Detroit — They’re all taking a stroll down memory lane this week, what with the days numbered and down to a dwindling few.
The Red Wings can’t avoid taking a nostalgic turn on the ice now – their cherished playoff streak officially over after a remarkable quarter-century run – any more than Ken Holland can avoid this pivot, as he enters the hallway outside the team’s dressing room in Joe Louis Arena.
Fastened to the cinder block walls are a series of wooden plaques, along with framed team photos from every Red Wings season dating back to 1982, the year late owner Mike Ilitch purchased the moribund franchise. They go down one side and back the other, and for Holland, finishing his 20th season as the team’s general manager, they’re like pages from a high school yearbook put on display.
He has brushed past them countless times over the years, headed to the coaches’ office after games or to check on a player’s status after a morning skate. But just the other day, the 61-year-old Holland found himself lingering – and reminiscing.
Each plaque lists the roster – management, players and training staff – as well as the team’s record. And as Holland took stock, he tallied 14 out of 16 seasons – including an NHL-record 12 in a row from 1999 until 2012 – the Red Wings finished with 100 points or more.
“It’s amazing,” Holland said. “I probably wouldn’t have thought about it, but I was walking through here and I started looking at the plaques and you go year-by-year and ...”
And, well, look closely here and you’ll smile as you discover Steve Yzerman as a fresh-faced rookie in 1983-84. (He’s the one without a moustache in the photo.) Over there you’ll find Sergei Fedorov the year he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1994. (Wait, is that Dino Ciccarelli sporting a black eye?) And down a bit further, there’s that 2002 team, one of the greatest ever assembled in the NHL, featuring nine future Hall of Famers, not including the head coach. (Or the owner. Or his top lieutenant.)
On and on it goes, flanked on the opposite wall by a massive photo display of some of the Red Wings’ star players through the years. And when you finally get to the entrance to the dressing room, you’ll find the giant portraits that greet the current Red Wings each time they lace up their skates and head out to the ice surface. There’s Yzerman again, and Nicklas Lidstrom, along with Mike Vernon and Henrik Zetterberg – the four playoff MVPs from the four Stanley Cup champions that called the Joe home.
“Everywhere you look around here, you see the reminders,” said Dylan Larkin, who last season became the first Red Wings rookie since Yzerman in 1983-84 to earn All-Star honors. “All the great players, the championships they won.”
As he talks, he nods across the room at the black-and-white images lining the walls inside the Red Wings’ dressing room. Frans Nielsen sits in Yzerman’s old stall, and the Captain’s image looms overhead, alongside that of Igor Larionov, “The Professor” who centered the transcendent Russian Five. Petr Mrazek puts his pads on underneath Vernon’s photo, while the empty stall next to Jimmy Howard carries the nameplate of Terry Sawchuk. And so on.
Much of this was Jimmy Devellano’s idea when ownership decided it was time to do some remodeling years ago. Devellano, who was Ilitch’s first hire as GM – and the architect of the Red Wings’ revival, in many ways – made sure that history was displayed for all to see.
“The franchise was really built in the ’50s by that group of players – Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio and Terry Sawchuk,” Holland said. “But then it was rebuilt by these players at the highest level, winning championships and contending for championships here at the Joe.”
They aren’t contending for one this spring, which makes for an awkward goodbye this weekend at the Joe, this windowless hockey warehouse that opened for business in December 1979. Larkin is one of several current Red Wings who wasn’t even born the last time the franchise missed the playoffs – the third-longest streak in NHL history. And only a couple elder statesmen in the dressing room – Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall – were alive when Ilitch bought the team for a relative pittance, back when the Red Wings were known as the “Dead Things” around town and the franchise “was in the Detroit River,” as Devellano puts it.
Things changed in a hurry, though, after Ilitch’s first draft pick arrived, and Jacques Demers was hired away from St. Louis, just in time to make Yzerman the youngest captain in team history and start making the Red Wings a hot ticket again in Detroit.
“Jacques taught us how to win,” Ilitch used to say, and once the winning started – they’d only made the postseason twice since 1966 – the entertainment never really stopped, from the “Bruise Brothers” and their Norris Division grudge matches to all the mind games Scotty Bowman played as he meddled with and melded a talented roster into a championship team.
Before long, they became a standard-bearer not just for the league, but in all of professional sports. No team did a better job of scouting and drafting than the Red Wings, particularly with their clandestine efforts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And no owner was more willing to spend money in pursuit of hockey’s Holy Grail.
“We took risks but there was no salary cap and there were no limitations on payroll,” Holland said. “I think we all know you need stars. But Mr. Ilitch was prepared to pay for stars, and for the most part, we kept our stars and we added more.”
And more and more, before the NHL insisted on parity and the league instituted a salary cap to all but guarantee it. Of the two dozen members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who were a part of the Red Wings organization while the team played its games at the Joe, three of them were homegrown draft selections – Yzerman, Fedorov and Lidstrom. But that didn’t stop Ilitch from rubber-stamping deals for the likes of Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek and Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, even if it meant incurring the wrath of his wife, Marian, at times.
And it’s that juxtaposition that always stood out, right? Detroit as a destination, despite what the census said. “Hockeytown,” the Red Wings dubbed it, and the players were the celebrities. But thanks to their longevity and the fans’ proximity, the Joe was a lot like the bar from “Cheers,” as Chris Osgood explains it, “where everybody knows your name.”
Sure, that meant Stevie Y and Sergei, Vlady and Nick, Ozzie and Drapes, Pav and Z. But it also meant the food-service staff and the security guards and the parking lot attendants. And where else but here would the building manager become a star, too? Al Sobotka, who started at the Olympia and will make the move to new Little Ceasars Arena in the fall, didn’t just rile up the place with his playoff octopus twirls, he filled it up with smoke from his famous barbecues.
The Joe might’ve been short on amenities, but it had plenty of character to go with all those characters. There was the “Knitting Lady” and the “Orange Hat Guy,” but there was also the cramped stick room where players lounged after games and Dominik Hasek once spent the night after a frustrating loss before that ’02 title run. The visitors’ bench was too small, and the stairs were a drunken fan’s nightmare. The end boards were the last wooden ones in the league, and the out-of-town scoreboard never worked. They forgot to build a press box, and there was no room to move on the concourse.
“And in an age where athletes are walking through well-lit, red-carpeted back corridors to their dressing rooms,” Shanahan added, “our path was under the stands where there was a lot of spilled beer and spilled popcorn."
But as it all comes spilling out now, this is what the fans will remember and what the Red Wings will try to take with them as they move into a new home, packing up those photos before they go.
“The charm in this building,” Holland said wistfully, “was the people in it.”