Dark times are on the horizon for the Detroit Red Wings. Take it from someone who has ended up supporting bad teams in different sports, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
In the last 25 joyful, playoff making seasons, our Red Wings have made the finals six times and won the Stanley Cup in four of those finals. It’s safe to say that we’ve been spoiled. The problem is that once a team starts to perform poorly, trying to escape without making big, dramatic changes is like trying to escape a whirlpool while paddling a surfboard. And the surfboard is on fire. The franchise system is unique in that entry to the league is granted not on performance, but on the size of someone’s checkbook. Compared say, to most leagues, where if finish below a certain place, you get relegated.
In the soccer world, I support Newcastle United, a team that’s been relegated (and then promoted) twice in the last ten seasons. I’m drawing this parallel for a reason, so stick with me. The Premier League is arguably the best football league in the world, and the NHL is the best hockey league in the world. All teams have blips, but Detroit are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games and 19 points away from the wildcard spots. Barring a miracle, it ain’t happening for the Red Wings this season. Newcastle, meanwhile won promotion twice back to the Prem but are embroiled in a bitter battle to avoid relegation, which is how most of their seasons have gone recently. Both teams have won games they had no right to, but both have lost games they really should have won.
Therein lies the problem, at the end of the 2017/18 season, 49 different teams had played in the Premier League (since it was formed in 1992). But only six of those teams have ever won the competition. The top few teams are (usually) the only teams that ever win, the middling teams are exactly that, and the bottom teams’ only real fight is to avoid relegation. As a fan, that’s a poor place to be. A kind of mid-table purgatory.
This is why the next few seasons will be dire for Red Wings fans. The team isn’t good enough to win anything, but is too good to be in contention for a seriously high first rounder in the entry draft. It could be worse, by trading reasonably well; Detroit has amassed a good collection of draft picks. That’s really the only silver lining to the cloud that sits over the Little Ceasers Arena. Stalwart players like Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist are too stubborn to tank (and rightly so). The Red Wings will never be the Buffalo Sabres, or the Arizona Coyotes but in a league where the only prize worth fighting for is the Stanley Cup or the top draft pick (nobody really cares about the Presidents’ Trophy, Prince of Wales Trophy or Clarence S. Campbell Bowl) the scope for disappointment is high.
Success is nigh-on impossible to sustain. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 2013 and 2015, now the only race they’re in contention to win is the ‘All in for Dahlin’ campaign. The LA Kings? Won in 2012 and 2014 then the wheels came off. The Kings have missed two of the last three playoffs, the one post season they made saw them knocked out in the first round, winning just one game.
In the late 1980s, the Edmonton Oilers were unstoppable, but after (an admittedly impressive) seven season run that saw the team make the finals five times and win four of those, the rot set in and the team slipped into irrelevance. The New York Islanders won four cups on the bounce, now fans are lucky if the team qualifies for the playoffs.
This, in a manner of speaking, is what we fans of the Red Wings can likely expect. The glory days are gone, and while more may be on the way, it’s going to be some time before we see them.
Returning to the Detroit/Newcastle parallel, both teams maintain momentum because they have excellent fan bases. Newcastle fans pack out the 52 thousand seater St James’ Park week in and week out. Red Wings fans are fiercely loyal, although of late the boos have started to echo around the LCA. Understandably fueled by weak performances on the ice. We’re not quite at the point of throwing jerseys onto the ice. Yet.
How long the slump is going to last is hard to say. I’m not convinced that the right people are running the show in Detroit, the next draft will be crucial to the direction that the rebuild will take. What is for certain though is that the dynasty is dead, and has been for some time and we’re close to a return of the dreaded ‘Dead Wings’ era.
I seriously hope that I’m wrong, but history tells a story and it’s a story that spans the world of sport, not just the isolated world of the NHL. Don’t even get me started on the Detroit Lions…