April 11, 2016
Red Wings, Pistons make playoffs,
but there’s far more to life than that
By KEITH GAVE
The Red Wings are headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 25th consecutive NHL season. They managed to get in by finishing third in the Atlantic Division despite losing their last two “must-win” games of the regular season.
But whatever excitement generated by that story evaporated a few hours later with news that Pavel Datsyuk says he’s forsaking his final year in Detroit to return to Russia to be closer with his daughter and, more than likely, play a year or two of professional hockey back home while he still feels he can play at a high level.
The cynical newsman in me suggests this is little more than an elaborate negotiating ploy, that Datsyuk will meet with owners Mike and Marian Ilitch and General Manager Ken Holland, and they’ll figure out a way to keep Datsyuk here not just next season, but perhaps a year or two beyond.
After all, the Ilitch’s can be very persuasive, right?
But the father in me knows how much Datsyuk misses his daughter, who is living in Russia with his ex-wife. She needs her father around, and her father feels a strong need to be there.
I understood that in no uncertain terms when I met with Datsyuk and his agent, Dan Milstein, at Milstein’s home for two hours in February as we discussed ways to drop what they referred to as “the bomb” that finally exploded in the pages of Sunday’s Detroit Free Press in my pal Mitch Albom’s column.
“Never say never,” Milstein was telling other reporters after the fallout Sunday. But I’m inclined to believe Datsyuk when he says he’s done in Detroit.
And come to think of it, as persuasive as Mike Ilitch can be with his checkbook, it didn’t work with another prominent Russian. Datsyuk is leaving $7.5 million on the table, which will cripple the Wings next season because it counts against the salary cap whether or not he plays. But Sergei Fedorov left $10 million on the table when he bolted for Anaheim rather than signing with Detroit in July 2003.
. . .
When this 25-season playoff streak began in 1991, Bryan Murray was the Red Wings coach and general manager, and he had some awfully good seasons behind the bench before giving way to Scotty Bowman in the fall of 1993.
Murray takes a fair amount of pride in getting this thing started. I understood that when I visited with him a few months ago, when he accompanied his Ottawa Senators team to Detroit.
So I couldn’t help but smile at the irony that unfolded Saturday. While the Wings struggled against an undermanned New York Rangers team and its backup goaltender before losing a game that could have knocked them out of the playoffs, it was Murray’s Senators who marched into Boston and clobbered the Bruins, 6-1. Those were the same Bruins who, two nights earlier, toyed with the Wings in a 5-1 victory.
On Sunday, Murray, 73, stepped down from his job as GM of the Senators. It’s time, he said, adding that he will remain with the club as an adviser. Murray is battling Stage 4 colon cancer.
“I’d like to think I treated people fair and with respect, and that I loved the game,” Murray said in describing what he hoped would be his legacy in hockey.
Bryan Murray was the finest and most decent man I’ve met in more than 30 years around the NHL. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him.
Let’s keep him in our thoughts as he moves onto another phase of a life well led.
. . .
Speaking of good and decent former Red Wings bosses, former coach Jacques Demers is recovering from a stroke in a Montreal hospital.
He was rushed to the hospital last Wednesday, and on Friday he was listed in stable condition.
Wings fans of a certain age will remember Demers for taking over the worst team in hockey in the fall of 1986. The previous season, Detroit finished with a 17-57-6 record and 40 points. He took them to the Western Conference Finals the following two years, losing each time to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In his third year, Demers’ Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs. The next year they failed to make the playoffs and he was fired, replaced by Bryan Murray.
So for those keeping score at home, the Wings have been in the Stanley Cup tournament in 28 of the last 29 years. That’s not a small deal.
Demers went on to win a Stanley Cup as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. He is now a senator in the Canadian government.
I’ve never had more fun as an NHL beat writer than covering Demers’ Detroit teams against those Toronto teams coached by the evil (and lovable) John Brophy in those late 1980s playoffs,
when the Red Wings were clawing their way back to respectability in the league after two decades of futility.
Through it all, Demers remained humble and thankful for all he experienced. One of my favorite memories was when the Wings were Quebec City to play the Nordiques. Demers rented a car and we drove to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, about 22 miles northeast of Quebec City on the Saint Lawrence River.
It was a place known for its miracles. Jacques confided to me that he believed that all the good fortune that had come to him – the illiterate son of an alcoholic and abusive father who was lucky to get a job driving a Coke truck – a two-time Jack Adams Trophy winner as the NHL’s best coach in those two amazing seasons in Detroit, and ultimately a Stanley Cup champion. I know he believes that to this day. I thought of how lucky I’ve been in my life, too, that day we said our prayers.
So let’s keep Jacques in our thoughts, too, and the believers among us can send a few prayers to Sainte Anne-de-Beaupre. After all, we’ve come to believe in miracles around here, eh?
. . .
Finally, congratulations to the Detroit Pistons for advancing to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. And shame on us for letting them fly under the radar in getting there. In fact, they clinched their spot the right way with a decisive 112-99 win over Washington on Friday.
Stan Van Gundy, hired two off-seasons ago as coach and team president, deserves high praise for how he’s been able to rebuild this downtrodden franchise so quickly. This is a young and talented team destined to only get better in the years ahead.
But for now, we can enjoy some Pistons playoff basketball that has been long overdue. So bring on the LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers and let’s have some fun.