SI: How the Red Wings’ Eurocentric Draft in ’89 Transformed Them into the Best Pro Sports Franchise in North America

By Michael Farber

After a seven-hour drive from Chicago to the Twin Cities and an even longer wait inside the Met Center during the 1989 NHL entry draft, the 246th player chosen threaded his way to the Red Wings’ table. Team officials were hard-pressed to match the face to the name they just had announced because kids who are drafted so late tend to make no impact beyond delaying the first round of expense-account beers. They certainly don’t materialize at the draft table. The jerseys with the winged-wheel emblem had been handed out long ago to high picks, so chief scout Neil Smith grabbed his Red Wings coffee mug and presented it to 12th-rounder Jason Glickman.

“Here you go, buddy,” he told the goalie. “This is for you.” Glickman took the mug, rinsed out the dregs in an arena restroom and drove home to obscurity.

Glickman never actually had a cup of coffee in the NHL. (His pro record: 1–2, 6.00 goals-against average, .814 save percentage with the ECHL’s Knoxville Cherokees in 1991–92.) He is 40 now, married with two children, owns a vending machine business and coaches a hockey team of Chicagoland housewives called the Mother Puckers. That Red Wings mug sits on a desk at home, holding pens and pencils. But at least Glickman has the honor of having been the last selection of the defining draft in Red Wings history, the one with which the franchise created the brand and the team that—after a 6–1 victory over the Blackhawks in Glickman’s hometown on Sunday—was one win from appearing in the Stanley Cup finals for the sixth time in 14 seasons.

The Red Wings’ familiar surge to the Western Conference finals, their eighth since 1995, is a testament to the values that were implanted two decades ago. That Wings draft—an unparalleled bonanza that netted current captain Nicklas Lidstrom and franchise building blocks Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov in addition to longtime NHL players Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner and Dallas Drake—was the result of an epiphany, an insight into hockey’s future that has informed almost every subsequent move of an organization. When Mikael Samuelsson scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the conference finals on a three-on-one passing play with Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler—a sequence so crisp and delightful that it lacked only the strains of Sweet Georgia Brown—the principles first advanced in 1989 were on full display. There is a jagged line connecting the dots from today to that day when the Red Wings laid the foundation for the best sports franchise in North America.

The Red Wings’ peerlessness (box, page 60) is remarkable because after using its financial muscle to win before the salary-cap era, the team weathered the 2004–05 lockout that changed the rules of the game and the marketplace, and kept right on winning. The truth is, the Wings always seemed to have more brains than money. The franchise is so astute that without ever scraping bottom and gaining high draft picks like Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it has selected and developed replacements for stars such as the departed Fedorov and the retired Steve Yzerman with hardly a stumble. The emphasis on puck possession and neutral-zone regroups started in the mid-1990s with former Wings coach (and now Blackhawks consultant) Scotty Bowman, but the roots took hold in 1989.

“At the time of that draft, Hockeytown was Yzerman, [coach Jacques] Demers, [owner Mike] Ilitch and the Bruise Brothers [Bob Probert and Joe Kocur],” says Detroit general manager Ken Holland, the team’s Western junior scout in 1989. “The franchise had come back after some down times. Those men put hockey back on the map here, but that draft sustained it. We’re still living off it.”

When the Red Wings’ staffers walked into the gathering dusk outside the Met Center on June 17, 1989, there was no sense that they had made history. They had grabbed players they had targeted—what team doesn’t make that claim?—and had Ouija-boarded others. As then G.M. Jim Devellano told scouts every draft day, “If we get two NHL players, we’ll be real happy.”

Detroit had in fact picked seven NHL-bound players, who would play 2,997 games for them (and 5,721 overall in the league) and win a combined nine Stanley Cups along with many other accolades (sidebar, right). Equally important, the team created a paradigm that day, reordering its priorities to value skill above passport. The world was changing inside and outside the Met Center. Five months after Red Wings executives entered the arena with stacks of bulky scouting reports, the Berlin Wall fell. The Red Wings were balancing scouting evaluations with the thorny issue of player availability: when, or if, the best Soviets would be allowed out.

A further complication was a rule that made teenagers eligible only in the first three rounds. The Wings took undersized 18-year-old center Mike Sillinger first. “That’s the big joke,” says Sillinger, who has played for a record 12 NHL teams and is now with the Islanders. “On a list with Fedorov and Lidstrom, Sillinger’s the first-rounder.”

While geopolitical forces clashed half a world away, creative tension gurgled within the organization. At opposite poles were Devellano, the G.M. who, says former Detroit executive vice president Jim Lites, “liked big North Americans, preferably Canadians, ass-kicking players,” and Smith, the scout who viewed the game through a different lens. The Red Wings were picking 11th in a 21-team league, and Smith thought they needed to recalibrate their approach. Even though the Soviets had allowed journeyman Sergei Priakin out that year—he played two regular-season games for Calgary—Russian and Czech stars were still the NHL’s forbidden fruit. With patience, Smith decided, they could be the draft’s low-hanging fruit.

“What I’m most proud of is that we dared to do it,” says Smith, now a broadcaster and a Ducks consultant. “Today it doesn’t look daring at all, but it was. Jimmy D didn’t especially like Europeans. . . . His meat and potatoes was always going to be the Western and Ontario leagues. In those days a lot of hockey people shared that prejudice. The Russians and Czechs were Communists. The Swedes were chickens. What are they going to do when they get punched in the face? Even I was asking that question.”

But despite his preferences, Devellano trusted his scouts. He signed off on Lidstrom, whom Detroit took in the third round, and leaped into the abyss with Fedorov in the fourth. Teams had previously played the Soviet lottery with what-the-hell late-round picks (in 1983 Montreal tossed away No. 138 on goalie Vladislav Tretiak), without success. But the 74th pick in 1989 had intrinsic worth. Fedorov, who would defect just before the Goodwill Games in 1990 and play superbly for 13 years in Detroit, is now a key member of the Capitals—and the leading Russian scorer in NHL history.

Just as it served as a dacha for the renowned Russian Five in the late 1990s, Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena is now a distant suburb of Stockholm that houses eight Swedish players. The Red Wings lured high-end Europeans—consider Slovakian free-agent forward Marian Hossa, who took less money and a one-year contract to join Detroit this season—with the promise of playing alongside world-class talent in a supportive organization. For the same reason Holland has been able to re-sign current Swedish stars such as Johan Franzen (10 playoff goals this season and 23 in his last 31 playoff games) and Henrik Zetterberg (who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season) to long-term deals for less than market value. “For me it was a no-brainer,” says Zetterberg, who’s in his sixth season with the Red Wings. “They’ve adapted a European-type game. And [Ilitch] always will have a winning team.”

As surely as Wayne Gretzky opened the unused space behind the net, the Wings pioneered virgin territory with that draft—and others followed. Twenty years later all three Hart Trophy finalists, including Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, were Russian, and four of the NHL’s seven leading scorers were European. “Nobody believed you could win with the European puck-possession style, and nobody believed you could win with Russians,” says Holland. “We killed both myths.”

Holland has long vowed to retire the same day as Lidstrom, a wan half joke that underscores the significance of the defenseman. Lidstrom had scored 13 points this postseason and had sent the boyish Kane to his room (no points, four shots in the first three games) before missing Sunday’s Game 4 with a lower body injury. In 2009 you can’t find a player like Lidstrom; in 1989 you could barely find him at all. He was the NHL’s version of the young Lana Turner, except with a better agent. Rather than at a Hollywood soda fountain, he was “discovered” in the Swedish city of Vasteras by Detroit’s European scout Christer Rockstrom. Today, with information so abundant and scouting so sophisticated, Rockstrom would be taking a number deli-style to look at Lidstrom instead of having a once-in-a-generation player essentially to himself.

A Vasteras forward named Jorgen Holmberg had called Rockstrom about a young blueliner Holmberg couldn’t beat in practice. “Every scout gets tips,” Rockstrom says. “Most of the time the person calling has no idea of the qualifications to play in the NHL, but you still have to go and check them out.” Because Lidstrom played so infrequently—he would have two assists in just 19 games with the Vasteras senior team as an 18-year-old—Rockstrom would make the 80-minute drive from Stockholm to Vasteras to watch practice. Smith later went to catch a glimpse of the defenseman and quickly became a believer.

“I’d been telling Jimmy D that Lidstrom would be available in the third round, and we couldn’t pick him after that [because of his age],” Smith says. “People didn’t know him, and [the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau] had him way down. [I knew] he’d be seen the next year and be a sure first-rounder.”

But Lidstrom already was in the crosshairs, not of a team but of an agent: Toronto-based Don Meehan, with whom Rockstrom was friendly. When Meehan went to Sweden, Rockstrom would let him tag along on scouting trips. One night the scout brought him to Vasteras, which had Patrik Juhlin, a forward who would go to Philadelphia with the 34th pick in 1989. “After the first period, I said to Christer, ‘That number 9 [Lidstrom] looks like a helluva player,’ ” Meehan says. “He says, ‘No, you watch number 7. That number 9, you wouldn’t be interested.’ He said he didn’t know much about number 9, and that maybe he’d just had a good period. After the second, I said, ‘That’s more than a good period. That’s a helluva game.’ I asked him to introduce me after the game, and I presented my credentials.”

When Meehan returned to Toronto, he phoned Smith, also a friend. “What do you think about Lidstrom?” Meehan asked.

“Lidster?” Smith replied. Doug Lidster was a veteran defenseman with the Canucks.

“Lidstrom.”

“Don’t know the guy.”

“F— off, you know him.”

“No. You sure it’s Lid . . . Lid-what?”

“Well, he just retained me.”

The line went dead for 10 seconds. “Dammit, you can’t mention him,” Smith finally said. “We’re going to take him, but don’t tell anybody. And you can’t bring him to the draft.”

Smith was afraid that Meehan would raise Lidstrom’s profile by talking him up to G.M.’s or parading him around the Twin Cities during draft week. Smith even stopped mentioning Lidstrom to other Wings staffers for fear someone might drop the name in conversation. “There was a blackout,” Holland says. “Neil told me about Lidstrom when he got back from Europe that January—we were best friends at the time—but he saw no need for anybody else in the organization to [scout him].”

When Lidstrom joined Detroit in 1991–92, he had 60 points in 80 games and finished second in rookie of the year voting to Pavel Bure, who was taken by Vancouver in the sixth round, three picks before the Wings planned to draft him. Now Lidstrom is a finalist for his seventh Norris Trophy.

“Getting Lidstrom took what people think of as scouting but really wasn’t,” Smith says. “This was a rare time you find a diamond no one else sees. I was really concerned about using a valuable chip [a third-round pick]. The easiest thing would have been to take a junior player. Everyone would have left the draft happy. And if it hadn’t worked out, everyone would have shared the misfortune of that pick. But this was totally going to be on me and Christer. And if it didn’t work out, people would say, ‘Neil leaves [for New York] and sticks us with these dogs in Europe.’ ”

Smith did leave that summer to run the Rangers, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 1994. (Lidster, but not Lidstrom, was on that team.) Rockstrom went with Smith, but not before recommending a friend, Hakan Andersson, as his replacement with Detroit. As their draft began to pan out, the Red Wings became increasingly committed to scouring European rinks for late-round treasures, a commitment that has not waned.

Andersson would later identify, among other current Red Wings: Datsyuk (drafted 171st overall in 1998); Zetterberg (210th in ’99); Filppula (95th in 2002); Jonathan Ericsson (291st in ’02); and Franzen (97th in ’04). These five players had 60 points and were a combined +41 this postseason, including 17 and +12 in the conference final. Given the Red Wings’ dominance, the rest of the NHL has been feeling the distinct draft

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2 Responses to SI: How the Red Wings’ Eurocentric Draft in ’89 Transformed Them into the Best Pro Sports Franchise in North America

  1. Mike N says:

    WOW! I know and heard Red Wings drafted well, but didn’t realize how well until I saw final paragraph with all the players they picked up in late rounds. It seems most teams and people focus on 1st round draft picks or 1st draft pick for key players. The Red Wings don’t really have a key player, they have a team. How many teams can lost Nick, Datyzuk, Draper and Ericsson and still pull off a win. I be honest and say I was doubtful that RW would win game 5, because Chicago had a few days to “prepare” that Nick was gone and Ericsson was going to be off (the guy that step up after Nick missed game 4). I just thought how can much more players can Detroit lose. I am happy I was wrong and RW won a very defensive battle (without two very good defensive players, along with Datzyuk who is all over the ice.)

  2. jake tompkins says:

    Konstantinov too! it was mentioned briefly but, Vlady was taken as the 184th (somewhere around there) pick and was second in the league behind Gretzky in +/- in I believe 94. what’s really amazing is Lidstrom saying that Vladimir was even better than he was! If that accident hadn’t happened the wings would most likely be responsible for producing 2 of the best 5 defensemen to EVER PLAY THE GAME!

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