Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland ticks off the
days, his pen going click-click-click against the plastic cover
of his desk calendar. Starting on Jan. 26, Detroit embarks on a
four-game Western road trip interrupted by a Red Wings-flavored
All-Star Game in Los Angeles, goes home long enough for the
players to tousle their children's hair, sets off on another
three-game swing followed by the Olympic hockey tournament
(which is basically a series of Wings intrasquad scrimmages with
drug testing) and finally plays back-to-back games at Tampa Bay
and Miami before a 36-hour layover at home en route to
Pittsburgh. Holland looks up and smiles. "Some of our star
players could be home for four days out of 33," he says.
The Red Wings won an NHL-best 30 of their first 43 games, but
like video-game heroes they look only ahead, certain that just
behind them lurk monsters and dragons, that the first month of
the season was too good to be true. The team's new goalie,
Dominik Hasek, beat his former Buffalo Sabres teammates in his
first match against them; Luc Robitaille scored the winning goal
in his first game against his former team, the L.A. Kings; and
Brett Hull scored twice (once in overtime) against the Stars in
his return to Dallas. Still, a wizened team with a pronounced
streak of cynicism has contempt for fairy-tale beginnings, and no
one believes the Wings have played up to their abilities in more
than a dozen games. "There have been some good things, but that
doesn't mean we've put it together," says Steve Yzerman, the
longest-tenured captain in NHL history. "Sometimes we've gotten
by on talent."
Yzerman makes it sound as if that's a bad thing instead of one
of the fringe benefits of a $66 million payroll and a dressing
room with its own Hall of Fame annex. The nine Red Wings who are
a cinch to be bronzed--Hasek, Hull, Robitaille, Yzerman,
defensemen Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards
Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Brendan Shanahan--had combined
for 3,225 goals through Sunday, which is more than nine NHL
franchises have scored in their histories. Scotty Bowman, a Hall
of Famer himself, knows all about coaching stars: His Montreal
Canadiens of the late 1970s won four straight Stanley Cups and
placed nine players in the Hall.
The difference is that Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson were 27
when the Canadiens won the last of those Cups, in 1979, while
Yzerman, Hasek and Hull will be 37 by June. If Detroit wins it
all this season, it will be with 11 core players who are 32 years
or older, including two in their 40s--the most on a Cup-winning
team since the '67 Toronto Maple Leafs had two players 40 or
There is a fine line between experienced and old. During this
season's first half Bowman occasionally cobbled together the
league's first 600-goal line: Yzerman, Hull and Robitaille. The
Red Wings' age might prove to be a red herring--the soon-to-be
40-year-old Chelios, who is having his best season since he won
his third Norris Trophy, in 1996, and the 41-year-old Larionov
are two of the team's fittest players--but it will be an issue
until the Red Wings drink champagne from the Cup.
After a desultory 2-0 Wings loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on
Dec. 17, a personal trainer called Art Regner's postgame radio
show on WXYT in Detroit to say it was scientific fact that the
human body breaks down most rapidly between the ages of 35 and
40. Hull, beer in hand, wandered over to Regner's makeshift
broadcast center, in an old bathroom across the hall from the
Wings' dressing room, to catch some vox populi. When Regner
filled him in about the trainer's call, Hull tapped his temple
and said, "It's all up here, man."
Next month's Olympics are the wild card that even the smartest
of teams may not be able to calculate. A league-high 10 Red
Wings have been selected by national squads--all of Detroit's
future Hall of Famers except Robitaille, plus defenseman Fredrik
Olausson and pot-stirring winger Tomas Holmstrom, who were
picked by Sweden--but that is, at best, an honor that comes with
a price. Four years ago the Colorado Avalanche sent a
league-high nine players to the Winter Games and suffered a
post-Nagano swoon of Olympian proportions. Gulping hemlock like
Gatorade, Colorado capitulated 4-0 to the Edmonton Oilers in
Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. Detroit's Olympians
are divided among five nations, so, as Bowman notes, "Only two
of our guys are likely to come home happy from Salt Lake."
Coupled with a daunting schedule and the heavy travel that
afflicts the only Western Conference team other than Columbus in
the Eastern time zone, the Olympics could be the hat trick that
saps Detroit before the playoffs.
"This team understands that it can't leave it all at the Olympics
or all in the regular season," Holland says. "Given the playoffs
the last three years"--in which Detroit has won just two
series--"this is a very motivated group. The energy and emotion of
a hockey player are a big part of how good he is, and we have to
make sure the guys are fresh physically and mentally. It helps
having an experienced coach like Scotty."
Bowman already is micromanaging ice time. He has given his fifth
and sixth defensemen, Mathieu Dandenault and Jiri Fischer, more
minutes so that Lidstrom and Chelios don't play almost 60 minutes
combined. Bowman has also canceled morning skates on game days at
home, something he first did on Dec. 19, before a 4-1 win over
the Vancouver Canucks that broke a spell in which Detroit had
scored only five goals in seven games. The Red Wings also called
up forward Sean Avery, a coltish minor leaguer, to inject
enthusiasm into the fourth line.
By March, Avery might have proved to be out of his depth, and
Dandenault and Fischer might have played themselves out of
regular minutes, but no matter. That is the advantage of the Red
Wings' big lead. (They were on top of the second-place Blackhawks
by seven points in the Central Division and had a 19-point
cushion over the Calgary Flames, who were in position for the
West's final playoff spot.) Bowman is free to treat the next
three months as a lab experiment, throwing Fedorov on defense as
he did against the Minnesota Wild on New Year's Eve and fiddling
with lines, defense pairs and even defensive systems.
Yzerman remains cautious about Detroit's Cup prospects, unmoved
by something as meaningless as first place at midseason. "Teams
that win in the playoffs have the ability to shut down the other
team in the third period," he says. "We've relied on our goalies
to make too many great saves. We have to become a harder team to
play, even though we have a lot of skilled players. We also could
be more physical, play a more abrasive game."
There are five skaters on the ice and only one puck, but that
hasn't been a problem for Detroit. The lack of sandpaper, as
Holland calls it, might prove to be an issue, but not ego. "The
other team chips the puck out after 50 seconds of your power
play, and you look over and Hull, Robitaille and Larionov have
one leg over the boards, ready to come on," Shanahan says.
"You're telling me you're going to stay out there?"
Detroit's future Hall of Famers have accomplished too much and
earned too much money to be sidetracked by the relatively trivial
issues of points or ice time. Chelios, Shanahan and Yzerman all
deferred salary so Holland could sign Hull in August. "It's
awesome when you're walking into a visiting arena and some
security guard's head is snapping back and forth as one after
another of these great players walks by," Shanahan says. "Your
chest goes out."
These Red Wings would have been a lock for the 1992 Stanley Cup.
The 2002 Cup looks likely--if they don't get trapped in nomad's
Good News, Bad News
Here are some ups and downs of the season's first half (all stats
All the Original Six teams have a good chance of making the
playoffs for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
--The league has its first black stars who are not goaltenders:
the Flames' Jarome Iginla and the Oilers' Anson Carter.
--Numerous players have made successful comebacks, including
Rangers defensemen Bryan Berard and Vlad Malakhov and goalie
Mike Richter (all from injuries) and Islanders center Michael
Peca (missed last season because of a contract dispute).
--Thrashers rookie forwards Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk lead
first-year players in goals and points, a positive sign for
--No high-profile player remains unsigned.
--Mario Lemieux of the Penguins had hip surgery and missed 27
--The Flames and the Mighty Ducks put on a third-period goon
show on Dec. 8 in which 291 penalty minutes were assessed and
nine players were ejected.
--Despite attempts to increase offense over the past few seasons,
the goals-per-game average is the lowest (5.23) since 1955-56.
--Eric Lindros's spectacular return following a 19-month absence
was dampened on Dec. 28 when the Ranger sustained his seventh
--For the first time since the 1978-79 season, Ray Bourque is not
Here is SI's All-Star team for the season's first half (all stats
G NIKOLAI KHABIBULIN -- Lightning The first-half MVP might help
Tampa Bay sneak into the playoffs for the second time in its
10-year history. His .935 save percentage is dazzling.
D NICKLAS LIDSTROM -- Red Wings A superb positional blueliner,
he rarely makes mistakes, and he's had 28 points for the NHL's
D BRIAN LEETCH -- Rangers He has been a mainstay for go-go
New York while taking care of his end well enough to be an
C MATS SUNDIN -- Maple Leafs No center has played with as
much commitment in all zones as Sundin, who has surged since the
RW JAROME IGINLA -- Flames After a career-best 71 points last
season, this prototypical power forward is the league's leading
LW ERIC DAZE -- Blackhawks He's still primarily a one-way
player, but from the blueline in he's dangerous, getting the nod
over the Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan and the Blues' Keith Tkachuk.