Why Red Wings fans should focus on 16 now and worry about 82 later

article_f83e4e46-d89b-4b79-a2de-45972f63c518
Photo Credit: Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SPORTS

April is here, which means it’s time for the ice to thaw, the flowers to bloom, and for people to come out of their winter hibernation to a season of renewed hope and new beginnings.

For fans of the Detroit Red Wings, April means playoff hockey. It has for the last twenty-five years. The slate of the regular season is wiped clean. It’s a new beginning and hope for the prize is big in everyone’s eyes, players and fans alike. They are sixteen wins away from hockey’s greatest prize. Sixteen wins from rest and relief. Sixteen wins from being dubbed kings of the hockey world.

But as we all know, those sixteen wins never come easy. Nothing does when you’ve got fifteen other teams competing for the same prize and who are willing to put their bodies on the line and push the limits of their dedication. Playoff hockey is some of the best hockey you’ll ever watch. It’s all out war on ice between soldiers who, ignoring the warning bells and engine lights of their bodies, persevere. The blood and sweat seeped deep into the fabric of their sweaters a proven sign of the character built and the sacrifice made so they could be dubbed champions.

Having been a fan of the Detroit Red Wings for all of my twenty-seven years on this earth, I am lucky enough to only have memories of playoff hockey that involve my team. And while every April brings the hope of another Stanley Cup, this time of year carries so much more weight to it for me:

It’s a legacy of teams and players that put it all on the line, most times for nothing. It’s “Gretzky had it, lost it”. It’s Patrick Roy hot dogging and Darren McCarty deking. It’s doing it for Vlad. It’s a goal from centre ice that changed everything. It’s the first European captain to lead his team to a Cup. It’s almost beating the Penguins two years in a row. It’s a Russian and a Swede being dubbed “The Eurotwins”. It’s shutting down Jonathan Toews. It’s the rise of Petr Mrazek.

So much about my fandom for the Wings is because of how, year after year, this team re-adjusts come playoff time and shows the hockey world that they are not pushovers, that they do not chase winners, that they control their own destiny and they will do their damnedest to achieve their goals.

It is an honorable quality that I learn from every year and try to apply to my own life. You can’t control what others do or how they act. Just worry about what you can control and focus on achieving your goals through your own actions.  

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you lose. And what matters most when that happens is how you react to the situation. The road to the playoffs this season was not an easy one for the Red Wings. In a tight three-way race, the Wings were neck-and-neck with the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers for the last two playoff spots. Heading into the final three games of the season, they needed two wins to secure a spot. They only got one. Luckily for the Red Wings, Boston also went 1-2 and Detroit held the tiebreaker. Simply put, the Red Wings choked. But that’s the beauty of the playoffs – none of that matters anymore. They can now shake off the demons of the regular season and be the team that we all know they can be: an unpredictable force that makes other teams re-consider how they take to the ice.

Mike Babcock always used to say, “choose your attitude”. And I hope that this is the kind of lesson that has stuck with his former team because they can be the team that went 6-1-0 in the first two weeks of January or the team that went 2-5-0 in the first two weeks of March. It’s the same group of guys playing in both scenarios, so it’s up to them to decide how they want to play. Don’t undermine what some positivity and a bit of an “I don’t give a shit” attitude can do.

The Wings had a lot to prove this year. With Mike Babcock leaving, arguably the best coach in hockey, Detroit needed to show that their success was not hinged on one man behind the bench. The kids needed to show that they were worthy of big minutes on an experienced team that has done it all before. The goalies needed to show that they could carry this team when their offense was slumping. And while they only had moderate success in making these points during the season, the playoffs offer a whole new opportunity on an even bigger stage.

This isn’t 2002. Detroit isn’t the powerhouse that it once was. They have many pieces to a puzzle but are not quite sure how it all fits together yet. They are undoubtedly the underdogs heading into this year’s playoffs and, in a way, this removes a lot of the pressure. Nobody expects them to win a Stanley Cup. Hell, nobody even expects them to get out of the first round. Sometimes it’s teams like this one that can be the most dangerous.  

Never write off the underdogs. They may just surprise you.

So get your jerseys out. Watch the highlights from ‘97, ‘98, ‘02, and ‘08. Swing the octopus over your head. Exchange stories about where you were when Stevie Y hoisted the Cup over his head in Detroit for the first time in forty-two years. Playoff hockey is back at Joe Louis Arena and the boys are ready to go.

For Detroit, for Pavel, and for all those who said that this team couldn’t make it another year – Let’s go Red Wings!