The Red Wings bowed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, in just the second round. It was disappointing for Red Wings’ fans – okay, crushing.
But it’s worth remembering the Red Wings have made the playoffs for 20 consecutive years – the longest active run of any team not just in hockey, but in baseball, basketball and football. The last time the Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs, George Bush was just getting started – George H.W. Bush, that is.
That 1990 team was decent, but nobody thought it would spark a streak of 20 straight playoff seasons. To do that, the Red Wings have stayed at the top of their game with four different coaches, 25 goalies and hundreds of players. Not one has spanned the entire streak. But the team has been led during the entire stretch by just two captains: Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom – and no team has ever had better leaders than those two.
Detroit was a playoff team when the Edmonton Oilers’ wide-open offense ruled the game. They made the playoffs when the New Jersey Devils’ oh-so-boring defense dominated. But then the Red Wings developed a style of their own: a wonderful hybrid of hardcore North American hitting, and European-style skating and passing. They can play with anyone, any way you like – and they’ll beat you doing it.
The Wings were on top 10 years ago when the referees didn’t call anything – like clutching, grabbing, and hooking – and they’ve stayed on top after the refs started calling everything, like coughing and sneezing.
The Wings’ streak survived the lockout of 1995 and the lockout of 2005, and they didn’t miss a beat.
The Wings won three Stanley Cups before the salary cap was put in place five years ago. Everyone said would be the end of their dynasty, until they won another Cup in 2008, with not a dime more than everyone else had.
The Wings play in the NHL’s Western Conference, despite the fact that Joe Louis Arena is a few miles east of the Piston’s home, and they play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Go figure.
No team in the four major sports has traveled more than the Red Wings have over the past 20 years. They’ve had to play conference rivals in Dallas and Denver, Edmonton and Anaheim, Phoenix and Vancouver. They don’t complain about it. They just win, get on the plane, and go do it again.
The Red Wings have done all of this with zero – zero – off-ice scandals. They’ve played through the Minnesota Vikings’ sex boat escapades, Pete Rose and Mark McGwire’s “confessions,” Ben Roethlisberger and Lawrence Taylor and Tiger Woods. They’ve earned a reputation for being genuinely good guys. They even take pay cuts to keep their teammates on board.
In his autobiography, comedian Steve Martin said the hardest thing to learn was not how to be great. On a given night, almost any comedian can do that. No, the hardest thing, he said, was to learn to be good, night after night, no matter what they throw at you.
The Red Wings have not only been good, night after night, they’ve been great. And they’ve been doing it for almost 2,000 nights. They are the honest accountants, the loyal employees – the guys who do their jobs so well for so long, you barely notice.
Well, hockey fans, you should. Because teams don’t come along like this – ever.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.