What Made Me a Wing Nut?

How the Detroit Red Wings captured a young hockey fan’s heart

It’s been a month now since we last saw the Red Wings or anyone else play. Despite it being an abysmal season it was still better than nothing, that’s at least clear now. It may have been a disaster, but it was our disaster. The last few weeks as we enter further into this isolation has allowed a bit of time for reflection. Some of it on this season, seemingly cut short. But I’ve also found myself looking back to some fond memories of this team especially as they seem to pop up across social media while we all try to fill the void. This got me to thinking all the way back to when I first fell in love with the winged wheel and those that wore it.

A little while after I first put on skates and took a love for the sport, I remember being told about the NHL and how that’s where all the best players were. First being introduced to the teams, there were ones that wore colours I liked, some had pretty neat looking logos, sharks were pretty cool to a 6-year old too. Being a kid in southern Ontario I also heard a lot about the Leafs and they were the blue team always on TV. But it was a family connection that ultimately steered me onto the red and white. Red Wings fans certainly were far from a majority in our region but I had an aunt, uncle, and cousins that were die hard Red Wings fans. I happened to revere my cousin who was four years older than me. Anything he did, I was certainly going to as well. After spending a weekend with them I was sent home with a Red Wings shirt and now I had a team, the beginning of something that’s been a big part of my life ever since. That’s where it all started for me back in 1994.

Now, given that I was still just a small tot at the time I wasn’t really following the team all that closely. I have no memory of the playoff disappointment in losing to the Sharks. Even in the 1995 Finals sweep to the Devils, my recollection includes being disappointed third hand through those same family members that made me a fan.

But as the 95/96 season started out I remember that’s when I started to track the team. I’d pull out the sports section of the newspaper every morning to see the scores and review the game summaries. On Tuesdays you could review the season stats for every player. I became familiar with the roster from top to bottom. My parents bought me a statistics book from hockey history and that thing became my bible. I was obsessed with the stats and had the Cup champions, opponents, and games of the previous 10 finals memorised. That also happened to be the year the Red Wings were a juggernaut, a 131 point monster at the top of the NHL. I remember watching the Wings every night through the playoffs, finally they were on TV every game. They had more trouble than anticipated with Khabibulin and the Jets taking 6 games to eliminate them. I’d play hockey in the basement with my dad acting as the Bulin Wall to my Yzerman. Then it was the St. Louis Blues and the iconic Yzerman Game 7 double overtime slap shot burned forever in my brain. Ironically, I probably didn’t see it live, or at least not quite, as my dad woke me up to come see the goal.

After that, it was the ignition of perhaps the best rivalry in the sport for the next few years, they faced off with Colorado. Sadly for me with Colorado being a west coast team I would miss most if not all of the games played in Denver. But that didn’t mean I would go on to hate them any less. This was the team that ended what was supposed to be my team’s run to destiny. It was my first real disappointment as a Red Wings fan. Then as I found out about what Claude Lemieux had done, I was even more upset. How could someone do that to somebody else?

Then the 96/97 season came and it was the Red Wings and my road to redemption. There was the Brawl in Hockeytown, where Lemieux got his comeuppance and them some from McCarty, the Roy-Vernon tilt, and so much more. Skip ahead to the rematch with Colorado. This time it was different with the Red Wings returning the favour and dropping the Avs in six. The difference this year, the Red Wings brought reinforcements in the form of Brendan Shanahan, who scored the empty netter to end the series. Looking back, as much as you hated them, you miss this rivalry.

It was onto the finals against the Flyers, featuring Eric Lindros and his Legion of Doom linemates LeClair and Renberg. The Flyers were the favourite coming in having no series go past five games. But history would tell a different story. Yzerman and the Red Wings used their past failures as motivation and rolled over the Flyers with a clean sweep. The Flyers couldn’t beat Mike Vernon, never scoring more than two goals in a game the entire series. Darren McCarty scored the Cup clincher, showing hands no one thought he had. As a kid, I didn’t understand the years of anguish Red Wings fans had been through to get to this, but I was still as excited as anybody.

Then we were lucky enough to have the Wings repeat in 1998, sweeping Washington in the finals. This one was emotional too, with Vladimir Konstantinov celebrating with his teammates in a wheelchair just months after the life altering car accident. Even for someone my age at the time, it was a powerful moment. It still brings a tear to my eye when I think about it. I remember racing home from school the next day and setting up a makeshift shrine in the front yard of my house with all my Red Wings memorabilia, using the tree as my mounting post. I hand wrote a sign saying “This one’s for you Vladdy”.

I was so lucky that just as I was falling in love with this team, I experienced the heartbreak before the beginnings of a dynasty that I wouldn’t truly appreciate the value of until years later when it was over. I idolised Yzerman and all I wanted to do was be him one day. As it is for many fans, it’s been a full circle moment for me to have him back running this team, hopefully bringing us back to the glory days.

What’s your Red Wings fandom origin story? What’s your favourite memory? Let’s chat about it in the comments.