Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But Detroit Red Wings fans have been able to take that for granted for a record 22 straight seasons. The last time the Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs, not one current NHL player was in the league. Some of the current Red Wings weren’t born. Nine current franchises weren’t yet created.
But the record seemed doomed to be broken this season.
To start, there almost wasn’t a season at all, thanks to the contract dispute between the players and the owners, who both thought the other side was making too much money. And, of course, both sides were right – setting up a game of chicken between self-destructive lunatics.
When a federal mediator finally brought them to their senses in January, they had just enough time left to play a 48-game schedule – which actually seemed about right. But the Red Wings came out flat-footed, falling so far behind they had to win their last four games just to sneak into the seventh of eight playoff spots.
In the first round, they faced the Ducks of Anaheim – formerly the Mighty Ducks – which is already an affront to everything that is holy about hockey.
Amazingly, the Red Wings beat them in seven games – quite an upset. Their reward: an even tougher opponent, the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, who earned at least one point in their first 24 games, which is a record.
But for hardcore hockey fans – and really, are there any other kind? – this series was a reward.
The Red Wings and Blackhawks are two of the NHL’s Original Six teams. What are those? Until 1967, the NHL consisted only of Boston and New York, Montreal and Toronto, and Detroit and Chicago. All six have great fans who understand how offsides works, and classic uniforms designed not by Disney focus groups working with computer graphics, but actual human beings working with sewing machines.
Whatever happened between Detroit and Chicago, it was going to be a playoff series to savor. But probably nobody expected the Red Wings to go up three games to one, with three chances to topple the top team in hockey.
And after that start, probably nobody expected the Red Wings to drop games five and six, either, to set up a winner-take-all game seven Wednesday night.
With the score tied, 1-1, the two teams went into a frenzy like no other sport can create. When two baseball teams head to the ninth inning, the game stalls with a parade of relief pitchers and pinch hitters. In football, the players start running out of bounds and intentionally throwing passes into the stands. And in basketball – please don’t get me started here – we get time-outs, intentional fouls, and a free throw contest. The last two minutes can take 20.
But hockey is the only sport that speeds up as the game winds down. And that’s what happened Wednesday night, with the teams battling for their lives. As Willy Wonka said, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.”
When the seventh game of a hockey playoff series goes into overtime, it’s as close to actual “sudden death” as sports can get. When you’re losing by a few goals, you might not like it, but you know what’s coming. But in overtime, there’s no preparing for the sudden ecstasy – or agony.
And that’s why, when Chicago’s Brent Seabrook fired a lucky wrist shot off a Red Wings’ skate and into the net, it unleashed a torrent of endorphins in the heads of a few million Chicago fans – and a flood of equally powerful chemicals, going the other direction, in the brains of Red Wing backers.
But the worst part wasn’t losing. It’s that one of the best series in recent memory was over – and now we have to watch the NBA playoffs.
Or mow our lawns – which is more exciting.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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