DETROIT – The hard times for this city are well-documented and continue by the day; layoffs, plant closings, even an expected bankruptcy filing by General Motors, whose headquarters tower over the city and cars define the place worldwide.
Yet no matter how bad (or good) things get in Detroit, there is one constant: the red machine that churns up each spring in an old hockey barn down by the river.
As they seemingly do every year, as the days grow long and the air warms, the Red Wings offer an example of excellence from the city, a whip smart, powerfully efficient winning organization in a region too often criticized (often unfairly) for being just the opposite.
Tuesday they moved another step toward their 12th Stanley Cup – and fifth since 1997 – with a 3-2 overtime victory over Chicago.
The victory gave the Wings a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals with Game 3 in Chicago on Friday. It forces the boy-band young Blackhawks to beat them four of the next five to stop what so often seems inevitable – Detroit hoisting the Cup in the air.
The game-winner, a blast by Mikael Samuelsson(notes) on the tail end of a flashy three-on-one, wasn’t just a thing of beauty (“tick, tack, bang,” Dan Cleary described it). It was a testament to how the Red Wings have become perhaps the best franchise in sports, now capable of dominating not just as a free-spending, big-market team, but with salary-cap savvy.
Hudler can skate circles around everyone but stands just 5-feet-9. Earlier this decade, the trend in the NHL was to draft size. Even someone with Hudler’s skills couldn’t overcome being a smallish Czech. His skill level should have made him a top-five pick. Instead he slid to the second round of the 2002 draft, where the Red Wings gladly snapped him up.
General manager Ken Holland’s chief priority when evaluating players isn’t height, it's “hockey smarts.” Hudler had it, now he had the puck.
His vision, patience and creativity proved more valuable than a few more vertical inches. Rather than force a shot or bad pass to Samuelsson, who was the preferred shooter, he pushed the puck across to a streaking Filppula.
Filppula is a center from Finland, a graceful playmaker with the innate ability to get the puck to the proper man at the perfect time. When the Red Wings first scouted him he was a raw teenager, not ready for the NHL, but not without immense potential.
At the time, the NHL’s draft rules were different for North American and European players. A team that drafted a North American player controlled his rights for two years; a European’s they owned for eternity.
Holland was no fool. He smartly invested in scouting European prospects and loaded up on Swedes, Finns and Czechs when much of the league was still suspicious of their toughness. Detroit had won a couple of Stanley Cups, though, counting on Russians, sometimes putting five on the ice at the same time. They had no fear of Europeans and had a history of late-round steals.
In this case Holland knew how to exploit a loop hole; the luxury of allowing a guy to grow overseas was immense. So in that same 2002 draft that landed Hudler, Holland selected Filppula and didn’t even bother trying to bring him to Detroit.
The kid was still a teenager. He needed seasoning, experience, time. He spent two seasons becoming a star in Finland and then bolted for America, but not to join the big club. He spent a year in the minors.
“The thing that makes the Red Wings successful is they don’t put their young players in a position to fail; they let their players develop in Europe,” Zetterberg said in the book “What It Means to Be a Red Wing.” Zetterberg is proof. He was picked in 1999 but didn’t show up in Detroit until 2002-03. He’s averaged 36.5 goals over the last four seasons.
Filppula joined the Wings three seasons ago, then a bona fide NHLer and now he had the puck and a chance at a game-winner. Instead he made the experienced play. He dropped it back to the guy with the big shot.
Samuelsson is from Sweden, like five of his teammates. The Red Wings saw him play as an amateur, but they didn’t draft him. San Jose did. Then the Sharks dumped him after a short stint in the NHL. The Rangers signed Samuelsson and then traded him to Pittsburgh, who then unloaded him to Florida. Four years in the NHL, four different teams. Then came the lockout and Samuelsson returned to Sweden, and who knew if he’d ever come back?
Then Detroit called. He had a tryout, made the team, signed a one-year deal and in 2005-06 wound up on the team's fourth line – along with Dan Cleary (who scored the second goal of the game) and Johan Franzen(notes) (who scored 34 goals this season).
“We were the fourth line,” Cleary marveled.
They aren’t any more, and Samuelsson proved it when he unleashed a cannon for the game-winner.
The Red Wings are six victories from another parade down Woodward Avenue, and in hockey that’s still a long ways off. The Blackhawks will be heard from. But so, too, will the Wings. Always, it seems.
The years pass and the faces and even the rules change but the results don’t. Steve Yzerman begets Nik Lidstrom begets Henrik Zetterberg begets a bunch of former fourth-liners, castoffs and long-term gambles carrying the load in the conference finals.
In Detroit, the city’s most efficient organization just keeps coming, spring after spring, good times and bad.