Friday, May 29, 2009

A final post to this blog before I venture off tomorrow, with some thoughts about my beloved Red Wings, this series, and why I hate June 13th.

I think this series will go to seven. I'm not making predictions about who will win it all, or who will win what games, because I am honestly not sure. The only prediction I am making is that the Conn Smythe will go to the goalie of whichever team wins, because they'll have earned it.

I never feel like I can talk about why the Red Wings could win it all without soapboxing, so I won't. You probably saw why they could win it all last year.

The Pens could win it all because their top players are actually performing (Malkin, I'm looking at you), they have experience, both in the Finals and in Guerin, they have the coaching (I still think Babcock can outcoach Bylsma, but not by as wide of a margin as with MT), and they want it. They really really really want it.

Excited as I am to be heading off on my adventure, I'm sad that I won't be able to watch the games. I know they'll be archived on Hulu, but watching games when you already know the outcome just isn't the same. I love hockey. I love my team. I want to sit in front of the TV with pizza and beer and yell and laugh and scream and cry- with sadness or with joy yet to be determined. For the second year in a row, I am missing out on the final games of my team's season. It sucks.


I was going to do this post on June 13th, but since I have no idea where I will be on that day, or if I have internet access, I will have to post it today.

A few weeks ago, Mer posted a video about the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run this year. I'm not sure if it was made by the franchise, or a fan. I watched it just for the hell of it (lord knows I'm as neutral as you can be about the Pens) and I was shocked to see the video end with the slogan Believe. Since then, I've noticed it a few other places- LJ icons, desktops, etc, involving a few teams, but mostly for the Penguins.

I don't care if other franchises want to try to take Hockeytown (it's trademarked anyway), or bitch about the octopus, but Believe does not mean to any other franchise what it means to Detroit, and my seeing it next to any logo but the winged wheel feels like a slap in the face.

This is why.

Spring of 1989 was huge for the Detroit Red Wings. The Cold War was coming to a close, and all the owners and general managers were desperately trying to guess if Russian players would be allowed into the NHL soon.

The Red Wings were still in their rebuilding stage; they hadn't won the Stanley Cup since 1955. Between 1967 and 1983 they only made the playoffs twice. They were known as the Dead Things.

In 1982 the team was sold to Mike and Marian Illitch, who used the first pick of their first draft on Steve Yzerman. He was named Captain in 1986 and things were looking up- they were making the playoffs, at least- but they couldn't make it to the only thing that mattered, the Stanley Cup Finals.

In 1989, the Red Wings drafted, in order: Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov, Shawn McCosh, Dallas Drake, Scott Zygulski, Andy Suhy, Bob Jones, Greg Bignell, Rick Judson, Vladimir Konstantinov, Joe Frederick, and Jason Glickman.

It was considered a shallow draft year, and half of Detroit's picks never even made it to the NHL. Among those that did were the two best defensemen that will play for Detroit in my lifetime.

Obviously, one is Lidstrom. The other is Konstantinov.

They both played their rookie season in 1991-1992, and were both selected to the NHL All-Rookie team. Lidstrom finished second in Calder voting behind Pavel Bure.

As other draft picks, free agents, and traded players joined the team, Lidstrom was eclipsed, falling to the second defensive unit behind the Russian Five.

Coach (and genius) Scotty Bowman was intrigued by the old Soviet style of hockey, in which players were on five-man units. He put together Vyacheslav Kozlov (LW), Igor Larianov (C), Sergei Federov (RW), Slava Fetisov (D), and Konstantinov (D). The Russian Five were noted for their speed and puck control, based on talents they had perfected while playing for the Soviet national team.

Konstantinov was known for his grit. He had impressed a Detroit scout at the 1987 World Junior Championship. When a fight broke out during a Soviet/Canada game, Vlad was the only Russian that actually hit back. He was aggressive, and excelled at throwing opponents off their game. He once said, "For my game, I don’t need to score the goal. I need someone to start thinking about me and forgetting about scoring goals." We fans called him Vlad the Impaler, or the Vladinator.

He had a reputation as a pest, but he was also one of the most skilled defensemen I have ever watched. In the 1995/1996 season he finished at +60, the best +/- since Gretzky's retirement. In 1996/1997, he finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy. Lidstrom finished fourth.

Detroit ended its Stanley Cup drought in 1997, sweeping Philadelphia. They would not, could not have done this without the Russian Five. During the 1997 playoffs, the Red Wings went 16–0 when any of the Russians scored a point and 0–4 when they did not. I had just turned eight, and my parents let me stay up late to watch the final game. I watched Stevie Y, my Captain, accept the Stanley Cup and thought that nothing could ever feel better.

Six days later, the team had a celebratory function; a golf outing, followed by a dinner party. They had been drinking, so Vlad, Fetisov, and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov rented a limo together to take them home.

We found out later that the driver's license was suspended for drunk driving.

He lost control of the limo and smashed them into the median of Woodward Avenue, the same street that makes up the majority of the parade route after Cup victories.

Fetisov made it out with minor scrapes and bruises. Vlad and Mnatsakanov were both in comas with serious head injuries; no one knew if they would make it.

Both men woke up later that summer, but I will never forget the surge of disappointment when I would watch the news every night with my dad in the meantime, and hear that Vlad was still in his coma. I was young enough that my team, and my favorite players, were heroes, practically immortal. I didn't understand how this could possibly have happened.

Fetisov was able to return to the ice for the 1997/1998 season. Vlad and Mnatsakanov were both in wheelchairs and beginning the long process of physical therapy. The Red Wings dedicated that sesason to their missing pieces, wearing a patch on their jerseys that said Believe in both English and Russian, complete with the initials VK & SM.

When Stevie Y hoisted the Cup at the end of that season, the first person it went to was Vlad in his wheelchair. I will never forget watching Larianov push his countryman and friend around the ice with the Cup.

The Illitches had Vlad's named engraved into the Cup as a member of the 1998 Championship winning team. His number has been unofficially retired; no other Red Wing will ever wear #16. His locker is still set up in the locker room, complete with a small rock which says Believe.

For the rest of the teams, Believe simply represents a faith in the team's ability to win. For Detroit, Believe represents the strength and will to overcome all odds, to avenge a fallen comrade, and to convince the Hockeytown nation that this team can, and will, perservere. Through anything.

When Yzerman retired in 2006, his number was retired with him. Vlad was able to be a part of the ceremony with the help of a walker. Nine years later, he was still a part of team. He is STILL a part of the team.

This video makes me cry, every time- but it's a better representation of what Believe means to Detroit, to me, than I could ever write.

Maybe it's selfish of me to feel that other teams shouldn't use the slogan. I'm probably far too attached to it than I should be. After all, it's just a word.

But it's a word that inspired a team and a city to reach for the impossible. To stay strong. To have faith.


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