It was the early 90s and Emilio Estevez was gracing the big screen as Gordon Bombay, the redeemed lawyer turned pewee hockey coach. Hockey was coming in to the collective conscience of the average American for the first time since the 1984 Miracle on Ice. The NHL was packed with stars like Gretzky, Lemieux (the good one, not Claude – the despised one), Messier, LaFontaine, Hull (Brett of course, not Bobby), Roenick, Jagr, Bure, Mogilny, Borque, Sakic, Oates, Robataille, Coffey, Belfour, Roy, Brind’Amour, and many others.
A generation of young hockey fans were being turned on to the sport that had long been housed only in the ice rinks of cold cities of the North and Europe with the emergence of the in-line skate as a recreational endeavor. During that same time span, the Detroit Red Wings were beginning their streak of making playoffs (1990-1991 season) that is the longest such active streak in sports.
In the late 1980s, “Stevie Wonder” or “Stevie Y” had already emerged as a scoring sensation, but the team found itself quickly bounced from the playoffs and then alternating years in, and out of the playoffs (28 of 30 seasons in the playoffs, yep that is why they are widely considered to be one of the top organizations in all of professional sports), before Jaque Demers was canned and Bryan Murray was brought in with the expectation he would right the ship.
The organization took a major step forward heading into the 1991-92 hockey season as they added the tough, scoring winger Ray Sheppard to the already potent roster that included Sergei Federov (who prior to coming to the NHL played on a line for CSKA Moscow with Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure – amazing!), Shawn Burr, Vlad Konstantinov, and three young players Keith Primeau, Slava Kozlov, and Nik Lidstrom that would go on to have great careers. That year a young Tim Cheveldae minded the net with the team winning the Norris Division and having the 2nd best record in the NHL.
While the Mighty Ducks movie franchise was the inspiration for young players to get out and play street hockey, it was the teams of the time that sustained this interest. The top of the leagues were full of amazing combos, I remember watching with amazement at the way that Jagr and Lemieux confused defenders and crushed goalies, how Robitaille, Kurri, and Gretzky made up one of the most prolific scoring lines in NHL history, how Roenick and Chelios somehow made the Defenseman and Center combo work so well, and Messier, Leetch, and Gardner flooded the stats sheets. But it wasn’t these lineups that inspired me (well ok I did want to be like Jagr and Lemieux), it was Yzerman, Ysaebart, and Sheppard, that got me hooked.
Over the next few years as the Wings would gain steam, their team became a who’s-who of the NHL. In 1993 the ineffable Scotty Bowman (was that a bit too much, not when you think about what he started) manned the bench as the Red Wings looked to be on an upward trajectory. By 1992, Paul Coffey the amazing Defenseman from Pittsburgh had joined the mix, as well as the veteran grinder Dino Ciccarelli (who would serve as the hero for every kid who couldn’t skate well but clogged up the area right in front of the crease). In 1993 a young kid named Darren McCarty would break through the ranks, alongside the newly signed Kris Draper.
In 1994 things would really ramp up. That year, during a lockout shortened season, Mighty Ducks 2 was released and the Red Wings made the Stanley Cup Finals only to be swept by the NJ Devils in what would turn into a major rivalry for the next few years. The following year, the Russian Five (or the Red Army as they were sometimes called) would grace the ice together for the first time (Federov, Larinov, and Kozlov as the scorers with Fetisov and Konstantinov manning the blue line). This team would win the President’s Trophy but fall short of the ultimate goal by losing in the Conference Finals.
It was the 1996-97 season and the early seasons acquisition of Brendan Shanahan that finally turned Detroit into Hockeytown. From top to bottom this team was amazing. Stevie Y, the Russian Five, Shanahan, a resurgent Mike Vernon, old faithful Larry Murphy (another former Penguin defenseman), Lapointe, Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Sandstrom and others brought about a great mix of toughness and scoring that propelled the Wings to their first of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
While I could go on forever about the masterful work done by Ken Holland (GM since the 1997 season and Assistant GM prior to that), focusing how he has been able to maintain excellence in the organization through two lockouts, the implementation of the salary cap, the retirement of star Captains, and the change of many of hockey’s rules; the key thing that sticks out is the way that they as an organization have been able to create identification with the people of Michigan.
A largely foreign-born, Caucasian group of players have held the interest of Detroit fans for over two decades. They have been recognized by various groups as the most professional organization, most fan friendly, best managed, and best scouting of any team in the NHL and even professional sports. The legend continues today as the Red Wings made the playoffs while playing much of the season without a smattering of their current stars including Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Daniel Cleary, and Daniel Alfredsson.
The organization has been amazing in understanding its identity and creating a collective identity, all the while they have gone from being a Canadian heavy team, to a Russian heavy team, to a Swedish heavy team and on down the line. They have won with Demers, Murray, Bowman, Dave Lewis, and Mike Babcock as coach. They have 4 Stanley Cups championships, during the present 23 year streak, they have also won the President’s Trophy six times, and a division championship 13 times.
Stong leadership and vision at the top make the Red Wings a model organization for examination if you seek to establish a strong company culture, with continuity, and a shared identity. From the longtime owner, Mike Illitch, through the GM Ken Holland, and down to the various coaches and players that have shaped the image of the Wings for the last two-plus decades, the Wings are prime example of how a strong culture creates winners, and winning helps maintain a strong culture.
What other organizations in sports have been good models for our examination of leadership, teamwork, and culture?