Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fortunate Sons

For more than twenty years now, the legacy of the Detroit Red Wings has been one of highly skilled play. When you ask opposing fans what they remember about the teams Detroit iced during this era, they will wax poetically about the sublime versatility of a Steve Yzerman or the effortless dominance of a Nicklas Lidstrom. Perhaps they will recall Sergei Fedorov and the Russian 5; or the year Detroit built a team so powerful that it often deployed 600+ goal scorers "Lucky" Luc Robataille and Brett Hull, on the 3rd and 4th lines. If they're feeling snarky, they might bring up Paul Coffey and the 1995 Cup Finals team that was bullied off the ice in 4 games by New Jersey. Younger fans might harken to Monty Babcock's Flying Circus; Datsyuk's dangles and Zetterberg's wicked wrist shot fueling a whole new generation of awed onlookers. Even this upcoming season, I suspect the story will be something about "Pavel Datsyuk and the Swedish National team" now that we've added Daniel Alfredsson. This is the image forever burned in the minds of those who watch the club from afar, and while I'm certain the Wings are proud of this image; it simply isn't the truth, or a least the whole truth. The road to Stanley Cup glory in Hockeytown is paved the same as any other; by blood, sweat, tears and the relentless desire of downright nasty men who excel at playing "ugly" hockey. Those who live and die with this organization know that the Red Wings are at their finest when they combine skill, determination and a barely concealed threat of violent reprisal, into one, brutally efficient symphony of destruction.

In this regard; as a Red Wings fan I will always hold a special place in my heart for the most belligerent warriors who don the winged wheel. This goes beyond simple "goonery"; not since the Bruise Brothers of the late 1980's have the Red Wings attempted to thug their way to victory on the ice. No, here in Detroit we admire players who play on the edge but reserve our love for those who excel while doing so. You can't turn a mule into a Clydesdale; winning ugly requires the kind of players who can hurt you on the scoreboard and on the way to the penalty box. I mention this now because, this week the hallowed Hockey Hall of Fame has opened it's doors for Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan; two former Wings who's games contained almost equal parts skill and sandpaper. The call to immortality is complicated for both men; Chelios because of his longstanding feud with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Shanahan due to his current role with the league front office. Despite the potentially awkward speeches, both players are indisputably deserving selections in a 2013 HHoF class that also includes legendary defenders Scott Neidermeyer and Geraldine Heaney (women's/international hockey), plus builder Fred Shero. For Chelios, the elevation comes during his first year of eligibility; an absolutely stacked 2012 class forced Shanahan to wait until his 2nd crack to reach the Hall.

At this point, entire fields of digital trees have been slaughtered explaining what this means for hockey as a whole, so I won't repeat those efforts here. I'm sure fans from Montreal, Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford and New York have many fond memories of both players and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to celebrate this occasion with all hockey fans. For Wings Nation however, this moment offers an opportunity to reflect on the effects both men had on the organization; both in bringing championships to Hockeytown and in helping to establish the very DNA of what has become the Wings culture of winning these past two decades. 

In many ways, Chelios and Shanahan will be defined in Red Wings history by their time together as teammates and similarities as players. Both men arrived in Motown with multiple teams behind them; both men would go on to battle for other franchises before hanging up their skates. One of the more interesting connections between the two in my mind, is that they may have helped established Detroit's current trend of pillaging team leaders from other franchises. Chelios was as co-captain of the Canadians during his final season in Montreal before serving as the captain of the Blackhawks from 1995, until he was traded to Detroit in 1999. By comparison, Shanahan's record as a leader before coming to Detroit was less impressive, but by no means inconsequential; he was an alternate-captain in Saint Louis before donning the full C during his one, ill-fated season in Hartford. Before arriving in Detroit, both men had displayed the necessary skills to blend seamlessly with the generational talents already on the team. Despite this, both players were acquired at least in part to sharpen the team's edge and make the Wings more difficult to play against. Both Chelios and Shanahan were also highly coveted trade targets, who cost the Red Wings first round draft picks and established players, who had perhaps worn out their welcome in Hockeytown already. Despite these costs; both players provided excellent returns on the organization's investment. Shanahan played for 9 seasons in Detroit, winning 3 Stanley Cups and representing the Wings in 5 All-Star games. Chelios suited up in Motown for parts of an astonishing 10 seasons, earning himself 2 Stanley Cup rings, appearing in 4 All-Star games and ultimately landing with Detroit's front office as the Executive Advisor to Ken Holland; a position that previously served as a springboard for Steve Yzerman to land the General Manager's job in Tampa.

Perhaps the most telling similarity however is that both Shanahan and Chelios were chosen multiple times to represent their countries at the highest levels of international hockey. This serves as a lasting rebuke to those who would suggest either player underachieved in Hockeytown; his luster dimmed when surrounded by a galaxy of other, greater stars. The truth as always is that success in Detroit has never been about statistics; like Steve Yzerman before them, both men committed to playing a strong team game, at the expense of individual numbers. For a Detroit squad that could score with any one of four rotating lines, that meant doing the team's dirty work in the corners; often at both ends of the ice.This made the Red Wings better, earned both men some impressive jewelery, and helped establish a tradition of responsible, defensive play carried on by current stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Make no mistake however; you don't make the team for powerhouse nations like Canada and the United States because you can hustle on the back-check. When called upon; both Chelios and Shanahan could flash the kind of elite talent that makes hockey men who're desperate for a medal, stand up and take notice. Between the two of them; Shanahan and Chelios have made 6 trips to the Olympics, 5 tournaments for the Canada Cup or World Cup of Hockey and 2 appearances at the IIHF World Championships. Chelios won gold at the 1996 World Cup and Silver at the 2002 Olympic Games. Shanahan managed 3 gold medals; at the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1994 World Hockey Championships and at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also settled for silver in the 1996 World Cup; the same event that provided Chelios with his only gold medal.

Of course, despite the inevitable entwinement of their legacies; both men enter the Hall as heroes of Red Wings lore on their own merits and with their own stories to tell. For Chelios, the journey to Detroit would take 15 long years and span the full heights and depths a life in pro hockey has to offer. His first season in the NHL was way back in 1983 with Montreal; where he would go on to win a Stanley Cup, 2 Norris trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and play until his reported affinity for the city's nightlife inspired the Canadians to trade him to Chicago in the summer of 1990. Chelios would then toil in the Windy City for 9 more seasons while, ironically becoming a hated rival of those same "soft" Red Wings teams that could never get over the hump in the early 90's. Although Chelios was a proud warrior who'd enjoyed another Norris trophy and some playoff success with the Blackhawks, eventually the systemic demolition of the team under owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz took it's toll. In a somewhat shocking turn of events, Chelios agreed to waive his partial no-trade clause to facilitate a move to his sworn enemies in Hockeytown. The Red Wings were coming off back to back Cup victories in 1999, and despite arriving in Detroit at the ripe old age of 37; it was hoped that Chelios could help replace some of the defensive acumen and grit the team had lost when tragedy befell Vladimir Konstantinov in the summer of 1997. The rest is, as they say; history. Although Chelios and the Wings would fail to "3-peat" in 1999, Chris would finally taste champagne from Lord Stanley's mug again in 2002; along with Brendan Shanahan and the rest of his Red Wing teammates, of course. Perhaps more stunningly however; Chelios would continue to play with Detroit long enough to win another championship in 2008 at the record breaking age of 45. Despite the ravages of time, Chelios always managed to represent his franchise, and his country with passion, skill and a surprisingly charming personality, fueled by his tremendous sense of humor. Although Chelios is a Chicago native, played only 10 of his 26 NHL seasons in Hockeytown and isn't required to choose a team to represent when entering the Hall; it says right here that Chris Chelios will die a Detroit Red Wing and there isn't anything, anyone in la belle province or the state of Illinois can do about that.

Whereas Chelios arrived in Detroit as a 37 year old champion trying to revitalize his career with a winning organization; Shanahan came to Motown in the prime of his life and carrying the hopes of a beleaguered franchise that hadn't won a Stanley Cup since 1955. Despite being only 27 years of age at the time, Shanahan had already developed something of a reputation as a talented malcontent who never seemed to be happy where he was. To be fair, much of this criticism was undeserved; it wasn't Brendan's fault that he was the most famous example of the NHL's archaic, ineffective free agency model in the 1980's. By that same measure, despite Mike Keenan's insistence that Shanahan "wasn't half the player he thinks he is" during his time in St Louis; it has since been revealed that the trade to Hartford was the result of ownership's insistence that Keenan drastically cut the payroll of an expensive "also ran" squad that featured Brett Hull and Al McInnis. Naturally, it would also be absurd to hold Shanahan responsible for the fact that in both situations, he was effectively traded for a future Hall of Fame defenseman with generational talent. Of course, the one thing Shanahan was guilty of in his career, was having no desire to play for the moribund Hartford Whalers franchise. Unfortunately for Brendan, this occurred at a time when hockey's labor situation was changing rapidly; many die hard fans saw Shanahan's position as yet another symptom of a greedy millionaires club that had lost connection to classic, Canadian values. It certainly didn't help that Brendan was an active voice for the players during the 94-95 lockout. In light of his situation in Hartford, it wasn't difficult for the "old-time hockey" crowd to paint Shanahan as the villain behind all 3 transactions.

As if the cloud following Shanahan's career moves weren't enough, he also stepped into a highly charged situation the moment he got off the plane in Detroit. In 1995, the heavily-favored Wings suffered an embarrassing "upset" at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, when they were physically destroyed in a 4 game Finals sweep. The very next season, the Wings would again lose to a more physical team; this time it was Colorado in the Western Conference finals however. While the series was hotly contested, it will be forever remembered in Red Wings lore as the night Claude Lemieux tried to murder Chris Draper and in doing so, helped to create the Red Wing empire. In essence, Shanahan was Ken Holland's answer to the charge that the Red Wings weren't physical enough to win the ultimate prize; and what an answer he turned out to be. Detroit would immediately win back to back titles upon Shanahan's arrival and he would remain an elite scoring option in crunch time during the team's magical, 2002 Cup run. For nigh on a decade, Shanahan played primarily on the 1st line with superstars Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman; serving the roles of protectorgarbage man and rocket shot sniper with equal aplomb. Over the course of his 9 seasons in Detroit, Shanahan would register 40 or more goals 3 times, 30 or more goals another 4 times and never finish below 25 goals. Brendan would also register 8 seasons with 100 or more penalty minutes and help establish a tradition of gritty, two-way dominance that the Red Wings still struggle to replicate to this very day. Of course, towards the end of his career, even the man himself was no longer "Brendan fucking Shanahan" either; his last few seasons in Detroit were marked primarily by butt checks in the crease, shots from impossible angles and play that at times seemed to be attempting to remove the word "power" from the term "power forward". In the end however; Shanahan always seemed to find a way to cheat one more 30 goal season out of his aging body and his commitment to the franchise was never in question.
And so, today, Wings fans stand with the rest of the hockey world in awe and admiration at the impressive careers of two of the most talented players in NHL history. Although they were known for other reasons in other locales; they remain heroes in Detroit because they sacrificed everything they had for the goal of bringing championships to Hockeytown. On this proud day, many will choose to remember the highlight reels, the pretty passes and the goals each man created over the course of two remarkable careers. As for myself however, I choose to remember a bleeding Shanahan yapping at the Colorado bench during the height of the Wings/Avs rivalry. I choose to remember an exhausted Chelios absolutely destroying Travis Moen in the playoffs. I choose to remember when two men helped teach Detroit that Stanley Cup winners "ain't pretty, they just look that way." This is the true legacy of both Chelios and Shanahan in Detroit; this lesson is why the Wings hired a coach like Mike Babcock and why the team continues to surround it's talented core with gritty agitators who can also put the puck in the net. Oh, and there's just one more thing I'll remember; I choose to remember the ugliest Red Wing of all. In a fair world, we'd be sending 3 plow horses to the Hall of Fame right now; we miss you Vladdy and it just hasn't quite been the same without you.

- Sportsball Chic

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, due to some sort of technical error; Blogger re-used a Chris Chelios clip twice in this article when it was originally published. It took 3 edits to fix, but I finally did managed to get the link to go to the right place. For those of you who were fooled by this glitch the first time, the link under "ugliest Red Wing of all" was supposed to (and now does) go to this video instead:

    Thanks for your patience, it wasn't editing so much as Blogger getting confused by the number of links in the article as far as I can tell.

    Lets go Red Wings.