All Wings Must Pass: As an era comes to an end in Detroit, there’s stories to share (via Sports Illustrated)

Want a beer?

Go ahead. Al just fired up the grill. O.K., technically it’s a reconfigured old nacho stand, not a grill. And officially Al Sobotka is the building operations manager, not a cook. But nobody here cares about that stuff. Al fills it with charcoal and holds a cookout in the arena a few times a year. Yes, cookouts inside an NHL arena. But the Joe is not just any arena, you see. It’s a … well … the right word is probably …

Dump? 

Hey, now. Be nice. Sure, it is kind of a dump. The concourses are too narrow. The restrooms are too few and therefore too crowded. The whole place looks as if it was built after somebody cut the budget in half. Who builds a riverfront arena with no windows? But it has the best sight lines in the NHL and all sorts of accidental character. You’ll be amazed at how many people will miss this place when it closes this spring. Grandmothers will get misty. Grown men will cry into their beer.

Speaking of beer….

Oh, right. Grab one from the stack, right there by the Zamboni. The delivery trucks leave it there because there is no place else to put it. There is only one loading dock, and it’s not sealed off like in those new sporting palaces. That’s why, whether you show up for a morning skate or an evening playoff game, the first thing that hits you is the unmistakable stench of beer. It never goes away. Joe Louis Arena always smells as if it hosted a party that lasted way longer than anybody had expected … which, in a way, it has.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the NHL playoffs every season since 1990–91. The streak, the third longest in pro sports history, has survived four league work stoppages, five presidential administrations, radical NHL rules changes, the influx of European talent and the advent of a salary cap. When it started, Gary Bettman worked for the NBA, where people were wondering if -Michael Jordan would ever win a champion-ship. Peyton Manning was a high school freshman. You could walk into Sears and buy a black-and-white TV, then watch news reports about the Soviet Union, which still existed.

This tastes like chicken sausage.

Well, that’s because it is chicken sausage. Al stopped grilling Italian sausages when NHL players got nutrition-savvy. Anyway, dig in. We’ve got stories to share. … Read More

(via Sports Illustrated)

The best of his kind: Farewell to Mr. I

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On Friday afternoon, Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, died at the age of eighty-seven. He was a Marine, a minor-league baseball player, and the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain. In 1987, he bought the Red Wings, and he took over the Tigers (from pizza rival Tom Monaghan, of Domino’s) in 1993. He also rejuvenated the city’s Fox Theater and, much more quietly, paid for Rosa Parks’ housing for the last ten years of her life.

With the Wings and Tigers, Ilitch took over teams with great legacies that had fallen on hard times and built them into championship contenders by doing exactly what every fan hopes the owner of his or her favorite team would do: invest in the team with the goal of winning as much as possible as soon as possible. The results at Joe Louis Arena were unambiguous: four Stanley Cups and some of the best hockey teams ever assembled. While the Tigers couldn’t quite make it to the mountaintop, they have enjoyed a decade or more of top-tier competitiveness that included two World Series appearances, the first of which, in 2006, came just three years after the team lost 119 games.

Ilitch remained committed to his teams, and to his city, through thick and thin. Neil over at New English D recalls one of the more memorable examples of that commitment:

The defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
. . .
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

As Mike Ilitch’s health waned in recent years, indications have emerged that his son, Chris, was taking on a larger role in the teams’ ownership, and there was some suggestion that Chris might have been behind the Tigers’ moves toward austerity that began with the unceremonious midseason departure of former GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015. It seems unlikely that Chris will continue his father’s free-spending ways, but, beyond that, there’s little public information to inform a prediction about the leadership style of the younger Ilitch.

Maybe it was because he was a self-made man, rather than an inheritor of wealth. Maybe it didn’t matter how he came to be in a position to own two professional sports franchises. From the fans’ perspective, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Mike Ilitch loved his teams and his city and sought to do right by both by being the ideal team owner, someone who owned teams and financed them for success because sports are supposed to be fun. Today, teams are owned by conglomerates, publicly traded companies, and Wall Street ownership groups that, as often as not, seem to have priorities other than winning. To the extent he was of a kind, Ilitch may be one of the last of that kind, and his generosity will be missed.

The Red Wings have lost their championship identity

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Since the Detroit Red Wings returned to championship prominence in the 1990s following the hiring of head coach Scotty Bowman, the team has been known for its smothering style of play. In this modern golden age, the Wings won four Stanley Cups– 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008– with legendary rosters, sure, but also by executing a theoretically simple and highly effective strategy focused on puck possession. Two decades before the concept would even begin to emerge in public hockey analysis, Bowman knew that puck possession led to wins.

In recent years, statisticians have made strides in tracking possession, something I’ve written about here a few times before:

A quick refresher on hockey’s new statistics: puck possession correlates more strongly with winning than do things like goals or shots; measuring possession in a fluid game like hockey is difficult; as a practical solution, Corsi and its less-inclusive sibling, Fenwick, are statistics that track certain, more easily measured events (all shots, including on-goal shots and missed shots, and, in Corsi’s case, blocked shots), thereby serving as proxies for possession and, therefore, indicators of team success. Once you get past the names (as the NHL is in the process of doing), the concept is simple.

The earliest season for which Corsi is available is the 2007-08 season. Fortunately for purposes of this post, that’s the last year Detroit, under the guidance of the Bowman Administration’s successor, Mike Babcock, won the Stanley Cup. Anecdotally, Babcock followed in Bowman’s possession-oriented footsteps, and the statistics agree: the Wings led the league by a wide margin.

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Today, though, things are different. Sure, Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, but it’s going to be another uphill climb to keep their historic streak alive, with current projections giving them just a 22.5% chance of earning a postseason berth. (Only three teams have worse odds right now.) It isn’t looking good.

Unsurprisingly (as a factual matter, anyway), puck possession has fallen off steeply this year, as compared with that last championship season. Here’s the same chart shown above for 2016:

cf-2016

Under Jeff Blashill, Babcock’s successor, these really aren’t the same Red Wings. Here’s a broad visual of how well the team has controlled the puck during all seasons for which Hockey-Reference has Corsi data:

cf-2007-16

The season isn’t yet half over, thankfully, but there is a lot of catching up to do if the team wants to leave its hallowed home on a positive note before making the move to the Hot-n-Ready Center next season.

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Red Wings’ season, playoff chances coming down to the wire

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It’s easy to second-guess coaching decisions after the fact, begins many post-loss sports articles, but it was immediately clear that the Detroit Red Wings, and their recently redeemed goalie, Jimmy Howard, were not 100% last night in Boston. The direct evidence? Surrendering two goals on four Bruin shots in the first 2:44 of the game. The circumstantial evidence? A hard-fought win the night before in a game that did not start until after 8:00, delaying the team’s arrival at its Boston hotel until 2:45 yesterday morning. Howard looked sluggish, and his teammates weren’t able to bail him out. Their backs against the wall, Boston hardly let up, eventually claiming a 5-2 win.

The Howard redemption story is a nice and good one, and, if the Red Wings are able to clinch a twenty-fifth-consecutive playoff berth, there’s little reason to believe it can’t continue into the postseason, but hockey, as much as any sport, is a sucker for narratives like these, and they can color strategic decisions. Continue reading

Detroit Red Wings closing in on 2016 NHL playoffs, upholding historic mantle

It’s that simple. After a very big shutout win last night over the Flyers in Detroit, the Red Wings go on the road tonight in Boston with the opportunity to extend the longest active playoff streak in all of professional sports.

playoffstreak

The Bruins, Flyers, and Red Wings are fighting for the Eastern Conference’s two remaining playoff spots. Detroit and Boston each have two games left, including one against each other, while Philadelphia has three games remaining. The Eastern Conference standings currently look like this:   Continue reading

Hockey Photo of the Day

Last night this happened | #nicknight #vladdy #lgrw (📷above: @detroitnews / below:@danmannes)

A post shared by Detroit Red Wings Hockey Club (@detroitredwings) on

In advance of the Detroit-Colorado Stadium Series game on Saturday night, the Red Wings and Avalanche will hold an alumni game tomorrow night, an event that’s sure to stir some old passions between the former bitter Western Conference rivals.

Window Shopping: Step Back From the Window, or, Thank You Very Much, Mr. Rebooto

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline was an especially active period for the Detroit Tigers franchise, which made big moves both with player and front-office personnel.

Detroit traded three of the best players on its 2015 roster in the days and minutes prior to the trade deadline. The team’s biggest move, and arguably the biggest of one of the most active trade-deadline periods ever, was their decision to trade number-one starter David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. They also sent closer Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh, and, in the final moments before the deadline, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

The basic logic behind each of these moves is that, even prior to these trades, each of these players was, for all practical purposes, not going to be a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2016. That’s because each is in the final year of his current contract, meaning that each becomes a free agent at the end of this season. The Tigers would have no special ability to keep Price, Cespedes, or Soria in Detroit after the end of the 2015 season, and, given their individual successes, each is likely to fetch contract offers on the free market too rich even for Mike Ilitch’s blood. Rather than keep Price, Cespedes, and Soria for August and September on a team that’s unlikely to even make the playoffs, only to watch them walk away in the winter, the Tigers, with an eye on the post-2015 future, decided to cash in some of the value of these assets by trading them now. In doing so, Detroit converted these three expiring assets into six prospects, including five pitchers and one infielder.

Baseball analysts widely praised these transactions as beneficial to the Tigers, who, general manager Dave Dombrowski announced were “rebooting,” selling with the goal of remaining competitive in the near term, rather than undergoing a full rebuilding. The top return for Detroit was Daniel Norris, a now-former Blue Jay who lives in a van and shaves his beard with an ax. They also received Matt Boyd from Toronto, a younger starter who, in his recent Tigers’ debut, beat Johnny Cueto and the Royals.

Of course, the only real question for Detroit was not whom to trade but whether to trade. As July 31 approached, that question divided fans and, it later would be revealed, members of the team’s front office and ownership. As for the former group, most fans recognized the Tigers’ slim playoff odds and supported selling, although a minority that included this writer held out hope that the team could make one more postseason push before initiating a rebuild. Ultimately, Dombrowski’s “rebooting” seemed to satisfy both camps: Detroit would get close-to-ready prospects in exchange for their expiring assets. No long rebuilding process– a full surrender– was in store, just a quick retooling.

Two additional notes in the context of these trades: 1) one week before the trade deadline, Toronto, the biggest buyers, and Detroit, the biggest sellers, sat four and five games out of the last American League wild card position, respectively, and 2) while it isn’t at all likely that Price, Soria, or Cespedes will return to Detroit in the offseason, the effect of an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract is that the Tigers actually increased whatever chance they have of resigning Cespedes by trading him.

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As the Tigers and their fans were settling into life without Price, Soria, and Cespedes, and enjoying their first trial run with Norris, who had a strong start on Sunday in Baltimore, unbeknownst to them, even more action was afoot behind the scenes.    Continue reading

2015 Detroit Red Wings Playoff Preview

The longest active playoff-appearance streak in American professional sports is alive and well. This is the good news in Detroit, where the Red Wings are preparing for their twenty-fourth consecutive NHL postseason. Their first-round opponent: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The smart hockey folks predicted a very bad hockey season for the Wings, so the team should take some extra satisfaction in this postseason appearance. (They were right to project improvement by Justin Abdelkader, but less so for Luke Glendenning.) Their reward for consistently above-average production all season long was third place in the Atlantic Division, one spot behind their first-round opponents in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning, who got the better of Detroit in their four meetings this season, present a difficult challenge for the Red Wings.

Two areas where Detroit would seem to have an advantage, goaltending and powerplay scoring, may be mitigated by external factors. April is a bad time to host an internal goaltending competition, but neither of the team’s two primary options, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, has been able to carry the load to the satisfaction of coach Mike Babcock, who today announced that Mrazek will start game one. A question mark in net is not part of a winning playoff formula, but this is part of the hand these Red Wings have been dealt.

The powerplay advantage is nice, but powerplay opportunities are at their lowest in at least the last seventeen seasons, which means Detroit is likely to have fewer chances to leverage this advantage, particularly in the playoffs, where penalties already are reduced.

Detroit still has some of the best veteran and young players in the sport, as I was fortunate enough to witness in two wins against top teams (Nashville and St. Louis) this season. By my count, they had a .500 record against other playoff teams this season. They will be underdogs in this round and likely any others to which they advance, but if their defense can hold up, they have a fair shot of doing so.

There’s nothing like playoff hockey – enjoy!

Mr. Hockey’s recovery ‘just mind-boggling’ (via The Windsor Star)

CPT133225371_highWhen the calendar turned to December, the last thing the Howe family expected was that they’d ever see their dad – Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe – with a hockey stick in his hand again, scoring goals.

When Dr. Murray Howe was first contacted by the San Diego-based Stemedica Cell Technologies, he was like most people, suspicious of what they insisted their stem-cell treatments could do for his 86-year-old father, bed-ridden by a stroke, his mind addled by the onset of dementia.

“He pretty much had one foot in the grave at that point,” Murray Howe said. “He wasn’t really eating. He couldn’t stand under his own power. He wasn’t really talking.

“We just hated to see him in the condition he was in. We were thinking he maybe had two or three weeks to live.

“We just didn’t want him to be lying in a bed for the last three weeks of his life.”

After consulting with brothers Mark and Marty and sister Cathy, the Howes figured what did they have to lose? So they took Gordie from Lubbock, Texas, where he lives with Cathy, to Mexico for the treatments, which have not been approved in North America, and are astonished by the dramatic turnaround in their father’s condition.

“We were just completely blown away by his response (to the treatments),” Murray Howe said. “I’m still astonished.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in medicine.” … Read More

(via The Windsor Star)

Playing chicken on skates: The Predators and Red Wings pull the goalies in Detroit

We are headed back to Hockeytown this weekend to watch the Red Wings host the Nashville Predators on Saturday night. My first time at Joe Louis Arena, one year ago, was so great, and I can’t wait for this next visit.

Detroit and Nashville used to see a lot of each other when both played in the Western Conference’s stacked central division. They have fewer opportunities to square off since Detroit’s move to the Eastern Conference this year, though, so each meeting takes on greater importance.    Continue reading