Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.
On April 17, ESPN will premiere 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.
So, what were you up to in 1991? Me, I can’t be entirely sure, but it definitely involved some combination of gymnastics, slap bracelets, and watching Nickelodeon-produced PSAs about acid rain. If it helps trigger your memory: The Soviet Union was dissolving that year, Super Nintendo came to the U.S., and the ribbon was being cut on California’s first Starbucks. The Silence of the Lambs and “Losing My Religion” were released, and Emma Roberts and Mike Trout were born. And the Detroit Red Wings, one season removed from a pitiful fifth-place division finish, ended their year in the Norris’s third spot to qualify for the NHL playoffs.
That was 23 years ago, and Detroit hasn’t missed the postseason since.
Think about that: There are people, an entire generation of people, who have been born and have grown up and had their hearts broken by high school soul mates and gone off to college and graduated and are now tentatively finding their way through the world. And these people have never known what it’s like to see their favorite hockey team miss the playoffs.
The Red Wings’ 23 years constitutes the longest-running active playoff streak in any of the four major professional sports, and the fifth-longest in hockey history.1 Nine of 30 NHL teams, including the Predators, Lightning, and Senators, didn’t exist in their current iterations in that spring of 1991. The San Jose Sharks first dropped the puck on their franchise later that fall; the team is now second to Detroit in active consecutive NHL postseason appearances. (The Sharks would have to keep making it for another 13 years to even things up.) A couple of players on this year’s Red Wings roster hadn’t even been born then, and so of course it was one of them, 22-year-old Riley Sheahan, who scored the goal last week that guaranteed the streak would live on for at least one more year.
Detroit was playing the Pittsburgh Penguins on that night last week, the Red Wings’ fifth game in a week that began with a big home win over the arguably-best-in-league Boston Bruins. Down 3-2 with a little more than a minute left in the third period against Pittsburgh, the Red Wings iced a line of Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, and Tomas Jurco, three young players with minimal NHL experience who have unexpectedly combined to be one of Detroit’s most consistent lines this season. The trio, out against competition like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, responded by netting the game-tying goal. The Penguins would ultimately win in a shootout, but it didn’t really matter: Detroit needed only one point to clinch its 23rd straight playoff berth, and earned it with the regulation tie.
“Maybe people aren’t paying attention to us because of the youth,” Sheahan said that night, “but we build off it, and we have fun with it.”
About a week earlier, Sheahan was at his stall in the Red Wings’ dressing room after practice for an interview with some TV guys from the local Fox Sports affiliate. He sat on a low stool covered in tan leather that looked like it might date back quite a few presidential administrations. His teammate Kyle Quincey hovered behind one of the cameramen, making silly faces at Sheahan, trying to get him to break. (Sheahan mostly held strong.) Across the way, rookie Luke Glendening sauntered past Gustav Nyquist, whose performance in the second half of the season elevated him into a leaguewide sensation, and casually no-look-knocked the Reebok hat right off Nyquist’s head. Goalies Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson sat in their alcoves bantering as they loosened their heavy equipment.
For an organization often spoken about in hushed tones as the most professional in the league, the vibe during this late-season playoff push was markedly chill.
Players are often loath to admit they keep track of the ever-shifting postseason odds and points standings — We just need to worry about our own games is what they always repeat — but being in the Red Wings dressing room, it’s easy to see how that can’t really be true. In an adjacent hallway, there are two enormous dry-erase boards, both marked off into grids and impossible to ignore. One of them lists every NHL team’s ongoing stats — power-play percentage, goals, shot percentage, that kind of stuff — while the other features the NHL standings. It’s all written in black, except for the Detroit line items, which are bright red.
At one point, in mid-March, the hand-scrawled news must have seemed dire. Following a 4-1 loss to the Blackhawks on March 16, Sports Club Stats calculated that the Wings had just a 35 percent chance of making the playoffs, their lowest level all year. It was certainly understandable. Throughout the season, the Red Wings had been crippled by injuries to the core of the team, and since the Olympic break, things had gotten even worse.
Pavel Datsyuk, a perennial Selke Trophy candidate for his two-way play and a guy with stickhandling so deft, he’s known (even by Siri!) as “The Magic Man,” was out indefinitely with a knee injury that had nagged him before and throughout the Games. Team captain Henrik Zetterberg came back from Sochi hurt, too, with a herniated disc so painful that he couldn’t so much as board a plane out of Russia for days. The list of injuries also included Johan Franzen and Daniel Cleary, and by this point the Red Wings were basically populated by players from their minor league affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. On trade deadline day, the team made an eleventh-hour transaction to acquire David Legwand from the Predators when it realized it had been whittled down to having basically zero centers.
But as other playoff-bubble hopefuls like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals imploded spectacularly, the Red Wings pressed on, slowly racking up wins. It helped, forward Justin Abdelkader later said, that last year the team found itself in a remarkably similar position, fighting for one of the last couple playoff spots all the way up until the final day of the season.
“The last 20 games were playoff-type,” he said. “Each and every one.”
Despite barely getting in, last year’s Wings won their first-round matchup against the Ducks in seven games and then very nearly unseated eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago, leading the series 3-1 before falling in overtime of Game 7. All you have to do is get in, as they say. The players don’t offer up too much about the streak — as with the standings, they never want to let on that their vision is anything but laser-focused on the next 60 minutes — but several of their rookies admitted the specter of it was, in its way, highly motivating: They sure didn’t want to be the guys responsible for ending the two-decades-plus unblemished record of success.
One day while I was in Detroit, I went to the Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn, which included a hypnotic tour of the factory where F-150s are still produced. The propaganda video about the museum’s namesake that played before we were allowed in to view the production line was hagiographic, sure, but it was as stirring as it was designed to be, a reminder of the grandeur and grit of early American manufacturing and industry. It was also bittersweet, depicting the rise of a middle class that has been significantly depleted since.
The rest of the museum was a paean to the constant, unyielding power of innovation and advancement, and not just in regard to cars, but also planes, electricity, consumer electronics (Internet in a Box!), and even chairs. Walking around, it was hard not to think about how this theme of forward momentum was in many ways at odds with the museum’s surrounding environs.
Detroit had a population of more than 1 million back in 1991; it’s since dwindled to just north of 700,000. No matter how optimistic one is about the potential for urban renewal, the deterioration of Detroit is evident everywhere. The fancy Westin hotel where visiting NHL teams routinely stay is directly across the street from a vacant brick building with an old closed-down Quiznos that looks borderline burned-out. Around the city are various signs informing you that the stoplights at that particular intersection are under review for removal; the birthplace of automobiles is now adjusting for lighter traffic.
Going to a game at Joe Louis Arena feels like emerging from a time machine. The ice-level hallways are covered with old names and accolades, each painted in stern red block letters on the whitewashed brick walls. The banner ads that dot the stands are sponsored by the kind of local area businesses you usually see in minor league rinks. During intermission, there is scarcely any arena entertainment. The light sconces outside the private suites are decorated with art deco moldings, each one like its own little Chrysler Building. Reporters who cover the games perch on what are basically bar stools. (One writer told me the press box was originally designed as a bar, until the builders realized they’d forgotten to account for the media.)
But the Wings won’t be playing in Joe Louis for much longer; in 2016, a controversial new $650 million arena is scheduled to open that will be financed, in part, by $284.5 million of the bankrupt city’s public funds.2 The building will go up not far from Comerica Park, which was built in 2000 and where I spent a beautiful day watching baseball after roughly 700 folks implored me to do so. “Opening Day is a holiday in Detroit!” was the familiar refrain, and I couldn’t help but think that the true annual celebration, after all these years, really ought to be one honoring hockey.
These aren’t your childhood Red Wings. The late-’90s iterations of the franchise were in some ways as close to a dynasty as it got in the post–Gretzky’s Oilers era. (Detroit went to the Stanley Cup final four times in eight seasons, winning three times, and that’s not even counting the 2008 Cup it also earned.) The team’s dogged ingenuity in wooing Russian superstars as the Berlin Wall was beginning to wobble endeared Detroit to an international audience. (Nearly all the Russians I’ve unofficially polled during my travels name the Wings as their favorite NHL franchise, a relic from those heady days.) “Hockeytown” became a household name, and octopi routinely flew triumphantly through the air.
The team had a borderline apocryphal history of success in the NHL draft: It nabbed Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round in 1989 with the help of a wee bit of subterfuge; took Datsyuk 171st overall in 1998; and snagged Zetterberg in the seventh round a year later. Better to be lucky than good, you could argue, but the Wings have always seemed to be both.
There’s a verifiable diaspora of Red Wings who have fanned out through the hockey world in their retirement: Steve Yzerman just re-upped his contract as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Brendan Shanahan is the newly named president of the Leafs (best of luck, buddy); Sergei Fedorov runs Dynamo Moscow in the KHL; and Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper are Red Wings scouts, just to name a few.
Glendening is one of several players on the roster who grew up in Michigan. He recalls listening to Red Wings games on the radio in bed when they dragged on too late for him to be allowed to watch on TV, and says he idolized Yzerman. Danny DeKeyser wore no. 5 in college hockey in homage to Lidstrom. Legwand, who is from Grosse Pointe, loved Yzerman, too — what good local kid wouldn’t? — and recalls attending games at Joe Louis Arena.
This year’s team, though, hasn’t dominated like those guys once did — more accurate to say it has endured. Much is made of the success of Detroit’s AHL team, the Griffins, who won last year’s Calder Cup and upon whom the Red Wings have had to rely heavily this year for roster players. It’s true the two teams are remarkably in sync, playing with the same systems and having a proven track record of players making strong NHL adjustments. But it’s not necessarily that the Wings do a better job of developing players than other teams — it’s that the franchise has long had the luxury of depth and thus plenty of time. Many players spend a token year or two in the minor leagues and are often called up a little too early by their NHL teams, but Detroit has sometimes had a different problem. Coach Mike Babcock liked what he saw from a guy like Glendening in training camp, but there was no room to really keep him. That is, until the injuries piled up.
Babcock is one of those coaches whose consistent results in such a well-oiled organization have perversely worked against him in annual Jack Adams voting, which typically tends to reward coaches presiding over once-volatile programs on the upswing. But this season might be one in which his talents are more formally recognized; while his Olympic coaching performance and his part in Red Wings history aren’t technically meant to enter into the voting decision, he kind of deserves something like a lifetime achievement award.
One of the many injured players for the Wings this season, Datsyuk, was making his long-awaited return when I was in Detroit. “The whole thing is to understand it’s not about Pavel one bit,” said Babcock, who had just returned from his routine post-practice jog around Joe Louis. “It’s about the Red Wings, and the guys that are playing, and we just got to keep grinding.”
The guys that were playing included Nyquist, who leads the league in goals since January 20 thanks to an unsustainably high but undeniably entertaining shot percentage spike, as well as Sheahan and Jurco and Tatar and other young players like Brendan Smith, DeKeyser, and Glendening. Ask them what they were doing in 1991, and they have no answers, because they were too young to be truly sentient. After the playoff-clinching Pittsburgh game, Babcock paid tribute to the multitude of rookies (or, in the case of Nyquist, close to it) on his squad. Even with Datsyuk back, and with Daniel Alfredsson in and out of the lineup, he’ll continue to rely on them as Detroit chases the Cup. (Again.)
“They came here and they took jobs,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere. They’re real good players that keep getting better and they’ll be part of us for a long time … We’re a way quicker, harder team, we’re a more physical team.
“And we can’t be backed off,” he continued. “I like us.”
Illustration by Gluekit.