Saturday, April 27, 2013

Red Wings' playoff streak hangs in the balance

I have been a fan of hockey since the mid 80s. I had just moved to Colorado from Utah, and somehow one of the first friends I found at my new school was a hockey player named Ross. I don't know why we became friendly, because we had very little in common (he was a jock, while I straddled the line between "quiet nerd"* and "unremarkable background high-school kid"), but he was a nice guy, he thought I was a nice guy, and we hung out. He was always talking about hockey, and so I naturally just started talking about it too. It didn't take long before I actually began loving the game rather than simply talking about it just to fit in.

The hockey Rockies were long gone, and so everybody who followed hockey and lived in Colorado had to pick a team to follow, which when I think back about it was a really great thing. Instead of a group of friends who all loved the same team, we all picked different teams, and so rather than talking about one team at the lunch table we talked about five or six. This helped me be a well-rounded fan of the game itself, rather than somebody who lived and died with just one team, and I feel I'm better for it.

Naturally, since we were high school kids, most of our favorite teams happened to be the dominant teams of the era: Edmonton, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Calgary. Wanting to seem as cool as possible as quickly as possible, I tended to lean towards Edmonton... I figured the world's best player and a pile of Stanley Cups was a pretty safe bet, but to tell the truth I never really committed to the Oilers. Being a fan of the winner was easy, but it was hollow, too... and a part of me was a bit ashamed to go with the Oilers, when there were so many underdogs I could pull for instead.

The Flyers were in the mix for a while, because even then I gravitated towards goalies, and Ron Hextall was my man. He played the puck (Martin Brodeur gets a lot of credit for being a "third defenseman," but Hextall did it first), he took penalties, he fought, he even scored goals... and of course, he was a tremendous goalie to boot. He won the Conn Smythe as a member of the losing team, and I loved that about him. Looking back, though, I'm glad I never went all-in with the Flyers, I'm not sure if I could live with myself being aligned with Flyer fans as an adult.

There were two HUGE stars in hockey at that time: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The debate always seemed to be over who was the better player, and everybody had one of those two as their favorite. I figured it couldn't be that easy, could it? Were there really only two players that could possibly be considered the best in the league, with nobody else even in the conversation? This was midway through my high school years, and I remember going to the school library every week to look at the scoring leaders in new copy of Hockey News (that's how cool my school library was: they had Hockey News in the magazine section!). Without fail, Mario and Wayne were either #1 or #2 in every scoring category. However, the same name seemed to be listed third on every list: Steve Yzerman.

The year was 1988, and Yzerman was leading his team in every category and was right there with the two superstars in league scoring, but falling well outside the tight spotlight on Wayne and Mario, neither he nor his team got a lot of attention. Perfect, I thought. He scored his 50th goal on the same night he wrecked his knee and was out for the rest of the season, but that season of following Yzerman through the newspaper, reading articles about him at the library, and staying up late to hopefully catch just one or two highlights on TV, was the year I chose my favorite player and, by extension, my favorite team.

Yzerman was a great player on an improving team, but the Red Wings weren't a favorite to win much of anything. They hadn't won a Cup in decades and they were in the same conference as the unstoppable Oilers, but they seemed to be a team on the rise: they reached the conference finals two years in a row (losing to Edmonton both times) and were assembling a good group of players, including Yzerman, Adam Oates, Petr Klima, and the great Bob Probert. Additionally, they had a very cool-looking jersey which was featured prominently in a movie that had a formative influence on the high school me: Ferris Bueller's Day Off. To this day, I believe that the Red Wings have the greatest jersey in hockey, the city of Chicago seems like a lot of fun, Ferraris are the sexiest car ever made, and Sloane Peterson is a girl I would for whom I would disguise my voice and prank the principal any day.

My new favorite player went on to score 65 goals and 155 points the next season; still behind Mario and The Great One that year but career bests in both categories, and his 155 points are a total that still has yet to be surpassed by anybody not named Lemieux or Gretzky. That Wings team got bounced from the first round of the playoffs, though, and the next year, the 1989-1990 season—despite another 60+ goal effort from Yzerman—ended with the Red Wings last in the Norris division, and out of the playoffs.

1990 is the year I graduated high school, and it's the last time the Red Wings were not in the NHL playoffs. There have been longer playoff streaks, for sure... in fact, two longer streaks have ended in that span of time, one by the Bruins that was nearly 30 years and another by the Blues that reached 25. Today, however, no other team currently has a playoff streak longer than nine seasons. But even though Detroit's streak isn't particularly noteworthy in the long history of the game, there is something really mind-boggling about the realization that more than half my life has gone by since I last saw my hockey team fail to make the playoffs. In that time, they have gone from the type of underdogs I loved to pull for, to the dominant team in hockey that everybody else rooted against, with six Finals appearances and four Cup wins in that 21 year span.

Today, though, those dominant teams are in the past and the circle is complete, because for the first time in a long time, the Detroit Red Wings are going into the final day of the season fighting for a playoff spot. The Wings won the Cup only five years ago (and probably should have won it in 2009 too), but today they are back to being the underdog... and I couldn't be happier. This year's team has been devastated by injuries, unable to compensate for the retirement of one of the game's greats in Nick Lidstrom, and frankly just caught up to by a lot of really great young teams in the Western Conference, the class of which being their long-time rival Chicago Blackhawks. But even with all the excuses, these Wings are a gritty, tenacious bunch playing their best down to the wire rather than coasting into the playoffs as they have so many years before, and it's been a helluva lot of fun.

Adding to my joy is the fact that tonight, I am going to the Pepsi Center to watch my other favorite team, the Colorado Avalanche, who can actually help the Red Wings continue this streak. Yes, I am the rarest breed of all: a hockey fan who loves both the Red Wings and the Avalanche. When the Avs moved to Colorado, most local fans gave up on their "old" favorite teams—the teams they followed from afar when there was nothing here for them—and quickly adopted the Avalanche, but I couldn't give up on the Red Wings.

Yzerman was entrenched as my favorite player, by then a standout two-way center rather than the huge scorer he was before, and he was surrounded by a Murder's Row of a team including Paul Coffey, Mike Vernon, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Igor Larionov. The previous year, the Wings were the league's top team, only to be swept in the Stanley Cup finals to the ex-Rockies, the New Jersey Devils. In 1995-96, the year the Avalanche arrived in Denver, the Red Wings dominated the league like few teams have ever done, and transferring my allegiance at that time—right when it seemed sure to pay off in a long-overdue championship—was not an option. The Wings were my team, and there was no good reason in my mind why I couldn't stay loyal to them while cheering for the new local team as well. After the years of struggle to get to the top (only the last handful of which I had been a part of), they were finally there. But who should step in and ruin that date with destiny? The Avalanche, who had a destiny of their own to fulfill.

I may be the only person in the building tonight who won't feel conflicted if an Avalanche win puts the Wings in the playoffs. Detroit controls its own destiny: a win against Dallas, and the Wings are the 7th seed and earn a one-round reprieve from the mighty Blackhawks. Should Detroit lose in regulation, however, they would need a Columbus or Minnesota loss to clinch a playoff spot, most likely the 8th seed. So today, I get to cheer for the Avs knowing that their win counts double for me, and keeps a remarkable run of success for the Red Wings intact for one more improbable year.

Dr. B

*— "Quiet Nerd" is a subset of the full-on "Revenge of the Nerds" nerd. An entry-level nerd, the Quiet Nerd is one who abhors pocket protectors, thick glasses, and acne; may or may not be any good at trigonometry; and occasionally enjoys outdoor activities apart from astronomy. Yet much like a full nerd, the Quiet Nerd gets good grades, enjoys computers and robots and chess, and in the absence of a nerdier target will occasionally get shoved into lockers or made to sing an embarrassing song while standing on a lunchroom table.

No comments:

Post a Comment