NHL’s latest foray into expansion is official: behold the Golden Knights of (Las) Vegas

Published March 2, 2017

Viva Las Vegas!

Yesterday, it became official. The National Hockey League, already bursting at the seams, added its 31st team when the Vegas Golden Knights successfully completed their initiation and became a full-fledged NHL franchise.

The Golden Knights can now sign free agents, make trades and conduct all other league business as do the other 30 clubs.

For whatever reason, the Golden Knights dropped “Las” from their city’s name.

The expansion draft will be held on June 18-20, just past the 50th anniversary of the NHL’s first, ambitious effort to balloon in 1967.

The league was a six-team, rough-and-tumble fraternity, still traveling mostly by train, 50 years ago today.

A western trip meant a game in Chicago. Teams played each other 14 times a season. That meant plenty of opportunities for bad blood and feuds to fester.

That cozy little league was turned on its ear in 1967, when the NHL doubled in size. The draft was held on June 6, 1967.

The trains were idled. Planes became the new mode of transportation, because the NHL became a coast-to-coast entity.

Los Angeles and Oakland were added. The Midwest was further represented by teams in St. Louis and Bloomington, Minnesota. Pennsylvania got two new teams, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Even the league’s color pallet exploded.

Before the ’67 expansion, NHL uniforms were various forms of brown, yellow, red and blue. That was it.

The new teams sported purple and gold and aqua and orange and baby blue and green.

Image result for nhl expansion 1967

NHL’s expansion in 1967 introduced newfangled logos and colors that caused some fans to wear sunglasses to games.

Canadian hockey fans were annoyed because none of the new teams were based in their country, and hockey was Canada’s national game. Vancouver and Edmonton, especially, were seen as viable NHL cities because both towns had been longtime minor league franchises.

But it was the ownership in Montreal and Toronto who were partially to blame, because they were reluctant to cede any of their popularity in Canada.

The NHL put all of the new teams in their own division, guaranteeing that an expansion club would play in the Stanley Cup Finals. That decision wasn’t terribly popular.

The first 12 guys drafted from the existing NHL teams in 1967 were all goaltenders. The legendary Terry Sawchuk, 38 years old at the time, was the first name called, drafted by the Los Angeles Kings.

Some league observers worried that the NHL was biting off more than it could chew by doubling in size overnight. They feared a watering down of talent. The way baseball was expanding, i.e. gradually, was preferred by those folks.

The 1967 expansion started an avalanche of new teams in the NHL over the next seven years.

Vancouver—finally—was added in 1970, along with Buffalo. Long Island and Atlanta were added in 1972, and Kansas City and Landover, Maryland joined in 1974. The Original Six grew by 200 percent between 1967-74.

In retrospect, NHL’s fetish for expansion produced mixed results.

As expected, the 1968, 1969 and 1970 Finals were all won by Original Six teams, and also not surprisingly, all three series were clean sweeps.

The six new teams added in 1967 eventually batted .667 in terms of survival.

Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all made it, but Oakland moved to Cleveland in 1976 and eventually that franchise merged with Minnesota in 1978, with the North Stars moving to Dallas in 1993.

The expansion franchises in Vancouver, Buffalo, Long Island (now Brooklyn) and Landover (now DC) all survived, but the Atlanta franchise lasted just seven years before moving to Calgary. Kansas City made it just two seasons before moving to Denver—which eventually moved to New Jersey in 1982.

In 1979, the NHL absorbed four surviving teams from the World Hockey Association (Hartford, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Quebec City) and only Edmonton remains in its original form.

Atlanta had two cracks at the NHL and failed both times. Winnipeg, Minnesota and Denver are all on their second tries. Quebec City wants another kick at the can, too.

The NHL isn’t alone in its checkered history of expansion and franchise movement.

The NBA has also been a league filled with vagabonds and teams that have planted stakes rather than roots.

For its part, Las Vegas has been targeted as an NHL city for several years. But so was just about every other city that’s been awarded a league franchise. And many of them couldn’t hack it.

The NHL now has two teams in the desert, one in Texas and two in Florida. Not to mention three in California. The Golden Knights will be placed in the Pacific Division.

Is the NHL wise to expand?

Historically, the league’s success rate in adding new franchises isn’t the best. But the warm weather climate cities continue to survive, although the Arizona franchise is on, ahem, thin ice.

Expansion rules of today make it easier for teams to cobble together competitive rosters than in the days of 1967, when the new clubs pretty much only had their choice of the Original Six’s scraps and aging veterans.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, last November, expressed confidence in Las Vegas as an NHL entity.

“It’s another opportunity to continue to grow the game. It’s a market of over two million people that has a high visibility. We’re getting a terrific new owner in Bill Foley and a state-of-the-art arena (T-Mobile Arena). I think it’s going to enhance the league’s presence,” Bettman said.

We’ll see. Heretofore, the best thing on ice is Las Vegas has been Scotch and soda.

 

Advertisements

Red Wings about to bookend the JLA era with playoff-less seasons

Published February 19, 2017

The ovation was thunderous.

The throng stood for a solid seven minutes. Thirty-three years of love was pouring forth.

The man they cheered didn’t have his name announced. He went by a number.

“From the Hartford Whalers,” the public address announcer said, “number nine!”

Number nine. It was all that needed to be said.

Gordie Howe skated onto the ice, the last player announced at the 1980 NHL All-Star Game. The game was played at the new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which opened for hockey just six weeks earlier. But Howe wasn’t introduced by name. He didn’t need to be.

“Number nine!”

They stood and yelled and cheered at the JLA on that February night in 1980—an ovation as loud and as long as there would ever be in the barn for the next 37 years, including for Stanley Cup-winning celebrations.

Howe, ever humble and “golly, gee whiz,” acknowledged the thunder, almost sheepishly.

He raised his stick to the crowd and skated out of the line of players for a moment, then returned to his place, thinking that the noise would die down and they could get on with playing the game.

But the noise didn’t stop.

Howe tried it again a few moments later. He returned to his place in line.

But the noise didn’t stop.

Finally, even Howe allowed himself a chuckle at what he no doubt thought was the over-the-top reaction of the hockey fans in the city to which he was attached from 1946-71 as a player.

Young Red Wings defenseman Reed Larson, an All-Star teammate of Howe’s that evening, began giggling at the legend’s reaction to the ovation. There are videos of it all over the Internet.

The new JLA was designed to hold 20,000-plus for hockey, but attendance that night is probably 10 times that by now, if you go by the number of people who say they were there the night Gordie Howe was introduced at the 1980 All-Star Game.

The All-Star love thrown at Howe that night would be the last big night at the Joe for over four years.

Image result for 1980 nhl all star game gordie howe

Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito pose before the 1980 NHL All-Star Game at then-new Joe Louis Arena.

The next big night would come in April 1984, when the Red Wings finally played their first playoff game at JLA. The Red Wings lost in overtime. They played a playoff game the next night at the Joe. The Red Wings lost in overtime. Their season was thus ended in four games by the St. Louis Blues.

There were no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 1980, JLA’s first spring as a functioning hockey barn.

There will be no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 2017, in JLA’s final spring as a functioning hockey barn.

It’s amazingly ironic that the Red Wings, despite annual playoff participation from 1991-2016, will cap their run at JLA in bookend fashion.

No playoffs when they christened the arena, and no playoffs when they say goodbye.

Yet it would be highly cynical to say that this year’s Red Wings team is in the same boat as the 1980 version, despite the non-playoff common denominator.

The Red Wings of 1980 had missed the playoffs in all but one year since 1970, and would endure three more years of postseason absence before qualifying in 1984 with a gnarly record of 31-42-7.

This year’s team, while saying goodbye to a 25-year playoff streak and having its warts and its salary cap issues, is not the ragamuffin group that first stepped onto Joe Louis Arena ice on December 27, 1979.

There are several young players on the 2016-17 Red Wings and in the minor league system around whom the franchise can build. That was certainly not the case in 1979-80. Only Dale McCourt and the aforementioned Larson were up-and-coming “star” players of that time. The minor league affiliate, Adirondack, was bereft.

There are building blocks now, but there’s still the question of which path Kenny Holland and his lieutenants in the front office will take as the February 28 trading deadline fast approaches.

These are perilous times for the Red Wings.

In 1980, the Red Wings were in the middle of a freefall as a franchise that began in 1970 and wouldn’t right itself until 1986-87.

Today, there’s no freefall—yet—but there has been a fall from grace, which isn’t necessarily the same thing, if you handle things correctly.

Holland needs to be a seller a week from Tuesday. It’s not a role that he’s played—ever—as Red Wings GM, and he’s been doing this for some 20 years. But it’s a role he needs to embrace, quickly.

It’s time now for the Red Wings to be the team that surrenders NHL players for youth and prospects. It’s time for the Red Wings to give a team ahead of them in the standings a short-term fix while the Detroiters prepare for the long term.

It’s time now.

It’s been time, frankly. I believe that the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2013 should have been the sounding horn, but it wasn’t.

The Red Wings will close the doors on Joe Louis Arena the same way that they opened them—with a team not good enough to make the playoffs.

But this doesn’t have to signal an era of hockey morass in this town. If the required remake is done correctly, it might only take two to three years for the Red Wings to return to relevance.

A small price to pay, especially considering what the franchise put the fans through from 1970-87.

 

Blashill must go, but that should just be the start

Kenny Holland has done a lot of things since becoming Red Wings manager—the hockey people don’t put “general” in front of it—in 1997.

He’s made trades. He’s signed free agents. He’s hired scouts. He’s given jobs to former Red Wings left and right—including to fourth line players.

He’s hired three coaches.

But there’s one thing that Holland hasn’t done.

He hasn’t fired a coach.

I don’t count Dave Lewis, by the way.

Lewis, who was elevated from assistant to head coach after the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, coached the Red Wings for two seasons. Then the NHL had its lockout, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

During that time period, Holland quietly ate Lewis’ contract and brought in Mike Babcock to coach, starting in 2005-06.

That’s not a true firing.

The Red Wings haven’t given a coach the ziggy since December 30, 1985, when Harry Neale was relieved of his duties—and relieved is the right word—and replaced by Brad Park.

Jimmy Devellano was the GM in those days. Holland was in his first season as a western scout for the Red Wings, having hung up his goalie pads the previous spring.

Holland has never fired a coach. You wonder if he knows how.

I’m not being facetious here.

To some front office folks, knowing when to can a coach has a certain feel to it. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it’s time to make a change.

Does Holland have that knack? We don’t know, because he’s never had to do it before.

The Red Wings are off on a lengthy road trip. They play 10 of their next 11 games away from Joe Louis Arena, which used to be a house of horrors for the visiting team but is now horrifying to the guys wearing the Winged Wheel.

Jeff Blashill is likely to return from the next 11 games as coach of the Red Wings, just as he began the sojourn, despite the team’s woes over the past month.

But if there is a team that could use a new man behind the bench, it’s the Red Wings.

In full disclosure, I was on board with the Blashill hiring in the summer of 2015. I felt he was the best choice to replace the departed Babcock, given Blashill’s ties to the organization as coach of Grand Rapids of the AHL. He knew many of the current Red Wings (Blashill served one year on Babcock’s staff), so what the heck, why not?

It was another example of the Red Wings’ unfailing loyalty, which has turned into a double edged sword for the franchise in recent years.

But 114 games into the Blashill Era, the same bugaboos are there as existed when he took over.

The lack of shooting and driving to the net. The lack of desire in scoring dirty, ugly goals. Starting games, as Babcock used to say, not on time.

The blowing of third period leads, which has been mind-numbing.

In professional sports, of course, it often matters little if the players are deficient in talent or ability. The coach bites it anyway.

Players such as Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar (Saturday’s hat trick notwithstanding), Gus Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Jonathan Ericsson are either stagnant or are regressing. Or—and don’t say this too loud or Kenny might hear—they were never very good to begin with.

None of that will likely change if Holland decides to give Blashill the ziggy.

A new coach isn’t going to cure the deficiencies in talent. Casey Stengel was a great skipper when he managed the Yankees but not so good when he piloted the Mets. See how that works?

But whatever Blashill says he is preaching to his guys, it doesn’t seem to be getting through.

The coach complains of lack of shooting, yet the team continues not to shoot.

The coach says the power play needs to improve, yet it doesn’t.

The coach says the team needs to bear down more in the third period and not let leads slip away, yet they continue to vanish.

The lines get juggled constantly. Because there’s only so much a coach can do, you know.

The players don’t seem to be responding to whatever method Blashill is using to motivate them.

The fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply aren’t very good. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

But you don’t fire a coach because the team is lagging behind in talent. You fire a coach if effort, urgency and mental strength appear lacking.

The Red Wings finally got the message—or so we hope—in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Anaheim.

Most of the goals were scored within five feet of the crease. The Red Wings pounded home rebounds. They scored ugly, playoff-type goals.

Can somebody please tell these guys that they’re not capable of scoring the same pretty, precision goals that Red Wings teams of yore used to score?

The game last Tuesday against Arizona was an indictment. The Coyotes were coming off a 7-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh the night before. The Red Wings were at home, rested.

The Coyotes buried the Wings, 4-1.

OK, so let’s see how they react two nights later against Los Angeles, folks said. That will be more telling than the Arizona game, because anyone can have a bad, uninterested night.

About 30 seconds into Thursday’s tilt against the Kings, the Red Wings trailed, 1-0. They lost, 4-1, and the fans got surly again, as they did on Tuesday.

The same old thing: abysmal power play, lack of shooting, yadda yadda.

Video surfaced recently of captain Henrik Zetterberg, miked up, talking to his teammates in the locker room after the Arizona game. The message was designed to be a scolding, but it wasn’t exactly Knute Rockne stuff.

The Red Wings organization used to hang its hat on its stability.

There was a time when the Red Wings were considered a model franchise.

But today, that same stability has morphed into a staleness that is keeping the franchise, I believe, from making some tough yet necessary decisions.

Firing the coach isn’t the panacea, of course. But it should be done. That’s not all that should happen, though.

The Red Wings need an enema. And I wonder if Holland: a) realizes that; or b) is interested in performing it.

That damn playoff streak.

Holland is tone deaf, and it’s hurting everyone—the organization and the fans alike.

The manager of the hockey team in Detroit is so wrapped up in the Red Wings’ playoff streak—every year since 1991—that he thinks everyone else is wrapped up in it, too.

If he’d only listen—or read—the fans in Hockeytown would be amenable to a flat out rebuild. They’d understand. In fact, they’ve been ready for a couple of years for such an exercise.

I believe that Kenny Holland’s pride is leading the Red Wings down a slippery slope.

He doesn’t want the playoff streak to end on his watch. The fans are ready, but he’s not.

As a result, hard decisions aren’t being made about the franchise’s direction.

Now, it’s one thing to declare that a rebuild is necessary, and quite another to actually pull it off.

The Red Wings are in a financial box with their contracts and the salary cap. Their inflexibility with the roster is an albatross.

Holland doesn’t have much to trade. Just about any player he moves, with the exception of Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, will be a case of selling low. Holland would be taking a bath.

Plus, in today’s NHL, midseason trades just aren’t very common anymore. Gone are the days of a December or February blockbuster that shakes the league to its core.

Holland can’t trade his way out of this and come away with anything more than draft picks or low level prospects. He alone is responsible for the financial mess the Red Wings are in.

But he has to do something, and what he has to do is not comfortable for an organization that is loathe to upset the apple cart.

Holland needs to, in no particular order: fire the coach; cut some veterans; give NHL jobs to current AHL players; and put a padlock on his boss’ checkbook and give someone else the key.

No more spending. Use the draft.

Am I talking about the team bottoming out? You betcha.

Babcock, when he arrived in Toronto to take over the Leafs behind the bench, didn’t mince words with the media and the fans who were clamoring for his hiring.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Babcock warned. “There’s going to be pain.”

Babs saw a sinking ship in Detroit. And that was before Pavel Datsyuk’s return to the motherland.

Yet he was willing to go to Toronto, because at least Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and company weren’t in denial. The Maple Leafs brass knew that a tear down and a rebuild were in order.

Holland seems unwilling to totally buy into the R-word and its need in Detroit.

“We have to find a way to score goals,” Holland said last week. “We’re not scoring goals the way we expected to be.”

See, that’s the problem. The Red Wings didn’t possess very many forwards on their roster that realistically could be expected to score a lot of goals to begin with. The ones that had, were regressing.

The line between loyalty and denial can be very fine in pro sports.

Hard decisions face the Red Wings right now.

Trouble is, the one man who can make them, refuses to acknowledge their need.

 

With each loss and regurgitated explanation, Blashill’s seat might be getting warmer

Published November 7, 2016

It’s been nearly 31 years since Brad Park got that phone call on Christmas Eve.

Park was analyzing NHL games on cable television, in his first year of retirement as a Hall of Fame defenseman—the last two years of his playing career spent with the Red Wings.

Park was asked by Wings owner Mike Ilitch if he had any suggestions for a new coach. Ilitch was getting ready to fire Harry Neale at the time.

Park told the pizza baron that he’d get back to him on that. But Ilitch had a follow up question.

“Would you be interested in coaching my hockey team?”

Park eventually took the job—the Red Wings were 8-23-4 at the time—but by the following June, he was out, the loser in a power struggle with GM Jimmy Devellano.

This is perhaps a relevant trip down memory lane.

The above story was the last time the Red Wings made a coaching change while a hockey season was going on.

I say it could be relevant because the seat of current Wings coach Jeff Blashill might be heating up.

The Red Wings dropped another game on Sunday, a 2-1 loss at home to Edmonton in which they managed just four shots on goal in the third period.

That makes the Wings 0-4-1 in their past five games, on the heels of a six-game winning streak that is looking more like a case of a blind squirrel finding a nut. Even bad hockey teams will rattle off a few wins in a row.

Of course, it’s possible—maybe even likely—that the Red Wings are neither as good as the winning streak nor as bad as the current winless streak.

They’re probably somewhere in between.

But what has been troubling—and it’s not just for a few games—is the Red Wings’ struggles holding third period leads in the Blashill Era.

That is how the Red Wings lose, more often than not. They have a lead in the final 20 minutes and then it vanishes.

Poof!

That bugaboo cost them games last season, Blashill’s first as head coach in Detroit. And it’s rearing its head again this season, which is just 13 games old.

It’s a troubling sign.

The Red Wings don’t fire coaches mid-season, as established above. It’s not their style. In fact, they haven’t really fired coaches at all in the past 26 years, mid-season or otherwise.

Jacques Demers was canned in the summer of 1990. Bryan Murray, named as coach/GM to replace Demers, was stripped of coaching duties in 1993 so the Red Wings could hire the savant Scotty Bowman. But Murray wasn’t fired—he stayed on as GM.

Bowman coached the Red Wings for nine years before retiring. Dave Lewis wasn’t rehired after two seasons as Bowman’s replacement. Again, Lewis wasn’t fired, per se.

Mike Babcock, Lewis’ replacement, coached the Red Wings for ten years before leaving as a free agent for Toronto.

So the Red Wings, a franchise which used to give the ziggy to its coaches almost annually, has been a relatively stable organization in that regard since 1990. And I don’t expect them to fire Blashill during this season, either.

But it’s not unreasonable to look at Blashill sideways re: the Red Wings’ inability to hold third period leads, among other things.

When the coach starts to sound like a broken record about the team not being ready to play, it can become suicidal.

When the players repeat themselves in post-game comments about needing to be harder on the puck and tougher in the corners and wanting to win the little battles more, it becomes indicting—on the coach.

The Red Wings, from the coach to the players, sound the same refrain after every loss.

Image result for jeff blashill

Blashill’s teams haven’t been able to hold third period leads since he took over last season.

Pavel Datsyuk went back to Russia after last season, and one can only wonder if The Magic Man’s decision had as much to do with the direction of the Red Wings as it did with his being homesick.

Would Pavel had been as eager to go home if the Red Wings were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?

Not all of this is Blashill’s fault, of course. GM Kenny Holland has been complicit, and more to blame, frankly.

But what is the team’s vision for the future?

Is it to be in rebuild mode and endure some painful seasons in the near future, or is it to reload on the fly and continue to squeeze into the Cup tournament every spring?

And how does that vision affect Blashill’s future with the Red Wings?

Blashill was brought in because he seemed to be the logical choice to replace the hard-nosed Babcock. I agreed with the choice—applauded it, even.

Blashill made sense because he’d been around the development of several of the current Red Wings players. They knew him, and they won with him in the American Hockey League. Blashill was an organizational man—a Red Wings guy.

But this is year two for Blashill, and it’s fair to theorize what the Red Wings want to be, especially heading into a new arena next fall, and whether Blashill fits that plan.

The number of third period leads lost and the feeble power play can be traced to coaching. And if it wasn’t for some scorching hot goaltending early on, the Red Wings’ record would be at least two games worse right now.

But all this could be forgivable if the Red Wings see themselves as a project—including the coach. Maybe everyone is expected to learn together, Blashill included.

But when I see the team play and I hear them talk after the games, I can’t help but wonder if a new coach—a non-Red Wing guy—could be in the offing next summer. Maybe the players like Blashill but don’t fear him.

The Red Wings don’t fire coaches mid-season. Not anymore.

And they probably won’t this season, either. But next summer, all bets on Blashill are off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At crossroads in 2016-17, Red Wings’ expectations lowest in 26 years

Sometimes, a firing of a coach in the world of sports is a mercy killing.

Sometimes, the coach knows that it’s time.

Dick Vitale practically heaved a sigh of relief when Pistons owner Bill Davidson rendered the ziggy in early-November, 1979, relieving Vitale of his coaching and de facto GM duties.

Vitale’s promise of Pistons Paradise and ReVitaleization, which he crowed about when he was hired in May 1978, had turned into a ghoulish joke after 18 months, 94 games, 34 wins and the stripping of the franchise’s future thanks to ill-advised trades of the team’s draft picks.

“Mr. Davidson probably saved my life. And I’m not exaggerating,” Vitale would later say about his stomach troubles and health while he tried to endure the losing.

It was a summer’s afternoon in 1990 when Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch paid a visit to his coach, Jacques Demers.

It was an emotional meeting. Both men openly wept.

Ilitch gave Demers—who won the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year two years in a row (1987-88)—the ziggy after a so-so 1989 season and missing the playoffs in 1990.

But Demers later credited Ilitch for being “a man about it” and for delivering the news in person. Demers also admitted that his time in Detroit had gone stale and the Red Wings needed a new voice.

The new coach was Bryan Murray. It’s a tent pole moment in Red Wings history because when Murray took over the Red Wings prior to the 1990-91 season, it marked the last time that so few experts and fans expected anything out of a Red Wings team.

Until now.

Only the most optimistic of fans can truly say, in their heart, that the 2016-17 Red Wings can make some real noise.

Only the delusional can look at this team and see serious advancement in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring.

The timing of this crossroads in franchise history is potentially very unfortunate.

If the Red Wings sink into a several year rebuild/reload scenario, it will overlap with the team’s move into new Little Caesars Arena next fall.

The thought of missing out on the revenue from playoff games in their new ice palace for several seasons must rankle Ilitch and his family.

But it might be a necessary evil, for the Red Wings to be a mediocre, middling team until the youth kicks in.

They’ll drop the puck tonight in Tampa to launch another NHL season—the Red Wings’ 90th in Detroit, dating back to 1926-27 when they were known as the Cougars.

It’s fitting in a way that this potentially crossroads season starts in Tampa.

In the Lightning executive suite high above the ice, watching the action, will be GM Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman cut his teeth as a Hall of Fame player wearing the Winged Wheel and he was a front office apprentice in Detroit after he hung up his skates. Some would say that the student has lapped his mentor, Red Wings GM Ken Holland.

As the Red Wings enter a season of the unknown—they could squeeze into the playoffs or finish at least 10 points out—Yzerman has built a consistent Stanley Cup contender in Tampa.

Stevie Y has only been on the job for six years, and it’s not like the Lightning were a league powerhouse when he took over.

Ironically, the Red Wings could learn a thing or two from Yzerman, who is now entrenched as one of the NHL’s best and most admired front office men.

Yzerman’s Lightning have blasted Holland’s Red Wings out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

Image result for ken holland

After almost 20 years as Red Wings GM, maybe Holland’s time to move on has come.

In defense of Holland—who’s been the GM since 1997—and his lieutenants, the Red Wings have never been a mediocre team under Kenny’s watch. This whole rebuild/reload thing is new to him. I’m not sure that he’s wired for it, or up to the task. I also doubt whether he’s terribly interested in it.

Last spring, Holland tried to brace the fans in Hockeytown to expect some less-than-spectacular things from their hockey team.

In August, Holland went one step further.

“There are probably five or six teams that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders” this season, Holland told NHL.com“After that five or six, there are 20 teams without much difference between them. We’re in that group of 20.

“Certainly there are lots of questions about our team.”

Despite its reality, it was also a stunning admission from a man who loathes to do anything other than show the utmost confidence in his team. Since he took over the GM duties 19 years ago, Holland has only known winning and Cup contention.

This can’t be easy for him—emotionally and functionally.

Ken Holland isn’t wired to transition a veteran, elite team into a young, mediocre squad trying to find its way.

The Red Wings, if things aren’t planned well, could become the NHL’s version of the Oakland Raiders—a proud team with iconic uniforms and logo whose mystique wore off long ago.

If things really go to pot, the Red Wings could also become the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been bumping into themselves for over 20 years.

Fans are growing weary of Holland, and I wonder if Holland is growing weary of the Red Wings.

He’ll always be a Red Wing at heart but maybe he’d be better served somewhere else.

Somewhere like Ottawa, where the Senators are on their seventh opening night coach in 10 years—an NHL record.

Coaches aren’t the only people who know when their time has come to move on.

Gordie’s kid adds to his own impressive trophy case

With only one surname can you be a Hall of Fame defenseman and yet not even be the best hockey player in your own family.

Sadly, Mark Howe is now the best living hockey player in his clan, after father Gordie passed away in June.

Mark went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. But in hockey, even that high honor doesn’t mean that the sport is done recognizing you.

It was announced last week that the younger Howe is one of two winners of the Lester Patrick Trophy, for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

The award’s significance is in inverse proportion  to its notoriety. I doubt that more than 4 out of 10 die-hard hockey fans could tell you what the Lester Patrick is.

That’s OK, I’ll do it.

The trophy is named after one of ice hockey’s founding fathers.

It’s not overstatement to say that Lester Patrick is hockey’s Alexander Cartwright.

Patrick is the founder of no less than 22 rules that are still in use in today’s game. He’s been called “the Brains of Modern Hockey.”

He introduced the blue line, the forward pass and the playoff system—a change adopted by other leagues and sports around the world. Patrick took a suggestion by his father to begin using numbers on players’ sweaters and in programs to help fans identify the skaters.

Patrick was responsible for crediting assists when a goal was scored, and he invented the penalty shot.

So yeah, to win the Lester Patrick Trophy is sort of a big deal.

Howe isn’t the first Red Wing to be so honored. The list includes Alex Delvecchio (player, 1974); Bruce Norris (owner/executive, 1976); and Mike Ilitch (owner/executive, 1991).

Longtime Red Wings coach and GM Jack Adams was the first recipient of the Lester Patrick, in 1966.

Mark Howe, 61, is the Red Wings’ Director of Pro Scouting, which means he’s GM Ken Holland’s right hand man when it comes to sniffing out possible trade and free agent targets.

Howe has four Stanley Cup rings—all as a Red Wings executive.

The Big One was elusive to Howe as a player—having made the Finals three times in his career (Philadelphia in 1985 and 1987 and Detroit in 1995) but there was always another team skating the Stanley Cup around the ice when the final horn sounded.

The bridesmaid part of Howe’s career was stomped to pieces once he took off his skates and donned wing tip shoes to work for the Red Wings in their scouting department.

Howe’s name is engraved four times on the Stanley Cup, though no doubt he’d exchange all of them to have held the Cup aloft just once as a player.

It almost happened in Detroit, where Howe signed with the Red Wings in 1993 as a 38 year-old on the back end of a career in which he was a multiple Norris Trophy finalist for best defenseman in the NHL.

After a bitter first round playoff loss in 1994, Howe returned for one last go-round, which was the strike-shortened 1995 campaign.

But the storybook ending that every Red Wings fan was hoping for—son winning his first Cup playing for the same franchise as his world-famous dad—was turned into a horror story by the maddening, left wing lock-playing New Jersey Devils, who swept the Red Wings to capture the Devils franchise’s first championship.

Howe was 40 and his winning the Stanley Cup was clearly not meant to be. He retired but stayed with the Red Wings organization, even though he played a majority of his 22-year professional hockey career with the Philadelphia Flyers and Hartford Whalers (Carolina Hurricanes).

Image result for mark howe

Howe, playing in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, in his last shot at the chalice as a player.

 

The folks who dole out the Patrick—the NHL and USA Hockey—don’t just pull names out of a hat.

“As the Lester Patrick Award observes its 50th anniversary and the National Hockey League prepares to celebrate its Centennial, we are extremely pleased that Mark Howe and Pat Kelly are receiving this recognition for their decades of devotion to hockey in the United States,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

Kelly is the former commissioner of the East Coast Hockey League, a longtime NHL minor league affiliate.

Howe’s honor is not in recognition of his being the son of Gordie Howe. Marty Howe didn’t win the Patrick, did he?

Mark Howe is getting the Lester Patrick because he started playing organized hockey in the United States as a teenager and some 45 years later, after a stellar playing career in Houston, Hartford, Philadelphia and Detroit, he’s still a major component of one of the NHL’s legendary franchises.

Did you know that Howe is the Flyers’ all-time leader in goals and assists for a defenseman?

But despite his 10 years with the Flyers, Mark Howe will always be a Red Wing to the hockey denizens in the Motor City.

At first that designation was by proxy due to Howe’s lineage, but in the summer of 1993, then-GM Bryan Murray took a flyer (sorry) on the aging defenseman and brought him to Detroit for one last kick at the can. Mark Howe would be a real, honest-to-goodness Red Wing.

Howe’s Cup never runneth over as a Red Wings player, but in the front office the rings have been aplenty.

The Lester Patrick people have taken notice—finally.

The ceremony honoring Howe and Kelly will be November 30 in Philadelphia—as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction festivities.

In his book, Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow Mr. Hockey, Mark Howe answered the age old question.

“Interviewers have asked, ‘What’s it like being Gordie Howe’s son?’ I’ve always assumed it was no different than being anybody’s son who grew up in a loving, supportive family.”

That family may have lost its patriarch, but the name lives on proudly.

Finally, inadequate JLA gets its send-off

Published September 28, 2016

If Joe Louis Arena was ever state-of-the-art, that state lasted about a week.

The parking situation was reprehensible. The stairs leading up to the entrances were punitive and heart attack-inducing. An enterprising individual could have made a mint by selling oxygen tanks near the doors.

The suites should have been equipped with plenty of facial tissue because of the bloody noses they caused due to their distance from the ice surface.

The building was plopped on the banks of the Detroit River and there was nothing to do after the game but trudge to the inefficient parking structure and wait 45 minutes to get out. There wasn’t a bar or  a restaurant within reasonable walking distance.

There wasn’t nuance to speak of once you stepped inside. The concourses were narrow and the floors were sticky.

Yet this was the hockey barn that saw the Red Wings finally break their Stanley Cup drought in 1997—17 years and some change after opening in December, 1979.

It didn’t help the Joe that it was following Olympia Stadium, an Original Six building that had personality, history, escalators and a balcony. Olympia was built in the 1920s and it showed. JLA was built in the 1970s and by opening night, it seemed like its time had passed.

By contrast, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988, is still a benchmark by which today’s sports arenas are measured. From its mezzanine-level suites to its massive and more than adequate parking lot—plus its expansive and attractive concourses—the Palace kicks JLA’s rear end.

But whenever there are championships won, the arena gets a bump for being associated with those teams and those years, fondly.

It didn’t start that way for JLA, however.

The Red Wings were not a good hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun when they moved into the Joe on December 27, 1979. In fact, they may have been one of the NHL’s worst.

Contrary to what some believe in their revisionist history, Joe Louis Arena isn’t the House that Mike Ilitch built. Ilitch didn’t purchase the team until 1982; the Norris family can be blamed for JLA’s inadequacies.

First, the Red Wings moved into their new arena in mid-season, which in of itself is odd; usually you want to christen a new building at the start of a season. But again—the Red Wings in 1979 were hardly a model franchise.

There was only one playoff appearance since 1966; the decade of the 1970s was filled with coaching changes, awful hockey, horrible drafting and mind-boggling trades.

The Red Wings weren’t given the derisive moniker of the Dead Things for nothing.

But Olympia Stadium was indeed old and the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest. Despite their warts, the Red Wings did need a new arena; it was time.

They could have done so much better than Joe Louis Arena, however.

Image result for joe louis arena

The sight lines were good—I’ll grant you that. But the seats were too far away from the ice. It would have been a terrific nod to the old arena and just plain good sense to mimic Olympia’s balcony, which made sitting upstairs dramatic. I remember looking onto the ice from the balcony at the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw and feeling like the players could hear me call them by name with little effort.

Yet the Red Wings captured four Cups while calling JLA home, winning two of those championships in front of their own crowd. So for that, I think Red Wings fans have more reverence for the Joe than it deserves.

But after this season all that will be moot.

This is JLA’s swan song—a season-long farewell to the monstrosity on the River. A year from this October, they’ll drop the puck at Little Caesars (I know, I know) Arena to usher in a new era of live sports attendance in the Motor City.

LCA won’t just be a hockey arena; there’ll be pubs and restaurants and shopping and things to do—a new extension of Woodward’s mid-town hustle and bustle that has been drawing folks to the city by the droves in recent years.

LCA will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Detroit. It will blow Ford Field and Comerica Park out of the water—and yes, the Palace—when all is said and done.

There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on Joe Louis Arena. The reliving of the building’s most memorable moments will go on from now until the final game is played next spring. There were the two Cups won on its ice, and the playoff heartbreak that occurred on it as well. There were the concerts with its bad acoustics and the GOP Convention in 1980.

They had Gordie Howe’s viewing there in June.

Soon JLA itself will have a viewing.

Will you be shedding any tears?