you lift the Stanley Cup.”

It was uttered by a former Montreal Canadiens player, speaking of iconic coach Scotty Bowman, who led Les Habitants to four straight Cups (among five overall in Montreal) between 1976-79. And Scotty, as the speaker above indicated, didn’t exactly make a lot of friends along the way, amidst all that winning.

Bowman left a trail of disgruntled, offended players in his wake, but a great deal of those dudes are also wearing multiple rings on their calloused fingers. I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that it was worth what Bowman put them through.

Scotty was a master of the good old-fashioned tactic of messing with your head, to hear his former players say it. And Bowman didn’t just pick on the third and fourth liners. In Detroit, no less than Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan could count themselves among Scotty’s victims of his cranial craft.

But Bowman won. A lot. Nine Stanley Cup-winning teams had Scotty Bowman as their coach, across three franchises.

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Today’s NHL not conducive to Babs’ style

But Bowman’s tactics might not play today. In fact, they probably wouldn’t. Just ask Mike Babcock. Actually, ask those who played for him. It won’t be a G-rated conversation, to warn you.

Babcock got the ziggy in Toronto a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs in the throes of a six-game losing streak and the players near revolt. It wasn’t supposed to end that way in Toronto, but with Babs, that’s the chance you take when you hire a man of his ilk.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a fact that most hockey fans in Toronto know more readily than their wedding anniversaries or their kids’ birthdays. And today, some four years and change after hiring Babcock, the Leafs are arguably no closer to sipping from hockey’s chalice than before they pulled a Brinks truck up to Babs’ house.

Leafs braintrust, led by, ironically, Shanahan, was drinking a cocktail of desperate and urgent (enabled by deep pockets) when they inked the free agent coach away from Detroit back in the summer of 2015. It wasn’t a bad move, really.

Babcock, at the time, was the hottest coaching commodity in the NHL, despite the Red Wings’ downward trend when the Leafs reached out. He had three Cup Finals under his belt, winning one and coming extremely close to winning another on two occasions, in Detroit and Anaheim. He won at the international level as well, being the only coach to capture gold medals at the World Junior Championships (1997), the World Championship (2004) and the Olympics (2010 and 2014).

His coaching success was clear and not to be argued. Now, as far as his methods…well, that’s where your non-G-rated conversations begin.

Alienating, shaming players

In Toronto, it came to light that Babcock’s treatment of rookie Mitch Marner in 2018 was beyond reprehensible. The coach asked Marner to record the slackers on the Leafs roster, but then Babcock went public with those identified, telling the so-called slackers that Marner was the source. Babcock subsequently apologized to Marner, but the damage had been done.

Babcock’s relationship with Leafs star Auston Matthews wasn’t warm and fuzzy, either, which makes Matthews the rule rather than the exception.

This column isn’t designed to post a laundry list of those who Babcock offended and how (just Google Mike Commodore/Mike Babcock for some fun). It’s to openly question whether Babs will ever coach again in the NHL.

The expansion Seattle franchise has been mentioned on the Interwebs as a possible destination for Babcock, whose hefty, eight-year contract was swallowed by the Leafs with four years remaining on it.

I suppose an expansion club could be interested in hiring a big name like Babcock, but does his toxicity extend so far that even a newbie team would stay away?

The pundits in Toronto who cover the Leafs (plus the fans, who have been through hell and high water with that franchise) have hinted that Babs’ style and strategies are outdated and no longer a winning recipe in today’s progressive NHL. That’s not even taking his prickly nature into account.

Mike Keenan, sort of a Scotty Bowman Lite, was the Billy Martin of the NHL—taking his act across damn near half the league, where at each stop it would inevitably flame out after a short shelf life, despite periods of genuine winning. Keenan’s poor relationship with players, especially the stars, finally caught up to him until finally no NHL team would give him the keys to their dressing room.

Not even winning the Cup in 1994 with the Rangers could keep Keenan in employ, as he resigned later that summer after a contract dispute with GM Neil Smith.

Mike Babcock doesn’t have to coach anymore. He is likely set financially at age 56. Maybe we’ll see him someday in a TV studio as kind of a Barry Melrose type.

But if Babcock wants to coach, it might not matter. Unlike Bowman and, to a degree Keenan before his act tired, teams might not be beating down Babs’ door as they would have in 2015. While Babcock did lift the Leafs a notch or two, his teams in Toronto went 0-3 in playoff series.

The NHL’s Prickly Pear may have pissed off his last player.

Grapes stepped out of his lane and into the doo-doo

Published Nov. 13, 2019

No matter on which side of the fence you reside when it comes to the incredibly polarizing cashiering of commentator Don Cherry by Sportsnet, i.e. Hockey Night In Canada, one thing should be clear: Grapes has only himself to blame.

Freedom of speech doesn’t equate to the freedom from the consequences of said speech. And Cherry, who got the ziggy for wandering out of his hockey lane and ranting about immigrants under the guise of Canadian patriotism, pushed his agenda too far on the air last Saturday. No one told him to do it.

Cherry’s has been the Mouth That Roared on HNIC for decades, doing his between-periods “Coach’s Corner.” And those unfiltered types almost invariably stray from their primary purpose, only to step into doo-doo in the process.

Comparison to ‘Jimmy the Greek’

Sometimes the moment is unguarded and outside the studio, as was the case with Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, whose offhand comments about black athletes during a TV interview at a Washington, D.C. restaurant in January 1988 got him fired by CBS.

But in Cherry’s case, the remarks tumbled out of Grapes’ mouth like a gumball from a dispenser, in the studio, in familiar territory for him. To wit:

“I live in Mississauga [Ontario]. Very few people wear the poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears the poppy. … Now you go to the small cities. You people … that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life. You love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price for that.”

The key words in Cherry’s spiel were “You people,” because Grapes was referring to immigrants. But beyond that, the framework of his diatribe was that, in Don Cherry’s world, there’s only one way to show patriotism: by wearing the poppy. To not do so is, by extrapolation, to be unpatriotic.

There’s nothing wrong with Cherry’s passion and support for Canada’s military veterans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And, it being on the virtual eve of Remembrance Day, one can argue that it was topical.

But not really. Because it wasn’t about hockey.

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‘Hockey Grapes’ = no harm, no foul

Don Cherry didn’t stay in his lane. He strayed, and into the doo-doo he stepped.

Cherry, love him or hate him, has been entertaining hockey fans for nearly 40 years on HNIC and with his short-lived TV show in the 1980s, “Don Cherry’s Grapevine.” His boisterous, loudmouth persona plays well with hockey enthusiasts. His frequent fawning over his three favorite players—Bobby Orr, Doug (Dougie) Gilmour and Steve (Stevie) Yzerman—became legendary.

Even Cherry’s unbridled disdain (since softened slightly) for players not from North America was winked at. While a form of hockey xenophobia, there was no real harm done. So Don Cherry hates European players—so what? As more players dotted NHL rosters who weren’t from Canada or the United States, it was obvious to everyone (except maybe Cherry himself) that Grapes’ vitriol was nothing more than a losing battle and made him look rather silly. But it was all in good fun.

Cherry liked a good on-ice scrap. So what? He took the perhaps antiquated stance that the more fighting there was in the game, the less stick work there was. No harm, no foul.

He didn’t like players who wore face shields. So what? Everyone knows that among professional athletes, hockey players are among the last you could accuse of being less than manly. That was just Grapes being Grapes.

His repartee on the air with his foil, Ronnie MacLean, gave Canada maybe the country’s best entertainment duo since Wayne and Shuster were at their peak in the 1950s and ’60s. MacLean was Cherry’s straight man. Loudmouth boobs always like to have quiet, unassuming folks around them. MacLean sat right next to Cherry but yet he was barely there. Still, you couldn’t imagine Don Cherry on camera by himself; he needed someone to function as a sounding board. MacLean filled that role perfectly, if quietly at times.

‘Non-hockey Grapes’ = potential danger

Cherry is 85 and it’s amazing, frankly, that it took him this long to step into the doo-doo. But therein lies the lesson: If Grapes had only stuck to hockey, he’d be on the air this Saturday night, on schedule.

This isn’t to say that sports commentators can’t mention, at all, anything that isn’t directly related to their respective areas of expertise. But Cherry didn’t know when to stop. He could have paid his respects to his beloved country and its warriors without going out of his way to berate those who don’t “wear the poppy.”

With nothing to lose now, Cherry has doubled down on his remarks. Those who thought that Grapes would curl into a ball, apologize and beg for his job back, have probably never watched 30 seconds of any randomly selected “Coach’s Corner” segment. The closest Cherry has come to offering a mea culpa was in saying that he maybe should have “used different words.”

He shouldn’t have used different words. He should have not ventured into the territory to begin with.

To talk in hockey terms as they do with goalies who let in a soft goal, perhaps Grapes would like to “have that one back.” Maybe even he of the big mouth wishes that he had exercised some degree of self-restraint.

As for the polarization, the support for Cherry is palpable. Social media has mostly rallied around Grapes. He’s saying what Canadians are thinking, his supporters insist. Maybe. But maybe not all Canadians. Maybe not even the majority of Canadians.

Those same supporters have started online movements to petition for Cherry’s reinstatement. They wonder what the big kerfuffle is all about. Cherry’s critics wonder why his supporters can’t understand the kerfuffle.

But one thing remains. Don Cherry would still be employed if he only chose to not stray too far from hockey. He stepped into the doo-doo and once you do that, you can’t unstep from it. And the clean up is messy and smelly.

Dear Abby: What happened to you?

Published Oct. 13, 2019

If Justin Abdelkader’s career didn’t go in the toilet, there wouldn’t be any question about who the next Red Wings captain would be, as there is now.

The team is currently going with four alternates, as there’s apparently some hesitation in pinning the “C” on Dylan Larkin, as has been bantied about for quite some time.

But the point should be moot. The Red Wings shouldn’t be considering going all Steve Yzerman/1986 on Larkin, the 23-year-old wonder.

The C should be Abdelkader’s. But not only is Abby unworthy, his role on the team is undefined.

Summer of 2016: Lock him up!

Full disclosure: I wanted the Red Wings to lock up the MSU grad in the summer of 2016, ensuring that he not be able to test the free agent waters. I felt strongly that Abdelkader was a future team captain, due to his grittiness, nose for the net, his heading into his prime and his tenure with the Red Wings (he debuted in 2008).

The Red Wings took my (ahem) advice, and signed Abdelkader to a seven year, $29.75 million deal in 2016. Captaincy after Henrik Zetterberg’s waning but brilliant career seemed to be the logical next step.

But the Abdelkader who we knew at age 29 when he inked his big contract, has vanished. Poof!

He’s on the wrong side of 30 now (he’ll be 33 in February) and I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see the same no. 8 as we did pre-contract. Ever.

But why?

Before 2016’s deal, Abby was about as complete a forward as you could hope to have in the NHL. He had popped in 42 goals the previous two seasons. He had amassed 192 penalty minutes. But more than those tangible numbers were the intangibles.

Abdelkader was hard to play against. He agitated. He got under people’s skin. He was always around the puck—in the corners, in open ice. Even on the nights when he didn’t register a point, you knew he had played. He made his presence felt.

All that is gone now.

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No identity, no presence

Abdelkader once had an identity. Now, he doesn’t. Gone are those intangibles. He’s just another forward. On many nights he’s invisible. The hard numbers went down the tubes as well. In the three seasons combined after signing the big deal, Abby has scored just 26 goals. This season is the same as those three: zero goals in the Red Wings’ first five ganes.

Because this nosedive into oblivion has coincided with the Red Wings’ rebuild and the emergence of youngsters like Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Betuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou et al, Abdelkader almost seems to get a pass from the fans and the media. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a free agent signed away from another team, like the Stephen Weiss debacle a few years ago.

Abdelkader, by all rights, should be booed out of town. He’s committing larceny every night in plain view. But because the team is in transition, all is forgiven, I guess.

By all accounts, no one in the Red Wings organization has given up on Abdelkader. Coach Jeff Blashill, just before the season started, spoke of Abby playing “on the verge of recklessness.” Blashill commented that just because a guy who once scored 20 goals hasn’t done so in a while, it doesn’t mean that he can’t do it again.

Those are either words of encouragement or of grand delusion.

Untradeable

To his credit, Abdelkader, in a fit of self-reflection, knew that his recent play has been unacceptable, and thus engaged in an intense off-season training regimen.

“More focus on speed and quickness,” said Abdelkader of his training. “The game’s so fluid, so fast, I’m just making sure I’m giving myself the best opportunity to go out and be the player I know I can be.”

The trouble is, the player that Abdelkader thinks he can be, might not be the player he is now able to be. Hockey players who are about to turn 33 typically don’t find the fountain of youth and turn back the clock.

But what else can the Red Wings be, other than patient? They can’t trade Abby, with this $4.75 million payroll hit per season and with three years left on his contract after next spring. At least, they can’t trade him without swallowing large portions of the deal whole.

They could cut him, but that simply hasn’t been the Red Wings’ style, although with new GM Steve Yzerman on board, you never know.

Abdelkader is holding the team hostage now. Believe it or not, despite his rotten production since 2016, he still holds the cards. His past performance gives management a glimmer of hope that he can recapture some of that, yet his most recent body of work suggests otherwise.

The big contract may be an albatross for the Red Wings, but it’s a lifeline for Abdelkader’s roster spot.

What I don’t understand is the lack of physical presence and the disappearance of his agitating, grating ways. Why did that have to go away with his scoring production? Honest to goodness, on many nights after a game I couldn’t tell you whether Abdelkader was in the lineup or not. If you had falsely told me that he was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, I would have believed you.

In a way, maybe this is all moot. Abdelkader doesn’t represent the future of the Red Wings. And he’s not why the team has missed the playoffs the past three springs.

But wouldn’t it be nice if, during this transition, Abdelkader could go back to being Abdelkader—even a little bit? Wouldn’t that help the cause in the short term?

Forget being the next captain of the Red Wings. All we wonder now is, how long can Justin Abdelkader remain on the team?

It’s quite a tumble, I tell you.

OK to add MLB Line to list of fine Red Wings’ forward trios of the past

Published Oct. 6, 2019

It’s one of the most iconic photographs in Detroit sports history, and indeed in all of hockey history.

Three forwards, in their blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest, in mid-skate, closely bunched, smiling and looking down at the ice at a puck of which they are fully controlling.

I have no idea how many takes it took to capture the image, but you know the one. Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. The Production Line. A wonderful take on the car industry in the Motor City, as well as the offensive prowess of that legendary, Hall of Fame trio in the late-1940s, early-1950s.

One of my prized possessions is the photo, signed by all three Red Wings. You can have it, if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

The Red Wings had another iteration of the Production Line in the late-1960s. Howe was still on the right wing, but center Alex Delvecchio and left wing Frank Mahovlich flanked no. 9. They were the Production Line II.

Great lines of the past

The history of NHL hockey is adorned with many forward lines who earned nicknames. There was the Bruins’ Kraut Line of the 1940s, so named because of the German ancestry of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer.

The Rangers of the 1970s had the GAG (Goal a Game) line of Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert. The Sabres in that time had the French Connection (Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert). And on and on.

The Red Wings of 1987-88 used an unusual combination of Gerard Gallant, Steve Yzerman and Bob Probert to march to the league’s semifinals—a season in which Yzerman scored 50 goals for the first time in his career and Probert had a career year, potting 29 goals (despite 398 penalty minutes!) and breaking Howe’s franchise record for points in one playoff year (21).

The famous forward lines have lost their zing as coaches in the league frequently shuffle wingers and centers like playing cards, often within the same game.

MLB line?

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Yet the Red Wings of today have a line that I doubt coach Jeff Blashill will fool around with too much.

In Saturday night’s 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in their season opener, the Red Wings’ trio of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi terrorized the Preds, figuring in four of the five goals.

In their last nine games dating back to last season, that line has tallied an astounding 47 points. Incidentally, the Red Wings are 7-2 in those games.

Get used to this unbalanced scoring for the Winged Wheelers, at least for the near future. Mantha, Larkin and Bertuzzi (they need a nickname, by the way) are, without question, the Red Wings’ no. 1 line—the same way that of the Aaron brothers, Hank is the no. 1 home run hitter.

But that’s OK. The Red Wings are building something, and unlike their counterparts who kick around baseballs in Comerica Park, the hockey rebuild has definitive light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. And it isn’t emanating from the equally proverbial oncoming train.

So while the other forwards—a mix of kids and veterans—get their sea legs and occasionally chip in a goal or two, the MLB line (working title) will be happy to be the dominant point producers.

“For us as a line, it’s huge,” Mantha said of the opening night onslaught of production. “We just right away come back to where we left off last year. It’s exactly what we wanted. This game just proves that we’re meant to be a first line together and hopefully we can stick around for the whole season.”

Are you listening, coach?

“They know how to play together,” Blashill said after Saturday’s game. “They kind of feed off each other. Dylan kind of drives the line with his energy. Bert is greasy, he’s skilled, he’s smart. And Mo has that great skill package. They’ve been a really good line together. They enjoy playing together and we’re going to need them to be great.” 

Other forwards must contribute

The Red Wings have other veteran forwards who, in their careers, have bobbed to the surface offensively with fine years. But most of those guys are well into their 30s. This is a full-on rebuild. The Frans Nielsens, Justin Abdelkaders, Darren Helmses and Val Filppulas likely won’t be in Detroit—or even active players—when GM Steve Yzerman’s project comes to fruition.

So it’s the MLB line or bust for now, on most nights. Veteran mucker Luke Glendening chipped in with a fine goal Saturday night as well, but make no mistake: the league will be filled with game plans for the Red Wings that pretty much will say, “Stop those no. 1 guys and we’ll take our chances with everyone else.”

The Predators, who accumulated 100 points last season and made the playoffs yet again, are considered one of the top teams in the West. But they had no answer for the MLB kids on Saturday. In fact, the Preds haven’t been able to figure out the Red Wings, period, lately. Saturday’s win was Detroit’s sixth straight in Nashville and the Preds are 1-10 against the Red Wings in their last 11 meetings. Go figure.

The chemistry of a successful forward line in hockey ought not to be underestimated. The game is so fast, so knowing the little things about your linemates such as where they like to position themselves in the attacking zone, how they like the puck to be served to them and so forth, is critical. There’s also a certain trust factor involved.

Mantha, after Saturday night’s first period, told Fox Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson that the MLB line is having fun and really enjoys playing together. “We’re three different types of players,” Mantha said, but in hockey that’s considered a positive for a forward line. Opposites really do attract.

The rest of the league will design its defense to do what it can to shackle the MLB line. That’s a given. But if the Red Wings can find some semblance of offense from their myriad of other forwards, the rebuild could take a big stride this season. Andreas Athanasiou, he of 30 goals scored last season, didn’t play on Saturday, don’t forget.

One down, 81 to go. Since the MLB season was so unkind to Detroit fans in 2019, it’s only fair that those initials bring a ray of sunshine on the ice this winter, eh?

Yzerman only beginning what promises to be a long honeymoon in Detroit

Published June 22, 2019

Look, I don’t know Moritz Seider any better than you do. Prior to seeing his photo on Friday, I could have tripped over him and not known who he was. I’m guessing you’re in the same boat.

The fans aren’t paid to evaluate hockey players. They don’t have the gene that enables one to look at a guy on skates and break him down from head to toe. The sharp evaluating of talent requires looking at players through a different, trained lens.

So when the Red Wings selected Seider, an 18-year-old German defenseman, with the sixth overall pick in Friday’s NHL entry draft in Vancouver, it’s OK if you said, “Who?”

In the world of draft experts, the selection of Seider at no. 6 was deemed a mild surprise.

But I bet after you heard the news of Seider’s drafting, you said, “Well, if Stevie Y says he’s a player, then he’s a player.”

An era of trust

Such is a smidgen of the instant credibility and trust that Yzerman, named Red Wings GM on April 19, currently enjoys.

Yzerman could have told us that the Red Wings drafted Elmer Fudd yesterday and we would have said, “Well, I’ll be darned. I didn’t know that Fudd was a rink rat.”

But of Seider, Yzerman said, “We think he has excellent hockey sense. He’s a big kid, a real good skater. In our opinion, he was one of the top defensemen in the draft. We’re pretty excited to get him. I know our fans don’t know much about him, but I think when people come to development camp (next week at Little Caesars Arena) and see him move — Google him, watch him play a little bit — I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

OK then!

By the way, that’s the first time I’ve known a GM of any pro sports team to tell the fans to Google a player he drafted. Of course, even if we did Google Moritz Seider, we wouldn’t necessarily see in him what Yzerman and his scouting staff saw. Which is why they do what they do and we do things like bang away at a keyboard.

I’m not here to talk about Seider, who himself was even surprised at being selected at no. 6. This is about Yzerman, and the beginning of a honeymoon period with the fans that may turn out to be the longest that any sports executive has ever enjoyed in this town.

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Yzerman is seasoned. He built the Tampa Bay Lightning from the dredges of the league into a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, and in just a few years. He knows what he’s doing.

Yzerman has the most job security of any sports figure in Detroit. He’s adored by the fans. He’s loved by his owner’s family.

To steal a line from Jerry Maguire, if Yzerman tells the fans to eat lima beans, they’ll eat lima beans.

Hanging on his every word

But here’s the other thing about Yzerman that will be a joy to watch for as long as he’s the Red Wings GM: He’s a straight shooter.

There’s no bluster about him. He carries himself with a certain degree of humility and grace. He’s wise and he’s smart. When Yzerman speaks, it’s hard not to hang on every word. His decisions won’t be driven by loyalty or past performances.

You wanna nitpick this and tell me that you were unnerved by Yzerman’s support of bringing aging defenseman Niklas Kronwall back? Well, I would counter that Kronwall, at age 38, had one of his best seasons in several years.

But I can assure you that there won’t be any silly long-term contracts handed out to old Red Wings because they’re, well, old Red Wings.

If that sounds like a knock on Yzerman’s predecessor, it is, but as I’ve also written, Kenny Holland has set the Red Wings up nicely for a hockey man like Stevie Y to finish the job.

A word of caution, however.

There will come a time when the Hockeytown denizens will be asked to take off their Yzerman-colored glasses and seriously evaluate their GM’s job performance. The trick will be knowing when to do that.

But for now, Stevie Yzerman can pretty much make any move he wants and the fans will lap it up. He’s the anti-Al Avila that way.

Yet Yzerman doesn’t take this trust lightly. He said as much at his introductory presser.

Meanwhile, Moritz Seider is a Red Wing. You got a problem with that?

Didn’t think so.





Just as in his playing days, Yzerman obsessed with winning Stanley Cup as GM

Published April 20, 2019

The man who would save Hockeytown was in full Clark Kent mode.

Bespectacled. Unassuming. Mild-mannered. Apologizing when one of his answers was a little long-winded. Maybe even a tad nervous.

Stevie Yzerman hasn’t changed a bit.

They handed him the reins of one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports on Friday—forget just hockey—and all he has to do is get it to winning Stanley Cups again, sooner rather than later.

“I know there’s a limit to the fans’ patience here,” he said at his introductory presser at Little Caesars Arena, and he said it with that aw, shucks grin that he’s been flashing in Detroit since 1983, when he arrived with peach fuzz as an 18-year-old rookie player.

But Yzerman can’t change in a phone booth. He can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. And the task at hand won’t be faster than a speeding bullet.

“If you’re old enough, you remember that we’ve been through this before,” he said, referring to his early playing days in the NHL, when the Red Wings did things like win 17 games and surrender over 400 goals in a season.

Rebuilds nothing new for Yzerman

And Yzerman has been through this kind of thing before, too. At age 21, coach Jacques Demers, in either a remarkable display of prescience or damn fool luck, named Yzerman his captain, with the Red Wings coming off that 40-point nightmare.

Here’s the C, kid, good luck!

You know the rest.

Yzerman now has to do as the Red Wings’ new GM what he did as a player, which is nothing less than win at least one more Stanley Cup. When he said on Friday that it takes time, he neglected to mention that as a player, it took Stevie’s teams 14 seasons to win hockey’s Holy Grail.

That’s not going to fly as GM—not for the fans, and certainly not for Yzerman.

It should have come as no surprise that just because Yzerman went from sweater to suit, he’s no less driven. He said so on Friday, mentioning several times that his biggest disappointment while at the helm in Tampa for nine seasons was not bringing a second Stanley Cup to that franchise. And he reiterated how badly he wants to do so as a GM.

And he wants to do it in Detroit. Badly.

He wore a Red Wings lapel pin on his jacket, matching the logo that’s embroidered on his heart. Really, if Yzerman was going to get back into the GM game after stepping back from it last fall in Tampa, would it be anywhere else than in Detroit? And with his 54th birthday coming up soon (May 9), you can believe that hockey retirement is far, far away.

The length of Yzerman’s contract wasn’t revealed on Friday, but that hardly matters now. According to the fans, Superman has arrived to save Metropolis, er, Hockeytown.

Not just a brilliant PR move

The Red Wings hit the Daily Double here. Not only are they getting the PR glory from bringing a legend back into the fold, they also happen to be getting one of the best hockey executives in the league. This isn’t the Pistons hiring a green Joe Dumars and hoping for the best.

Yzerman went out of his way several times to give props to his predecessor, Kenny Holland, who is willingly moving upstairs to his new role as Sr. Vice President, so Yzerman can sit in the GM’s seat.

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“I have a lot of questions (for Holland). I’m going to want his opinions,” Yzerman told the media throng, and there was a throng, alright. The attendance was like for his retirement press conference in 2006, only the emotions were 180 degrees opposite from that day. Back then, the thing to do was look back and be wistful. Today, it’s all about looking ahead and being hopeful.

Speaking of which, Yzerman could very easily fail here. Only one team out of 31 gets to skate the Cup around the ice when all is said and done. And despite building his stellar reputation as a GM in Tampa, Yzerman could do no better than one Finals appearance (lost in six games to the Blackhawks in 2015) in nine seasons with the Lightning. And his teams missed the playoffs entirely three times.

“It’s hard to do,” Yzerman said, and he was talking about replicating his on-ice success as a suit in the front office.

Listening to Yzerman on Friday and studying his face as he spoke, I’m convinced that, while the Stanley Cup was his white whale for so long as a player, it is no less so as a GM. It bothers him that he hasn’t been able to achieve that goal in the front office.

Sitting to Yzerman’s right on the dais Friday was his mentor, Holland, who’s won three Cups as a GM. And I must admit that although I’ve been one of Kenny’s harshest critics in recent years, he’s actually done a nice job of setting the table for someone of Yzerman’s ilk to finish the job.

At the presser, Stevie joked that for a time, he thought that because of guys like Jim Nill (assistant GM who eventually joined the Dallas Stars) in place in Detroit, by the time Yzerman would get a chance to be the Red Wings GM, “I’d be a hundred years old.”

“I feel a hundred right now, frankly,” he added.

The fans feel like a million. This is what they’ve wanted ever since Yzerman left in 2010, truth be told.

For the fans, Christmas in April

They say that the things that hardly ever come true are your wildest dreams and your worst fears.

For the fans, this is the former. When it leaked early Friday morning that the Red Wings had called a 3 p.m. presser, with Holland, Yzerman and owner Chris Ilitch in attendance, Twitter was abuzz with GIFs of joy and happy tears. Some folks get quite creative on the Interwebs.

The presser was streamed live on Facebook, and the emotions continued there, with “Welcome home!” and “We love you!” comments scrolling at breakneck speed throughout the event.

Yzerman could fail. His white whale, which he finally slayed in 1997 and captured twice more for good measure as a player, could go back into elusive mode. The obsession with winning a Stanley Cup as a GM—and that’s exactly what I think it is for him—might never be realized.

That’s not throwing shade. That’s being real.

But I do know this. If any executive in the NHL has the pedigree and the drive and the smarts to turn the Red Wings back into Stanley Cup winners, the team just hired him.

That Steve Yzerman also happens to be one of the most beloved athletes to ever toil in this town, is icing on the cake. Pun only partly intended.

Come to think of it, have you ever seen Superman and Yzerman in the same place at the same time?

Hmmm…..