Poor Detroit is on the receiving end of a lot of bad things these days. It's the most impoverished city in the country. It's the most violent city in the country. The housing crisis there is so nasty that houses are actually being sold for considerably less than cars, with some of them going for around $10,000. Yet, though it all, the people of Detroit can go down to their waterfront to visit Joe Louis Arena for an escape in NHL hockey, where they get the pleasure of watching the Detroit Red Wings.
In 1926, it was a well-known fact that the Western Canada Hockey League was on its last legs and soon going bye-bye. The NHL was looking to expand at the time, and Detroit put in five applications for a team. The league was pretty firmly set on a plan to put one new team in Detroit and another new team in Chicago, but that plan was met with opposition by the New York Americans, who preferred that Chicago get both new teams. Back then, things like that needed unanimous approval, so the Amerks' dissent was all that was needed to set up a nice little roadblock. A month later, though, the NHL amended its constitution so that all that was required was a simple majority, and so it went to pass that both Chicago and Detroit would get one team each. Now, who to find to create those teams?
On May 3 that year, just a day after the NHL constitution was amended, a pair of Detroit promoters named Morris Caplan and Morris Friedberg made an announcement: They had bought the Victoria Cougars, the Stanley Cup Champions of 1925, in expectation of getting an NHL team! Detroit was tentatively given a team, but Caplan and Friedberg weren't the ones getting it - rather, it was a whole different group. It was conditional, though: The group needed to have an arena ready to go for the upcoming season. At the time, it was expected to be ready in December, and in the meantime, the Cougars were sold for $100,000, of which the aforementioned Caplan and Friedberg got a cool $25,000 cut. By September, the team got its permanent approval, and the Victoria Cougars were officially now the Detroit Cougars. The name fit with Detroit's sports ethos. The city already had a football team called the Lions and a baseball team called the Tigers, right? The NHL, though, doesn't consider the Detroit Red Wings a continuation of the Victoria Cougars.
Oh, yeah: The arena wasn't quite ready for the season, so in their inaugural season, the Detroit Cougars might as well have been called the Windsor Cougars, since they played in Windsor, Ontario. The team was managed by Art Duncan, a former player from the Calgary Tigers. To get him, the Cougars had to ditch players Art Gagne and Gord Fraser because of some distribution rules. The team went 12-28-4 in its first season, which was the worst record in the NHL that year. The Cougars traded Duncan to the Toronto Maple Leafs, replaced him with Jack Adams, and started improving. In their second year, the Cougars went 19-19-6. By 1929, the Cougars were a playoff team with Carson Cooper leading in scoring. In a two-game series against Toronto which was decided by the number of goals scored, Detroit was outscored 7-2.
In 1930, a newspaper promotion resulted in the Cougars changing their name to the Detroit Falcons. In 1932, Chicago grain merchant James E. Norris bought the team and wiped out its financial problems. His first act was to change the team's name yet again, this time to the name they've gone by ever since: The Red Wings. In 1933, the found rookie of the year Carl Voss. The next season, they made their way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, only to lose to the Chicago Black Hawks. In 1936, though, they reached the Finals again, playing the longest overtime game in NHL history, a six-OT marathon against the Montreal Maroons, along the way. In the Finals, they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following season, they returned to the Finals and won their second Stanley Cup against the New York Rangers. And to cap off this eventful decade, in 1938 the Red Wings played games against the Montreal Canadiens in Paris and London, which made them the first NHL teams to play in Europe.
They began the 40's just as strong. They made the Finals in 1941, 1942, and 1943, winning their 1943 matchup by sweeping the Boston Bruins. The Red Wings were a solid contender through the rest of the 40's, and they managed to make the Finals another three times. Those Finals appearances, however, took a backseat to a certain player they were fortunate enough to pick up in 1946: A guy by the name of Gordie Howe, whom you may have heard of. In Red Wings history, Howe is THE guy. He is frequently in the discussion for the greatest player in NHL history, at least for the era before Wayne Gretzky arrived and closed every conversation regarding the subject. Since it was his first season and he hadn't reached his prime yet, though, he wasn't yet the guy who kept opposing goaltenders up scared through the nights. In fact, in his first season, he only recorded seven goals and 15 assists. In his second season, though, he was paired up with his linemates Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay to form one of the greatest lines in NHL history: The Production Line.
Detroit wouldn't win the Cup again until 1950, though, when they fought the Rangers to a double overtime in a seventh game - as fans refer to it, hockey as it should be. It was upon that victory that Ted Lindsay took the Stanley Cup and skated around the ice today, beginning one of the greatest traditions in professional sports. The Production Line led them to the Stanley Cup three more times during the 50's. Now, usually a run like that would be a great show of dominance, but the NHL was corrupt as hell during the Original Six era, which ran from 1942 to 1967. Red Wings owner Norris was probably the sneakiest guy of a group of magnificent bastards. Norris owned the Red Wings, and the NHL had a firm rule stating that no owner could own more than one team. Norris, however, leapt through more loopholes than, well, uh, something that leaps through a lot of loopholes. First of all, he owned the lease to Chicago Stadium and the president of the Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Tobin, was basically his personal little puppet, meaning Norris basically owned the Black Hawks too. He also held majority stock over the New York Rangers, and since he had helped pay mortgages for the Boston Bruins during The Great Depression, he held a strong influence over them too. That covered four of the Original Six, and the only one he cared about was his Red Wings. Furthermore, after World War II, the league constantly rejected expansion bids, the criteria for which seemed to keep mysteriously changing. Hell, the war damaged the league so badly that two of the league's teams, the New York Americans and Montreal Maroons, had to suspend operations. When they tried to reactivate, the league wouldn't let them. Both of those teams technically still exist, but they haven't been active in a long time. The results showed in the standings: After 1941, the Red Wings, Canadiens, and Maple Leafs won every last Stanley Cup until 1970, when Boston broke up the monopoly for good. During that span, those same three teams only missed the playoffs eight times, COMBINED. There was an exception to the tri-team Stanley Cup monopoly in 1961, when Chicago collected enough talent and payroll to steal it, but since it didn't really prove or change anything, it is usually written off as an aberration by hockey historians.
I had to bring that up because while Detroit was doing well, Ted Lindsay was pissed off at the owners' absolute control and the conditions players had to play under. Even though he had led the Red Wings to the Cup in 1955 and the Finals in 1956, Lindsay and a fiery, outspoken young goalie named Glenn Hall were traded to Chicago in 1957. The reason? They teamed up with Montreal defenseman Doug Harvey to form a players' union. That was one of a rash of bad trades. In 1955, they traded Terry Sawchuk to Boston. They traded to get him back two years later, but his best days were behind him, so it was extremely lopsided when they had to give up Johnny Bucyk in order to do it. The Wings were reeling by the late 50's, but underwent a short rejuvenation in the early 60's. They still had Howe, after all, and Ted Lindsay made a quick comeback while Norm Ullman and Parker MacDonald scored consistently. They made the Finals four times between 1961 and 1966, but lost every time. In 1963, Jack Adams, who had been coach for 15 years and general manager since 1932, was fired.
A year after they had last made the Finals, Detroit finished out of the playoffs. It was the beginning of a seemingly endless dark period for the team. Between 1967 and 1983, the Red Wings only went to the playoffs twice, and they only won one playoff series. From 1968 to 1982, they had a whopping 14 head coaches, and that doesn't even include interims. None of them lasted three seasons. There were time factors involved: The old development system was phased out of the sport, which was bad for Detroit because it allowed Jack Adams to get young prospects to commit to his team by the time they were 16. In 1970, the Red Wings hired a successful college coach named Ned Harkness, who was another factor when he tried to force a new style of play on a group of old veterans. He was also a strict disciplinarian who tried to set new rules demanding short hair, no smoking, and limits on drinking and phone calls. While he was promoted to general manager halfway into his first season, he was also forced to resign by 1973. There was the 1967 expansion. And although Detroit managed to acquire Frank Mahovlich in a trade with the Leafs in 1967 and he had two great years there lined with Howe and Alex Delvecchio, he was traded to Montreal in 1970. And speaking of Howe, have you noticed how I mentioned that he first arrived in 1946? Yeah, after playing for a very productive 25 years as the face of the Detroit Red Wings, Howe laced 'em up for the last time in 1971. Delvecchio left in 1974. During this era, the team became known as the Dead Wings.
Help wasn't exactly in a hurry to get to Detroit. The Dead Wings era lasted into the early 80's. Finally, things started to look brighter in 1983, when the Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman. In his first year, Yzerman led the Wings in scoring. With a little help from John Ogrodnick, Ivan Bolirev, Ron Duguay, and Brad Park, Detroit finally made it back to the postseason. Although the Wings sank back into irrelevance for the following couple of years, 1983 was the beginning of what eventually became a run of dominance which would have made the Detroit Red Wings teams of the 50's proud. Hell, it would have made the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 50's proud, and those guys won the Stanley Cup five times in a row! By 1987, Yzerman was aided by Petr Klima, Adam Oates, Gerard Gallant, and Darren Veitch, and they ran all the way to the Conference Finals before the Edmonton Oilers finally did them in. They also won the next year for the first time in 23 years, but their division was notably weak, and the Red Wings were the only winning team in it. While they made the playoffs regularly again, they weren't especially good for the late 80's and early 90's.
That all changed when coach Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history, took the wheel in 1993. In 1995, he got Detroit to the Finals, where they were swept by the New Jersey Devils. That, however, was just a temporary setback. The Wings were flooded with star power now: Nicklas Lidstrom. Darren McCarty. Brendan Shanahan. In 1997, they were back in the Finals to face the Philadelphia Flyers, who were led by their Legion of Doom line consisting of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. The Flyers were favored, but Bowman threw a finesse defense at them featuring Lidstrom and Larry Murphy, whose puckhandling abilities effectively made the Legion's vaunted forechecking pretty much useless. LeClair and Lindros only scored one goal each during the whole series, and they both came well after the games were over. Detroit swept Philadelphia. The following season, they defended their Stanley Cup in another sweep, this time against the Washington Capitals.
Detroit, for everything going wrong with the city itself, was a hockey players' most desirable destination by the millennium. The talent they were collecting at the time showed it: Luc Robitaille, Dominick Hasek, and Brett Hull were all along for the ride by then. Joined by rookie center Pavel Datsyuk, you bet your ass this team was gonna do some damage! They all won the Stanley Cup again in 2002 in five games over a Cinderella Carolina Hurricanes team. Bowman retired in 2003, but with the talent they had amassed, nothing could stop them. They've been one of the top Vegas lines to win nearly every year. In 2006, the won the Presidents' Trophy; it was their fifth. In 2007, Steve Yzerman retired as one of the great players in NHL history and a guy totally worthy of the legacy of Gordie Howe's team. That did nothing at all to slow them down. They simply made Lidstrom their Captain. Then they returned to the Stanley Cup Finals and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, including a classic fifth game. The following year, they signed Marian Hossa. The previous year, Hossa had been traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Penguins, and helped the Pens get to the Finals. It was a single-year contract which Hossa said was strictly so he could finally have a turn to win the Stanley Cup. Well, he did play a huge part in getting the Red Wings to the Finals in 2009, where they faced…. The Penguins. And this time, the Penguins avenged their loss from the previous year, meaning Hossa now had the distinction of playing for two Stanley Cup runners-up in a row, the second of which he had signed with solely to win the whole thing. Don't feel too bad for him, though; after his year with Detroit, I guess he thought to himself "fuck it" because he signed a longer contract with yet another new team. His new team, the Chicago Blackhawks, got him to the Finals for the third time in three years with his third team - a first in the NHL. This time, he finally won.
The Detroit Red Wings are still a juggernaut. In 1995, they won both the Presidents' Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. Even though they lost the Stanley Cup, it was still the start of a run that made them the closest thing the NHL currently has to a dynasty. Over the next 14 years, they managed to compile five more of both of those, as well as four Stanley Cups. They're still a great team and an ever-present threat to win the Stanley Cup.
The Detroit Red Wings have retired the numbers of Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, and Steve Yzerman. Notable players from their history include Dominick Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Larry Murphy, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Chelios, and Curtis Joseph. That list consists of players who have played for Detroit during the millennium. Lindsay was the first player to try to organize a union, along with another then-Red Wing, Glenn Hall. Hall would go on to form his own incredible career with the Chicago Black Hawks. Gordie Howe is known as Mr. Hockey, and as I mentioned, he was arguably the greatest player of the pre-Wayne Gretzky era. He was also one of the toughest guys in the league; back in his day, there were no designated checking line guys there to act as enforcers, so all the great players had to look out for themselves. Howe was so good and so tough that he even has a term named for him: The Gordie Howe Hat Trick. A player is said to have achieved this feat by scoring a goal, an assist, and getting into a fight all in one game. While it was named for him, Howe actually only pulled off the feat twice in his career. The list of great historical players who have been Red Wings at one time or another has to be seen to be believed, because it's pretty impressive.
The Detroit Red Wings, being an Original Six team, are another team easily identifiable through their sweaters and the large number of Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters of their home arena. They've won the Stanley Cup eleven times, more often than any team in the United States and more than all but the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 times) and Montreal Canadiens (24 times). The logo comes from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, which James E. Norris had been a member of. The club had roots in cycling, and were known as the Winged Wheelers. The Red Wings have a longstanding rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the St. Louis Blues got in on the act when they were formed too. The Chicago rivalry is THE rivalry, though, one of the marquee contests of the NHL, because it's older and the two cities hate each other for every other sport as well.
The Red Wings have The Legend of the Octopus! This seems like a pretty offhand thing. The practice started back in the 1952 playoffs, because back then the number of arms the octopus has represented the number of playoff games the team needed to win the Stanley Cup. It started when a pair of brothers who owned a store in Detroit threw an octopus onto the rink. Since then, the practice persisted. (I hope to god the octopi being thrown were already dead.) Now the octopi are stuffed animals, and the unofficial mascot of the team is a giant octopus hanging from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena affectionately named Al, after the owner of the Arena. Other teams have adopted the practice of throwing stuffed animals onto the ice during playoff games. For the Florida Panthers, it's rats; it's catfish for the Nashville Predators; a rubber snake for the Phoenix Coyotes; salmon for the Vancouver Canucks; and in an incident in the 2010 second round between the Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, a small shark with an octopus inside its mouth.
There's pretty much no downside at all to adopting the Detroit Red Wings these days. Really, it's just the threat of being treated like a bandwagon fan. They're currently the most consistently great team in the league, and while they wear red, their touch is pure gold.
As a Michigan transplant living in Chicago, I am a little torn sometimes about my sports. Not torn as in who to root for, because no matter where I live I will always stay true to my hometown teams, but torn because it would be so much more fun to root for a team in a city that you lived in so you could enjoy all the festivities around town. Chicago is a great sports town, but I can't get into the local teams here, mostly because all the pro teams are bitter rivals of the Detroit teams, since … more