Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why am I a fan of the Detroit Red Wings?

It's the question I've been asked over and over and over again. How can I be a fan of the Detroit Red Wings? What is wrong with me? With the Wings playing against the hometown Penguins in the Finals in each of the last two years, this question has been asked even more frequently. No one can understand WHY. Why would I cheer against my hometown team? How can I be so connected to a franchise that isn't in my hometown? Am I from Detroit? No. Are my parents from Detroit? Nope. Am I Mike Illich's long lost son? Doubtful. In this blog post, I'll answer this question and it'll either help you understand WHY or you'll think I'm completely insane. Either way, you'll never need to ask again.

I was about six or seven years old and my first full football season (that I cared to watch) had just ended. With baseball months away, I still had a hunger for sports and discovered the sport of hockey. I asked my parents what was this game and how come we didn't watch it like we do with football? I was told that the "Penguins suck" and were not worth watching. "Sucky" or not, I was going to feed my hunger with a healthy dose of hockey. I'm pretty sure it was a Friday night since that was the only time the Penguins were on non-cable TV back then and the Penguins were playing at the Joe Louis Arena against the Detroit Red Wings. After just one game, I was a fan of the sport. Lots of speed, shooting, action, hitting and if I remember correctly, lots of scoring too. Both Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman recorded hat tricks (ahhh 80's hockey), but it was the Penguins that came out on top in the end. Being an impressionable kid, I became a huge fan of both Lemieux and Yzerman and their teams. I watched the Penguins every Friday night and listened to Red Wings games here and there on a crackling AM radio station in Detroit that I could barely pick up.

Over the years, hockey became more popular. Around 1994-1995, more and more games were being nationally televised. Finally, I was able to see the Red Wings play someone other than the Penguins. In addition to being able to see them on TV, hockey merchandise, other than Penguins merchandise, became available in sporting goods stores. I remember this one store at Century III mall that had tons of hockey jerseys. I remember looking up at this purple and black Sergei Fedorov Western Conference All Star jersey like it was the Holy Grail. I got everything I could. Red Wings t-shirts, hats, jerseys, etc, to show my support for my other favorite team. As I wore my bright red Wings t-shirt and red hat to school, it became obvious to everyone that I was a Wings fan. That's when it started.

In 94, I wore a Chris Osgood t-shirt/jersey to school pretty often. That year, Chris Osgood had a first round playoff meltdown against the 8th seeded San Jose Sharks and the Wings were bounced in the first round. Boy, did I ever hear about it! You would have thought "I" was Chris Osgood with the amount of verbal abuse I took that spring. "Hey Osgood, you suck!", "Osgood? Its more like Osbad!", "Did you catch that Red Wings game the other night? HA HA!" and the typical "Red Wings suck!" every time I'd walk by. This experience didn't make me less of a Penguins fan, but it made me a much stronger Red Wings fan knowing that everyone I know, my whole world essentially, associates me with that logo, that team, those players. The Wings began to feel like MY team. In 95, the Wings destroyed everyone en route to the Stanley Cup Finals, but were then swept by the Devils. It was a tough loss, but the very next day I proudly wore my Wings t-shirt to school and still showed my support despite all the heckling.

On Friday, January 5th 1996, I got to see the Red Wings in person for the first time as they were in Pittsburgh to play the Pens. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I got to the game early, moved down to the glass and watched the Wings up close during their pre game warm up. To this day I remember Sergei Fedorov flying past me several times during the warm up. I remember I could see individual beads of sweat on Paul Coffey's forehead. I could see the stitchings on the back of Yzerman's jersey. My brother and I were standing right next to Chris Osgood as he stood off to the side while Mike Vernon took a few shots. A slapshot from Dino Ciccarelli missed the net and loudly smacked the glass right near my head, scaring the heck out of me. It was awesome! Before the game everyone was asking me, "Who am I going to root for?". I made a choice and I decided to wear my Penguins jersey to the game and cheer for the Pens. As the game got underway, it felt weird. It felt weird to cheer against a team I have stuck up for, for years. If I remember right, it was a close game going into the second period, then the Pens broke it open. Lemieux and Jagr scored goals and taunts of "Os-good, Os-good" rained down. I was not one of those people as I barely cheered for the Penguin goals. In the third period, Ciccarelli found a lose puck in front and buried it on the backhand. For a brief second, I forgot where I was and who I was "supposed" to be cheering for and nearly jumped out of my seat and cheered. The game ended with the Penguins winning 5-2, but as we left the arena I promised myself, never again. I would never cheer against MY TEAM, under any circumstances.

That year the Wings finished with the greatest single regular season record of all time, but once again fell short in the playoffs getting knocked out by the Colorado Avalanche in 6 games. It was another devastating loss and of course, I had to hear about it at school as if *I* played for the team. That spring/summer, people couldn't talk to me without pretending to "choke". Hilarious. In 97, my senior year of high school, I would get the last laugh. The Wings shook up their roster a bit, got tougher and were built better for the post season. Going into the conference finals, the Wings would have to get past their arch nemesis and my 2nd most hated team, the Avalanche. I missed my senior prom to watch Game 1, which they unfortunately lost 2-1 making that night, that much crappier. But after that, it was all Red Wings. They won 4 of the next 5 games and were headed to the Stanley Cup Finals to play everyone's most hated team, the Philadelphia Flyers who had only lost 2 games in the first three rounds and captain Eric Lindros seemed destined to win his first Stanley Cup. Leading up to the Finals all I heard was how the "Big Invincible Flyers" were going to destroy my "little Russian Red Wings" and that MY TEAM didn't have a chance. The Wings taught me and probably the entire NHL a valuable lesson that year; speed kills. The Wings skated circles around the "big" Flyers and swept them in 4 straight, claiming their first title since 1955. It was a great win for Detroit, the Red Wings franchise, Steve Yzerman and a great graduation present for me as I would get the last laugh at all those jerks I had to put up with over the years. Its so true, whomever does laugh last, laughs best.

The next year, my first year away from home and in college, the Wings did it again. With fallen teammate Vladimir Konstantinov on their minds, the Wings played inspired hockey and triumphed over the Washington Capitals in 4 straight. I don't remember much from that playoff run, but I do remember Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in Dallas. I had to get up early for work that day as I was supposed to work from 7am to 3pm. Unfortunately, the person that was supposed to come in at 3pm, didn't so I had to work a double shift. I ended up working till 8:30 or so. I was exhausted, wasn't in the best of moods and the game was starting later because it was in Dallas, but my Wings were one game away from the Finals and I thought, "As long as they win, it won't matter that my day sucked." I put on my red Chris Osgood t-shirt/jersey (since it was a road game and they were wearing red, I had to match) and got ready for the game. The Wings played well and were leading 2-1 in the third period. The Stars scored though, pushing the game into overtime, causing this long day to be even longer. Then it happened... Stars forward Jamie Langenbrunner took a slapshot from center ice and it got past Osgood for the game winning goal. That was it for me. I checked out of this game and this day and checked into Psychoville. After using up a lifetime worth of swear words in the quiet sleeping house, I stomped up the stairs, ripped off my Osgood t-shirt, slammed it into my drawer, punched it a few times and then attempted to go to sleep. Two days later in Detroit, Ozzie played one of the best games of his career and the Wings won 2-0. Not only was all forgiven, but now I felt like an idiot for ever doubting him. From that moment on, no matter how much I want to, I never doubted Osgood again.

The Red Wings wouldn't make it to the Finals again until the 2001-2002 season. In the beginning of the year the Wings made a bold move and acquired All Star netminder Dominik Hasek from Buffalo. When the UFA's saw this move, everyone was flocking to the Wings. Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille passed up big deals with other teams and took less money to play for the Red Wings. Despite all of the star power this team had, they fell behind the 8-ball early in the playoffs. The Canucks won both games in Detroit in the first round and it looked as though this dream team may have a nightmarish ending. During tough times like these, you look to your leader and the Wings had the best one to ever play the game of hockey... Steve Yzerman. He had missed 30 games during the regular season due to a severe knee injury. The doctors told him that if he got surgery, not only would he be done for the year, but as his age, probably his career. Yzerman wouldn't let his guys down and played on the bad knee. Opposing players kept knocking him over, tripping him and each time Yzerman would struggle to get back up, but he did over and over again. Sometimes using his stick as a crutch to get back onto his skates. His gutsy performance inspired this team of veterans, all stars and future hall of famers and brought them together to work towards a common goal. The Wings came back in the series against Vancouver and won 4 games to 2. The team followed their leader through the playoffs and to another Stanley Cup victory. It was the gutsiest, most inspiring performance I have ever seen. Remembering how Stevie sacrificed himself and played through the searing pain, inspires me today to never give up in anything I do, no matter what the circumstances. I think about this whenever our family is going through a tough time too. I think about how its important to have someone lead, keep everyone together and show them that their is always light at the end of the tunnel as long as you're willing to work hard enough to get there.

In 2005, I met the woman of the dreams, Maria. Actually, she's better than the woman of my dreams. She's more than I ever dreamed possible. The two of us fell in love fast and hard. We would do anything for one another. For our first Christmas together, she showed just how far she'd go. My Christmas gift was two tickets to go see the Red Wings at the Joe Louis Arena on New Years Eve! I was FLOORED. "I'm going to Detroit! I'm going to the Joe Louis Arena! I'm going to the Hockeytown Cafe!", I thought to myself. It was the perfect gift from the perfect woman. Then I thought to myself, "Why stop with a Wings game in Detroit? Let's go for it all." A week later, I bought an engagement ring. Not just any engagement ring either, the one she had been salivating over for quite some time. With the excitement of the trip, the game and, of course, the proposal, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We went to Hockeytown Cafe, which was incredible, then to the game. Each of us wearing Red Wings jerseys, we entered the Joe and it was like stepping into a painting. I've seen it in pictures and on TV for years, but finally, I was actually there in person. Its like a Red Wings hall of fame in the corridors and like heaven to me. The game was great! The atmosphere was great. The Wings were playing the Blue Jackets, who had long time Wings star, Sergei Fedorov playing for them, so the crowd was really into it. The Wings scored 5 times, including a Mikael Samuelsson hat trick and they won, 5-2. After the game ended, it was my turn. It was either going to make it the greatest night ever or make it the worst. I thought about proposing to her in the Joe, but I already had a plan and I was too nervous to change things up at this point. Plus, if she's says no it'll taint the JLA forever for me. We got back to the hotel, we watched the ball drop on TV and it was 2006! We kissed for a second then when she turned around to get more champagne, I turned around and grabbed the ring. With me in my Wings jersey and with her in her Wings jersey, I got down on one knee said that I wanted to "start off 2006 with a bang" and asked "Maria Catherine Williams, will you marry me?" She looked at me stunned and said "Are you kidding?" At this point, I was wondering "maybe I should have done it at the Joe. Maybe with all the people around us, it would have forced her to say yes or at the very least prevented me from jumping off the balcony". But Maria immediately followed up with "YES! OF COURSE!". Visit the arena, Wings win and getting engaged. My own personal hat trick was complete!

On December 23rd 2007, almost two years to the day since I visited Detroit, Maria gave birth to our second child and my first boy, Caleb. With my stepson already having a unique middle name, "Aragorn", giving Caleb a unique middle name wasn't out of the question. I picked it, we both discussed it, both agreed and his full name is Caleb Yzerman Fruscello. My family looked at me like I was nuts, but I felt it was perfect. To me, when I hear the name "Yzerman", I think of such words as "leader", "honorable", "classy", "good guy", "unselfish", "loyal", "winner", and "respectful". I want my son to have all of those qualities. But then who wouldn't?

During that same NHL season, the Red Wings made it to the Stanley Cup Finals and would play against, none other than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Of all years for this to happen, it happens the year Caleb was born. It was a hard fought series and my little man was right there with me in the rocking chair watching it. As the thrilling final seconds of that series ticked off the clock, I jumped up and celebrated. It was almost too good to be true. The Red Wings captain who shares the same first name as me, Nick Lidstrom, would pick up the Stanley Cup in the Mellon Arena, two minutes away from the hospital Caleb Yzerman was born in just 6 months ago. It was the greatest sports moment of my life and I don't think any championship will ever be able to top it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in my warped perception of reality, it was like the Red Wings were winning the Cup in Pittsburgh for my son. Years from now, I cannot wait to take him to the Joe, point up to the rafters and show him the "2007-2008 Stanley Cup Champion" banner and say "They won that in Pittsburgh the year you were born."

This year with the Stanley Cup rematch, things didn't quite work out the way I had hoped. We fell one game short, but that's how things go sometimes and how you deal with those kind of disappointments says a lot about you as a person. It hurts, but it doesn't hurt any more or less than when they lost to the Ducks two years ago or to the Oilers three years ago. A loss is a loss and it sucks no matter how or when it happens. Now its time to look ahead to next year and think about how exciting it will be to watch the Wings go after another title.

When the Penguins lost last year people would come up to me and ask "So are you happy the Penguins lost?" to which I replied, "No... I'm happy the Red Wings won." I made a point not to "rub it in" as I know how bad losing can feel. I didn't print out any pictures of the Wings with the Cup and tape it on my desk. I didn't talk about hockey unless someone else started the conversation. I didn't go around asking Pens fans "Hey! Did you catch that Pens game the other night?". For over a year, I rarely wore my Wings championship t-shirt and when I did I made sure I wasn't going to be around any die-hard Pens fans that day. Yet when the Penguins won the Cup this year, most people (not all) couldn't wait to rub it in my face. People that I haven't heard from in years went out of their way to find me, just to rub in the Wings loss. I just rolled my eyes and shook my head. If that's how people want to be, that's their problem. One famous Yzerman quote is "When you lose, say little. When you win, say less." I think those are good words to live by.

I consider myself to be have been very lucky to able to witness the greatness of this franchise over the past 16 years. The Wings experienced a 42 year championship drought that included 6 losses in the Finals and several last place finishes. Since they ended the drought in 1997, they've won 4 Stanley Cups, 5 Campbell Conference Trophies, 4 Presidents Trophies and built a new championship team through the draft despite having the last draft position. No team in any sport has done what the Wings have. They were able to rebuild and win championships at the same time. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have picked up right where Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov left off and didn't miss a beat. As a diehard fan, its a dream come true. As a sports fan, its an amazing feat to behold.

For me, the Red Wings have become more than just a hockey team that I follow. Its become this entity that's tied itself to a lot of personal memories. It was there when I first started watching hockey. It was there when I graduated from high school (1997 champs) and started college (1998 champs). It was there when I finished college (2002 champs). It was there when I got my first job (2002 champs). It was there on my chest when I asked my wife to marry me. It will be with my son for the rest of his life (middle name, 2008 champs). Its shown me the importance of having leadership, respect and class.

When the Red Wings win, I'm proud and I celebrate. When they lose, I'm there to show my support. This is why I wear a team jersey that matches the players for each playoff game. This is why I get hyper over every win. This is why I get mad after every loss. This is why I defend this franchise and these players, day in and day out. This is why I gave my son the name "Yzerman". This is why the 2008 championship felt so good. This is why the 2009 loss made me feel numb. This is why their next championship will taste so sweet. This is MY TEAM. This is why I am a fan of the Detroit Red Wings.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

2009 NHL Season Wrap Up

Pittsburgh Penguins

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins on winning the 2009 Stanley Cup!  It was probably one of most improbable championship victories I've ever seen.  The team was ripped apart last summer via free agency and the team was getting pounded by basement dwellers like the Islanders and Maple Leafs before finally firing coach Michael Therrien in February.  Enter Dan Bylsma.  He comes in and installs a new, aggressive forechecking strategy that plays more to the players strengths.  The change in strategy combined with a couple of trades and the Penguins were right back to being one of the elite teams in the league.  They then climbed out of 10th place and skyrocketed up the standings.  On the last day of the regular season they won the 4th seed and actually had home ice advantage during the first round of the playoffs.

As incredible as it was to see them rise so quickly, it was just as amazing to see them blast through the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Flyers remained on the wrong end of the leash in the first round.  The new Capitals look just like the old Caps getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Penguins.  In the conference finals, the Penguins pounced on a worn down Hurricanes team and won their second straight Prince of Wales trophy.

In the Finals, it was very apparent that the Penguins were simply the hungrier team.  I don't know if it was because their former teammate, Marian Hossa, was on the other side or because they had just lost it the year before but a lot of the Penguins players played above their usual talent level and this gave them the edge they needed.  For the most part Crosby and Malkin were shutdown by the Detroit defense and if the Pens were going to win it they would need big contributions from other players and they got it.  Guys like Jordan Staal and Max Talbot scored big goals.  Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik played outstanding defense and Marc Andre Fleury played probably the best hockey of his life in games 6 and 7.  The Penguins proved that they are more than just a "two man show" as many skeptics had called them and the TEAM was very deserving of the Cup this season.

Looking into the off season, the Pens front office has their work cut out for them.  Evgeni Malkin's contract extension will kick in next year and his cap hit will go from $3.8 million to $8.7 million.  Jordan Staal who was making less than $1 million will now make $4 million.  That's close to $9 million less to work with going into next season with guys like Satan, Fedotenko, Guerin and Scuderi all unrestricted free agents.  The current salary cap is $56.7 million and if it stays the same the Pens will have about $8 million available to sign these players.  However, the cap is projected to go down to $55 million due to the struggling economy.  Whatever the cap may be, the Pens need to resign Rob Scuderi.  He was a fantastic shot blocker and just a real good shutdown defenseman throughout the playoffs.  He needs to be their top priority.  Next, will be a top two line winger.  Guerin will probably want too much, Satan isn't worth the equipment he wears, and I'm not a huge fan of Fedotenko, so the Pens will be better off looking elsewhere.

With the salary cap crunch going into effect, the Pens will need to get creative with their lines.   I think the Pens will need to put Crosby and Malkin together on the same line and give Staal more responsibility as the second line center.  Doing this gives Crosby and the elite winger he should have, validates giving Staal that bigger contract and gives the Pens two good scoring lines as opposed to having them all on separate lines and spreading their talent thin.

Stanley Cup Runner Up

Detroit Red Wings -Well this wasn't the ending I was envisioning (or hoping for), but the Red Wings have fallen just one game short of back to back championships.  It's a tough pill to swallow, but as Henrik Zetterberg mentioned in an interview, the team will learn from this and use it as motivation for next year, just as the Penguins did this year.  Losing in the Finals can be a great motivator for future playoff runs.  When the Wings lost in the Finals in '95, they dominated the league for the next three years with the best regular season record of all time ('96) and two Stanley Cups ('97 - '98).  Winners take negatives and turn them into positives and I believe this team knows that and will be back soon.

Before this playoff run began, I felt that Henrik Zetterberg was one of the best two way players in the game.  Today, I know, without a doubt that not only is he the best two way player in the game, but he's one of the best players period.  The Red Wings may have come up short of their objective this season, but it wasn't due to the lack of effort on the part of Zetterberg.  His assignment going into this series was to shutdown two of the most dynamic offensive players in hockey and without his Selke nominee and teammate, Pavel Datsyuk, for most of the series he was going to have to do it by himself... and he did.  Sidney Crosby recorded just one goal and two assists in the 7 game series while Malkin was limited to just 2 goals equaling the output of the Wings black ace, Justin Abdelkader.  Z will probably never win the Art Ross or Hart Trophies, but his drive, leadership and talent should win him the trophy that matters most, the Stanley Cup, several times before the end of his career.

Going into this off season, like the Penguins, will have to make some tough decisions especially with the possibility of the salary cap shrinking.  Zetterberg will get a $4 million dollar raise next year and Johan Franzen will get a $3 million dollar raise himself, giving them about $5 mil of cap space, $3 mil if it goes down.  The biggest question mark is Marian Hossa.  His disappearance in the post season will surely hurt his market value, but will it bring down his price enough for the Wings to resign him?  The rumor right now is that the Wings are looking to lock him up, long term at $4 mil cap hit per year for the remainder of his career.  Its up to Hossa now whether he wants to finish what he started and go after that elusive Stanley Cup with the team he believed he could do it with or jet off to somewhere else, take the big money and probably never get his name engraved on hockey's holy grail.  As a Wings fan, I hope he takes a hometown discount and stays with the Wings.  His style of play fits this team perfectly and his presence on the second line gives them the best second line in the NHL.  If Hossa leaves, I would like to see the Wings go after Mats Sundin or Marian Gaborik or use that extra money to sure up the back end of their defensive corp because Lebda and Lilja are at times downright scary in their own end.