It’s not the first word you think of when you are taking a deep, 80-games-coming sigh of relief (for the second year in a row). As a fan base, we rightfully bemoaned the injuries, poor play, penalties taken, announcing
Now, improbably, Detroit is in and we will be dangerous… very dangerous. These kids are playing with a hard earned confidence wrought from a season of trial by fire. Datsyuk is back and looking more Datsyuk every shift. Babcock calls Detroit a "hard out." I agree.
I live in Denver and have been first-hand witness to the preposterous good season from the hometown Avalanche. Even as Avs fans enjoyed the rocket ride from league dungeon to league darling and simultaneous mediocrity of the ‘arch rival’ Wings for much of the season, they eyed Detroit’s season with distrust. It’s a distrust born from a consistent high performance from the Red Wings. The Avs may be the story of the year in the NHL and garner Patrick Roy the Jack Adams nod but what that craziness masks is that this young franchise has already seen extreme highs and extreme lows. Currently, they enjoy the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the meteoric crash. But they had that crash. There is an envy of how a team can be so good, so consistent for so long. There is truly a bristling to other fan bases who finally reach the top of the mountain as the Wings and their fans look up from the campfire and ask, "What took you so long to get up here? The view is amazing."
After the Wings tied the Montreal game 3-3, I was ecstatically proud (end result not withstanding). Even after losing I was just so proud to be a fan of this Red Wings team. It was a feeling that had been building as the kids’ confidence and chemistry built. The same feeling I had during the Chicago series of the playoffs last year. It gives me chills just thinking about these under-manned, under-appreciated Red Wings teams looking down at their big bear claws and realizing that they do know how to get that bunny (we’re SO money, baby!). These are not the HOF laden teams of the past that sparkled their way to success by taking the best players in the world and making them work the hardest in the world. These are teams that are the embodiment of effort, hustle and heart. The most blunt, brutally honest man in sport, Mike Babcock talks about it in most interviews and press conferences. Compete. His highest compete players are Datsyuk and Z, and he goes out of his way to point that out. This team is built on compete. That’s what makes me proud to be fan. That’s how we’re spoiled. The draft rewards bad teams with high-skill people but as often as not, those people aren’t nearly as high-compete. Detroit’s success has dictated that they have to find another way to stock its coffers with more successes. And over the course of 23 years, that’s just what they’ve done.
We are spoiled. The reason I started writing this was because I read a short, paragraph blurb on the ESPN about how the unsung heroes of the Detroit Red Wings’ success is the Ilitch family. This is absolutely true. Starting from the very top, Wings fans are spoiled by having this ownership. It’s an ownership that invests in its team and sees its faith rewarded by success and loyal fandom. When the salary cap allowed, Wings fans were spoiled by the seemingly unlimited budget given to the team with the faith that smart spending is better than just excessive spending. Just because it was successful and the Ilitch family was rewarded financially doesn’t make that faith any less fortunate for us, the fans. Winning has to be foremost to an ownership to be so consistently successful. To blindly throw money at a team or tinker because the owner thinks they know best usually works as well as ownership that scrimps and nickel and dimes their franchises to run them as only a for profit business. Detroit fans are spoiled because the owner knows good hockey people and knows how to get out of the way of good hockey people and only intervene enough to give those people the tools they need for success. The Illitch family isn’t flash and fancy ownership for its own glory, it’s do things the right way and win. It’s ‘compete’ from an ownership level.
We are spoiled (and often, short-sighted and dumb). Ken Holland’s mad(dening) genius spoils us. As the salary cap era descended, it was supposed to spell the end of the Wings success. Our success had been purchased as the highest bidder. But a funny thing happened. Even after the retirement/exodus of the high-priced free agents and high draft picks of the old era, Detroit kept on winning. Ken Holland and staff, masters of coercing the right free agents (key word; right) to come play for Detroit were apparently also masters of finding quality players deep in the draft or not-so-high priced free agency. The machine keeps plugging away. As fans, we only partially jokingly roll our eyes at the inevitable "our people getting healthy are our UFA signing/trade deadline acquisition." But, 23 years in and counting, who are we but spoiled fantasy roster managers? We are quick to point out the mistakes, glaring and otherwise, of contracts signed or unsigned but even with those, 23 years of success in a row makes it hard to compellingly argue we know better. Sometimes, it’s not the fact that you signed Suter to a gabilliony dollar-talk-of-the-league contract but that you bring in Nick Lidstrom to sell a young, sought after free agent d-man to signing with his hometown team after Western Michigan’s season is done. Compete beats flash.
We are spoiled (and often, short sighted and dumb).
Ken Holland's Mike Babcock’s mad(dening) genius spoils us. Mike Babcock is a damn fine coach. With every slump or new line blender, we as fans are quick to question what Mike Babcock is doing. Why hasn’t this kid or that kid been called up from Grand Rapids or put on line A or B? Why is this guy in the lineup? Because Mike Babcock knows what he is doing we think we do. I’m not going to wax too poetic about Babcock’s amazing coaching skills and how he emphasizes compete over skill and flash… the team does that for me on the ice every night. All I’ll do is give you this quote and if it doesn’t show you why Babcock should perennially be a Jack Adams winner, I can’t help you; "Don’t hang your head. It’s bad body language. Does nothing for you." – Babs to Tatar on 24/7 after a fairly heart-wrenching game to Pittsburgh. In so few words, Babcock tells the kid everything he needs to know, it’s one game, you’ll get better, we’ll get better… but not by feeling sorry for ourselves. God damnit I love this man.
We are so spoiled to be fans of a team that year after year (after year X 23) keeps giving us reasons to be proud. Come what may of this the 23rd year of the playoffs, I know that I’ll be beaming with pride when a passing Av fan tells me that the "RED WINGS SUCK!" because I’ll know that is very far from the truth. I’ll know that the Red Wings have had every opportunity, every excuse to actually suck this year (and many over the past quarter decade) but have not. They have dug in, found something in themselves and competed their way to the post-season, and a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup one more time. With heart like this team has shown and this stable, does-what’s-necessary organization behind it, I kinda like our chances. LETS GO RED WINGS!
Thanks for letting me rant. No one in Denver wants to hear me gush for hours over the Wings and how great they are and this season has been.
P.S. For your consideration, Mr. Compete (with all apologies to LGD) would like to say "Smootch our fartholes, Chicago!"
Darren Helm Dominates Penalty Kill (Game 5 WCF 2009) (via Jeff Veillette)