DETROIT -- Here at the corner of Woodward and Montcalm, not too far from Greektown, you’ll find a bar called the Hockeytown Café. Inside, crew-cut 9-to-5ers from Ontario tilt ‘em back as they talk strippers and slapshots. Is Stevie healthy? Can the defense hold up? Outside, Fords and Chevys roll by with the windows down. Radios blare Red Wings hockey and post-season promos: “The Stanley Cup Playoffs are on WXYT … It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
But it wasn’t always this way. When Steve Yzerman first threw on a Red Wings jersey 19 years ago, to walk down Woodward was to invite disaster. This corner was empty and dark and decrepit.
And Detroit was anything but Hockeytown.
Back in 1983, Detroiters called the local NHL club the "Dead Things.” Their team played in the pitiful Norris (or “Snore-us") Division. The Wings had finished last five years in a row, and had missed the playoffs in 16 out of 18 seasons. That was back when the league had 21 teams, and only five teams failed to make the playoffs. Back then, missing the playoffs was not an easy trick.
How much do you think it would cost to buy the Red Wings now? How many millions? Back in the early ‘80s, owner Bruce Norris had trouble finding anyone to put in a bid. Pizza baron Mike Ilitch caused citywide snickering when he bought the Things in ’82. Ilitch couldn’t give away tickets -- though he sure tried. Ilitch actually gave away a brand new car every night -- anything to get the fans to visit just once. The Wings had 2,200 season ticket holders for a brand-new 19,875-seat building. Most of those fans didn’t show up unless Wayne Gretzky was in town. Hockeytown? That was Uniondale, N.Y. -- home to four straight Cups and a 1,500-fan waiting list for tickets. “This franchise,” says GM Ken Holland (then a minor league goalie), “was the laughingstock of the league.”
And Yzerman -- who is now a demigod in Detroit -- was a disappointment. The Wings had the fourth pick in the ’83 entry draft, and the few fans who cared wanted local boy Pat LaFontaine. The Wings themselves figured LaFontaine could sell more tickets, if only to the kid’s friends and family. But the Islanders (who got the third pick in a trade with the Jersey-bound Colorado Rockies) swiped LaFontaine, and Detroiters had to settle with a 150-pound Ottawa teen with a name no one could pronounce. “He’s just a boy,” new GM Jimmy Devellano said. “Yeah,” replied head coach Nick Polano, “but he’s our best player.” Yzerman led the team in points with 87 his rookie year and, after the team lost 57 games in ‘85-’86, Yzerman was made captain of the Detroit Red Wings at age 21 -- another punch line in a joke that wasn’t funny anymore.
So how did a 17-57-6 team become a 51-17-14 team? It started with tampering. The Wings broke rules by negotiating to hire St. Louis coach Jacques Demers while he was still under contract. The Wings got slapped with a monetary fine, but they also got their man. In Demers’ first year, Detroit went from 40 points to 78 and a berth in the conference finals. Yzerman went from 14 goals to 31, and then 50 in ‘87-’88 and 65 in ‘88-’89. The fans came back. And then came the turning point.
Today, the NHL is flooded with European players. Every team has at least a couple. But back in ’89, just about every guy on every roster came from Canada. (Remember, Yzerman seemed like a weird name in the ‘80s.) And Russia was still under Communist rule. So it raised more than one eyebrow when Devellano selected Niklas Lidstrom of Sweden with his third pick in ’89, Sergei Fedorov in the following round, and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. Lidstrom was considered too skinny and too soft for the NHL game, and Fedorov and Konstantinov would have to defect from the Soviet Union to ever set foot in Detroit. Later that year, though, the Berlin Wall crumbled. And in 1990, at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Fedorov fled his Russian team. The Wing Dynasty was born. “Those players,” says Devellano, “made this franchise the franchise of the ‘90s.”
The rest you know. Well, except for how Ilitch wanted former Islanders coach Al Arbour over Scotty Bowman in the early '90s (Arbour wasn’t interested), and how Bowman seriously considered trading Yzerman to Ottawa after playoff eliminations in ’94 and ’95. But the deal never materialized, and it was around that time that the term ‘Hockeytown’ was coined by one of Ilitch’s sons. Now the Motor City is perpetually Cup Crazy, you can’t get a season ticket package even if you tried, and the Hockeytown Café buzzes year-round across the street from the new Comerica Park. Ilitch now owns both the Wings and the Tigers, and has recently installed Devellano as the Tigers’ senior VP. That begs a question: Can Ilitch and Devellano do for the wretched Tigers what they did for the Dead Things?
“I would need some help,” Devellano admits with a heavy sigh, “from God.”
So Detroit remains Hockeytown. For now.
Eric Adelson is a lifelong Red Wings fan who once had the chutzpah to ask Jimmy Devellano point-blank: "When you traded Adam Oates for Bernie Federko, what the hell were you thinking?" E-mail him at email@example.com.
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