Mike Ilitch and the Rise of the Detroit Red Wings

How a study of the Red Wings’ gradual ascent may hold the key for success in Winnipeg

After 20 consecutive playoff appearances, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the Detroit Red Wings weren’t a winner. So it may come as a shock to hear that in the 16 years from 1966-1982, the Red Wings made the playoffs only twice, earning the nickname the “Dead Wings”. And then suddenly, everything changed.

Mike Ilitch founded Little Caesar’s in 1959 and gradually became quite wealthy by extending his pizza franchise across North America. He was an avid sports fan, but had no particular knowledge or insight into the game of hockey. Nevertheless, in 1982 Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings for the cool sum of $8M. The Red Wings missed the playoffs again in 1983, and then made a steady, gradual ascent to the top of the hockey world.

In the 29 years that Mike Ilitch has been the owner of the Detroit Red Wings, they’ve missed the playoffs only twice – and that includes Ilitch’s inaugural year in 1983. Not only do the Red Wings own a ridiculous streak of 20 straight playoff appearances, they’ve also posted at least 100 points in 11 consecutive seasons. In addition, they’ve won their division 15 times, the President’s Trophy (for the league’s best record) 6 times, and hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug 4 times – in ’97, ’98, ’02, and ’08. In an increasingly competitive league where teams rise and fall in the same breath, (i.e Carolina, who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and missed the playoffs the following year), their continued success is virtually unprecedented in modern sports.

As far as the on-ice product goes, the turning point came in 1983 when the Wings drafted a skinny kid out of Nepean, Ontario by the name of Steve Yzerman. Some in the organization actually favoured American scoring sensation and Michigan native Pat Lafontaine, including then GM Jim Devellano. As fate would have it, Lafontaine was drafted 3rd overall by the New York Islanders, clearing the way for the Red Wings to draft Yzerman with the 4th overall pick. After just three years in the league, Stephen Gregory Yzerman was named team captain in 1986. He was all of 21 years old.

While many would mark the team’s turnaround with the Yzerman draft, it actually began with Ilitch’s hiring of Jim Devellano. Devellano became General Manager in 1982, fresh off three Stanley Cup victories with the New York Islanders’ dynasty of the early ’80’s, where he served first as a scout and then as assistant GM. He was at the helm for the Wings’ acquisition of several key building blocks, including the historic 1989 draft where the Red Wings hit the motherload, drafting Nick Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 3rd, 4th, and 11th rounds respectively. He hired coaching legend Scotty Bowman in 1993, despite clamouring from others inside the organization who preferred Mike Keenan (who was a hot commodity at the time). He also helped mentor Ken Holland, now Red Wings GM since 1997, who has led the team into a period of sustained dominance which is unmatched by any team in the new millenium. Devellano was GM from 1982-1990, and has since served a variety of senior roles in the organization, including his current title of Senior Vice-President.

Ilitch and Devellano have been sharing in each others’ exploits for years. In addition to his hockey holdings, Ilitch is also the owner of the MLB’s Detroit Tigers, having purchased the club in 1992. Devellano, not coincidentally, is the vice-president of that club as well. And while Ilitch and Devellano share many offices and honours, one stands above all the rest – both have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (Builders’ category) – Ilitch in 2003,  Devellano in 2010.

Detroit’s Modern Day Management Philosophy

For years, the Red Wings’ strategy has been simple and effective, and particularly so since the dawn of the salary cap. They’ve hired excellent scouts and drafted well. In fact, it appears that they’ve identified arbitrage opportunities in scouting; since the North American market is saturated with scouts, they’ve focused on Europe, which is under-scouted by comparison.

They bring players along slowly. No one is rushed to the NHL – they all do their apprenticeship in the AHL or in European pro leagues. No one makes the Red Wings’ lineup before they’re ready to contribute. This gives young players the time to develop a complete game and tackle the pressure cooker of the NHL when they’re both physically and emotionally mature.

Relative to the rest of the league, the Wings are typically less active in free agency, and they approach trade deadline day with caution.  They prefer to keep their draft picks rather than trading them for quick-fix options.

They don’t hold a roster spot for an enforcer – every player who steps on the ice is a legitimate NHL hockey player. There’s no ‘energy line’ of big, useless brutes who play 5 minutes a night. While this particular trend has intensified in recent years (they did once employ more marginal players like Joey Kocur), its beginnings were clear in the team’s earlier days with the presence of Bob Probert – the most feared fighter in the history of the NHL. Probert may have 3300 career penalty minutes, but he also has 163 career goals, including a season where he scored 29 goals and 62 points. The man could play. Darren McCarty was a further example of a player who could drop the gloves but also played an effective role between whistles.

The Detroit Red Wings have consistently been the class of the league for over 15 years, and I believe that the same formula can be used to produce success right here in Winnipeg.

Red Wings Redux in the Peg?

More than anything, the turnaround of the Red Wings is a great example of how ownership sets the tone for an entire organization. Success comes when a group of industrious people with good character and integrity take it upon themselves to serve an organization to the best of their ability. It takes passion, dilligence, and extreme patience to run a hockey team effectively, and I believe the Winnipeg Jets are in exceptionally good hands with David Thompson, Mark Chipman and the people they have surrounded themselves with.

While it’s true that the Manitoba Moose played in the American Hockey League, the truth is that they were run like an NHL team for years. With the construction of the MTS Centre, seven consecutive seasons of playoff appearances, and the development of several key players for their NHL affiliate, the Vancouver Canucks, True North proved that they were able to run a successful hockey franchise. I have no doubt that this team will become strong, given time, but it will not be without its challenges.

Given the small market and unfavourable climate, attracting quality free agents will always be a challenge. The salary cap will also be an issue, as the Jets will probably be conservative with their finances, which will occassionally cause friction in contract talks with existing players (Zach Bogosian being the first such example). But these concerns are minor compared to the monumental task of drafting and developing elite talent. The NHL Entry Draft is 100x more important than free agency, and that’s where a large portion of their energy and strategy should be focused. Player development – the task of helping tremendously gifted players harness their potential – is the other part of the equation. That is what Detroit has done so well for so long, and is the not-so-secret, secret to their success.

If I were Mark Chipman, I would hire as many quality scouts as I could get my hands on, and fill the organization with other experienced, respected hockey people who will provide mentorship for the young talent. In addition to great coaching, an interdisciplinary team of strength and development trainers, nutritionists, and even sports psychologists are needed to educate players and mould them into the best athletes they can be.

In order to build this team properly, it must be done slowly. The current prospect pool is shallow and needs to be built up. The NHL roster is young and bereft of quality veterans. There is no quick fix – the road will be long. But good things come to those who wait, and I think that if we wait long enough, the results will astound us. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the Detroit Red Wings.

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