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.

 

Howe’s steel trap hockey mind played no favorites

June 11, 2016

When he entered the National Hockey League, all the teams traveled by train. A western swing meant games in Chicago and Detroit.

There were 120 players, total, in the entire league. The rinks were surrounded by wire cages, not plexiglass. Teams played each other 14 times per season. There weren’t rivalries, there were continuations.

You didn’t have to wait months to get retribution, if there was retribution to be gotten.

But sometimes, Gordie Howe bided his time.

“I found out the hard way that I should call him Mr. Howe.”

The speaker was Stan Mikita, a Hall of Famer and every bit as entwined with the Chicago Black Hawks (they split it into two words in Stan’s day) as Howe was with the Red Wings.

Mikita was a young player in the NHL. One of his teammates was the great Ted Lindsay, who knew Howe as well as anyone.

“I nicked him with my stick,” Mikita recalled. “Gordie took his glove off, and checked for blood. There were maybe a few drops on his face.”

Howe told Mikita that he’d pay for the blood, no matter how little.

Mikita, young and full of himself, derided Howe.

“Oh yeah, old man? You should be out of the league.”

Lindsay was within earshot of this on-ice exchange.

In between periods, Terrible Ted went up to Mikita.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Lindsay, who knew a thing or two about Howe’s retribution, said to Mikita about the “old man” remark.

“Ted wasn’t concerned about the blood,” Mikita said as he related the story in Chicago several years ago. “But he didn’t think that Gordie would take kindly to the ‘old man’ remark.”

As mentioned above, the NHL teams played each other 14 times in the 70-game schedule. And many Detroit-Chicago tilts went by after the “old man” remark with nary a glance in Mikita’s direction from Howe.

“I figured he forgot all about it,” Mikita said.

Then one night, during yet another Red Wings-Black Hawks match, Mikita made a pass and admired it a little bit.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the trainer’s table.

The Black Hawks’ backup goalie, “a French-Canadian,” Mikita said, told the Black Hawks center what happened to him.

“(Howe) took his glove off, gave you a punch, then  put his glove back on and skated away,” the goalie said. “20,000 people in the building and I was the only one who saw it!”

Gordie never forgot the “old man” remark, after all.

“From then on, I learned to call Gordie, ‘Mr. Howe,'” Mikita said.

Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.

“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”

Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.

He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.

Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.

This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.

It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.

He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.

Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.

Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.

He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.

Howe, within a few hellacious moments, virtually ended the tough guy career of New York’s Lou Fontinato in 1959.

There was a scrum behind the Rangers net. Howe was looking on. Fontinato had an idea.

Louie tried to cold cock Howe, but Gordie, again using his amazing quickness, caught Fontinato in his peripheral vision.

Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said that the sound of Howe’s fists pummeling Fontinato’s face was like “someone chopping wood.”

It didn’t take long. But when they peeled Fontinato from the ice, his face looked like a Picasso.

“I broke his nose a little bit,” Howe said in typical understatement.

Images of Fontinato’s deformed face made the wires across the league and Louie’s reputation as a tough guy was gone.

“I broke his nose a little bit.”

When the NHL was getting more strict on hits from behind, Howe posed a simple question that captured his larger-than-life persona.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Howe wondered, “how the hell am I gonna hit him from the front?”

Someone once asked Howe who had the hardest shot in the league.

“Dr. Finley,” Howe said without hesitation.

That would be John Finley, the Red Wings’ longtime team doctor.

I reminded Dr. Finley of Howe’s statement back in 2007, the night they retired Steve Yzerman’s no. 19.

The doc threw his head back and roared with laughter. He had forgotten about the quote.

Speaking of that night, I was doing some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral Red Wing dignitaries for in-game interviews between whistles.

One of them was Mr. Hockey.

At the appointed time, I sidled up to Gordie—Mr. Howe—and said that it was time to get into position for the interview. He didn’t respond right away. I figured he didn’t hear me.

I repeated the request.

“Ah, f*** off,” Gordie said.

He was smiling from ear to ear.

How can being told to f-off turn into such a pleasant memory?

When it comes from Gordie, er, Mr. Howe!

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven: Red Wings who were the last to wear retired numbers

They are hanging from the rafters at the Joe Louis Arena, and some of them go back almost 25 years. I wonder if they’re ever dusted.

No doubt they will relocate, as will the Red Wings themselves, when the new arena complex opens in time for the 2017-18 season.

They’re the seven officially retired uniform numbers in team lore: 1,5,7,9,10,12 and 19.

I don’t have to tell you to whom those cherished numbers belonged.

Gordie Howe’s no. 9 was retired during the 1971-72 season, but in those days the Red Wings didn’t hoist numbers to the rafters, for whatever reason. Never did no. 9 hang at the Olympia, believe it or not.

The first two numbers to be officially retired with a ceremony at JLA were in November 1991, when the Red Wings put nos. 7 and 10 to bed for good, honoring Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio, respectively.

The most recent sweater to be retired was Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5.

But I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the players who wore the retired numbers before they were put into moth balls.

Who was the last Red Wing to wear Terry Sawchuk’s no. 1? Or Sid Abel’s no. 12?

You don’t have to do the digging; I already did—and so what follows is a look back at the seven Red Wings who became answers to a great trivia question.

No. 1: Glen Hanlon (last worn in 1990-91)

Sawchuk played in the days when goalies pretty much wore no. 1 or no. 30. Period. Tony Esposito’s 35 and Ken Dryden’s 29 were exceptions. I remember Gilles Meloche wore no. 27. But the goalies were 1 or 30, as a rule, leaving 2-29 for skaters. Players didn’t start wearing goofy numbers until the late-1970s. Now, hockey players wear uniform numbers befitting a football roster.

Hanlon was a 29 year-old goalie when the Red Wings acquired him in July 1986. He had established himself in Vancouver and was coming off two seasons with the Rangers when the Red Wings got him for defenseman Jim Leavins.

As a Red Wing, Hanlon played five seasons and was huge in the 1987 playoffs, posting two shutouts, a 1.67 GAA and a save percentage of .943. He was a redheaded man of sharp wit and self-effacing humor. In 1988, after the Flyers poured 10 goals past him one night at the Joe, Hanlon joked, “OK, who put the soccer net behind me?”

The Red Wings didn’t retire no. 1 until 1995, but Hanlon was the last to wear it, in 1991.

No. 5: Rick Green (1990-91)

Before Lidstrom, there was Rick Green.

Green, a defenseman, was the first overall pick in 1976 by the Washington Capitals.

After six seasons in Washington, Green was part of a huge trade with Montreal that shipped Green and Ryan Walter to the Canadiens for Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, Craig Laughlin and Rod Langway.

The Red Wings acquired Green, by then 34 years old, from Montreal, who still had his rights after Green played a year in Italy.

Green played 65 games for the Red Wings in 1990-91. Lidstrom debuted in October 1991.

No. 7: Tom Bissett (1990-91)

Who?

Bissett, a center, was drafted by the Red Wings in the 11th round of the 1986 draft out of Michigan Tech.

He went back to college and didn’t turn pro until 1988-89, when he played for Detroit’s top minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings.

Bissett had a cup of coffee with the Red Wings in 1990-91, suiting up for five games and slipping sweater no. 7 over his head, making him the last Red Wing to wear the number before its retirement.

Bissett is in the Michigan Tech Huskies Hall of Fame.

No. 9: Roy Conacher (1946-47)

In the interest of transparency, this is an educated guess. Hockey-Reference doesn’t list jersey numbers on its website for the 1946-47 season, when Howe debuted. What is known is that Howe wore no. 17 initially, and he switched to no. 9 in his second season. Using unscientific deduction and web research, I believe that Conacher, a left wing, was the last to wear no. 9 before Howe donned it for the next 24 seasons.

Conacher played in 60 games for the Red Wings in 1946-47 at the age of 30. He popped in 30 goals, which ended up being a career high for him. Detroit traded Conacher to New York in October 1947, but he refused to report to the Rangers. Ten days later, the Red Wings traded him again—to Chicago. Conacher reported to the Black Hawks (pictured).

No. 10: Jimmy Carson (1990-91)

Carson is interesting because not only was he the last Red Wing to wear no. 10 before it was retired, he then switched to no. 12, and thus became one of the last Red Wings to wear that number before it, too, was retired.

Carson was a local kid (Southfield) who badly wanted to play for the Red Wings. But even though Detroit had the no. 1 overall pick in 1986, the Red Wings selected Joe Murphy instead of the local boy Carson, who was drafted by Los Angeles.

Carson openly campaigned for a trade to Detroit whenever rumors of a deal popped up.

Carson was involved in a trade, all right—perhaps the most shocking in NHL history.

Carson was part of the package that the Edmonton Oilers got for Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1988.

Jimmy finally got his wish on November 2, 1989, when the Red Wings acquired Carson in a big trade that sent Petr Klima—and Joe Murphy—to Edmonton.

No. 12: Mike Sillinger (1993-94)

Sillinger was a number whore.

He only played parts of four seasons as a Red Wing, yet he managed to wear five different numbers in Detroit.

The last was 12, in 1993-94, before it was retired to honor Sid Abel.

Sillinger was the Red Wings’ first round pick in the 1989 draft, and he went on to have a decent, though well-traveled,  NHL career: 19 years, 240 goals, while playing for—count ’em—12 NHL teams.

All told, Sillinger wore 10 different uniform numbers in the NHL.

No. 19: Randy Ladouceur (1982-83)

Steve Yzerman, as many Red Wings fans know, chose to wear no. 19 because his favorite player was Brian Trottier, Hall of Fame center for the New York Islanders.

Everywhere Yzerman played, he wore no. 19.

So when Stevie arrived in Detroit in 1983, he managed to convince Ladouceur, a defenseman who preceded Yzerman to the NHL by one year, to switch from 19 to 29.

Ladouceur played for the Red Wings from 1982-1987. Detroit traded him to Hartford in January 1987 for Dave Barr.

Ladouceur played 14 years in the NHL before becoming a longtime assistant coach in the league.

 

So there they are—the Ignominious Seven.

Don’t you feel smarter now? Now you’re ready to win some money with some bar bets.

Mr. Hockey still throwing elbows at age 87

When the NHL was ramping up its discipline against hits from behind some two decades ago, it was no less than Gordie Howe who offered his own version of common sense, hockey style.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Mr. Hockey opined, “then how the hell can I hit him from the front?”

Hard to argue with that!

Gordie is 87 now and it appears that he still has a few elbows left , and maybe some hits from behind, for the Grim Reaper—and I don’t mean Stu Grimson.

Mark Howe, Gordie’s middle son, offered some words of encouragement for fans the world over of his dad.

“Dad has the will to want to live again and I’ve never seen a better competitor or fighter in my life,” Mark Howe told NHL.com the other day.

This will to live didn’t necessarily exist about a year ago at this time, Mark said. Gordie’s body had been riddled with a series of strokes, the last of which in October 2014 having done the most damage.

“We had seen something in dad that we had never seen before [at that time] and that was dad quitting. He didn’t want to partake in any physical therapy or eating, lost 35 to 40 pounds in six weeks and his life was basically going down the tubes.”

That was before Gordie was taken to Tijuana, Mexico to undergo some stem cell treatment in his spine. The trip to Mexico was necessary because such treatment isn’t available for humans in the United States or Canada.

The meteoric rise of Gordie’s health, attributed to the stem cell treatments, has been the subject of debate.

But what’s not debatable is that Mr. Hockey’s quality of life has improved substantially over the past 12 months.

We are lucky in Detroit. So many of our sports heroes are still around, even though we’ve lost our share.

Joe Schmidt, inventor of the middle linebacker position, is still in relatively good health at age 83 and is not living in seclusion.

We still have Al Kaline, who will be 81 next month. Al is no wallflower, either.

Dave Bing will be 72 tomorrow and his voice can be heard all over Pistons promos that the team’s marketing people pumped out this year.

And Gordie Howe, who isn’t just Detroit’s—he’s a North American treasure—is still mucking it up in the corners.

With social media and the Internet’s constant blasting of information and news updates, we are more exposed than ehowe-gordie-recovery-620ver to the passing of celebrities and former athletes. That’s why it can seem like our sports heroes are dropping like flies.

It’s that time of the year when we all are supposed to be thankful, so let’s have gratitude for who we do have left in our midst.

But of all the Detroit athletes mentioned above, it’s Gordie Howe’s health and well-being that’s been the most documented, the most discussed and the most intriguing.

Perhaps this is because that, at one time, Howe appeared to be ageless.

He was the George Burns of sports.

Someone once asked the entertainer/comedian Burns what his doctor thought of George smoking a cigar in his advanced years.

“My doctor’s dead,” Burns deadpanned.

Gordie Howe was never shy to dispense a wisecrack as easily as he was an elbow to the face.

At Steve Yzerman’s jersey retirement ceremony on January 2, 2007, I did some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral special guests to be interviewed during whistle stoppages.

One of the targets was Gordie, and I spoke to him briefly before the game, giving him some instructions and letting him know that I’d be coming for him.

“Bleep off,” he told me, bursting into that big, Gordie grin.

It was a badge of honor that I still wear proudly to this day.

Gordie Howe told me to bleep off.

Moments after that epithet, Gordie spotted NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Hey young man,” Gordie said, clapping Bettman on the shoulder. I half expected him to ruffle the commissioner’s hair.

And Bettman stood, wide-eyed, as Gordie regaled him with some comments, though sadly outside my earshot.

Maybe the best news that Mark Howe had was that not only is Gordie holding his own physically, but his famous personality has also returned.

“He’s getting around pretty well and he knows who you are,” Mark said of his dad. “I do a lot a lot of Facetime [communication] with him and he knows me. When he’s speaking, every so often it disappears so he does a lot of hand gesturing. Other than that, from where he was a year ago to now it’s just amazing how well he’s doing.”

Thankfully, eh?

Mark Howe: Chasing Another Cup, But In a Suit

Mark Howe recently came out with a book, “Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey,” and it recalls a piece I wrote about Mark in late-May, 2009:

Mark Howe’s Playoffs Spent Spying, Legally

Mark Howe was no stranger to May hockey as a player.

Today, Howe is very familiar with it as well, but instead of lacing up skates he’s filing reports. Instead of making the breakout pass from his own zone, he’s racing to catch the next plane at the airport.

If it wasn’t for those darned Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils, there’d be two Howes with their names engraved on the Stanley Cup, as players.

Howe, the most talented hockey player among Gordie’s kids, went to the Stanley Cup Finals three times, in skates. This year, he hopes to make it five times in Armani.

Mark came up empty as a player–losing twice with the Philadelphia Flyers to the Oilers (1985, 1987) and once to the New Jersey Devils, as a member of the Red Wings (1995).

Nowadays, Mark Howe is the Director of Pro Scouting for the Red Wings. Which means, especially at this time of the year, his job is to coordinate scouting of possible Red Wings opponents.

Fancy words for, he has to criss-cross the country, watching hockey games.

While the Red Wings were dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, Howe and his staff, which includes former Red Wing Pat Verbeek, were spreading themselves out, not knowing exactly who Detroit would face in Round Two.

As the Anaheim Ducks emerged as a possible opponent, thanks to jumping out to a 3-1 series lead over San Jose, Howe focused on the Ducks. He ended up attending all six of the Ducks’ playoff games in California.

While the Wings played the Ducks, Howe took in the Blackhawks-Canucks series.

Now he’s checking out the Hurricanes and the Penguins. And filing reports.

Legalized spying. That’s what scouting is, basically.

But there comes a time, if your team advances far enough, when there’s no more scouting to be done. Just watching and hoping.

During last year’s Cup Finals, I trudged down to the Red Wings’ dressing room after Game One. With no more scouting to be done, Howe and Verbeek had joined coach Mike Babcock and his staff in the coaches’ room, adjacent to the lockerroom.

Babcock, despite a shutout win, was still wound up.

“They’re gonna give them a bunch of power plays, you can bet on it!” the coach barked as Howe and company looked on. A few choice words tumbled out of Babcock’s mouth as well.

During the game, I kept an eye on the Red Wings’ suite, filled with hockey intelligence.

Gordie Howe, no less. Scotty Bowman, no less. Kenny Holland, no less. Jimmy Devellano, no less. Steve Yzerman, no less.

And Mark Howe. No less.

They sat, scrunched together, in suits and ties, their work done, but not their worrying.

The stuffed shirts, as I called them, could only look on. Like expectant fathers.

Howe and Yzerman, of course, could relate to what was going on below them, on the Joe Louis Arena ice surface.

I was pulling so hard for the Red Wings to win the Cup in ’95, which was 40 years exactly since their last one.

I knew it was Mark Howe’s last season as a player. What a way for him to go out, I thought–to win the Cup, 40 years after his dad last won it for the Red Wings. And just a couple weeks after his 40th birthday.

Mark was born just weeks after dad Gordie’s Wings won the ’55 Cup.

Game One was played that year, appropriately, on Father’s Day weekend.

But the Devils would have none of sentiment and nostalgia.

They swept the Red Wings, using a suffocating trap.

Mark retired, Cup-less.


Mark Howe in the 1995 Finals

But then he went to work in the Red Wings’ scouting department, and his name got engraved on the Cup, after all.

Four times, in fact.

It’s not the same, of course. It never is the same. Ask any former player. There’s nothing like winning the Cup, in uniform, in skates, and parading the chalice around the rink.

Your name can be engraved, but if it wasn’t because of toil, tears, and sweat on the ice, it’s just not the same.

Not that it doesn’t mean something, of course.

The Red Wings signed Mark Howe in the summer of 1992. Finally, at age 37, he was coming home to play NHL hockey in Detroit.

He had played junior hockey in town, as a member of the Junior Red Wings, but when it came time to turn pro, Mark was not Red Wings property.

The Houston Aeros, of the World Hockey Association, owned Mark and brother Marty’s rights.

Then old man Gordie joined them, in 1973.

Mark and the clan could have come back several years later, after mom Colleen (who passed away earlier this year) tried to broker a deal that would bring the Howes back to Detroit after their exile to the WHA.

The Norris family, who owned the team at the time, would have none of it. For whatever reason.

It’s almost over now for Mark Howe–the miles in the sky, the reporting, the advanced work needed to prepare Babcock and his staff for the next opponent.

If the Red Wings escape the Blackhawks in the conference finals, Howe will end up back in the team management suite for the Finals, another stuffed shirt.

The work done. The worrying, not so much.