Ten Facts About a Fun Team, 2002 Wings Edition

Paul Sancya/AP

Last month, it was announced that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in their first year of eligibility, this November. It’s fitting that the two players will go into the hall together since they had a lot in common; both racked up individual honors throughout their careers, both had extensive international experience, and both defied the stereotype of European stars being too flashy by excelling at both ends of the ice.

And, of course, they had one more thing in common: They spent more than a decade as teammates with the Detroit Red Wings in the ’90s and early ’00s. And most important of all, now that they’ve been named to the 2015 Hall of Fame class, they’ve finally earned a seat at the big kids’ table for 2002 Red Wings team reunions. More on that in a second.

We’ll tend to use this feature to highlight teams that were underappreciated or largely forgotten, and it’s hard to make that argument for the 2001-02 Red Wings. After all (spoiler alert), they ended up winning the Stanley Cup. But we’ll make an exception here, because while the ’02 Red Wings were certainly impressive at the time, the lens of history has left them several magnitudes more fun. And it’s becoming apparent that we’ll never see a team quite like them again.

1. They’d been pretty good the year before, but it ended badly

The 2000-01 Red Wings had racked up 111 points, tied for the second-best total in the league. That team was pretty stacked in its own right, with Lidstrom and Fedorov joined by established stars like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, and Igor Larionov.1

The 2001 Wings went into the playoffs as solid favorites over the Kings, who by this point were well into the eminently forgettable Ziggy Palffy era. But after a pair of convincing Detroit wins to start the series, Los Angeles squeaked out four straight one-goal wins to take the series, finishing things off with Adam Deadmarsh’s Game 6 overtime winner against Chris Osgood.

Clearly, a first-round exit for a team with as much talent as the Red Wings was unacceptable. Something had to be done. But what?

2. They went a little nutty in the offseason

Detroit general manager Ken Holland had already been on the job for several seasons and two Stanley Cups (one as GM), so he wasn’t a guy who’d be afraid to come up with a strategy and execute it. In the case of the 2001 offseason, that strategy apparently involved watching a VHS tape of an All-Star Game from the early ’90s and screaming, “Get me all those guys.”

Holland got started in late June, trading Vyacheslav Kozlov and picks to the Buffalo Sabres for legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek. It was a lopsided trade in the Wings’ favor, driven more by the Sabres’ finances and Hasek’s desire to chase a Cup outside of Buffalo than by actual hockey concerns, and Holland took advantage. The acquisition paved the way for Osgood’s exit, as he was picked first overall by the Islanders in the waiver draft.2

Days later, Detroit signed Luc Robitaille, who’d been part of the Kings team that had knocked the Wings out of the playoffs months earlier. They followed that up by signing Brett Hull in August, making them the first team in NHL history to have three 500-goal scorers on the roster at the same time. (The three were Hull, Robitaille, and Yzerman; Shanahan would make it four late in the season.)

When all was said and done, the 2002 Red Wings were very, very good. They were also old. Very, very old.

3. They were ridiculously old

So, so old.

The acquisition of Hull gave the Red Wings a stunning 10 players who’d be 35 or older by the end of the season. And we’re not talking about some grizzled veterans playing supporting roles — virtually all of the team’s top players were ancient. Larionov was already in his forties and Chelios would join him during the season. Hull and Hasek were 37, Yzerman was 36, and Robitaille was 35. Guys like Shanahan, Lidstrom, and Fedorov were considered the team’s youthful core, despite all being well into their thirties.

And it wasn’t just the big names. The 2001-02 Red Wings roster also contains a nice selection of “I forgot he ever played for them” old guys, including Steve Duchesne, Fredrik Olausson, and Uwe Krupp.3

You could never build a team like this in today’s NHL; not only would the salary cap make it impossible, but today’s style of play would see all those old guys get eaten alive. But while the 2001-02 Red Wings were still in the middle of the clutch-and-grab era, the game wasn’t that much different, and plenty of people thought Holland was crazy to assemble this many old codgers on one roster and think he could win with them.

Then again, if you’ve got to load up on old guys, they might as well be good ones …

4. The roster now has nine Hall of Famers …

Lidstrom and Fedorov will become the eighth and ninth players from the 2001-02 Red Wings to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining (deep breath) Yzerman, Chelios, Hull, Robitaille, Larionov, Hasek, and Shanahan. That’s not even counting the Hall of Famer behind the bench — legendary head coach Scotty Bowman, who’d already been in the Hall for 20 years by this point.

Having that many Hall of Famers on one roster wasn’t unprecedented — the late-’70s Canadiens, who were also coached by Bowman, had nine players who’d eventually get in — but it’s safe to say that the salary cap would make it impossible to assemble a lineup like this today. And the amazing thing about the 2001-02 Red Wings was that every one of those players had already largely established their HHOF credentials before the season started. You bought a ticket to see the Red Wings and you pretty much already knew that most of the top players were going to be Hall of Famers. You were going to spend the evening watching history, or at least as much of the evening as you could last before passing out from the overpowering Bengay fumes.

5. … and it might end up being an even 10

We’ve already established that the Red Wings were insanely, stupidly, ridiculously old. But due to an apparent clerical oversight, they did allow a handful of young players to touch the ice every now and then. That included Jiri Fischer, Mathieu Dandenault, and even a baby-faced rookie named Sean Avery.4

And then there was another rookie, this one a 23-year-old Russian kid who’d been drafted 171st overall four years earlier. He ended up playing 70 games, putting up 35 points, and finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. That would be Pavel Datsyuk, and three Selkes and 869 points (and counting) later, he’s worked his way into the Hall of Fame discussion himself.

If he makes it, he’ll be the lucky no. 10, which would mean that on some nights, exactly half the Red Wings roster was made up of future Hall of Famers.

6. They rolled through the regular season

Not surprisingly, the Wings stormed out of the gate, winning 12 of their first 14 games. While injuries and fatigue did end up slowing them down slightly — the biggest absence belonged to Yzerman, who missed two months with a knee injury — they ended up with 116 points, good enough to finish first overall by 15 points.

Nobody on the team put up crazy individual numbers; Shanahan led the team with just 75 points. But they finished second in goals scored, with Hull, Robitaille, Fedorov, and Shanahan all scoring 30 or more, and tied for third in goals allowed, with Hasek playing well and leading the league in wins. Shanahan and Yzerman even found time to win an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada.

Heading into the playoffs, the Red Wings were rolling and were the prohibitive favorites. Surely, they wouldn’t implode in the first round again.

7. They nearly imploded in the first round again

The Wings drew the 8-seed Canucks in the opening round. In theory, it was an easy matchup. But Hasek sprung an uncharacteristic leak in the early going, and the Canucks stole the first two games of the series in Detroit.

That set up a must-win Game 3 in Vancouver, which was tied 1-1 late in the dying moments of the second period. It wasn’t hard to see where this was going. The Canucks would head into the third with a chance to deliver the death blow, one goal away from taking a 3-0 series stranglehold that would all but assure the Wings of another first-round disaster. Surely, this time, Holland would have to conclude that his Murderers’ Row of aging hockey legends could no longer get the job done when it mattered most, and set to work on blowing the whole thing up and start over.

And then this happened:

That goal held up as the winner in Game 3; the Wings wouldn’t lose again in the series, finishing off the Canucks in six to advance to the second round.

8. They faced the Avalanche in an all-time classic (although the ending needed work)

The Wings easily defeated the Blues in a second-round series that was completely unremarkable because it featured the Blues.5 That set up a showdown with the Wings’ archrivals, the Colorado Avalanche, in what would mark the fifth playoff meeting between the two teams in seven years. The matchup didn’t disappoint.

After five great games (three of which went to overtime), the Avs held a 3-2 lead and had a chance to eliminate Detroit on home ice. Then, with the Wings pressing late in a scoreless first, Patrick Roy decided to do this:

The goal would go down as one of the worst ever allowed in NHL history. It would also be the winner in a 2-0 Detroit victory that set up the only Game 7 in the history of the Wings-Avs rivalry. Let’s just say that one was a letdown; the Red Wings scored four in the first and rolled to a stunning 7-0 win on home ice.

9. They beat the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final

The final featured several memorable moments, such as Larionov’s triple-overtime winner in Game 3, and … well, that’s pretty much it. Nobody remembers anything else about this series.

But while it may have been an anticlimactic ending to the season, it was a fittingly historic one. The Cup was Bowman’s ninth as coach, setting an NHL record that Joel Quenneville won’t break until 2022. It would also be Bowman’s last; the veteran coach had already announced that he’d be retiring at the end of the season.

The win also presented Yzerman with one of the greatest Old Guy Without a Cup dilemmas in history, with no fewer than four OGWACs waiting to get their hands on the trophy for the first time. With Hasek, Robitaille, Olausson, and Duchesne all waiting to see who he’d hand off to, Yzerman did the smart thing … and punted. He skipped the players and instead gave the Cup to Bowman. In one of the cooler moments in championship celebration history, the coach had sneaked off to put on a pair of skates so that he could actually skate a lap with the Cup for the first time.

The Wings brought the Stanley Cup back to Detroit for a parade down Woodward Avenue, during which all of the star players rode in cars with the turn signal on the entire time, because as I may have mentioned, they were old.

10. They brought (almost) the whole band back the next year

If it works, stick with it. While Bowman moved upstairs to a consultant’s role and longtime assistant Dave Lewis took over as head coach, the stacked roster stayed largely intact. Hasek retired (temporarily, as it turned out), but the team replaced him with another potential Hall of Famer in Curtis Joseph.6 The rest of the Hall of Fame brigade returned for another go, even welcoming another future candidate in rookie Henrik Zetterberg.

That roster was good for 110 points, third most in the league, and another easy first-round matchup against the fledgling Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Just like in 2002, the Wings lost their first two playoff games. Unlike in 2002, they lost the next two, as well, dropping the series in a stunning four-game sweep by the Ducks.

That loss essentially spelled the end of this iteration of the Wings; Hasek returned in 2003-04 to awkwardly share crease duties with Joseph, but Larionov, Robitaille, and Fedorov all left. The Wings won the Presidents’ Trophy but lost to the Flames in the second round. The 2004 lockout wiped out the next season, and by the time play resumed, the torch had essentially been passed to the Datsyuk-Zetterberg era.

Detroit won the Cup again in 2008 and still hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, so it’s easy to let the 2002 season fade into the background noise of continual Red Wings dominance. But we shouldn’t, because it really was a special team, the likes of which we’ll never see again. It was the year that Ken Holland proved that all you need to do to win in the NHL is assemble a team that’s 50 percent Hall of Famers and unleash them on the league.

That kind of roster will bring you a Stanley Cup. Even if the players have to push their walkers around the ice to do it.

Filed Under: NHL, Detroit Red Wings, Ten Facts About a Fun Team