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Red Wings' 21-season NHL playoff streak: An 'impossible' run that isn't over yet

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT — To appreciate the streak – how long it has been, why it is incredible, what is at stake – stand inside the hallway that leads to the Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room and the Joe Louis Arena ice.

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The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs was the 1989-90 season.

Lining the walls are simple wooden plaques and team pictures screwed into the cinderblock, one for each edition of the Wings since Mike Ilitch bought the franchise in 1982. Each plaque lists the season and the names of the executives, coaches, players and trainers. The bottom line is the record.

Start at 1989-90, the last Wings team to miss the playoffs. Walk past the door to the training room. Count 18 plaques in a row on the left (including the 2004-05 season erased by a lockout), and keep going. Keep going past the door to the dressing room, turn around at the entrance to the ice and come back up the other side. Count four more plaques.

The Wings are riding a 21-season playoff streak, the longest in pro sports. And now, for the first time in more than two decades, they are fighting for a spot in the last days of the regular season.

There is a little room left on the wall, not much. What will the next plaque say?

* * * * *

No matter your age, the 1989-90 plaque makes you feel old. Look at some of the names: Jimmy Carson, Bernie Federko, Gerard Gallant, Adam Graves, Petr Klima, Bob Probert, Borje Salming. Colin Campbell was an assistant coach. Yes, that Colin Campbell. Though Steve Yzerman was the captain, he was only 24 then.

Those Wings went 28-38-14. That last number was for ties, not overtime losses. They finished with 70 points, last in the Norris Division, second-to-last in the Campbell Conference.

Where were you in April 1990? Where are you now?

I was finishing middle school in the Detroit suburbs. I have since gone to high school, gone to college, gotten married and had kids. I have gone from writing for a black-and-white newspaper to writing for a website, which is funny, because in April 1990 the Internet did not yet exist. I have specks of gray in my hair, at least what’s left of my hair.

General manager Ken Holland was in Medicine Hat, Alberta, working as the Wings’ director of scouting. Assistant GM Jim Nill was playing for the Wings. Mike Babcock was starting his career coaching Canadian college hockey in Red Deer, Alberta.

“Made the playoffs every year,” he said, smiling.

No player in the NHL today was in the league the last time the Wings missed the playoffs. Nine of the franchises in the NHL today weren’t in the league the last time the Wings missed the playoffs.

The Wings’ oldest player, Todd Bertuzzi, was 15. The Wings’ youngest player, Brian Lashoff, was not even born yet. 

The Wings' newest player, Danny DeKeyser, was born in Detroit on March 7, 1990, about a month before the franchise last missed the playoffs. His earliest playoff memory is the Wings’ run to the Stanley Cup final in 1995. He followed their Cup victories in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008 and everything in between. When he played at the Joe for Western Michigan, he used to look at the names on the wall and soak up the history. He signed with the Wings as a free agent March 30.

“It’s pretty special to be a part of it now,” DeKeyser said.

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Nicklas Lidstrom, who retired last summer, was part of four Stanley Cup titles in Detroit. (AP)

An entire generation of Wings fans has grown up with playoff hockey as a rite of spring. Some Detroiters might even consider it a birthright. The Wings never came close to missing the playoffs the past 21 seasons. They finished in the top four in their conference 18 times, and they had a cushion of at least a dozen points the other three times. So many big names are on those plaques: Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, on and on.

But playoff hockey is not a birthright in Detroit. It has just seemed to be.

Older fans remember how badly the Wings fell from the glory days of Gordie Howe. The Wings made the playoffs only twice in 17 seasons from 1967-83. Even when the Wings started winning again, it took them years to establish themselves as an elite team. And then it became difficult to stay on top because of a lack of high draft picks, plus the salary cap and the parity in the league.

Babcock became the Wings’ coach in 2005-06, when the new cap cut Detroit’s payroll in half. They couldn’t blow their budget and stockpile future Hall of Famers anymore. The Wings remained an elite team thanks to sharp scouting, savvy management, good coaching and a little luck. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both late-round picks, became superstars.

“The reality is, the streak’s important because it’s impossible to do,” Babcock said. “All you’ve got to do is look at pro sports. It’s impossible. So we’ve been able to maintain it. I know when I arrived here eight years ago, we said the same thing at that time. … You didn’t know if you could keep the thing going. Now here we are right here.”

There have been five streaks as long or longer than Detroit's current run, but all of them were before the salary cap.

Only one other team has made the playoffs every season in the salary-cap era: the San Jose Sharks, whose run is now nine seasons. Of the four teams that made the conference finals last year, two are already out of the playoffs this year: the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils. Another is on the bubble: the New York Rangers, a popular preseason Cup favorite.

The Wings are not what they once were. But to expect them to be what they once were would be unrealistic, especially without Lidstrom, whose name is on the last 20 of those plaques. And no matter what happens now, they hope the same forces that eroded their dominance will keep them competitive.

“We’re trying to compete for the playoffs,” Holland said. “At the same time, we’re trying to transition, overhaul. We’re trying to do what everybody else is.”

Miss the playoffs, and the Wings could climb right back up. The Devils missed two seasons ago, then went to the Cup final last season. The Anaheim Ducks missed last season, and now they’re second in the West.

As many as six of the seven teams that finished at the bottom of the league standings last season could make the playoffs this season. The exception: the Edmonton Oilers, whose future is bright because they have turned high draft picks into talented youngsters.

Things can change quickly in the NHL. Things have changed in Detroit, too, as the Wings have rebuilt on the fly, but it hasn’t been as noticeable because they have never fallen out of contention.

“We’d love to keep it going,” Holland said.

* * * * *

As I stood in front of the 1989-90 plaque, jotting notes for this column, a longtime assistant coach walked past.

“Writing our obituary?” he teased.

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Late-round draft picks Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are charged with keeping the streak alive. (Getty)

I joked that I should, because that would guarantee the streak would hit 22. The truth is, I wrote their obituary more than a decade ago when I was the Wings beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. Many of us have done it in one form or another, to one degree or another, at one time or another. We have yet to be right.

Until then, whether it’s this week or years from now, know that the Wings are as sensitive to the predictions of their doom as they have always been. As focused as they are on this season and their next game, there is tremendous pride in the big picture. Many are deeply invested in Detroit and the team.

Amid all the change, there has been continuity. Ilitch is still the owner. Jimmy Devellano, Ilitch’s first hire, is still in the front office. Holland and Nill are still running the show. Several former players are still with the Wings in some capacity: Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Chris Osgood. Several current players have been Wings their entire NHL careers, including the leaders: Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall. Their names are on those plaques. The new guys’ names aren’t, but the new guys walk past them every day.

“This has become our home,” Kronwall said, leaning against a wall in the dressing room, a posh oasis in a spartan, outdated arena. “I know they’ve been talking about building a new rink. I hope they don’t, as long as I’m here at least.

“I don’t think there’s any way to just bring the culture and the history from this building and just move the banners and start something there. I don’t think it works like that. There’s something special about this rink, all the special players that have been here and are still around.”

The 2012-13 plaque will be screwed into the wall one way or another. The members of this team will have their names on it. How will they be remembered?

“We want to make the playoffs,” Kronwall said. “That’s the bottom line. You don’t ever want to be part of a streak that’s been broken.”

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