It seems like an odd thing to say about a franchise that came of age with Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio, and later went on to 23 straight playoff appearances and four Stanley Cups, but my favorite Red Wings team of all time was the 1988-89 edition.
That was the year a 23-year-old Steve Yzerman made the leap from very good player to unquestioned superstar, posting a remarkable 65 goals and 155 points, both Red Wing records. This was in the middle of the Gretzky/Lemieux era, so Yzerman didn’t even make a postseason all-star team, but his fellow players named him best player in the league.
Gerard Gallant scored 93 points, his best total from a nine-year run in Detroit that ended when he was 29 (even though I could swear he’s in his late thirties in every single memory I have of him in a Wings uniform). Two future NHL coaches, Adam Oates and Paul MacLean, both topped 70 points. The goalies were Greg Stefan and Glen Hanlon, whom I could never tell apart.
It was a good team, good enough to end the regular season in first place in its division with … well, with 80 points. Yes, they won a division title by finishing .500. That’s because the ’88-’89 Red Wings were part of the greatest collection of misfits and madmen the NHL has ever known: the Norris Division.
It’s hard to explain the Norris to hockey fans who weren’t around to appreciate it. You can try to piece it together with old newspaper clips and YouTube videos, but it doesn’t quite work. You can talk about the brawls and the crazy stories and riffle through the old names, but that takes you only so far.
Or you could just put it this way: For a time, the Norris Division was hockey’s answer to Guns N’ Roses. Stay with me here.
The Norris wasn’t the best division we’d ever seen, just like GNR was never quite the greatest band. Neither won many awards. And with both, there was never any shortage of very earnest people who wanted you to understand that the whole deal was completely ridiculous and maybe even a little bit embarrassing, and those people were almost certainly right.
But the Norris and GNR were fun, dammit. And they offered an element of danger, or at least could give off the illusion of it. And, in both cases, we haven’t seen anything remotely like them since.
So here goes: The St. Louis Blues were Duff, so steady and dependable that you could sometimes forget they were there. The Minnesota North Stars were Steve Adler, hanging around as long as they could until there was no choice but to replace them. The Tampa Bay Lightning were Dizzy Reed, because they joined in the early ’90s and nobody counts them. And the Toronto Maple Leafs were Izzy, the dysfunctional mess and cautionary example that somehow served as the heart and soul of the whole thing.
The Blackhawks were Axl — the loudest and craziest of the bunch, still kicking around to this day. OK, the Blackhawks are still kicking around successfully to this day. I never said the metaphor was perfect. But any team that was built around Eddie Belfour and Mike Keenan and J.R. and the Grim Reaper and a young Dominik Hasek and The Stadium — that team gets to be Axl.
And the Detroit Red Wings? The Red Wings were Slash. They were the cool one.