August 17, 2010
(Ed. Note: Welcome to Puck Daddy's August series, "Mount Puckmore" which will feature fans, bloggers and various media personalities of all 30 teams choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives. We'll be running these daily for the rest of the month. Today, representing the Detroit Red Wings, George Malik of MLive.com's Snapshots blog.)
By George Malik
When Yahoo! Sports' Sean Leahy kindly approached me and asked me to name four figures who represent the Detroit Red Wings' 78-year history, 11 Stanley Cups and the most passionate (some would say annoying) fans I know, I felt like someone had asked me to take on a task larger than the shadow cast upon opposing goalies by Tomas Holmstrom's(notes) hockey pants.
Within 10 minutes, however, I realized which players embodied the highest highs and lowest lows of Hockeytown's denizens, their teammates, coaches, management and -- to some extent -- the city of Detroit and all of Southeastern Michigan.
Gordie Howe, RW
The NHL's original "power forward." Mr. Hockey.
A player whose on-ice brutality, razor-sharp elbows and remarkable rise from utter poverty in Saskatchewan received a big assist from the legendary Jack Adams, who stole the bashful, gentle giant from the New York Rangers and unleashed him upon the NHL; winning four Stanley Cups with a star-studded team in Detroit's heady 50's heydays before the inveterate tinkerer destroyed the dynasty. As Howe blossomed into the game's greatest pre-Gretzky scorer in the 60's, Detroit and the Red Wings slowly but surely came apart at the seams.
Howe did everything well: He dominated as a goal-scorer and superb set-up man. He intimidated, he fought. He was the pushrod V-8 engine powering the Howe-Sid Abel-Ted Lindsay and Howe-Alex Delvecchio-Ted Lindsay "Production Lines" while pummeling his opponents, out-glaring the legendary Rocket Richard (Howe's current poodle is named "Rocket") and reluctantly embracing his status as the game's ambassador thanks to hockey's first player agent and power broker, one Colleen Howe.
When the Wings officially entered the Dead Wings era and Howe retired, Colleen took the now-trademarked Mr. Hockey brand to the WHA, while the city experienced a crippling exodus of residents and capital -- where Howe played alongside Mark and Marty for six more seasons, winning two more championships before wrapping up his career with a 15-goal, 41-point season as a 52-year-old.
Howe then returned to Detroit, slowly but surely reconciled with the Red Wings, embraced his status as the man most likely to elbow you playfully before penning a perfect autograph and recounting a memory for 20 or 30 minutes just because he loves to talk about hockey with anyone.
He recently endured Colleen's loss and the dissolution of his business interests, but his children and grandchildren raised Detroit's greatest player out of the depths of grief and nursed him back to health and relative happiness. Howe still attends Red Wings games from time to time and comes prepared with Sharpies and little picture cards so that he can sign autographs for anyone who asks him.
He remains accommodating to a fault, a wonderful, kind-hearted fault.
Ted Lindsay, LW
Gordie Howe was about power and brutality, but the 5-foot-8 Lindsay was the game's first true "shift disturber": a vicious, vicious little man who openly despised his opponents on and off the ice, was hated to the point that he faced death threats before a playoff game in Toronto. He proceeded to score the game-winning goal in OT and brandished his stick, butt-end first, at the crowd as if he was shooting them.
Yet the brash, ultimate competitor nicknamed "Terrible Ted" became a people's champion when he bucked tradition and took the Stanley Cup off its dais and skated off with it to share it with Olympia Stadium's denizens.
Moreover, Lindsay represents Detroit's movement for labor unions because he sabotaged his own career in an attempt to form the first players' union, attempting to enforce disclosure of player salaries and allow the NHL's greatest stars and grinders alike to be paid like professional athletes -- not chattel who regularly worked second jobs to make ends meet. When Howe (among others) refused to take part in Lindsay's movement, his bid failed and James Norris and Jack Adams banished Lindsay to the Chicago Blackhawks, where he played for three seasons before retiring.
And yet Lindsay remained a Red Wing and company man at heart, coming out of retirement to play one more year for the Red Wings during the 1964-65 season, rejoining the team once again at the height of the Dead Wings Era in an attempt to turn the team around as its general manager in 1977, and until about five years ago, the now-85-year-old skated with the Red Wings Alumni Association on a regular basis.
"Terrible Ted" only reconciled with Howe around 2000, but the two have become fast friends again. Lindsay still works for a local auto parts supplier, he still backs the NHLPA's struggles to become a functional players' union; and while Howe will occasionally visit the Wings' locker room, Lindsay, a Terry Sawchuk-like king of pain whose face bears the scars of hundreds of stitches, still works out from time to time in the Wings' weight room.
If Gordie Howe turned the Winged Wheel with a thousand horsepower, Ted Lindsay pushed it along with a heart and soul's worth of torque and the work ethic of a man working on a Big Three production line.
Steve Yzerman, C
When Mike Ilitch and GM Jimmy Devellano took stewardship of the Dead Wings, they wanted to select Waterford, Mich. native Pat LaFontaine in the 1983 Entry Draft, but had to settle for a consolation prize in an undersized, super-serious young man named Steve Yzerman.
Without Steve Yzerman, the three Stanley Cups that built Hockeytown would not exist. Yzerman's career defines "sacrifice" for the sake of the family Ilitch built. First, Yzerman relinquished up his status as one of the league's greatest scorers, at the behest of Scotty Bowman, to join the ranks of its best two-way players. Then he sacrificed his right knee to the 2002 Stanley Cup's cause, cementing "The Captain's" status as Hockeytown's other greatest player, and doubtlessly, its greatest leader.
Yzerman burst onto the scene as the centerpiece of the Red Wings' resurgence, and throughout the heyday of the "Bruise Brothers" era, he absolutely dominated as a fantastically skilled and elegantly deft superstar and high-scorer. He could fire the puck into the back of the net at will, set up his teammates with seeing-eye passes, and skate up the ice with the speed and vision of a man who justifiably emerged as Gretzky and Lemieux's shadow in the late 80's -- and donned the captain's "C" at the behest of Jacques Demers in 1986.
As the decade turned, and Bryan Murray could not deliver playoff results, Ilitch and Devellano brought Scotty Bowman in to finally turn the high-flying Wings into a Stanley Cup contender. AFter nearly trading Yzerman to Ottawa, Bowman asked Yzerman to sacrifice some of his scoring to sell the team on defensively-minded puck possession hockey by embracing the role of a two-way forward. The captain did so enthusiastically, transforming himself into a forward defined by his willingness to churn his legs, head down, to beat his own defensemen to the puck on the backcheck, block shots on the penalty-kill and evolve into a faceoff-winning machine on the penalty kill.
Under the captain's example, the Red Wings finally thrived in the post-season, losing in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals and dropping a bitterly-contested Western Conference Final to the despised Colorado Avalanche (despite Yzerman's most famous clutch performance in scoring a Game 7 OT winner against St. Louis) before the Wings -- newly minted as the denizens of a revitalized Detroit and Metro Area now nicknamed "Hockeytown" -- finally delivered, winning the Stanley Cup in 1997 and, after sustaining the devastating loss of Vladimir Konstantinov's services, bringing the Cup into Vladdie's lap in 1998.
The latter portion of his career cemented his status as the greatest leader in team history, because the Selke Trophy-winning 600-goal-scorer very literally sacrificed his right knee for the sake of his team.
As Yzerman sustained repetitive knee injuries throughout the 80's and 90's, his right knee's posterior cruciate and anterior cruciate ligaments essentially disintegrated, leaving his femur literally digging into his lower leg withevery skating stride. Yzerman desperately needed reconstructive surgery prior to the 2001-2002 season, but he played through enormous pain to help Team Canada win Olympic gold and a Hall of Famer-laden Wings team to a third Stanley Cup championship.
Yzerman endured a nincredibly complicated surgery called an osteotomy to realign his knee joint and allow him to scrape a few more years out as his femur slowly but surely ground down the other side of his tibia. He played for three more seasons before deciding to hang up his skates in 2006, and then joined the Red Wings' front office, where he shone under Ken Holland and Jim Nill's guidance, approaching the managerial side of the game with the same deliberate determination and incredible work ethic that he employed as a player, helping the Wings negotiate contracts and winning a World Championship and Olympic Gold medalwhile helming Team Canada.
Even as now-general manager of the Lightning, Yzerman remains our Captain and modern-day Wings fans' favorite adopted son.
Nicklas Lidstrom, D
Five time Norris Trophy-winner Nicklas Lidstrom, the master and maestro of "making the simple play," has quietly and efficiently established himself as one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history.
He's most certainly the best defenseman to ever don the Winged Wheel and Steve Yzerman's worthy successor as the Red Wings' captain. He's the player who both represents the Red Wings' philosophies of on-ice play under Bowman and Coach Mike Babcock as well as their team-building acumen.
The quiet young man, who planned on becoming an engineer if hockey didn't pan out, seamlessly joined the NHL for the 1991-92 season and promptly set the team's rookie record for assists (49) while offering the Wings new wrinkles to their offensive game.
Lidstrom's laser-like passes revitalized the team's break-out; his ability to carry the puck up the ice bought his forwards time and space against opposing teams' back-checkers; his rocket shot-both fired at and wide of the net to deliberately bounce off Joe Louis Arena's springy end boards; and supreme lateral mobility revitalized the team's power play because the forwards now had the ever-present option to re-set by passing the puck back to Lidstrom.
But no one knew at the time that these tenets would become the basis of the Wings' system of play for the next two decades.
At the time, it was Lidstrom's uncanny ability to make simple, safe plays in his own end that endeared him to his coaches and teammates. He didn't make "rookie" or "sophomore" mistakes by trying to do too much with the puck or too much by himself, instead precisely, deftly, and sometimes gracefully getting the puck out of trouble like a veteran, sometimes outclassing his more-seasoned defensive partners.
Lidstrom came into his own as an elite puck-moving defenseman while playing alongside Paul Coffey and then Vladimir Konstantinov and Larry Murphy in the mid-to-late 90's, serving as the lynchpin of Scotty Bowman's puck possession game.
Lidstrom sometimes disappears at times despite the fact that the entire rink hinges upon his stick when he possesses the puck. His almost flawless defensive positioning and innate ability to separate opponent from puck without so much as throwing a check doesn't necessarily wow you like a defenseman who eliminates his opponents via diving shot-blocks and thunderous hits.
If you watch him closely, however, Lidstrom's legs are always, always churning, regardless of whether the team's in his own end or the puck's 200 feet from the goal, as he constantly shifts position to place either his body between the puck and thegoal or his stick within sight of a puck-carrying teammate. Moreover, Lidstrom's skating speed is better when moving laterally or skating backwards; so those who suggest that he's slowed are sorely mistaken -- he never had a fourth or fifth forward-skating gear to begin with, but his positioning and fantastic stick checking allow him to diffuse scoring chances when players do get past him.
After the Wings won back-to-back Cups and Ken Holland went for broke at the 1999 trade deadline and added Chris Chelios in an unsuccessful attempt to bolster the Wings' chances of winning a third straight Stanley Cup, he and assistant GM Jim Nill had a conversation which would change the course of the franchise, and thrust Lidstrom into a starring role. The pair agreed that they couldn't keep counting on Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan to lead theteam's offense forever, but had an emerging superstar in Lidstrom; and with European scout Hakan Andersson successfully mining Europe for mostly Swedish prospects -- including two then-unknowns named Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk -- the Wings would go forward building their team around Lidstrom and the development of defensemen who excelled at puck-possession hockey.
They foresaw the fact that puck possession hockey with a breakout led by puck-carrying defensemen not only backed off teams playing trap defense, but also allowed the Wings to successfully combat the ever-increasing level of obstruction literally taking hold all over the now-watered-down 30-team league.
The following season, as Scotty Bowman gently modified the Wings' system of play, Lidstrom soared into 70-point territory and won the first of two consecutive and an eventual five Norris Trophies. When the All-Star Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002, even though Steve Yzerman played gallantly, Lidstrom earned a deserved Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP because he absolutely dominated on defense.
Under Lidstrom's leadership -- he became captain after Yzerman retired -- and an increasingly Swedish roster, the Red Wings rebounded from a first-round loss to the Edmonton Oilers with a hard push toward the Western Conference Finals in 2007; and in 2008, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom's new partner in crime Brian Rafalski and the human screen that is Tomas Holmstrom fought their way past the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup. They proved that even in the salary cap era, the Red Wings could still succeed, and that their Lidstrom-based model of play and player development has both a brilliantly bright present and positive future.
(Lidstrom also cemented his status as Yzerman's successor by nearly sacrificing a testicle to the cause, thanks to an inadvertent spear by Patrick Sharp.)
As the Red Wings slowly but surely move into the Zetterberg-Datsyuk era, the fans of "Hockeytown, No Limits," a full worldwide Red Wings Nation, believe that our team has a fantastic owner in Mike Ilitch, wonderful management in Ken Holland and Jim Nill, an brilliant and intimidating coach in Mike Babcock and a team that remains Nicklas Lidstrom's, first and foremost.
We are proud of our team, its amazing history; and as our state continues to weather tremendous economic difficulties, the Red Wings, and Nick, represent our determination, resiliency, work ethic and hope.
The four aforementioned players represent not only the Red Wings, but also every person in Southeastern Michigan and elsewhere who still proudly states, "I'm from Detroit, and I'm a Red Wings fan."