What makes a winner? Considering that this is sport’s central question, the one agonized over by coaches, general managers, owners, parents and fans, considering how winners such as Yogi Berra and Michael Jordan are still revered, it’s remarkable that even those who wear the label find the question difficult to answer. After an initial stab at familiar terms — luck, confidence, hard work — there comes the flutter of ums, a pause and then surrender: “I can’t explain it,” Sakic says. “I can’t explain what he does.” -Sports Illustrated, “The Winner“
Joe Sakic is right, it’s hard to describe what makes a winner.
If that sort of thing were common knowledge, perhaps this city wouldn’t be as depressed, and Cubs fans wouldn’t hate fan interference so much. As time goes on it would appear to the naked eye that winning takes a perfect storm in most situations. Good coaching, a smart front office, great players, and just a tiny bit of luck is what it takes to win it all.
But that doesn’t explain everything. Winning is one thing, but winning consistently is a whole different story. It takes much more than a perfect storm to win that second or third time; something that a weather metaphor can’t address. Luck doesn’t give you that second title, it’s much more than that.
Last Monday while the Red Wings dismantled the Sabres, I kept thinking about Marian Hossa. What was on my mind wasn’t the two goals he scored that night, but the decision he made last July.
A brief history lesson: the Penguins trade for Hossa at the trade deadline and make a run to the Cup Finals. After a loss to Detroit, he mulls over his options as a free agent. He was a rental player for sure, and as his career begins to age he is looking for that illusive Stanley Cup. Atlanta and Ottawa have turned up empty, and he has any number of max contract offers to get it, as well as the option to stay with the Penguins. Where does he go?
In fact, he takes a pay cut to do it. Now $7.45 million is nothing to sneeze at, but he passed up the chance for one final long-term deal for one year with the Detroit Red Wings. It was a risky move; he could get injured or have a bad season and seriously hurt his value. However, Hossa had one thing in mind when he signed the deal: winning.
The question is, what’s the difference between a city like Pittsburgh and Detroit? Heck, what’s the difference between those two and Buffalo? All three are Rust Belt, industry driven towns in various states of economic depression. Taking them at face value, Detroit seems the worst of the three. Playing in a terrible arena with no signs of getting a new one, and the fans are struggling to fill the seats some nights. Still, we all know better: Detroit is the best option hands down.
What makes a team like Detroit so attractive? You know it isn’t the nightlife, housing market, or weather. All three are mentioned as reasons why Buffalo isn’t an attractive free agent destination, but Michigan doesn’t fit the bill, either. What is it that makes Detroit the place to take a real life discount for?
Well, they are winners, top to bottom. General Manager Ken Holland has the clout other GMs only dream of, Darcy Regier included. Eight division titles in his tenure, four Presidents Trophies, and of course, three Stanley Cups. Salary Cap or not, he is the best in the business when it comes to putting together a hockey team in the modern era.
Put it this way: Detroit not only has a “core” in place, they have a core that has actually won something. Where the Sabres have players that have always been just a period away, the Red Wings dominated last season and won a Stanley Cup going away. Not only that, they have the same team this season plus Marian Hossa.
Now that roster situation does seem a bit like a “perfect storm” of sorts, but I don’t think luck is the cause. Holland had eight UFAs on that Stanley Cup roster, they just happened to be lesser players. He took care of Cleary, Lidstrom, Draper, and Osgood beforehand, and the moves paid dividends. Holland made his own perfect storm and set himself up years down the road, even having the ability to sign Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
That’s the thing about the Red Wings: management has shown complete respect for their players, and it has paid off. The fans trust them, the players trust them, and hockey minds everywhere trust them. This means actual hometown discounts from players that like playing there, like winning, and trust the team is committed to winning in the future.
On Saturday it was announced that Johan Franzen signed an 11-year deal with the Red Wings. What struck me most about the contract was not that it got done, but that criticism of the deal was so scarce. Long contracts like this are always a touchstone for discussion by hockey experts, yet this one was an assumed thumbs up. It’s Detroit, so they must know what they are doing. From the linked story:
The most he’ll make in any season is $5.5 million and the lowest amount he’ll make is $1 million. It’s similar to the 12-year deal that Henrik Zetterberg signed in February, and Franzen joked that “at least one guy I know will be here” at the end of his contract.
Lidstrom said he was happy for his countryman: “He wanted a long-term deal and he sure got one. I know the Wings wanted to lock him up long-term as well, keep the average salary down so they can go out and sign some other players as well. We were very happy for him in here that he got that deal.”
Franzen, who is making $1.15 million this season, could have earned more than $6 million on the open market.
Emphasis mine. Everyone looks to be on the same page. I like it here, I want to win, I can make less so we can win more. No one said the words “commitment to winning,” but they really didn’t have to. While that phrase haunts a place like Buffalo to this day, it’s a friendly tune in Detroit’s locker room. Heck, they even feel comfortable commenting on their teammates’ contracts.
Darcy Regier may have over a decade in Buffalo, but that’s the kind of reputation he’d murder for. In fact, he doesn’t have anything close to that despite his best efforts. The words of Mike Grier may have bothered us back then, but by now you can’t help but second guess the truth.
On Saturday Ron MacLean criticized the Sabres for their sub par finish. I’m paraphrasing, but he mentions Detroit and how he believes the Sabres saw their system and tried to model their own similarly. It’s a fair criticism, but you have to admit that it’s an attractive system to use. Despite many things Detroit is a model franchise in this league, and they are gunning for back to back Stanley Cups as I type.
The problem is that you need much more than monkey see, monkey do to win. If what MacLean says is true the Sabres have the right idea, but execution has been iffy for years now. Still, I think it takes good coaching, a smart front office, great players, and a tiny bit of luck to pull it off.
It’s just that sometimes I think you can make your own luck.