As I write posts here and offer my thoughts about sports, particularly my hometown teams, I’ll probably return on occasion to my firm belief that Detroit has one of the best fanbases in the country. This isn’t meant to belittle anyone else, and it comes from my experience living in two other metropolitan areas. I can go on at length for why this might be – struggling economy, need for hope, long team histories, etc – but I can save that for another time. Today, I simply want to take a moment and acknowledge the end (at least for now) of one of the best rivalries in hockey.
Detroit and Chicago. Red Wings and Blackhawks. The two western-most Original Six teams. Detroit’s an odd place for sports rivalries, in large part because we have a distinct absence of them. Sports rivalries require, in my opinion, a couple different things – a certain regional proximity, sustained success, repeated meetings of varying conclusion. Sometimes an intensity of one will outweigh the lack of another (see Detroit/Colorado, late ’90s). I look at the NFL, for example, where the lack of success makes Detroit an outsider in their division; the other three teams have a three-way rivalry of sorts, whereas the Lions just sit on the eastern-most front of the division. In MLB, Detroit is better located centrally in the division, but once again lacks a team that trades a strong ill will with them, partly due to the division being so weak. I won’t even get into the NBA, where the Pistons are awful, but again, when you think Pistons, even in the good years of the mid-00’s, who do you think of as a rival? Indiana? It just doesn’t work. When you think of a rivalry in Michigan, you think of college – Michigan and Ohio State and, to a lesser degree, Michigan and Michigan State. Part of this is the odd regional rivalry instilled between Michigan and Ohio that has never carried over to the pro sports teams (although I think there’d be potential for an interleague rivalry between Detroit and Cincinnati, but MLB is ignorant to that and is trying to manufacture a Detroit/Pittsburgh rivalry instead).
So what we’ve been left with has been the Red Wings and Blackhawks, which has been a fantastic rivalry. No two teams have played each other more than these. They meet frequently in the playoffs and most of their games recently have either been overtime games or decided by one goal, regardless. While play can get chippy at times, they’re ultimately coached by two of the best, and the respect the teams share for each other is evident if you watch them play or listen to the coaches speak.
All I wanted, as a Red Wings fan this spring, was to see Chicago and Detroit in a playoff series one last time (until they meet for the Cup someday, which would be incredible). More than that, I wanted it to be a good series; as nice as a sweet 5-game clincher would have been for the Wings, I am ecstatic to see this going to seven games tonight. I will get to experience the best parts of being a sports fan tonight; the elation and/or disappointment, an evening of being on the edge of my couch, yelling at the TV, etc. Masochistically, I want this game to go into overtime. I want it to go into multiple overtimes, because that’s what this rivalry deserves. This series has been what I hoped for, with both teams experiencing ups and downs that ultimately become irrelevant in the end – it’s a winner-take-all, one game series now, reflecting in a way how the struggles and successes of both teams in the regular season melt away to insignificance once the playoffs start. The President’s Trophy is meaningless if Chicago loses tonight; the Red Wings’ near-failure to make the playoffs at all is already just a footnote on what has been an ultimately successful season. And nevermind the minor coaching storylines that I’m not hearing enough chatter about – Quenneville has never beaten the Red Wings in a playoff series (0-5 career), and he also leads active coaches in playoff wins at 79 with Babock second at 78. Can Coach Q slay his dragon tonight and get that series win against Detroit before they move East? Or will Babcock get his team locked in like he did in Game 7 against Anaheim? Babcock has made no secret of the fact that he loves the Game 7 atmosphere, something that was evident when the Red Wings bounced Anaheim; there was no question who was going to win as you saw Babcock’s steely gaze behind the bench against Bruce Boudreau’s shell-shocked helplessness. Quenneville is a better coach than Boudreau, to be sure, though.
It’s easy to root for Chicago here. It’s easy to want a coach like Coach Q to get the Detroit monkey off his back, to see a likable Blackhawks team overcome adversity and reclaim their President’s Trophy form, advancing to play the Kings, matching the two most recent Western Conference Stanley Cup champions against each other. It’s easy to root for Detroit, too. Babock remains one of the most underrated coaches in the league, an annual Jack Adams snub because he coaches a team that everyone expects to be good. It’s easy to root for the exciting Red Wing youngsters, a group of rookies thrust into play this year largely due to the excessive injuries the Red Wings saw.
Tonight we’ll see which team has the grit to advance to what should be yet another compelling and lengthy series against Los Angeles. Last change has been a big deal in the series, something Chicago will have the advantage in. Speak what you want of Chicago’s momentum having won two straight, but remember also that teams who bounce back to force a Game 7 still lose half of the time. But it’s certainly hard to like the Red Wings on the road, when they had a chance to close out Chicago at home and managed to collapse in the 3rd period. Whoever wins, the Kings will have a serious challenge in front of them later this week. Whoever wins, it’s been a memorable series fitting of a rivalry this old and treasured. I will miss our annual series of games with the Blackhawks after this year.