For 25 years, the Detroit Red Wings have made the NHL’s playoffs. This year, the streak will end, and it has been a great run for the city of Detroit. The playoff streak started in 1992, but the years prior to that year were the NHL Entry Drafts that were the beginnings, and the building of the beast.
It all began 35 years ago, when Little Caesars owner Mike Ilitch's family bought the Detroit Red Wings from fabled NHL Owner Bruce Norris for eight million dollars. Yes, that is correct, EIGHT million dollars. After several unsuccessful seasons and losing seasons, Detroit was piling up the draft picks from the “Dead Wings” era. The 1983 NHL Entry Draft was the first huge step in the right direction for Detroit. With the fourth overall draft pick, the Wings drafted Center Steve Yzerman from the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. Along with Yzerman, the Wings later drafted some muscle and core players Bob Probert and Joey Kocur.
The next ten years were considered the “Yzerman Years” due to his flat-out dominance on the offensive end. Yzerman regularly put puck into the net, and butts into the seats of the Joe Louis Arena, which is also in its last season as an NHL barn. Building off a 1987 playoff berth in which Detroit won a series for only the second time in the modern era before getting destroyed by the Edmonton Oilers in five games, new Head Coach Jacques Demers had many of the right pieces at this point. In 1988, the Wings went on to win their first division title in 23 years.
The 1989 NHL Entry Draft brought in three studs who became mainstays and fan favorites in the lineup until 1997. In that draft, the Wings got Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. This extremely talented draft pool also landed Detroit Mike Sillinger in the first round and Dallas Drake in the sixth round. Both of those picks played over 1000 NHL games.
In 1993, former Montreal Canadiens coaching legend Scotty Bowman took over as bench boss after Demers and Bryan Murray failed to get the Red Wings back to the Conference Finals, and in the strike-shortened season of 1994-95, Detroit made the Stanley Cup Finals only to be swept by the New Jersey Devils in four games.
The Red Wings were adding key free-agent players and making the necessary trade to get more gritty and less pretty. The Russian Five was born in this period when we added Russian superstars Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, along with former Calgary Flames Stanley Cup winning goaltender Mike Vernon.
In the 1995-96 season, the Wings went on to break the NHL record in regular season wins with 62, only to fall in the Conference Finals to the much and always hated Colorado Avalanche, who won their first Stanley Cup that year. It was in that playoff series where the “Blood Feud” began after a dirty blind side boarding of Kris Draper by Claude Lemieux, which would be avenged in March of the following season.
The beginning of the 1996-97 season brought in powerhouse scoring forward Brendan Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers in exchange for smooth skating stud Paul Coffey and the rugged Keith Primeau. Shanny was the last piece to the puzzle and after dismantling Colorado in the Conference Finals, Detroit swept the Philadelphia Flyers for our first Stanley Cup in 42 seasons. A few days after the Cup win, Konstantinov, Fetisov and the team masseuse were involved in a limo accident that left Vladdy paralyzed.
In 1998, the Red Wings won their second Stanley Cup in a row by sweeping the Washington Capitals, making it two straight Finals sweeps for Detroit. The Wings also became the first team since the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons, all the while playing inspired for their injured teammate. Two more Stanley Cups would come to Motown, including a powerhouse 2001-02 team that beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 in the Finals. Detroit has had nine players from that squad inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 2008, the Red Wings would be pressed to the limit but win the Cup for the fourth time with a seven-game victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. This time, Super Swede Nicklas Lidstrom became the first ever European player to Captain a Stanley Cup Champion. They returned to the Cup Finals in 2009, but this time Detroit came out on the losing end of a well fought seven-game series with Pittsburgh. This would be the Wings' last trip to the finals during the 25-year playoff streak.
Earlier this year, on February 10th, Detroit owner Mike Ilitch died, and it is only fitting that his team’s playoff streak will end this season, and one of the best arenas in the NHL will be closing its doors as well.
Mike Ilitch and his family, the Red Wings staff, players, scouts, doctors, and every single employee at the Joe Louis Arena has made the last 25 years of my sports life one of the most cherished and happily remembered eras of my life, so thank you for making and keeping Detroit great!
You can always reach me @PolkaPat.