In the early 1950s a group of Detroit Red Wing fans introduced the curious custom of flinging a single live octopus onto the ice during the Stanley Cup playoff opener in Olympia Stadium. When the Wings began missing the playoffs on a regular basis several years ago, Detroit's octopus population was spared. Last week that reprieve ended dramatically. Making their first cup appearance in eight seasons, the Red Wings won their best-of-three preliminary series in two straight games over the favored Atlanta Flames. And as Detroit clinched the upset with a 3-2 victory Thursday night before a record Olympia throng of 16,671, fans hurled no fewer than a dozen live octopuses onto the ice.
As a result, maintenance crews kept scurrying around the rink with pails and shovels and more mannerly fans began to wonder whether there might not be a more seemly way of saluting Detroit's hockey revival. In addition to their eight-year absence from the playoffs, it had been 12 years since the Red Wings won a playoff game, and it has been 23 years since Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay & Company skated off with the most recent of the club's seven Stanley Cups. The Wings won only 16 games last season, sleepwalking to the NHL's worst record before acres of empty seats in the drafty old Olympia. All of which made it quite stunning that this season rookie General Manager Lindsay and rookie Coach Bobby Kromm were able to put together a hustling club that drew lots of fans back to the Olympia while skating into the playoffs with a 32-34-14 record, eighth best in the 18-team NHL.
Still, the Red Wings did not appear to have a chance against Atlanta, a team that seemed to be going places. At once the youngest (average age: 24.2 years) and biggest (average size: 6'1½", 194.3 pounds) NHL team, the Flames had a 34-27-19 record, the NHL's seventh best, and finished the regular season with a surge that prompted some observers to think of them as potential Stanley Cup spoilers. Unfortunately, Detroit didn't get the word. The scrappy Wings withstood Atlanta's efforts to outmuscle them and confounded the Flames with their quickness. As Detroit Captain Dennis Hextall noted happily, "Atlanta is big but really not that physical. And there's no way they can skate with us."
Detroit's win was the lone upset in a preliminary round that also saw Toronto eliminate Los Angeles, Philadelphia subdue surprisingly stubborn Colorado and Buffalo defeat the New York Rangers in the only series to go three games. Detroit is now playing Montreal in the quarterfinals, a thankless task that had Kromm issuing a realistic battle cry, "Bring on the Canadiens. We're going to try to be respectable against them."
The Wings had already gained the respect of the skeptics, who had assumed that Lindsay, a tough guy on the ice during the Howe era, merely meant to build a team of muggers. This speculation had been fueled by preseason ads promising that AGGRESSIVE HOCKEY IS BACK IN TOWN. But that conjecture failed to reckon with Kromm, who came to Detroit from the WHA's Winnipeg Jets and promptly emphasized skating and conditioning. It also ignored the fact that Lindsay was energetically dealing for talent. From the New York Islanders came Andre St. Laurent, a peppy little center who scored a career-high 31 goals, and out of the WHA came the gifted Czech center, Vaclav Nedomansky, who recovered from season-long doldrums just in time for the playoffs. "I'm looking to build a dynasty," insists Lindsay, who underscored this grand intention last month when he traded Dan Maloney, the team's No. 1 enforcer, to the Maple Leafs for Errol Thompson, who scored 22 goals and 23 assists this season, and two first-round draft choices.
But nothing was more important to the Wings' transformation than the play of three rookies: Defenseman Reed Larson, a former University of Minnesota star with a potent slapshot, who had 19 goals and 41 assists and was a rock in front of his goaltender; speedy and combative Winger Paul Woods, who scored 19 goals after being acquired from Montreal; and Dale McCourt, a sleepy-eyed but slick center selected by last-place Detroit as the first pick in the 1977 NHL draft.
McCourt does not flinch from his role as designated savior of the Detroit franchise. "I'm glad I wound up here," he says. "When you start at the bottom, there's no place to go but up. And that's where our team is heading."
Brought along slowly by Kromm, McCourt had only 10 goals at midseason but finished with 33, tops on the team, and had three hat tricks. His improvement helped the Red Wings play better than .500 hockey down the stretch, and by beating Montreal 4-0 in the season finale at Olympia, Detroit went into the playoffs against the Flames with an added dose of confidence.
In the playoff opener in Atlanta's Omni, the Flames came out hitting—and committing senseless penalties. With a succession of Flames whistled off the ice, McCourt, Thompson, Nedomansky and Hextall scored in the first period to give Detroit a 4-0 lead. The Red Wings coasted to a 5-3 victory that left Kromm crowing, "They can't intimidate my club. They shouldn't have tried."
When the teams moved to Detroit for Thursday's game, the passions of Motown hockey fans were at fever pitch. Scalpers commanded $60 for a pair of $11 tickets, and parking spaces near the Olympia were going for $8. Inside the building, fans bombarded the ice with all those octopuses, as well as two dead chickens, scores of apples and other comestibles. There were moments when the inside of the Olympia was almost as littered as the mean streets outside.
Between deluges of foodstuff, the Flames were playing the Wings to a standstill. The score was 1-1 well into the third period when the Red Wings got a lift from fourth-year Wing Bill Lochead, who played this season in the shadow of rookie linemates McCourt and Woods. With 11 minutes to go, Lochead slipped the puck past Flame Goaltender Danny Bouchard to put Detroit ahead 2-1. Then, after Atlanta's Bobby Lalonde had tied the score, Lochead embarrassed Bouchard again. With 1:34 left, he faked the Flame goaltender out of position, went behind the empty cage and reached around the corner to stuff the puck in. Bouchard lay sprawled on the ice, arms akimbo, much like one of those unfortunate octopuses.
In the Detroit locker room, Lochead shrugged off his game-winning feats. "Everybody chips in on this team," he said. "Tonight it was simply my turn." He made it sound as though the Red Wings were a team of destiny. And measured against what was expected of them this year, they certainly were.