Will An Era Of Glory Come To An End In Detroit With The Death Of Mike Ilitch?

In my previous article, I mentioned that it was not a good year to be year to be a Boston Bruin fan with the death of Milt Schmidt and the firing of the franchise’s coach who won the most games in the team’s history, including a Stanley Cup, Claude Julien. It has also not been a good year to be a Detroit Redwing fan which has seen the team lose the greatest player in its history, Gordie Howe, and now the man who was mostly responsible for saving the franchise from ridicule, owner Mike Ilitch.

When Ilitch bought the team from the Norris family in 1982, the Redwings were a far cry from their glory years in the early 1950s, Howe’s greatest years. They had not iced a contending team since the end of the 1960s and were mired in possibly the worst part of their history. Since 1970 when Detroit began its descent starting with the “Darkness with Harkness” years, the Redwings had become the laughingstock of the NHL, even eclipsing Harold Ballard’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

So bad were the Redwings that it would take Ilitch and the management which he carefully built up as well as the team roster, 15 years to become a Stanley Cup champion again. Rebuilding the Redwings was a slow and painful process that could be frustrating. It took a great effort to rescue the team from the depths to which they had fallen.

But when the glory years came, they were big. Ilitch’s Redwings would win four more Stanley Cups, tying the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place behind Montreal on the all time victory list. The Detroit Redwings are unquestionably the best American franchise in NHL history. And during most of these years, if Detroit did not win the Stanley Cup, they were at least a top contender. Detroit has now gone 26 years without missing the playoffs. If they miss them this year, it will only be because they have been so good for so long that have not been able to draft top juniors for such a long time.

On the ice, probably the two key players who brought Detroit its second period of glory were Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. The Redwings were probably also the first NHL team to make good use of Russian players, newly freed with the fall of the Iron Curtain. European players would play key roles in reviving the franchise to its former glory.

Ilitch also bought the Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball but he has not come close to the success he has had with the Redwings. His best legacy with the Tigers was mostly financing the baseball park they now play in.

How important was Ilitch? Since 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs suffered two extensive periods of bad ownership, first under Harold Ballard, and then under the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund whose record somehow eclipsed even Ballard’s worst years. The result has been the current longest streak of 50 years without even making the Stanley Cup Finals. That was depths to which the Detroit Redwings had fallen. Good ownership is vital to a sports franchise and Ilitch provided it. He was crucial to Detroit’s success.

Once the current ceremonies for Mike Ilitch are over, the crucial question of running the Detroit Redwings will arise. Besides praying for Ilitch, Detroit Redwings fans should be praying for a new owner who will be as good or better than Ilitch. Whoever it is will have a tough act to follow and big shoes to fill.

Detroit’s Glory Years Have Ended

The first team to be eliminated in this year’s playoffs as I predicted was the Detroit Redwings. Their quick elimination should make plain to its management that the glory years are finally over. Of the once dynastic Redwings, only Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg remain and that is not enough. That the Redwings are still respectable enough to make the playoffs is a tribute to the team character and the foresight of its management, but the loss to Tampa Bay should prove to almost everyone that while this is a respectable team, it is no longer a contender for the Stanley Cup. Detroit was also one of two teams to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential.

However this article is not one to condemn or point out obvious shortcomings but as a salute, a look-back to what Detroit has accomplished during its second golden era. Four Stanley Cups have been added to Detroit’s total, now tying them for second with Toronto on the all-time Stanley Cup list behind only Montreal. For a long time Detroit was stuck on seven victories until Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom came along. Yzerman, Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, and Sergie Fedorov are already in the Hall Of Fame. There may be more coming.

To really understand what Detroit has accomplished, one has to go back to 1970 when Gordie Howe retired from the team. That finally ended the first golden era that started back in the early 1950s when Detroit was the powerhouse of the NHL with Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Sid Abel leading the way. After 1970, Detroit plunged into what probably was the darkest period of its history beginning with “Darkness With Harkness”. It was not until 1983 when Detroit, with new owner Mike Ilitch, drafted Steve Yzerman that any hope for the franchise loomed, after a decade of being one of the principal laughingstocks of the NHL.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together… Yzerman, Lidstrom, Shanahan, Fedorov, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and many others. What distinguished this group from its glorious predecessor of the 1950s was the contribution by non-Canadians. After 1989 when the Iron Curtain finally fell and Russians and other East Europeans were at last allowed to play in the NHL without any political impediments, Detroit took full advantage of the situation to recruit many of its future stars to put its talent over the top. Much of the credit has to go to two General Managers, Jim Devellano, and Ken Holland, who have kept this team respectable if not a contender after a decade and a half of misery. Detroit has made the playoffs for 24 straight years, and the streak still continues, despite this year’s early exit.

However one cannot overlook the meaning of this year’s early elimination. The Detroit glory years are over and it is now time to rebuild. Detroit now needs younger players to create a third golden era. Zetterberg and Datsyuk still have a role to play. They can teach the next group of Redwing superstars the meaning of what it is to be a Redwing, a champion, and instill in the younger players the spirit of victory. They can “pass the torch” as the Montreal Canadiens like to phrase it. But that is the future. For now, writers and hockey fans can give the remaining members of the second Redwing golden era a well-earned salute.