What does an octopus have to do with ice hockey? Not usually much, but it’s a little different in Detroit. When the Red Wings play in the National Hockey League (NHL) play-offs, it usually doesn’t take long for an octopus to be thrown onto the ice by the audience. Then ice master Al Sobotka makes his big appearance. Equipped with a shovel, he scrapes the animal off the playing surface and then lets it swirl over his head like a trophy. Then the fans in the Joe Louis Arena really go crazy. But everything is different this year. The octopus is no longer flying. Because for the first time since 1990, the Detroit Red Wings will miss the play-offs in the NHL – after 25 seasons, the third longest series of this kind in US sports ends.
In the past quarter of a century, no ice hockey team in North America has been as successful as the Red Wings. They were six times in the Stanley Cup final and four times they won the most important trophy in ice hockey. For many years they had an Allstar team at the start, with players like Steve Yzerman, Sergej Fjodorow, Brett Hull, Dominik Hasek or Nicklas Lidström – to name just a few. Owner Mike Ilitch invested a lot of money in his team, so titles were only logical. But then came the 2004/05 strike season – after that, a salary cap was introduced in the NHL. Money alone was no longer enough to be a championship candidate. Suddenly there was equal opportunity in the league. But Detroit kept on winning and reliably reached the play-offs year after year – the only one of 30 teams in the NHL.
After great victories, the gradual descent follows at some point
It went well for eleven years, but the last title was celebrated by the Red Wings in 2008. One season later, it was enough for the final series, but recently there was more and more trembling for play-off participation in the self-proclaimed “Hockeytown” . Now what has become inevitable in US sports has happened. After great victories, the gradual descent follows at some point. Because only the worst teams of a year have access to the best talent. Since 1990, Detroit has not been able to draw any young players from the top ten of the annual “draft”. In addition, the salary cap prevents large investments in expensive stars.
Even before the 2016/17 season, the signs in Detroit were not the best. A very special season was actually planned, in which farewell should be said from the time-honored Joe Louis Arena. But in the summer, top player Pavel Datsiuk decided to cancel his contract in Detroit and return to his Russian homeland. The Red Wings could not commit adequate replacements. Then club legend Gordie Howe died, and later in the season owner Ilitch also blessed the timing. In terms of sport, there was nothing left to save for Detroit. For the first time in a long time, good players were sold at the transfer closing to initiate the process of a new beginning.
Last Tuesday it was time. The Red Wings lost 1: 4 to the Carolina Hurricanes and were out of the play-off race seven games before the end of the main round. “It was a great run. Everyone who was there can be proud. But now it’s over, ”said captain Henrik Zetterberg. Expressions of respect came from across the NHL. “I don’t think we’ll see it again, a team that’s been elite for so many years,” said Stan Bowman, general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks. The 25 seasons in a row with even one participation in the finals is not even a record, the Boston Bruins hold it with 29 play-off seasons (1968 – 1996) in succession. But that was a different era with fewer teams in the league and rich owners who could spend as much money as they wanted.
In Detroit, they don’t want to spend much time rebuilding. “Our focus is 100 percent on making it a one-time experience, not a ten-time experience,” said Jeff Blashill, Red Wings coach. Especially since the team will play in the ultra-modern new Little Ceasars Arena from the coming season. Al Sobotka will also act as ice master there – and he would certainly not mind if he could swirl the octopus over his head again in spring 2018.