Hockeytown blues

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From Hockeytown to a ghost town?

That may be overstating it a bit, but no one would have anticipated the following events involving fans of Detroit and their beloved Red Wings back in the day.

Nine home playoff games last spring, including two in the Western Conference finals, and none sell out;

Opening Night this season against Anaheim, the Stanley Cup champs and the team that eliminated the Red Wings, and again, a non-capacity crowd;

Prediction from a source who is around the team every day: "They won't sell out a game this season."

Holy Octopi, what the heck is happening to this tradition-rich Original 6 city?

"We didn't become Hockeytown overnight," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "We've got to build it one brick at a time. We know the fans are there. We've got to finally show a way to put it back together."

To hear those kinds of comments about one of the great, if not greatest, hockey markets in the United States is shocking on one hand but completely understandable looking at the big picture.

"You could probably list 8 to 10 to 12 reasons why we're in the state that we're in," Holland added.

First and foremost is the sagging Michigan economy, described best as resembling a single-state recession. The unemployment rate in Michigan is 7.5 percent, the nation's highest and 60 percent more than the national average.

Driven by the struggling auto industry, the state shed more than 400,000 jobs – mostly in factories – in the last six months. In addition, home values are off roughly three times the national average, and there are minimal new jobs forming.

In 2006, Michigan saw more people move out of state than anywhere in the union.

"There's no doubt Michigan is one of the poorest economies in the nation," Holland said, "But I think there are several other reasons, too."

From 1996-97 through last year, the Red Wings played in front of 41 straight announced full houses each regular season. With demand at a premium, capacity at the venerable Joe Louis Arena increased from 19,983 to 20,058 and then to a high of 20,066 the last two seasons.

And while Detroit started getting challenged on its numbers – tickets sold representing attendance announced as opposed to the actual number of seats with people in them – the long streak officially came to an end on April 7 during Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against Calgary when a non-sellout crowd was announced.

The streak of 452 consecutive sellouts for both regular season and playoff games that started Dec. 10, 1996, was over.

A different streak is mounting now. The announced crowd of 17,610 on an opening Wednesday night – 2,456 less than capacity – represented the best turnout at home for Detroit until its sixth home match when a respectable, if still not full, house of 18,289 was announced for a visit by San Jose last Friday night.

"When you sell out every game, and you have a hard core of 16,500 every night, a lot of those 16,500 aren't with us anymore, so we've got to go get new fans," said Scotty Bowman, the legendary coach of and current consultant to the Red Wings.

Holland and Bowman checked off a number of other factors in the decline of Hockeytown.

There's competition from other pro sports as the Pistons of the NBA, the Tigers in MLB and even the Lions of the mega money-making machine known as the NFL are attracting more attention because of their success. All three, too, have newer buildings than the Wings.

The Red Wings themselves, still a very good team if not the best out of the gate this season, are a very different team from the ones that captured three Stanley Cups in the span of six seasons from 1997 to 2002.

The 1996-97 champs, coached by Bowman and who swept Philadelphia in the finals, was one of the most talented groups ever assembled, with all due respect to the post-expansion era Oilers, Islanders and Penguins during their multi-Cup runs.

Captain Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Larry Murphy, Mike Vernon and Vladimir Konstantinov were the headliners for the first Wings title since 1955.

"The team sort of marketed itself," Holland said. "That team might have had eight, nine Hall of Famers. Hopefully fans are not comparing to that. There's not another team in the league like that with all the high-profile type players on the same team."

The team was so good it won again the following spring by sweeping Washington, and all of those names, minus Vernon, remained on the roster.

The five-game triumph over Carolina in 2002 capped the run, and included Yzerman, Larionov, Lidstrom, Shanahan and Fedorov still along for the ride.

All great things have to end, however. The two departures that hit hardest – Yzerman retiring and Shanahan leaving via free agency – signaled the end of an era.

"We lost guys who were the face of our team," Holland said.

The team didn't lose face, though.

Transforming from an almost Russian-dominated roster to that of talented Europeans – mostly Swedes – the Wings have maintained their excellence, supported by the fact they've reached the postseason 16 straight years, the longest current streak in pro sports.

Lidstrom still is there, now the captain. He is joined by a younger core of new stars led by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk, 29, shed his image as a poor playoff performer last spring with a great postseason. Holland says the plan is to lock up Zetterberg, 27, to a long-term deal similar to the seven-year, $47-million deal awarded to Datsyuk.

The two have sparked the Wings to another good start.

"The most important thing you can do is win," Holland said.

The Red Wings also have been affected by the recent scheduling format that features eight games against each division opponent, and only 10 games total – five at home – against teams from the Eastern Conference.

"Our fans don't like our schedule; they don't like eight games against everyone in our division," Holland said. "We're an Eastern Time Zone team, and our fans want to see more games against the East.

"A couple years ago we had New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Rangers in during one stretch, and there was such a buzz on the streets and in the newspapers all that week, people were talking hockey," he added.

Bowman, nearing 50 years of association with the game, agrees.

"The fact is it is an original hockey city, and this year the only team that we play from the Original 6 is Chicago," he said. "This year the division we draw is the Southeast. Some good teams in there, but they don't mean much."

Detroit, despite a nation-high 32.5-percent poverty rate in 2006, is looking to bounce back. Labor contracts won by three major auto makers could go a long way toward improving the economy.

"Some teams don't draw because of the makeup of the team," Bowman said. "But we play an exciting brand of hockey; we don't sit back. We have a couple of great individual forwards, a Norris Trophy defenseman, a lot of ingredients that make for an attractive team."

Holland also sees the potential.

"I think if we could do some things with the schedule, if we win, if we could figure out some ways to try to get our fans to connect with our younger players, it would turn around," Holland added.

A Hockeytown revival? Don't bet against it.