Whether he’s in or he’s out, Ozzie’s HOF credentials will forever be debated

Published June 27, 2016

One of the best clutch performers in Red Wings history had a very inauspicious start to his playoff career—one in which he would eventually dominate.

Die-hard Red Wings fans can still recall, some 22 years later, the video images of Chris Osgood, 21 years old, weeping softly in front of his locker. It was late-April, 1994.

The Red Wings had goalie problems in those days. They were an annual playoff team but too often the post-season dreams died due to shaky goaltending.

In a move born of desperation, GM Bryan Murray traded a goalie for a goalie—which in of itself smacks of desperation by both teams—when he dealt fan non-favorite Tim Cheveldae to Winnipeg for MSU grad Bob Essensa on March 8, 1994.

The gambit didn’t work.

The Red Wings were in a first-round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks. The best-of-seven series had an odd format—though agreed to by the Red Wings. The teams would play a 2-3-2 format, as opposed to the traditional 2-2-1-1-1.

This meant the three middle games would be played out west, to save on travel. The Red Wings OK’d the change because, frankly, they didn’t think it would much matter, since the Sharks finished with 18 points fewer than Detroit in the regular season.

But it mattered, quite a bit.

One of the reasons was the play of Essensa in net.

Osgood was a rookie and played in 41 games in 1993-94, but Murray and coach Scotty Bowman felt that the veteran Essensa would be a better choice to start in the playoffs.

The Sharks won Game 1 in Detroit, 5-4, and already the 2-3-2 format was looking dicey.

Bowman switched to the rookie Osgood in Game 2, and Ozzie pitched a 4-0 shutout. Still, the Red Wings faced the prospect of three straight games in a hostile arena.

Osgood started Game 3 and Detroit won, 3-2. It looked like the series would be under control, after all.

But Osgood faltered in Game 4, a 4-3 Sharks victory. So Bowman switched back to his veteran Essensa for Game 5. Perhaps the Hall of Fame coach panicked a little.

Essensa was awful in Game 5, giving up four goals on just 19 shots. He was pulled in favor of Osgood, who allowed both shots he faced to elude him. The Red Wings lost, 6-4.

Bowman returned to Osgood in Game 6, and the Red Wings won, 7-1.

That set up a Game 7 that no one expected the Red Wings to have to play against the upstart Sharks.

With less than seven minutes to play in the third period of a tie game, Osgood left his net to play the puck. The results were disastrous.

There are iconic, gut-wrenching plays in Detroit sports history that will never be stomached by the fans.

Isiah Thomas’ pass that Larry Bird stole in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

David Ortiz’ grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.

The non-pass interference call that went against the Lions in Dallas in the 2014-15 playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary that beat the Lions last December.

Osgood played the puck but his pass along the boards was snatched up by Jamie Baker, who promptly snapped the puck into the open net before Osgood could recover.

The goal proved to be the series winner for the Sharks. The Red Wings were booed off the Joe Louis Arena ice during and after the post-series handshake.

Afterward, in a deathly quiet Red Wings locker room, the rookie Osgood faced the music. Speaking to the media, the 21 year-old openly wept at his blunder. The weight of the entire universe had fallen on him, and he collapsed under it.

Like I said, no true Red Wings fan will forget the haunting images of Chris Osgood as we saw him in perhaps the worst moment of his hockey life.

But that was then.

Chris Osgood ended up being one of the best big-game performers in Red Wings history. Maybe in all of hockey history.

That’s not opinion.

Osgood won two Stanley Cups as a starter—10 years apart (1998 and 2008)—and a third as a backup (1997). He posted 15 playoff shutouts and had a save percentage in the post-season of .916 to go along with his 2.16 GAA.

In the two Cup wins as a starter, Osgood could easily have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for MVP of the playoffs. That he didn’t is no indictment on his performance in either year.

Osgood hoists the 2008 Cup—the year he bailed the team out in the 1st round and beyond

In 2008, as a 35 year-old, Osgood posted a 1.55 GAA and a .930 save percentage in the playoffs, with three shutouts. Ridiculous numbers.

In ’08, coach Mike Babcock started the playoffs with Dominik Hasek in net. But after splitting the first four games in the first round with Nashville—and with Hasek as shaky as a bobblehead—Babcock made the bold decision to switch to Osgood for Game 5.

Babcock’s reasoning was simple.

“The puck has been going into the net too much,” he said, explaining the switch—and the demotion of a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Osgood made almost 17,000 saves in his NHL career, but his rescue of the Red Wings in the 2008 playoffs might have been his biggest. It was clutch goaltending at its best. His first game was a Game 5 overtime win against the Predators and Ozzie didn’t stop until he hoisted the Cup in Pittsburgh.

Today, they’re discussing the Hall of Fame credentials of one Chris Osgood, who is eligible for the third time. The Class of 2016 will be announced today at around 3:30 p.m.

I knew this debate would come.

I knew we would engage in a spirited discussion over whether the Alberta native Osgood should be enshrined. But now that we are in the third year of Osgood’s eligibility, the debate is growing in passion, because he was never considered a first ballot guy, anyway. As the years tick by, there will be more clamoring for his induction by the pro-Osgood folks. And the opponents in that debate will only dig their heels in.

Osgood’s body of work, if you just look at the hard numbers, would warrant a good argument to vote Ozzie into the Hall.

401 victories, including 50 shutouts. A career GAA of 2.49. A career save percentage of .905.

Now, 2.49 and .905 aren’t eye-popping numbers these days, when scoring is at a premium in the NHL. But for a goalie whose NHL career started in 1993, they aren’t numbers to sneeze at.

And there’s all that clutch play in the playoffs for which Osgood was famous—after that horrific start in 1994.

The trouble with an Osgood HOF candidacy is that he played on such powerful teams. In a way, that works against him.

He was never considered irreplaceable, and that’s another strike against him.

His win total, his critics would tell you, was propped up by having a roster filled with Hall of Famers playing in front of him.

Fine.

But I keep coming back to his playoff performances. If I needed a playoff game to be won, there are only three goalies that played in Detroit who I would ask for.

They would be, in this order, Terry Sawchuk, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek (his 2002 play was phenomenal).

Two of the above names are in the Hall of Fame, and they were no-brainers.

Osgood is no no-brainer, but I’m not sure that he’s a no, either.

The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.

That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.

I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.

There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.

Hogwash.

There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.

Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.

I’d vote yes.

 

With Fedorov in HOF, it’s time now to retire no. 91

As far as love affairs go, it was at times tumultuous, the relationship between Sergei Fedorov and the hockey fans in Detroit.

Mention Stevie Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom’s names in Hockeytown and the fawning will begin in earnest.

Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk and Ted Lindsay will get you nothing other than a bow down on one knee from the person to whom you utter the names.

And it’s not Normie Ullman’s fault that he wore the same no. 7 immortalized by Lindsay, but Normie scored 324 goals for the Red Wings and it’s too bad that he gets forgotten about in Detroit.

Ullman’s name should be in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, as well as at the new arena that will open in a couple of years. And I’m not one to retire numbers like they do at the deli counter.

I believe that if you’re going to take a number out of circulation forever, then your case ought to be pretty damn compelling. To me, it’s almost as hallowed as being inducted into that sport’s Hall of Fame.

Which brings me back to Fedorov.

You bring up Fedorov in Detroit and it’s not a slam dunk, like it is with the other men whose numbers have been retired by the Red Wings.

Fedorov doesn’t emit the same aura as his honored teammates Yzerman and Lidstrom.

You can’t find a soul in Detroit who’ll besmirch no. 19 and no. 5, but no. 91 will sometimes elicit an eye roll and a snort of disgust.

It’s the same old thing with the Detroit sports fan: you’d better not leave on your own volition.

There are two things the sports fans in the Motor City demand from their pro athletes: loyalty, and empathy for their pain.

The lack of the latter is what got Prince Fielder turned into a pariah in this town.

And the perceived lack of the former is why Fedorov doesn’t get nearly the same love as Yzerman and Lidstrom, with whom Sergei won three Stanley Cups.

But only three Red Wings scored more goals in the Winged Wheel than Fedorov, who tallied 400: Howe, Yzerman and Delvecchio. And only Howe and Yzerman scored more playoff goals as a Red Wing than Fedorov, who notched 50.

That’s some not bad company.

Sergei is in the Hockey Hall of Fame now, fair and square. He was formally inducted on Monday night, along with Lidstrom, who goes by the nickname The Perfect Human.

Fedorov, the Imperfect Human (tying him with billions of people around the world behind Lidstrom), has waited long enough. It’s time to put aside whatever rancor is left about Fedorov and string his stinking number into the rafters at The Joe.

I can still hear some gasps of indignation.

But he left! He left us!

He held out! He was a Johnny-come-lately in 1998!

He had a weird relationship with Anna Kournikova!

Yes, yes, and yes.

So what?

Fedorov remains the last Red Wing to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP—in 1994. He was just as much a part of the Red Wings’ Cups won in 1997, 1998 and 2002 as Yzerman and Lidstrom.

Yes, Fedorov bolted town as a free agent in the summer of 2003, defecting for the second time in his life, this time for Anaheim.

Yes, FedoFedorov Stanley Cuprov’s contract holdout in 1998 was something that Yzerman and Lidstrom—and every other Red Wing, frankly—never engaged in.

Yes, some would call Fedorov’s relationship with teen tennis star Kournikva unseemly and definitely non-Yzerman and non-Lidstrom-ish.

But what should really matter is what Fedorov did on the ice for the Red Wings, and this is where it gets ironic.

Bob Probert. Denny McLain. Miguel Cabrera. Bobby Layne.

Those are just four Detroit athletes whose off-the-field/ice issues are legendary.

Probert, with the bottle and the drugs.

Denny with his suspensions in 1970 for carrying a gun and for dumping ice water on a sportswriter—long before the ice bucket challenge existed.

Cabrera with his DUI arrests.

Layne with his party-hearty ways.

Yet Probert was about as popular as Yzerman in his heyday with the Red Wings.

McLain returned from suspension in 1970 to thunderous applause at Tiger Stadium.

Cabrera is revered in Detroit.

And Layne is so worshiped in Motown that some folks actually think he put a curse on the Lions.

So why doesn’t Fedorov get the same accommodation?

I think of the three grievances listed above, the most egregious to Red Wings fans is Fedorov leaving via free agency, which none of the aforementioned stars ever did.

Probert was waived. McLain was traded. Cabrera is still here. Layne was traded.

None of them left on their own volition, and Detroit sports fans don’t like it when their athletes bid adieu willingly.

It’s time now to get over that with Fedorov. It’s not like the Red Wings stopped winning Stanley Cups after Fedorov left.

It’s time to put no. 91 up with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19.

And I’m not a “retire his number!” kind of a guy. The case has to be compelling.

With Sergei Fedorov, it is.

For the Red Wings’ part, GM Ken Holland said in July that the team would consider honoring Fedorov with a number retirement ceremony.

The Red Wings have had four months since then to hash it out.

This morning, Sergei’s plaque is in the Hall in Toronto.

It’s time now.

Fedorov, Lidstrom Add Two More HOF Members to Amazing 2002 Team

Elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs can be particularly cruel in its suddenness and finality.

The Red Wings of 2000-01 led the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, in the first round, best-of-seven go-round. The Kings finished 19 points behind the Red Wings in the conference standings, winning 11 fewer games than Detroit (49-38).

After Games 1 and 2, it looked like the Kings would be on the golf course in a matter of days.

But in Los Angeles, things changed. The Kings won Game 3, then handed the Red Wings an especially galling defeat in Game 4, coming from behind with a three-goal third period and then winning the game in overtime.

Back in Detroit, suddenly embroiled in a series, the Red Wings were flat in Game 5 and lost, 3-2.

Then came that suddenness and finality of elimination.

It happened in Los Angeles, on April 23, 2001.

The Red Wings lost Game 6 in overtime, and just like that, their promising season was over with.

After spotting the Red Wings a 2-0 series lead, the Kings swept them in four straight.

When a Cup favorite gets dismissed in the first round of the playoffs, there is no shortage of blame to go around.

Was it the goaltending? Chris Osgood wasn’t brilliant.

Was it the offense? The Red Wings scored nine goals combined in Games 1 and 2, then could only muster eight over the next four contests.

Was it the defense? The Red Wings didn’t give Osgood a lot of help in several of LA’s goals.

Regardless, to not even make it into May grated on the Red Wings and especially owner Mike Ilitch in the summer of 2001.

Several of the Red Wings’ star players weren’t getting any younger. If the team was going to win another Stanley Cup, reinforcements would be needed.

So Ilitch broke out his checkbook and pumped some of his pizza dough into his hockey team.

It started in May with the signing, for depth, of veteran defenseman Fredrik Olausson, the Swede who’d been out of the NHL for a season, spending the 2000-01 campaign playing in his home country.

It continued—and the stakes got higher—with the trade for All-World goalie Dominik Hasek on July 1. After the trade, Osgood was exposed in the waiver draft and was claimed by the New York Islanders, of all teams.

Late in the summer, Ilitch green-lighted huge contracts to snipers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, who weren’t spring chickens themselves.

Defense was addressed. Goaltending was addressed. Offense was addressed. And the Red Wings suddenly had an embarrassment of riches. Their roster read like a Who’s Who of NHL power brokers.

It was all done for one reason, of course: to win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

Everyone that GM Ken Holland added with his boss’ blessing in the 2001 off-season was old. But they were still damn fine hockey players.

Fine enough to indeed win the Cup the following June, after a scary first round against Vancouver.

With the announcement on Monday that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom had been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that brought to nine the number of players from the 2001-02 Red Wings who are now Hall of Famers.

Nine players is almost half of a nightly lineup of 18 skaters and two goalies.

The team was coached by a HOFer as well—Scotty Bowman.

Bowman had been down this path before, in Montreal.

With the Canadiens, Scotty coached the likes of Guy LaFleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey et al. The goalie was Ken Dryden. That team won four straight Cups (1976-79). So Bowman knew what to do when the roster was filled to the gills with elite talent.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the 2002 Red Wings should go down as one of the best teams of all-time.

Two things work against that notion, however.

One, pretty much the same team (minus Hasek, who retired but who was replaced by Curtis Joseph, who was no slouch; and Bowman, who retired) was ousted in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, in four straight games to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (coached by Mike Babcock).

Two, because of age and retirement, the core of that 2002 squad didn’t last together for very long.

But it’s fair to suggest that, when considering single seasons only, the 2001-02 Red Wings rival some of the greatest teams in league history, if only due to star power.

Put them up against the Canadiens of the 1950s/1970s, the Islanders of the early-1980s and the Oilers of the late-1980s. Put them up against those powerful Red Wings teams of the 1950s as well.

The 2002 team holds up just fine, when compared in terms of doing, for one season, what those teams did in multiple ones. Certainly in terms of Hall of Fame talent.

But because of the mercurial nature of the 2002 Red Wings, never can they be considered one of the greatest teams of all-time when discussing sustainability.

The base core was built via the draft, but when push came to shove, Ilitch used the hammer of his deep pockets and free agency to finish the job.

Without Hasek, Hull and Robitaille, the 2002 Red Wings probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup, though it was a possibility. The addition of those three Hall of Famers put the team over the hump.

There’s a lot of chatter today about whether Fedorov deserves to have his no. 91 hanging from the rafters—if not at Joe Louis Arena, then in the new facility that’s being built.

That’s a fair question. Maybe even a good one.

But Yzerman and Fedorov and Lidstrom and Chelios and Shanahan needed some help. The 2001 early exit from the playoffs illustrated that.

Hasek, Hull and Robitaille provided that help, and then some.

This doesn’t take away from Sergei and Nick’s special day, of course.

What it means to do is remind Red Wings fans that they were alive to see, for one brilliant season, a hockey machine and a collection of talent that may not be seen again, thanks to the salary cap.