When I was ten the University of Michigan football team went 7-5 because Tyler Eckert didn’t pitch the ball to Steve Breaston*, and everyone was mad as hell and I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to Michigan football. Then the RichRod and Brady Hoke eras were a thing, and I realized that my ten-year-old self was way wrong in that assessment, and that Michigan fans were spoiled when it came to long-term success. After not missing the playoffs for a solid quarter century, a similar phenomenon is happening with the Detroit Red Wings. In this first segment of their 2017-18 season preview, we’ll set the mood for the upcoming season as the Wings prepare to enter their own RichRod era by talking about, like, feelings and stuff. Part Two of the season preview will delve deeper into the actual hockey side of things.
As we inch closer to puck-drop on the Detroit Red Wings’ 2017-18 regular season, a feeling of uncertainty surrounds the franchise, dampening much of the excitement that would otherwise be felt by fans at the start of a new year. This is Detroit, after all, a city where hope springs eternal for its beloved sports franchises – yet even an ever-optimistic Motor City fanbase approaches the upcoming NHL season with an air of reservation. Who’s to blame them, really?
For the first time since many of their fans have been old enough to truly pay attention to sports, the Wings are coming off a season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs. With the snapping of a string of 25 consecutive postseason appearances – a streak beginning a full four years before this writer’s birth – so too came the realization for much of the team’s fanbase that the Wings are no longer special. A patina of mystique was scrubbed away from the team, and in the harsh light of a playoff-less reality, a spoiled fanbase was required to come to a handful of disappointing acceptances: there is no such thing as Red Wings Exceptionalism; there is no Manifest Destiny guiding the team to success every year; the Wings are just as susceptible to the trials and tribulations of a parity-driven league as any other team. Red Wings fans haven’t had to deal much with mediocrity over the past quarter century – before last year an embarrassing season was getting stonewalled out of the first round in six games by an en fuego Dwayne Roloson and the rest of an eight-seed Edmonton Oilers team that eventually lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in seven games. Oh, how we now look upon those days with fond memories…
What once stood as the most consistent franchise in professional sports has seen its foundation eroded, pillars of identity toppled, one-by-one, over the past half-decade, leaving the Red Wings a barely recognizable husk of their former self. The past few seasons have been rough on Wings fans, as a lack of on-ice success has been compounded by numerous off-ice misfortunes. The departure of tough-yet-loveable head coach Mike Babcock, who had piloted the Wings for a decade before taking off for greener pastures in Toronto two seasons ago. The closing of Joe Louis Arena, home to the Wings since 1979 and witness to four Stanley Cups during a run of dominance rarely matched in professional sports. The deaths of Mike Illitch, emblematic owner of the team during its greatest run of success, and Gordie Howe, fiery enforcer and one of the game’s all-time greats, both highly public faces of the franchise.
The cessation of the Red Wings’ postseason streak had been coming for a few years, as evidenced by the Wing’s ass-backwards fall into the eighth seed last season, and served merely as a disappointing punctuation to the end of a relatively swift and miserable period of decline. Gone are the institutions that made the Red Wings the most feared and the most respected franchise in all of hockey.
In their place are plenty of things fans will find to be weird and foreign, requiring of some amount of adjustment before accepting them as genuine. Replacing the aging and antiquated Joe Louis is a bright and shiny new barn, Little Caesars Arena. Nestled into a burgeoning area of downtown Detroit only a few blocks from Ford Field and Comerica Park, the new arena comes as part of an effort to revitalize and rebrand this section of the city into “District Detroit,” an entertainment and cultural district built on newfound vibrancy. LCA, by all accounts, looks to be one of the nicest new arenas in the NHL, and should have fans excited for the future of the team. Yet there are certain aspects to it that don’t feel quite right just yet. Maybe it’s the corporate feel that comes with the name – a necessity in the current sports universe, sure, but still disappointing and bland in comparison to the old stadium, a testament to a Detroit sports and civil rights icon. Perhaps it is also the fact that the Wings will be sharing their new home with the Detroit Pistons, who are moving back into the downtown area for the first time in three decades.
Little Caesars Arena will surely be a fantastic place to watch a hockey game, and has drawn widely positive reviews following the first few preseason games played there, but it will still take a while before it truly feels like home. It may come with all the bells and whistles, like the largest seamless jumbotron ever made hanging above center ice, but for now it lacks the character of the old Joe Louis, with its sticky floors, and lack of leg room, and trough-lined restrooms. There will be a period of transition between JLA and LCA, during which fans will have to settle in to the team’s new home. Beginning this season, there will be a period of transition within the franchise as well, as the Wings look to find a new identity.
Strap in tight; until then, it could be a bumpy ride.