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Spirit Of '89

June 01, 2009
June 01, 2009

Table of Contents
June 1, 2009

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
Inside
PRO FOOTBALL
INDIANAPOLIS 500
NBA DRAFT
  • With his boy-band good looks and crowd-pleasing game, point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio could be the No. 2 pick in the draft, but choosing him is not without risk

NHL PLAYOFFS
Harvey Haddix
Departments

Spirit Of '89

On the verge of the Stanley Cup finals the deep Red Wings—the best franchise in pro sports—owe their style and success to a daring draft 20 years ago that brought European hockey to the NHL

After a seven-hourdrive from Chicago to the Twin Cities and an even longer wait inside the MetCenter during the 1989 NHL entry draft, the 246th player chosen threaded hisway to the Red Wings' table. Team officials were hard-pressed to match the faceto the name they just had announced because kids who are drafted so late tendto make no impact beyond delaying the first round of expense-account beers.They certainly don't materialize at the draft table. The jerseys with thewinged-wheel emblem had been handed out long ago to high picks, so chief scoutNeil Smith grabbed his Red Wings coffee mug and presented it to 12th-rounderJason Glickman. "Here you go, buddy," he told the goalie. "This isfor you." Glickman took the mug, rinsed out the dregs in an arena restroomand drove home to obscurity.

This is an article from the June 1, 2009 issue

Glickman neveractually had a cup of coffee in the NHL. (His pro record: 1--2, 6.00goals-against average, .814 save percentage with the ECHL's Knoxville Cherokeesin 1991--92.) He is 40 now, married with two children, owns a vending machinebusiness and coaches a hockey team of Chicagoland housewives called the MotherPuckers. That Red Wings mug sits on a desk at home, holding pens and pencils.But at least Glickman has the honor of having been the last selection of thedefining draft in Red Wings history, the one with which the franchise createdthe brand and the team that—after a 6--1 victory over the Blackhawks inGlickman's hometown on Sunday—was one win from appearing in the Stanley Cupfinals for the sixth time in 14 seasons.

The Red Wings'familiar surge to the Western Conference finals, their eighth since 1995, is atestament to the values that were implanted two decades ago. That Wingsdraft—an unparalleled bonanza that netted current captain Nicklas Lidstrom andfranchise building blocks Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov in additionto longtime NHL players Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner and Dallas Drake—was theresult of an epiphany, an insight into hockey's future that has informed almostevery subsequent move of an organization. When Mikael Samuelsson scored theovertime winner in Game 2 of the conference finals on a three-on-one passingplay with Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler—a sequence so crisp and delightfulthat it lacked only the strains of Sweet Georgia Brown—the principles firstadvanced in 1989 were on full display. There is a jagged line connecting thedots from today to that day when the Red Wings laid the foundation for the bestsports franchise in North America.

The Red Wings'peerlessness (box, page 60) is remarkable because after using its financialmuscle to win before the salary-cap era, the team weathered the 2004--05lockout that changed the rules of the game and the marketplace, and kept righton winning. The truth is, the Wings always seemed to have more brains thanmoney. The franchise is so astute that without ever scraping bottom and gaininghigh draft picks like Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it hasselected and developed replacements for stars such as the departed Fedorov andthe retired Steve Yzerman with hardly a stumble. The emphasis on puckpossession and neutral-zone regroups started in the mid-1990s with former Wingscoach (and now Blackhawks consultant) Scotty Bowman, but the roots took hold in1989.

"At the timeof that draft, Hockeytown was Yzerman, [coach Jacques] Demers, [owner Mike]Ilitch and the Bruise Brothers [Bob Probert and Joe Kocur]," says Detroitgeneral manager Ken Holland, the team's Western junior scout in 1989. "Thefranchise had come back after some down times. Those men put hockey back on themap here, but that draft sustained it. We're still living off it."

When the RedWings' staffers walked into the gathering dusk outside the Met Center on June17, 1989, there was no sense that they had made history. They had grabbedplayers they had targeted—what team doesn't make that claim?—and hadOuija-boarded others. As then G.M. Jim Devellano told scouts every draft day,"If we get two NHL players, we'll be real happy."

Detroit had infact picked seven NHL-bound players, who would play 2,997 games for them (and5,721 overall in the league) and win a combined nine Stanley Cups along withmany other accolades (sidebar, right). Equally important, the team created aparadigm that day, reordering its priorities to value skill above passport. Theworld was changing inside and outside the Met Center. Five months after RedWings executives entered the arena with stacks of bulky scouting reports, theBerlin Wall fell. The Red Wings were balancing scouting evaluations with thethorny issue of player availability: when, or if, the best Soviets would beallowed out.

A furthercomplication was a rule that made teenagers eligible only in the first threerounds. The Wings took undersized 18-year-old center Mike Sillinger first."That's the big joke," says Sillinger, who has played for a record 12NHL teams and is now with the Islanders. "On a list with Fedorov andLidstrom, Sillinger's the first-rounder."

While geopoliticalforces clashed half a world away, creative tension gurgled within theorganization. At opposite poles were Devellano, the G.M. who, says formerDetroit executive vice president Jim Lites, "liked big North Americans,preferably Canadians, ass-kicking players," and Smith, the scout who viewedthe game through a different lens. The Red Wings were picking 11th in a 21-teamleague, and Smith thought they needed to recalibrate their approach. Eventhough the Soviets had allowed journeyman Sergei Priakin out that year—heplayed two regular-season games for Calgary—Russian and Czech stars were stillthe NHL's forbidden fruit. With patience, Smith decided, they could be thedraft's low-hanging fruit.

"What I'm mostproud of is that we dared to do it," says Smith, now a broadcaster and aDucks consultant. "Today it doesn't look daring at all, but it was. Jimmy Ddidn't especially like Europeans.... His meat and potatoes was always going tobe the Western and Ontario leagues. In those days a lot of hockey people sharedthat prejudice. The Russians and Czechs were Communists. The Swedes werechickens. What are they going to do when they get punched in the face? Even Iwas asking that question."

But despite hispreferences, Devellano trusted his scouts. He signed off on Lidstrom, whomDetroit took in the third round, and leaped into the abyss with Fedorov in thefourth. Teams had previously played the Soviet lottery with what-the-helllate-round picks (in 1983 Montreal tossed away No. 138 on goalie VladislavTretiak), without success. But the 74th pick in 1989 had intrinsic worth.Fedorov, who would defect just before the Goodwill Games in 1990 and playsuperbly for 13 years in Detroit, is now a key member of the Capitals—and theleading Russian scorer in NHL history.

Just as it servedas a dacha for the renowned Russian Five in the late 1990s, Detroit's Joe LouisArena is now a distant suburb of Stockholm that houses eight Swedish players.The Red Wings lured high-end Europeans—consider Slovakian free-agent forwardMarian Hossa, who took less money and a one-year contract to join Detroit thisseason—with the promise of playing alongside world-class talent in a supportiveorganization. For the same reason Holland has been able to re-sign currentSwedish stars such as Johan Franzen (10 playoff goals this season and 23 in hislast 31 playoff games) and Henrik Zetterberg (who won the Conn Smythe Trophylast season) to long-term deals for less than market value. "For me it wasa no-brainer," says Zetterberg, who's in his sixth season with the RedWings. "They've adapted a European-type game. And [Ilitch] always will havea winning team."

As surely as WayneGretzky opened the unused space behind the net, the Wings pioneered virginterritory with that draft—and others followed. Twenty years later all threeHart Trophy finalists, including Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, were Russian, andfour of the NHL's seven leading scorers were European. "Nobody believed youcould win with the European puck-possession style, and nobody believed youcould win with Russians," says Holland. "We killed both myths."

Holland has longvowed to retire the same day as Lidstrom, a wan half joke that underscores thesignificance of the defenseman. Lidstrom had scored 13 points this postseasonand had sent the boyish Kane to his room (no points, four shots in the firstthree games) before missing Sunday's Game 4 with a lower body injury. In 2009you can't find a player like Lidstrom; in 1989 you could barely find him atall. He was the NHL's version of the young Lana Turner, except with a betteragent. Rather than at a Hollywood soda fountain, he was "discovered" inthe Swedish city of Vasteras by Detroit's European scout Christer Rockstrom.Today, with information so abundant and scouting so sophisticated, Rockstromwould be taking a number deli-style to look at Lidstrom instead of having aonce-in-a-generation player essentially to himself.

A Vasteras forwardnamed Jorgen Holmberg had called Rockstrom about a young blueliner Holmbergcouldn't beat in practice. "Every scout gets tips," Rockstrom says."Most of the time the person calling has no idea of the qualifications toplay in the NHL, but you still have to go and check them out." BecauseLidstrom played so infrequently—he would have two assists in just 19 games withthe Vasteras senior team as an 18-year-old—Rockstrom would make the 80-minutedrive from Stockholm to Vasteras to watch practice. Smith later went to catch aglimpse of the defenseman and quickly became a believer.

"I'd beentelling Jimmy D that Lidstrom would be available in the third round, and wecouldn't pick him after that [because of his age]," Smith says. "Peopledidn't know him, and [the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau] had him way down. [Iknew] he'd be seen the next year and be a sure first-rounder."

But Lidstromalready was in the crosshairs, not of a team but of an agent: Toronto-based DonMeehan, with whom Rockstrom was friendly. When Meehan went to Sweden, Rockstromwould let him tag along on scouting trips. One night the scout brought him toVasteras, which had Patrik Juhlin, a forward who would go to Philadelphia withthe 34th pick in 1989. "After the first period, I said to Christer, 'Thatnumber 9 [Lidstrom] looks like a helluva player,'" Meehan says. "Hesays, 'No, you watch number 7. That number 9, you wouldn't be interested.' Hesaid he didn't know much about number 9, and that maybe he'd just had a goodperiod. After the second, I said, 'That's more than a good period. That's ahelluva game.' I asked him to introduce me after the game, and I presented mycredentials."

When Meehanreturned to Toronto, he phoned Smith, also a friend. "What do you thinkabout Lidstrom?" Meehan asked.

"Lidster?"Smith replied. Doug Lidster was a veteran defenseman with the Canucks.

"Lidstrom."

"Don't knowthe guy."

"F--- off, youknow him."

"No. You sureit's Lid ... Lid-what?"

"Well, he justretained me."

The line went deadfor 10 seconds. "Dammit, you can't mention him," Smith finally said."We're going to take him, but don't tell anybody. And you can't bring himto the draft."

Smith was afraidthat Meehan would raise Lidstrom's profile by talking him up to G.M.'s orparading him around the Twin Cities during draft week. Smith even stoppedmentioning Lidstrom to other Wings staffers for fear someone might drop thename in conversation. "There was a blackout," Holland says. "Neiltold me about Lidstrom when he got back from Europe that January—we were bestfriends at the time—but he saw no need for anybody else in the organization to[scout him]."

When Lidstromjoined Detroit in 1991--92, he had 60 points in 80 games and finished second inrookie of the year voting to Pavel Bure, who was taken by Vancouver in thesixth round, three picks before the Wings planned to draft him. Now Lidstrom isa finalist for his seventh Norris Trophy.

"GettingLidstrom took what people think of as scouting but really wasn't," Smithsays. "This was a rare time you find a diamond no one else sees. I wasreally concerned about using a valuable chip [a third-round pick]. The easiestthing would have been to take a junior player. Everyone would have left thedraft happy. And if it hadn't worked out, everyone would have shared themisfortune of that pick. But this was totally going to be on me and Christer.And if it didn't work out, people would say, 'Neil leaves [for New York] andsticks us with these dogs in Europe.'"

Smith did leavethat summer to run the Rangers, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 1994.(Lidster, but not Lidstrom, was on that team.) Rockstrom went with Smith, butnot before recommending a friend, Hakan Andersson, as his replacement withDetroit. As their draft began to pan out, the Red Wings became increasinglycommitted to scouring European rinks for late-round treasures, a commitmentthat has not waned.

Andersson wouldlater identify, among other current Red Wings: Datsyuk (drafted 171st overallin 1998); Zetterberg (210th in '99); Filppula (95th in 2002); Jonathan Ericsson(291st in '02); and Franzen (97th in '04). These five players had 60 points andwere a combined +41 this postseason, including 17 and +12 in the conferencefinal. Given the Red Wings' dominance, the rest of the NHL has been feeling thedistinct draft.

Drafters WithoutBorders

Of Detroit's 14far-flung picks in 1989, seven made the NHL

View this article in the original magazine

  REGULAR-SEASON WIN PCT.PLAYOFF ROUND RECORDTITLES
NHLRed Wings.67728--94
NBASpurs.67627--104
NFLPatriots.65017--73
MLBYankees.598*17--94

*ThroughSunday

Just as it served as a dacha for the Russian Five inthe '90s, Joe Louis Arena is now a suburb of Stockholm.

Now on SI.com

Michael Farber's On the Fly, and analysis of theStanley Cup finals SI.com/bonus

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOTHE LINCHPIN Lidstrom's shutdown work this postseason was augured more than two decades ago at a little-known rink in Sweden.PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOLATE BLOOMER Unearthed in Sweden at age 24 and drafted 97th in 2004, Franzen has become Detroit's most dangerous postseason goal-scorer.FOUR PHOTOSPhotographs by DAVID E. KLUTHOPHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOMONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING The high-scoring Hossa, like some of his European teammates, took less to play in Detroit.