Detroit – Jimmy Devellano would rather not think about it. What if the Red Wings don’t make the playoffs for a 25th consecutive season?
The Red Wings senior vice president has been around for the past 24 successful marches into the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s been there for four Stanley Cups.
It all has become a rite of passage for Red Wings fans.
But what if they don’t make it this season?
They might not. The Wings are tied with Philadelphia, with 85 points, for the second of two wild-card playoff spots. The Wings, however, have played one more game than the Flyers.
“We’d prefer to make it,” Devellano said after several seconds of silence. “We understand the other teams are very good, they’re fighting to make the playoffs, it’s going to be a dogfight and competitive to the very last day.”
The streak of 24 consecutive playoff appearances for the Red Wings is the longest active streak in North American major pro sports — and tied for fourth-longest in NHL history (the Bruins lead with 29 seasons from 1968-96).
The second-longest streak alive in the NHL? The Penguins at nine.
“When it’s 24 versus nine, that really makes it pretty amazing, doesn’t it?” Devellano said. “That’s a big difference. We’re very appreciative and thankful of this streak.”
In the NBA, the Spurs have made the playoffs 19 consecutive years, while the Packers and Patriots are at seven straight in the NFL. The Cardinals’ five-year streak is tops in baseball.
“That streak means a lot to them, and rightfully so,” said “Hockey Night in Canada” analyst Elliotte Friedman. “There’s a lot of pride attached to that accomplishment.”
But getting to 25 would be significant.
“To get to that number, in this day and age of pro sports, that would an unbelievable achievement,” said Kevin Weekes, a long-time NHL goaltender and current analyst for the NHL Network. “The Red Wings have been the standard for the rest of the NHL. When you look at the (defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago) Blackhawks today, they are the Red Wings 2.0.
“What the Red Wings have accomplished, it all starts with ownership and the way they’ve hired people for different positions in all of their business in that city and given them the resources to succeed.”
Picture of stability
Stability has been associated with the Red Wings.
And first and foremost, it starts with the ownership of Mike and Marian Ilitch and their hires.
Bryan Murray, Devellano and Ken Holland have been the only general managers since the Ilitches bought the Red Wings in 1982.
The only coaches during the playoff streak have been Murray, Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, Mike Babcock and Jeff Blashill.
And the captains have been Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg.
“If you know anything about hockey and you had any success along the way, you’re going to look back and say … the structure is very strong, starting from the top,” said Panthers broadcaster Denis Potvin, part of a New York Islanders dynasty that won four Stanley Cups and made the playoffs for 19 straight seasons. “Starting with strong consistent ownership, consistent management. You don’t get that everywhere.”
Said Zetterberg: “Ownership. That’s the one thing that’s been the same, you know? They just surround themselves with good people and people who have knowledge and it just trickles down. Then, obviously the players that have been here for those 24 years.”
Wings forward Justin Abdelkader was 4 years old when the Red Wings began their playoff streak.
“It always starts with ownership, ownership’s willingness and demand to win and bringing in good players,” he said. “And, obviously, they have the support system around them with the GM, and the scouts have done such a good job of drafting the players and bringing in good players.
“To sustain a run like that, you’ve got to have good players and good teams.”
Gerard Gallant was on the team that started the streak in 1991.
‘It’s no surprise to me, with that organization, what they’ve done,” said Gallant, coach of the Panthers. “Their management staff, Kenny Holland and all of the people who’re working in that organization are first class all the way.
“And that’s why they’ve had success in the long term, not just the short term.”
‘We set the bar high’
The current roster understands the streak, and doesn’t want to be the team where it stops.
In a recent pregame meeting, Zetterberg told teammates they weren’t going to miss the playoffs “on my watch.”
Lidstrom made the playoffs in each of his 20 seasons in the NHL. In his mind, the Red Wings and playoffs go hand-in-hand.
“The run we’ve had for over 20 years has been something special, too,” Lidstrom said. “The team takes a lot of pride in being in the playoffs. The fans almost demanding to be there.
“As a team and an organization, we set the bar high every year. That shows what kind of team we’ve been for a long time.”
Being exposed to the likes of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio — and playing with Yzerman — all had a profound impact.
“Look around the locker room or hallways, you see a lot of the faces that played in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” Lidstrom said. “It comes from the history. When I first joined the team we had Gordie Howe walking through the locker room. Ted Lindsay would stop by. Even today, the former players would come by.
“It means a lot to the current players that you have former players, they’re Hall of Famers, they’ve won Stanley Cups in the past, and they’re still coming back and being part of the team. That tradition, that history, is such an important thing for this organization.”
But it’s not just necessarily the stars who have ignited the 24-year run.
“I look at guys like Drapes (Kris Draper), Malts (Kirk Maltby), the Grind Line (Draper, Maltby, Darren McCarty), those type of guys, the bone-marrow guys,” Weekes said. “You could call Drapes this morning and he’d be in uniform tonight trying to help the Red Wings win. Those guys are the lifeblood.”
The streak also brings a sense of pride to Wings fans.
“Oh, definitely, a lot of pride,” said Margy Bishop of Dearborn Heights, who has followed the team for 50 seasons. “The core group of hockey fans, who love the Red Wings, that group is so proud of the record (streak).
“It would be borderline devastating (if the Red Wings missed the playoffs). The season would feel like a failure.”
1989 draft was special
Devellano credits the team’s 1989 draft as the impetus for the streak.
The Red Wings selected two Hall of Famers, Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov; a potential Hall of Famer whose career was cut short, Vladimir Konstantinov; and players such as Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner and Dallas Drake, all of whom had long, productive careers.
“I’ve studied them all, different leagues, and I can’t find anyone who has had a better draft,” Devellano said. “That draft set us up for 20 years, two decades, and that’s about the length of time we’re talking about with the playoff streak.”
Devellano also gives ample credit to the scouting staff.
“Let’s face it, with our success, where we’ve been drafting in the lower parts of the draft, it’s not easy,” He said. “But they’ve been able to find the Datsyuks, Zetterbergs, (Petr) Mrazek, (Johan) Franzen who was an important player for us before he got hurt (concussion).
“And now, Dylan Larkin. Our scouts found him. Without our scouts, it would have been extremely difficult.”
Jacques Demers was the last Red Wings coach not to make the playoffs.
It was the 1989-90 season, and the Red Wings went 28-38-14.
And at the end of the season, Demers was out of a job.
“Jimmy Devellano would tell me we had this kid Fedorov coming next year, and then there was Lidstrom, he’d be arriving soon, we had Yzerman, it was looking good,” Demers said. “But kids like Fedorov and Lidstrom, they’re kids, you never know.”
But they turned into Hall of Famers, cornerstones on teams that made the playoffs ... year after year after year.
“It’s amazing what the Red Wings have done,” said Demers, who went on to coach a Stanley Cup winner in Montreal. “The Ilitch family, they provide so much stability in that organization. They’re just wonderful people. And, then, guys like Jimmy Devellano, Kenny Holland, they’re winners.
“They just kept finding people. I mean, guys like Zetterberg, Datsyuk, that Mrazek kid, now Larkin. They just keep doing it. And when you do that, you’re able to win consistently, year after year. They find players.”
Demers said he rarely gets mentioned as the last Red Wings coach not to make the playoffs.
“Maybe I’ve heard it a little bit more lately,” Demers said. “I’m sure it’s tough for the new guy (Blashill) replacing a guy like Babcock. That’s not easy.
“I think they’ll make it. Guys like Zetterberg, (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Niklas) Kronwall, they just have so much character.”
Staff writer Gregg Krupa contributed.