Today is July 4th, and I'm told by my American friends and family that this is some sort of important date in this country's history. Being Canadian, I haven't really taken the time to learn about American history because it didn't affect me until recently, but reading some stuff online it would appear that you people celebrate a day where you disobeyed your natural leaders in the British to form some sort of throwaway country. I hope that works out for you.
I kid of course. I love this country almost as much as I love my homeland, and I'll be eating a lot of food and drinking a lot of adult beverages before watching people try to blow up a small portion of it with spectacular fireworks.
Since this is a hockey site, it's important to look at today in the context of what's going on with the Red Wings. Normally by now the initial rush of free agency has died down because July 1st has traditionally been the date on which free agents could sign with new teams. By the time we hit the 4th most players have found new homes, with either big stars taking their sweet time to weigh their options or the less talented players being sought after once the good ones have gotten contracts.
However, this year we are in the middle of the "wine-and-dine" period, and the Red Wings are courting a number of players in an attempt to bring them to Detroit. Names like Damien Brunner, Dan Cleary, Stephen Weiss, Andrew Ference and others are floating around as potential Wing targets.
You know what none of those players are? American. In fact, looking back at the Wings' recent history there aren't many prominent Americans who have been contributors to Stanley Cup winning teams. I have never really cared about the makeup of the team by nationality, but on this most patriotic of holidays in this country I thought it would be fun to look back and remember the great Americans who have helped make this organization great. We'll break it down by Cup years because those are the only seasons I really like to remember.
Did you know that when the Wings won back-to-back Cups in the late 1990s there were exactly 2 Americans on the team? Mike Ramsey was a journeyman defenseman who only played 2 games in 1996 before retiring and could hardly be called an important player, so he's out.
However, Doug Brown may be the greatest American hero in recent Red Wing history. Watch either of the 2 Red Wing championship videos and you'll see him score goal after goal after goal in the playoffs. In 1997, he had 13 points in 49 games in the regular season, but put up 6 points in 14 games in the playoffs. The following year, he had a career-high 19 goals in the regular season and 42 points, but in 9 games in the playoffs he had 6 points. He was at his absolute best in the 1998 Finals when he had 3 goals in the 4-game sweep of the Capitals. Included in that total was the tying goal in Game 2 and 2 goals in Game 4.
Here's how important Brown was to the Wings: in 1998, some team called the Predators claimed Brown in the expansion draft because they saw how awesome he was. The Wings traded for him 3 weeks later by giving up Petr Sykora (not the good one), a pick that turned into Mike Comrie, and another pick that turned into nothing. Brown played 3 more seasons in Detroit before retiring.
This Red Wings team, much like the Cup-winners before it, only had 2 American players on the roster. However, unlike the late '90s, the Americans who were part of the Red Wings were a pair of the greatest players ever.
Chris Chelios was traded to the Wings by the Blackhawks in 1999 and had shed the label as a hated player due to his strong play in Detroit. In 2002 he was still a very key member of the Wings' defense.
But my favorite American from this team is a guy who wasn't even born in the US. Brett Hull is technically Canadian, but he'll always be known as the greatest American goal-scorer ever. He was signed by the Wings as a free agent after Dallas decided he didn't have anything left, and all he did was score 30 goals in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs. He had a hat trick in the clinching game against Vancouver in the first round, and he gave us a great line when he said he'd "rather be old and smart than young and dumb".
Hull will never be known as a Red Wing when people look back on his career, but for one magical season he was all ours.
As the years have progressed, the Wings have welcomed more US-born players on to the team. 2008 gave us a number of players to choose from, including Chelios, Justin Abdelkader, and the ever-popular Brett Lebda.
However, it was a small defenseman from Michigan who helped make that team so good. Brian Rafalski had been a strong performer for the Devils and won 2 Stanley Cups in New Jersey. The Wings were looking to get help on the blueline after Mathieu Schneider left after the 2007 season, and brought Rafalski home to Detroit on a multi-year deal.
It was a match made in hockey heaven. Rafalski gave the Wings another defenseman who could take offensive pressure off Nicklas Lidstrom, and Rafalski's 13 goals in the regular season were 3 more than Lidstrom had. In the playoffs, he had 14 points in 22 games, including a pair of goals in the Finals. His career was cut short due to injuries, but he retired a Red Wing.
Want to measure Rafalski's importance to the Red Wings? In the 4 seasons when he was a member of the Red Wings, the team finished no lower than 9th in power play percentage in the regular season. In the 2 seasons since he retired? 22nd and 15th. It's a shame that his body would not allow him to continue his career, because he could have been a perfect mentor for some of the Wings' young defensemen just starting out their careers.