Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where Wings take dream

That's a partial quote from something George W. Bush once said when he was Prez. Don't ask me. I never did figure out what he meant either. That ranks right up there with that "1000 points of light thing" his daddy came up with. Sounds good, but in the end, nobody knew what the hell they were talking about. Like the B boys, the Red Wings are hard to figure out.

The owner. He was born Michael Ilievski in 1929. Though of Macedonian (Greek) descent, one has to remember that in the post WWII era, when he was a relatively young man, including the McCarthy "red scare" madness of the 50's, that surname probably sounded very Russian/Soviet back in those days, which was not a good thing to have going for you if you wanted to prosper in this country. So somewhere along the line it became Mike Ilitch.

He wanted to be a major league baseball player. Though drafted by the Tigers, Ilitch only bounced around the lower levels of the minor leagues for a few years in the early 50's. The company line says his baseball career ended because of a knee injury, but his minor league stats suggest he was never going to be good enough for the big time anyway.

A few years later, in 1959, he got this bright idea about opening up a pizza parlor in Garden City. That led to another one and another one, and these days there's thousands of them all over the world. Never could figure out why someone of his heritage would name it after an ancient Roman dynasty, but it sure seems to have worked. Fast forward a couple decades, and Michael was a very rich man.

It should be noted, perhaps with a grain of salt, that somewhere along the way, Ilitch's accomplishments and devotion to the city of Detroit earned him being presented with a "key" to the city. Ceremonial to be sure, but still quite an honor, considering only 4 other people have achieved that status. Why the grain of salt? Because one of those 4 was none other than Saddam Hussein. Yep, the same one, during the Coleman Young years.  Don't believe me? Look it up. 

In the early 80's he wanted to own a Detroit pro team, and his first pick would have been the Tigers -- but they weren't for sale. So in 1982, he bought the Red Wings. Back then they were bad. Bad enough to have earned the name "dead wings". They weren't competitive, attendance and attention were way down, and they just pretty much -- well -- sucked. Fifteen years later they were hoisting the Stanley Cup, to be followed by a few more championships in subsequent years. Sounds great, right? So was Ilitch a savior, or just happen to be in the right place long enough for something good to happen? Depends how you look at it.

15 years is a long time in pro sports, unless you're the Chicago Cubs or Detroit Lions, but those are stories for another day.  A lot of pro careers will start and end during that period of time.

Thing is, Ilitch might not have been such a great baseball player back in the day, but nobody can seriously question his business savvy. The REALLY smart business folks aren't afraid to surround themselves with very intelligent people on their payroll, and give them positions of authority that involve decision-making.

Enter Ken Holland, the General Manager of the Red Wings. From negotiating contracts, to the salary cap, to trades, to draft choices, to free agent acquisitions, it was Holland that built the Wings up into not only perennial contenders, but a class organization where everybody wants to play. How he's pulled all that off with nary a whimper of dissention from the locker room, including a few coaching changes along the way, is the stuff of geniuses.

Over the last couple decades, the Red Wings have been famous, or infamous, depending on one's viewpoint, for their "international flavor", starting with Russians, and now Swedes. For the most part, those were, and are, highly skilled players, but they rely basically on finesse, not physicality. The local media will chip in and give them rave reviews, of course, but I suspect even Mickey Redmond, a former Red Wing himself, and current announcer, bites his tongue once in a while, as to what he really thinks. Then there's people like Don Cherry, that loveable Canadian traditionalist, who just don't approve. Period. Personally, I'm not sure what to make of Cherry, but I do look forward to seeing what clothing ensemble he'll come up with next. Ya gotta love those shirt collars. Ahem.

But alas, as time marches on, there's a down side to this. Skill and finesse only go so far. At the NHL level in hockey, a certain amount of "retro" style play is required to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup. In other words, a team has to have a few "bangers".

Consider: when were the Red Wings the most successful in the Ilitch era? When they had the "grind line" of Kris Draper, Joey Kocur (later replaced by Darren McCarty) and Kirk Maltby. They weren't the most highly skilled players but they wore down the finesse guys on the other team with being physical. They were flying around hitting everybody in the late 90's. Yes, they were briefly reunited a few years ago, but they were also 10 years older. It made a difference. Nowadays the Wings don't have anybody like that. That's why they keep getting bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs. No tough guys.

Further consider: Most knowledgeable hockey people said all along the Vancouver Canucks were far and away more highly skilled than the Boston Bruins. You know who won the Cup. Vancouver hung in there for 5 games, but I suspect the physicality of the Bruins eventually wore them out, as evidenced by the last 2 games where the Canucks showed up, but had seemingly lost their will to play. They were beat up and gave up. Much the same thing happened last year when the Chicago Black Hawks won the Cup. They had skill, but they were also physical.

Perhaps the best example is the Russian Red Army team of the 70's. They came over to North America and were trashing all the NHL teams on their tour, because their precision with the puck was incredible. Then they ran into Bobby Clarke's Broad Street Bullies in Philly, where they got beat up on the ice, and eventually on the scoreboard. That was their only loss. To this day, some people say that was an anomaly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just like the other NHL teams were mesmerized by the Soviets' style of play, the Red Army squad had never seen anything like the Flyers coming at them either. They weren't only good, they were brutal. So brutal the Soviet coach pulled his team off the ice in the first period and even considered forfeiting. We'll never know, but I suspect a phone call came from Moscow telling their coach that forfeiting was not their first choice -- and if that option was exercised, it might result in a very long vacation in Siberia. So they played on and eventually limped out of town with bumps, bruises, and a loss.  

I see the Red Wings in much the same predicament. They'll make the playoffs every year because, even with sometimes shaky goaltending, they have a lot of skilled players. But when the biggest news coming out of the Red Wings is about re-signing a 40 year old defenseman for another year, it doesn't take a genius to figure out not much has changed.

The NHL is the only pro sport where revenue sharing doesn't come into play for post-season (playoff) games. I suspect Mr. Iliev -- oops, Ilitch will continue to pack them in at Joe Louis Arena in the near future and enjoy some big cha-chings for a couple playoff rounds, but when they get down to the nitty-gritty and the tough teams, they won't get anywhere near the Stanley Cup again until they toughen up some.

The sympathetic local media (homers) will try to sugar-coat it, but don't believe it.

Sometimes it just is what it is.

1 comment:

  1. Bring back Gordie Howe. No one would go in the corners with him even when he was over 50. Or Joe White, George Gray or Big Al Rowin.