What If Detroit was an Expansion Club?

Prepare for three intriguing “what if?” tales!

What if the Red Wings were never part of the Original Six?

The Red Wings have an extremely storied past going back all the way back to the 1926-27 season, when they were first known as the Cougars (and we have a wonderful recent fan post by Rockdan highlighting that season.) The way we’ve remembered it is a classic three-act structure, or almost like a trilogy format. The first act, starring Gordie Howe and the Production Line, is one of wonder and plenty, with the Dead Wings era acting as the story’s Empire Strikes Back, and finally arriving at Yzerman for the glorious return to providence.

Fortunately, I own a magic 8-ball that talks to me often, which is totally healthy, and sends me dispatches from the other dimensions, three of which I received the other day illustrating some scary timelines: what if the Red Wings never existed, or had folded sometime during the 1920’s or 30’s? My possessed 8-ball, Peanut, shared all it knows. What are those stories? I am glad you’re here because we are about to explore them in three tales of interest!

So sit back and enjoy and don’t question any of them because they are definitely actual alternate realities explained by my totally not fake 8-ball and so nothing can be argued within this column.

1967 Expansion Team- Detroit Cougars

By 1964 the NHL realized that it had to expand beyond it’s original six teams (Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Ottawa) to remain competitive in the expanding professional sports scene. NHL executives thought this especially so because they feared the Western Hockey League would become a serious competitor to the NHL. The owners resolved to expand to six new cities, including Detroit per the demands of the Chicago Blackhawks to create a regional rivalry. This club would become known as the Detroit Cougars, with the organization explaining they wanted a nickname that was never used before and everyone would know is synonymous with Michigan because the first thing everyone thinks of when they think Michigan is cougars.

Like the rest of the expansion clubs, the Detroit Cougars would decide to shirk the usual sweater color palette of reds, blues, blacks, and whites for something a bit more unique. The Cougars would wear red but highlight the traditional color with a groovy gold befitting of the era.

The original expansion from six to twelve teams was the most brutal for new clubs, and the Detroit Cougars struggled just as mightily as the other six, although this was masked by them making it to the Stanley Cup Final in each of their first three years under the tutelage of Scotty Bowman, but they’d be swept in each final by the Montreal Canadiens.

Analysts would later posit that the Cougars could have had a real chance at winning the Mario Lemieux sweepstakes in 1984, but general manager Eddie Johnston grew a spine and nixed an 11th hour trade with the Winnipeg Jets to send them Randy Carlyle for a literal bag of pucks and a calendar depicting highlights of the Canadian aviation industry. The Cougars would go on to pick Kirk Muller second overall while Lemieux would win multiple cups with the Devils.

Come the late nineties, the Cougars would find themselves in dire financial straits after several decades of ineptitude. It looked as if Joe Louis Arena might soon be paved over into a parking lot. But during a steak dinner, ownership discussed options with retired star, Mickey Redmond, who was owed several million in back pay. Redmond did not want to see his former team relocated so he traded in his salary for partial ownership of the team. Play-by-play announcer Ken Daniels and now color analyst Randy Carlyle would come to refer to Mickey Redmond as the most serious owner in hockey for the level of straight-laced professionalism he brought to the role and the organization.

Fortunes finally turned around for the Detroit Cougars after several successful drafts in the mid aughts, resulting in a cup victory in 2009, a rematch series from the 2008 Final against the perennially contending Pittsburgh Penguins. The Cougars would be captained by a 21 year-old Canadian who, upon sealing the championship with an early third-period goal in game 7 at PPG Arena, became the youngest captain to win the cup since Mike Grant in 1895. Respected and hated by fans in equal measure, this young captain would be known as “the kid,” for many years, even being used as the face of the NHL to nauseating effect. Fans in Pittsburgh would bitterly remember the 2009 Final advertising campaign, with segments like “He fought his way through Rick Nash and the Jackets. He triumphed over Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks. Then he trounced Jonathan Toews and the hated Chicago Blackhawks. But now Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins are waiting. Are Claude Lemieux and the Cougars ready for their greatest challenge yet?” Pittsburgh fans complained that the ad campaign painted them as the villains, but Detroit fans told them to shut up and quit whining because there was a universe somewhere where the tables were turned.

Over a decade on, the Cougars are left looking to repeat that glorious 2009 season. There have been some close calls, a conference final here, a President’s Trophy followed up by a disappointing first round exit there. As Claude the Kid gets older, Cougar fans are beginning to wonder if they will get another chance for victory, or if they are entering another long, cold rebuild.

1979 WHA Merger Team- Detroit Wheelers

In 1972 the World Hockey Association opened doors on a new twelve-team competitor league to the NHL. The NHL had been obstinate about providing Detroit an expansion franchise, once awarding an ownership bid to Hartford over Detroit, but the WHA took advantage of the opportunity and brought together an ownership group for the Detroit Wheelers in the league’s inaugural season.

The Wheelers ownership, much like the other teams in the WHA, were keen on branding the team with a moniker fitting of the city, and they could think of no possible better one than the Wheelers, not in a million years, because they build cars in Detroit and cars have wheels: steering wheels and tire wheels. They also wanted to create a different color palette for the sweaters than the array of blues used by other Detroit professional sports teams, so they opted for the complete opposite of blue, and went to the other side of the color wheel for orange. The steering wheel crest was chosen because of how round and emblematic it could be, with the word “WHEELERS” struck boldly across the center.

The Wheelers were immediately among the cream of the crop in the new WHA, winning the league’s inaugural championship in 1973 with Gordie Howe, who already had a legendary NHL career with the New York Rangers. However, the Avco World Trophy was not yet completed, so the Detroit Wheelers had to skate around the rink with their conference championship trophy. This would end up being viewed as a curse, as it would be many years before the Detroit Wheelers would once again lift a trophy of any sort.

Unfortunately for the Wheelers, the Winnipeg Jets would become the premier team of the WHA until 1979, when the Wheelers and Jets would join the Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques in joining the NHL. The transition would be a difficult one for all teams involved except the Quebec Nordiques. The Nordiques retained the rights to one Wayne Gretzky and would later build a dynasty around him in the mid-80’s after a passing the torch Final in 1983 against the four-time running champs, the Hartford Whalers.

The next two decades would be one of misery both on and off the ice. The Wheelers would be basement feeders for most of their time in the NHL in the 80’s and 90’s. The team nearly imploded in 1996 when management traded Brendan Shanahan to the Hartford Whalers for Keith Primeau. Shanahan proved to be the missing piece for the Whalers, who would go on to win four more Stanley Cups in the next eleven years. Primeau, on the other hand, would never quite replicate his Hartford success in Detroit.

The trade would be credited with nearly shipping the Detroit Wheelers franchise to Raleigh, North Carolina. Instead, it was the Edmonton Oilers who would end up moving to become the Carolina Hurricanes, securing the Wheelers in Detroit for the short term.

The Wheelers would make a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, offing the hated Whalers in the first round before losing on a controversial no-goal against the Carolina Hurricanes, marking the first time two former WHA franchises played each other for the NHL’s top prize.

The Wheelers would spend a number of years in the hockey gallows after this appearance, continually drafting first overall and then missing on the development of stars like Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall (both would eventually be traded.) However, they did hit big on Nail Yakupov. Eventually the winds of change blew favorably for the franchise and they assembled the most exciting roster in the NHL, bringing in Nathan Mackinnon, Leon Draisaitl, Blake Wheeler, and Dougie Hamilton either through the draft or through trades to complement Yakupov.

In 2017 the Wheelers would finally deliver to Detroit its first Stanley Cup. Their run to the final included eliminating Pittsburgh for the third consecutive season and eventually besting the Nashville Predators in six games. It was the first time a Russian captain had won the Stanley Cup and all arrays of NHL fans were entertained by Nail Yakupov’s summer celebration bender.

Prior to the suspension of NHL games due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Wheelers looked poised to make a deep run once again, having bowed out the previous season in the Eastern Conference Finals. Wheelers fans are now among the most eager to delay the draft because they couldn’t care less who picks Alexis Lafreniere. They just want the playoffs to happen so they can get what they believe is theirs.

1994 Expansion Team- Detroit Exhaust

Detroit rejoiced in the spring of 1992 when it was announced that the city would at long last be getting an NHL franchise at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the 94-95 season. Many were perplexed as to why the city had not received an NHL franchise until now, but they all collectively agreed that it must have been some divine act and not to worry about it.

At a press conference in 1994, representatives for owner Bill Davidson made a public unveiling of the team. “The nickname of the city’s hockey club,” ownership said with a dramatic pause, “is the Detroit Exhaust! This is an edgy name for an x-treme decade,” the representative said amid an era of few US foreign entanglements and the largest economic expansion the country had ever experienced up to that point. Marketing had noted this disconnect but argued that it was also the decade of Mortal Kombat and radio-friendly Post-Grunge. Thus, the name was determined sufficiently angsty for the times.

The uniforms were a cornucopia of color (or a train wreck, as Original Six purists would put it.) The Exhaust sweaters featured teal, purple, red, and charcoal, with a ‘dark horse’ meant to work on multiple thematic levels and an exhaust pipe font that expelled flames out of the X. The new club was determined to be the ultimate victor of the 90’s teal invasion.

Despite the razzle-dazzle of their name and uniform, the Exhaust languished in obscurity for several years, with the notable exception of upending the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round of the 1996 playoffs. However, over the next eight years the NHL would be defined by the rivalry between the aforementioned Avalanche, termed the Big Burgundy Machine by the press, and the Dallas Stars.

While the Stars’ run at prominence would peter out by 2004-05 lockout, the Avalanche would continue their stretch of dominance for years, causing analysts to ponder if the Avs were mortgaging their future just to extend their playoff streak. The Exhaust would eventually build themselves into a contender with the likes of Joe Pavelski, Teemu Selanne, Maxime Talbot, and Pekka Rinne. Avs fans would term the Exhaust “Avalanche Killers” for how deliberately they constructed their roster to beat the Avs. In 2010 the Exhaust would eliminate the Avs, then the hated Chicago Blackhawks and finally the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup. They would repeat dispatching the Avs in 2011 but fail to advance past the Canucks in the Western Conference Final.

The Exhaust would push for a second cup in the 2010’s, but would continually come up short even after re-alignment to the Eastern Conference, losing in 2016 Finals to the San Jose Sharks, a team noted for its sportsmanship and record number of Lady Byng winners. After that near miss, the wheels really came off. In a last-ditch effort to stay relevant, the Exhaust traded their 2020 first round pick to the LA Kings for Drew Doughty, but the team still sucks and has the second worst record in the league. Also notable has been the club’s ongoing struggles with environmentalist groups over the appropriateness of the team’s nickname and the off-ice distraction is considered to be a contributing factor to their loss in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals.

Take a deep breath, it’s 2020 and the Red Wings are Detroit’s hockey club.

You may have gotten so caught up in the exceedingly likely details of these stories that you would have forgotten you actually live in the present reality where Detroit is home to the most successful American hockey club in history, led by players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek, and no other players I am necessarily willing to commit to beyond this off season.  But the 8-ball that illuminated these other realities has one final question for your mortal soul....

If you had to live in one of these alternate timelines, which would it be?

The 1967 Detroit Cougars65
The 1979 Detroit Wheelers52
The 1994 Detroit Exhaust26