The Detroit Red Wings have been one of the most successful franchises in any sport for a quarter century, by just about any measure: victories, titles, attendance, profits, and even respect – from fans, players, and executives.
Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But the Red Wings made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons – a league record.
The last time they failed to make the playoffs, in the spring of 1990, ten current Detroit players weren’t even born. Despite the league’s ever-changing rules, both on and off the ice, the Red Wings’ leadership always figured out how to outfox the competition.
One secret: During this record run, Detroit always had the league’s best talent scouts. That’s how the Red Wings picked up overlooked players from all over the world, particularly from Russia and Sweden, who are now Hall of Famers.
But all that is coming to a close, and the timing couldn’t be worse.
The Red Wings have lost their groove, and they don’t look like they’re going to be getting it back any time soon. They have virtually no chance of making the playoffs this spring, so the streak will end at 25 seasons.
Usually, the consolation prize for a bad season is the draft. The lower you finish, the higher you get to pick. But this year’s draft looks to be one of the weakest in recent memory, so it’s unlikely Detroit can bounce back quickly with an injection of young talent. The next Steve Yzerman just isn’t out there this year.
And here’s another problem: the NHL is adding a new team, the Las Vegas Knights, next season.
That means the league will hold another draft, the “expansion draft,” to allow the new team to pick some of the best players from the other teams. Las Vegas is certain to poach some of Detroit’s top talent.
Even worse, after 38 years at the homely but happy confines of Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings are opening their new Little Caesar’s Arena this fall.
The last thing any team wants to do is invite fans into an expensive new rink and treat them to a flop on the ice.
And finally, the patron saint of the organization, long-time owner Mike Ilitch, who spent his money reviving the team from the “Dead Wings” to the class of the league, passed away last month, at 87.
So, what do you do?
Well, you do what the Red Wings are doing: throw a fire sale. The Red Wings are now trading some of their best players to teams that will make the playoffs, so the Wings can get something in return, and start to rebuild.
But, as of today, it’s not clear who will lead this team back, from the owners to the executives to the guys on the ice. You add it all up, and you can see why it’s so hard to make the playoffs for 25 straight years. And that’s what makes it so impressive.