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.

Image result for detroit red wings 1970s
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.

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?

Image result for larkin mantha bertuzzi

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?

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?