A new year for all of us, but for the Red Wings it feels sadly the same.
Losses pile up. Leads, some of them by 3, are extinguished just as quickly as they are built. After a poor start, the Wings had strung together a strong November and early December before falling back into bad habits and injuries. The playoffs are out of reach once again. Red Wings hockey will cease in early April.
That will make it three straight years of missing the playoffs, not really even getting close. For Wings fans, this is a strange, disappointing result. We’d made the playoffs 25 straight seasons, conquered dozens of playoff rounds and won 4 Stanley Cups. We’d had Hall of Fame players like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Dominik Hasek and Brett Hull just to name a few. A Hall of Fame owner in Mike Illitch. The greatest coach ever in Scotty Bowman. Then the current best coach in Mike Babcock. The torch was passed from Yzerman to Lidstrom to Henrik Zetterberg.
For many of us, it felt like that torch would never be relinquished. Master GM Ken Holland had a foolproof plan, supplemented by master late round draft gems that would ensure that the Wings would be perennial contenders. The playoffs were our birthright. But that torch has fallen.
Yes, Dylan Larkin seems like a stud franchise centerman. Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Michael Rasmussen and Tyler Bertuzzi seem like strong top-six pieces and scorer Filip Zadina shouldn’t be too far behind. But who knows if they can all come together to be a dynamic juggernaut. The key word here is “potential.” They could all potentially fall apart. And the stars of yesteryear loom large, forever reminders of past greatness. That’s an inordinate amount of pressure to put on anyone.
The sudden switch has created whiplash. As losses mount, that previous sense of confidence that we’d all felt in years past continues to get hammered. Losing back then was easy to brush off because we knew another winning streak wasn’t too far ahead. Now who knows when the losses will stop.
For many fans, the belief is that losing in the present will portend winning in the future. The worse a team is, the higher their draft lottery spot potentially. Look at Tampa Bay, Chicago and Pittsburgh, they’ll say. Crappy teams that utilized high draft picks like Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin to find success.
But there’s a cautionary tale to that as well. Buffalo has tanked for years with minimal success. Phoenix isn’t any closer to contending. And Edmonton, well, Connor McDavid can’t do it all by himself
The reality is that the team seems so far away from competing. Even if the Wings won the draft lottery and drafted potential phenom Jack Hughes, Jimmy Howard can only tend goal for a few more years, and there’s not another potential starter in the pipeline due soon. The defense has some interesting pieces in Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek, but no one is a Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski or Niklas Kronwall. Changes can happen, sometimes quickly, to be sure, but that’s difficult to pin hope to.
With anger percolating in the ranks, the blamegame has begun to spread. “Ken Holland should have torn this team down earlier.” “Abdelkader should have been let go.” “Nyquist failed to be a star.” “DeKeyser never lived up to his contract.” “Jeff Blashill sucks.” Such bickering only leads to more anger, more blame and fewer answers.
Sports are such strange things. As fans, we have no control over the direction of the team. We don’t vote on who should be the GM or owner. We have no input on who should be traded or drafted. The only real power we have is in our wallets and how much money we dedicate to tickets, souvenirs and whatnot. And only the most jaded of us give up on our teams entirely. The simple act of rooting for a team carries no tangible benefit. In sports, there is only one winner which means for 31 NHL teams (soon to be 32), there’s a whole lot of losing.
Yet we flock to sports nevertheless. Whether for social excursion, the joy of winning or identity tribalism, sports will forever attract us and generate regional pride or embarrassment.
For the Wings, our record of winning gave us a sense of pride. Even though we were never part of the team, our identity with them instilled us with hope and energy. To have that ripped away from you after so long, it’s akin to losing a part of our identity in a way. We’re learning how to cope.
Hockey is a beautiful game with highs and lows deeper than any other sport. The thrill of a win is equatable with the sting of defeat and keeping everything in perspective is hard at times. Kindling hope against the barrage of negativity is important, and it is the mantra of the Wings that will keep us going during dark times. Simple reminders about what the franchise means to each of us will carry us on. Much as life can be unpredictable and tough, it is our ability to power through that makes us strong. One need only look at Dylan Larkin in his last game against the Predators to see hope for optimism.
“The difference was when they scored the tying goal with a minute left, I felt, I think the bench felt: we weren’t losing,” Larkin said. “There’s no way. We played too well. Too much was going right for us, we were getting too many chances. I knew one way or another, we were going to win that game.”
That’s the kind of resiliency that speaks to something deeper than sports: the strength to endure despite hardship. It’s why so many of us fell in love with the team in the first place; they stood up for each other, they represented the community, especially the most unfortunate, and they never gave up. They honored their past and welcomed new teammates with pride. More than winning and gloating, that’s what attracted us to the team. That’s what made us true Red Wing fans. That’s what management, players and coaches call the “Red Wing way.”
It’s how teams should behave which is also why the idea of intentionally losing just doesn’t seem to compute. It goes against the very heart of why so many of us love the team. You don’t give up and hope for the best. You keep playing. For pride, for your city, for your community.
Perhaps the Wings never win another championship in our lifetimes. Perhaps draft pick upon draft pick fails to pan out. But as long as the Wings compete in the best and worst of times, I’ll consider them a part of my identity. That’s what sports should be about. That’s why they’re important.