The Big “What If”: Gretzky to Detroit, Part II

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If you haven’t checked out Part I of this particular series, you can find it here. Part I covered the specifics of the trade, and Edmonton’s fortunes following it, while this part will focus on how Detroit does in the wake of acquiring Wayne Gretzky. I will also look at the league as a whole at the end of this part.


 

FROM DETROIT’s PERSPECTIVE

The American hotbed of hockey was now the home of the game’s biggest superstar. Across the city, there was incredible excitement as Wayne Gretzky was announced as one of the team’s newest players in a deal with the Edmonton Oilers. Mike Ilitch would be on hand at the introductory press conference, holding in his hands a Detroit Red Wings jersey with Wayne’s familiar “99” on the back, and a “C” on the front. Though Gretzky himself was a bit reluctant to take the captaincy right off the bat, Ilitch absolutely insisted, and with a bit of encouragement in the next few weeks from Wayne’s idol Gordie Howe, the Great One would be the captain for the team’s 1988-89 season opener against Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, there would be a sell-out. Though the Kings themselves had missed out on acquiring Wayne Gretzky, news of his trade still made a bit of impact in the United States, and there was a small sense of nationwide intrigue regarding how well Gretzky would fare with his new team. In the owner’s box, Bruce McNall was seething. After being so close to acquiring Wayne, he now had to watch as Gretzky stepped on the ice wearing the jersey of the Kings’ opponents that night. He would be further enraged as the game went on, with the Red Wings coasting to a comfortable 8-2 victory. Gretzky would grab four points in the game, earning the first star award.

In his first game as a Red Wing, Gretzky had wowed both Wings fans, and fans across the United States who had begun to take an interest in hockey. And as it would turn out, Gretzky’s fantastic debut was no aberration. He would go on to notch 168 points, finishing second in the NHL. His linemates all season long, Gerard Gallant and Paul MacLean, would also benefit, both grabbing over 50 goals for the first time in their careers. Detroit’s offense was utterly devastating, and helped make up for the fact that starting netminder Greg Stefan was poor, with only a .871 SV% in 46 games. The Wings would ride their attack all the way to the top of the Norris Division with 88 points.

Gretzky’s first playoff test as a Red Wing would come against the Chicago Blackhawks, who had limped in to the post-season with a 27-41-12 record. Detroit was clearly the better team, but the Blackhawks had an unexpected ace up their sleeve in playoff starting netminder Alain Chevrier. Chevrier, formerly a medicore starting goalie with New Jersey and Winnipeg, would play his best hockey ever in stymieing the dangerous Red Wing offense. Chicago, unbelievably, would stun the Wings in six games, winning the last by a shocking score of 7-1. The Wings would finish with the 5th-best record in the NHL, giving Edmonton the 17th Overall Pick in the 1989 Draft. They would trade it in a deal with New Jersey, who would use the selection on centre Shayne Stephenson.

The shock exit of the Wings in the first round would be the catalyst for a few key changes within the Detroit locker room. Gone were Paul MacLean and second-line centre Adam Oates, as they were sent to St. Louis for veteran sniper Bernie Federko and journeyman Tony McKegney. Also brought in is former Toronto Maple Leaf Borje Salming, who is at the twilight of his stellar career, but still has something to offer an NHL club. With the likes of Federko and Salming around, the expectation is that the Wings will have veteran leadership next year, which will come in handy when the team is preparing for a Cup run.

Unfortunately for the Wings, the moves they made, especially the Oates trade, bite the team in the backside. Salming is simply washed up, managing only 19 points in 49 games. Federko isn’t much better, as for the first time since 1977-78, he fails to register 20 goals (17g-40a-57p in 73 games). If there is a silver lining of any sort for the Wings, it is that Petr Klima, given a chance to play alongside Gretzky late in the season, begins to find a scoring touch, finishing with 22 goals in the team’s final 40 games. The Wings slip back, but thanks to the play of Gretzky, they manage to hold on to the final playoff spot in the Norris Divison with 79 points.

The Wings are back in the playoffs, and once again ready to face off with the Chicago Blackhawks, who have taken Detroit’s spot on top of the division. The Hawks go into the series with confidence – almost to the point of cockiness. Though they win the first game handily, Chicago loses the next two, and despite taking Game Four, they lose the next one to be forced to the brink. Thanks to the emergent Ed Belfour in goal, Chicago would win Games Six and Seven to lock up the series, and send the Wings packing. Detroit would end up with the 9th Overall Pick in 1990, used on blue-liner John Slaney.

With two seasons under his belt in Detroit, and two straight playoff losses, Wayne Gretzky was clearly not happy with what he had around him, and the blame went to the front office staff. Coach Jacques Demers was sacked, while GM Jim Devellano was moved to Senior VP of the team. Replacing both men as dual coach/GM would be former Jack Adams award winner Bryan Murray. Murray made it a priority to secure a second-line centreman to take the heat off Gretzky, and as it would turn out, he wouldn’t have to look too far. 1989 4th-Round Pick Sergei Fedorov had traveled to the United States as part of the Soviet team for the 1990 Goodwill Games, but defected prior to the tournament itself, instead traveling to Detroit to join the Wings for the next season.

As it would turn out, having Fedorov in tow was exactly what the Wings needed. Sergei himself wasn’t bad, managing 79 points in his rookie year. But having him around served to free up more time for Gretzky to work his magic, as his point totals increased from the previous year. The Great One would once again lead the NHL with 163 points, 122 of them assists. The Gretzky resurgence was even more necessary thanks to the continued trend of awful goaltending; Tim Cheveldae, only 22, played 65 games, managing a dismal .875 SV% in a year when save totals were beginning to rise across the league. Even an inexperienced goaltender, however, would not stop the Wings from grabbing 3rd in the Norris with 87 points.

It was some cruel twist of fate that had put the Red Wings against the St. Louis Blues, the team that they had traded Adam Oates and Paul MacLean to a couple of years ago. MacLean may have been in the last year of his career, but Oates had broken out alongside sniper Brett Hull, recording career highs in assists (90) and points (115). Hull and Oates would terrorize Cheveldae all series long, but the Gretzky/Fedorov tandem down the middle gave Detroit a chance in every game. The series would be decided in the second OT period of Game Seven, when Yves Racine found Gretzky with a pin-point pass. Gretzky would not miss on his breakaway shot, flipping one over the blocker of Vincent Riendeau to give Detroit a crucial series win.

Their first-round hoodoo broken, the Red Wings were suddenly carrying more confidence, and there seemed to be a feeling surrounding the city that the team could make a serious run. Even better for Detroit was the fact that they would not have to face the Blackhawks again, as Minnesota had already eliminated them. The North Stars were in for a challenge, and were forced to split the first two games at home. From then on, the Wings would win the next three, claiming the series in five games. While they were carrying confidence from getting past the first round, and handily taking down the North Stars, the next series was bound to be their biggest test, as they were matched up with none other than the Edmonton Oilers.

Three years after the biggest trade in hockey history, the two teams involved were to face off in the Campbell Conference Final. The Red Wings, who had acquired Wayne Gretzky in that deal, were now tasked with proving that they could beat the team that Gretzky had made famous in the 80s, the Edmonton Oilers. Early on, however, the Oilers showed that the players they still had from those dynasty teams were still better than the young core the Red Wings had. Edmonton would split the first two games, then take the next three to give the Wings the boot. It was nonetheless a great run for the Red Wings, who now looked like a genuine contender in the Campbell Conference. Having finished 7th in the league in points, Detroit’s pick, held by Edmonton, would be at #16 – it would normally have been at #15, but a new team, the San Jose Sharks, had entered the NHL, and would begin play next year.

The Wings knew that the time was right for them to make a Cup run. Bryan Murray had been given a massive vote of confidence as dual GM/head coach, and his move last year to being Sergei Fedorov to the city was followed in the 1991 off-season by the signing of Vladimir Konstantinov, another of the famous Soviet stars that had been so dominant both in their native country and international hockey. Konstantinov would give the Wings an additional element of sandpaper; his toughness got him on the radar of NHL scouts back at the 1987 World Junior Hockey Championships, when he was one of the few Soviets to genuinely fight back in the infamous bench-clearing brawl at the end of the tournament.

For all of the up-and-coming young players that were on the 1991-92 Detroit roster, one in particular would stand out: defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. In his first year with the Wings, Lidstrom would lead all team blue-liners with 60 points, and put up a respectable +36. He would get second place in the Calder Trophy nomination, barely losing out to Pavel Bure of Vancouver. Also of note was Tim Cheveldae, who had improved into a reasonable NHL starter, putting up a .886 SV% that matched the overall league average. The improvement of the team, both through transactions and development, led Detroit to a Norris Division title with 93 points.

Once again, the Red Wings were to face the Minnesota North Stars, and once again, the Wings would prevail. This time, however, it took seven games for them to move on, with Game Six proving controversial, as it became known for the first-ever use of video replay in an NHL playoff game. That replay would benefit the Wings, who would win in overtime thanks to Sergei Fedorov being deemed to have scored on a shot off the crossbar. After winning the decider, Detroit was once again faced with the Chicago Blackhawks, who had already taken two series against the Wings. Unfortunately for Detroit, they would claim a third series, eliminating the Red Wings in a sweep. Detroit’s pick in the 1992 Entry Draft would be at #21, using the selection on 6’4” Czech centreman Libor Polasek.

With that Cup Final still eluding them, Detroit went for more veteran players in the off-season. Dino Ciccarelli and Mark Howe were brought in to give the side an experience advantage, and help give the younger players more support in a long playoff run. Ciccarelli would prove to be the leading scorer on the team with 41 goals and 92 points, but this was due to Wayne Gretzky missing almost half of the season due to injuries. For the first time in his NHL career, Gretzky would fail to lead the league in assists – a run which, to that point, had spanned 13 seasons. His absence greatly contributed to the fall down the standings that the Wings suffered, as they could only manage 91 points, putting them 3rd in the Norris Division.

The Wings were faced with an unfamiliar opponent in the post-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto, who had been languishing at the bottom of the division for several years, had finally gotten out of the Norris basement thanks to new #1 centreman Doug Gilmour, 50-goal scorer Dave Andreychuk, and rookie netminder Felix Potvin. Unlike in past seasons, the Leafs were a force to be reckoned with. They would give the Wings a tough battle, and in Game Seven, they would win the series on an overtime goal by Nikolai Borschevsky. Detroit was once again out early, and would now have to answer questions about how they would look going forward. The last of the three 1st-Round Picks sent to Edmonton in the Gretzky deal would be at #17.

Now, with Detroit back to their first-round struggles, fans were getting nervous. In five years with Wayne Gretzky on board, they had no Cup wins, and only one Conference Final appearance. With Gretzky himself getting injured (and getting older), some within the city started to wonder about the possibility of starting a re-build in the next few years, possibly even trading Gretzky himself. Mike Ilitch, however, would hear none of it. He would bring in Scotty Bowman, formerly the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had won six Stanley Cups in his career. If anyone was going to lead the Wings to a Cup in Ilitch’s mind, Bowman was the man to do it. Bowman would take over head coaching duties, while Bryan Murray would remain as General Manager.

By all accounts, Scotty Bowman’s first season in charge of the Wings really should have been better. Offensively, the Wings were incredibly dangerous thanks to the tandem of Sergei Fedorov and Wayne Gretzky. Not only did Gretzky return to form with a league-leading 92 assists and 130 points, but Fedorov wasn’t too far behind with 120 points of his own. In fact, Fedorov would go on to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP for his incredible two-way work. Defensively, however, the team struggled. Sure, they had Nick Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov, but outside of them (and maybe Steve Chaisson), they were just too thin. The Wings would end up tying the previous year’s record with 91 points, good for 4th in the re-named Western Conference.

With the NHL’s new format, teams now faced off within their conference instead of their division, and #4 in the conference standings would face #5 – this put Detroit up against the St. Louis Blues. While Brett Hull no longer had Adam Oates by his side, he did have another scoring threat in Brendan Shanahan, who had grabbed 52 goals to keep up with Hull’s 57. There were serious concerns that the Wings were in danger of getting knocked out once again in the first round. Gretzky, however, would have none of it. He would produce 8 points in 4 games, leading the Wings to a first-round sweep. He did have a bit of help along the way, though, in the form of Chris Osgood, who was stellar in all four games.

This put the Red Wings up against the Dallas Stars, who had moved from Minnesota this year. Dallas had just come off of a seven-game thriller with Chicago that included two overtime games, and the hope from Detroit fans was that they would be too tired for another playoff series. As it would turn out, Dallas was more than happy to slug it out with the Wings, splitting each of the first four games in high-scoring affairs. Game Five and Six, however, went decisively to Detroit. The Wings would ride the clutch play of Gretzky once more, as he managed a hat trick in the final game to give his side a 4-2 series win. The Wings were back in the Conference Final, this time against the Vancouver Canucks. Detroit would get out to a 3-0 series lead, only to drop the next two. In Game Six, the Wings would get hat tricks from both Slava Kozlov and Ray Sheppard, claiming a 7-5 victory, and another 4-2 series win.

After almost 30 years, the Wings were back in the Stanley Cup Final, and had the chance to end a 39-year Cup drought. In order to do so, however, the Red Wings would have to beat the New York Rangers. It was a clash of old teammates, as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier would line up against each other in a playoff series for the very first time. As President’s Trophy winners, the Rangers would be tougher than any team the Wings have faced in their run, and many of the players that were on the 80s Oilers were now on this New York team: Messier, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, and Glenn Anderson. The two sides split the first two games in New York, and do the same in Detroit. Game Five goes to the Red Wings thanks to a Ray Sheppard hat trick, and the Rangers answer with a 4-2 win in Game Six, sending the series to a deciding game – one that Mark Messier claimed his team would win, just as he had done in the previous series. As it would turn out, he was right, as the Rangers won 3-2 to claim their first Stanley Cup since 1940.

For Mark Messier, it was a personal victory; having spent so long in Gretzky’s shadow, he had finally bested the Great One at the highest point of professional hockey. Wayne and the Wings, however, were looking too fondly on the season that had just passed to worry about any personal battles. After several years of missing out, they had finally made the Cup Final, and even losing in Game Seven wasn’t enough to put a damper on the enthusiasm that was surrounding Detroit hockey. The team would also have a decent pick in the 1994 Entry Draft at #17, selecting Wayne Primeau from the OHL’s Owen Sound Platers.

The 94-95 season would be delayed due to a lockout, but when the Red Wings took to the ice to start their campaign on January 20th, 1995, the Joe Louis Arena was packed, and louder than ever. The energy would continue throughout the shortened season, as Detroit stayed near the top of the league in a very tight race. In a move to position themselves as Cup favourites, the Red Wings would trade a 3rd-Round Pick to the New Jersey Devils for Slava Fetisov, another remnant of the famed 80s Soviet teams. Fetisov would notch 14 points in as many games down the stretch, but even he wasn’t enough to guarantee the Wings first place in the West. That honour would go to St. Louis, while the Red Wings would finish in 3rd, just a point below the Blues at 60.

Detroit’s first round series would be against the Edmonton Oilers, setting up the second clash between the two sides since the Gretzky deal. This time around, the Oilers were no match for the two-headed monster of Gretzky and Fedorov, and the addition of Fetisov gave the Wings another defensive weapon. Edmonton was knocked out in five games, pitting Detroit against the Chicago Blackhawks in the next round. Chicago’s blue line was well prepared for the Detroit onslaught, with Chris Chelios and Gary Suter combining to shut down whoever the Wings threw at them. Suter, in particular, had history with Gretzky thanks to his hit on #99 at the 1991 Canada Cup, and shadowed the Great One brilliantly in the series. In the end, though every game was closely fought, it would be the Blackhawks prevailing in five. The Red Wings would get the 22nd-Overall Pick in 1995, selecting goaltender Brian Boucher.

At this point, worries were beginning to crop up for Detroit. Not only had they taken a step back in the playoffs, but the next season would be the last year of Wayne Gretzky’s contract, possibly depriving the Wings of their biggest name. Even in his mid-30s, Wayne was at or near the top of the leaderboards every year in points, and his one-two punch with Sergei Fedorov make the Wings a formidable foe night in and night out. All throughout the year, Wayne would hear nothing of the whispers, instead publically focusing on making the Wings a Cup winner in 1996. In private, negotiations were swift; Mike Ilitch would never, in any universe, let the Great One go to free agency. In September of 1995, Gretzky would be signed to a three-year extension through the 98-99 season, very likely making him a Red Wing for the rest of his career.

If having players like Wayne Gretzky, Nicklas Lidstrom, and the Osgood/Vernon tandem weren’t enough, the team would complete the unit that would be known as the “Russian Five” with the early acquisition of Igor Larionov from San Jose. Formerly of the famed “KLM Line”, Larionov gave the Red Wings a five-man group that played together at all times, making life extremely hard for opposing teams. As a result, even some of the top teams in the league found themselves unable to compete with the Wings, who would routinely rack up the wins. In the end, they would rack up 126 points, which was not only the top total in the league, but a whole 23 points above anyone else.

If it wasn’t bad enough that the Wings were shutting down teams on the ice, they would effectively shut down an entire franchise in the first round. Faced with the Winnipeg Jets, the Wings would win in six games; those would be the last games played in Winnipeg for almost 15 years, as the Jets would move to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. This put the Wings up against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, who Detroit had beaten at the first step two years ago. The Blues were not the same team they were back then, and even having Cup winner Mike Keenan behind their bench wasn’t enough to help them. The Wings would sweep the Blues, with Wayne Gretzky himself stealing the puck from Brett Hull to win Game Four in overtime. The goal still stands up as one of the most iconic moments in Red Wings playoff history, and symbolized the Great One’s determination and commitment to making the Wings a champion.

The Western Conference Final would be played between the Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, who had just moved from Quebec this past off-season. The Avs had built a strong squad, with quite a few of their key pieces coming from the Lindros trade so many years ago. They also had Patrick Roy in goal, who they brought in from Montreal in a shock trade that year. They would be, without a doubt, the biggest test Detroit would have in this run, and it would be the Avalanche that prevailed in six games. Game Six, in particular, would be noted for Claude Lemieux’s hit on Kris Draper that would be the catalyst for future hostilities between the two sides. So heated had the tension become in that game that after the fact, Dino Ciccarelli would famously declare, “I can’t believe I shook that guy’s hand” in reference to Lemieux.

It was an ugly way to end their playoff run, but any questions about losing the Great One, and any questions about Gretzky’s commitment to the Red Wings, had been thoroughly answered. He wasn’t going anywhere, and he wasn’t giving any less than his all for the red-and-white sweater. The Wings would have some semblance of security going forward, and could now focus on grabbing the final pieces needed for a Cup run. In addition, they had the 1996 Entry Draft on their minds, selecting defenseman Jesse Wallin from the Red Deer Rebels at #26.

Though the Wings would go into the 96-97 season with major hopes at a Stanley Cup, the regular season would be a major reality check. Not only had Wayne Gretzky begun to show the signs of age, managing only 97 points, but Sergei Fedorov had taken a huge step back with only 63 points. The wingers that Gretzky was stuck with included Darren McCarty and Greg Johnson, neither of them major lamp-lighters. In danger of missing out entirely on the playoffs, the Wings made late season acquisitions to try and keep themselves in the hunt, including acquiring Tomas Sandstrom from Pittsburgh and Larry Murphy from the Maple Leafs. In the end, they had just crossed the finish line, ending up 8th in the West with 81 points.

The Wings were matched up against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, and the bad blood between the two sides had only gotten worse since then. In late March, the two sides would be involved in a wild brawl which featured Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy dropping the gloves, and Claude Lemieux turtling rather than face Darren McCarty. The series itself proved much less violent, with the key moment coming in Game Three. Wayne Gretzky’s OT winner in that contest would be the spark that Detroit needed to go forward in the series, eventually taking it in six.

The next series, against Dallas, would go much worse for the Wings, as the Stars claimed to overtime victories on home soil to demoralize the Wings. Detroit, unable to find any motivation after the two close losses, was unable to win even in front of their own fans at Joe Louis Arena. A goal by Jere Lehtinen in overtime of Game Four was the final dagger, as the Stars swept a Wings team that had expected more of themselves. Their consolation prize in the 1997 Entry Draft was the 13th Overall Pick, used on winger Daniel Cleary.

If the sweep against Dallas was bad enough, what would follow the next year would be nerve-wracking for Wings fans. Sergei Fedorov, the former Hart Trophy winner, would hold out on his contract, entering a long battle that would only be ended in 1998 with Fedorov signing a seven-year offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, who had just moved from Hartford. Not wanting to lose one of their star players, Detroit would match the offer, keeping their top-two centre tandem intact. Fedorov would make a late-season return, playing the last 21 games of the campaign, with 17 points tallied.

Without Fedorov for that point in time, Wayne Gretzky did his best to keep the team competitive. Though his 90 points that year would be evidence of further decline, his assist total of 67 would actually lead the league for a second year running. Vladimir Konstantinov, having just come off of a Norris Trophy nomination, would continue to play rock-solid hockey at both ends of the ice, earning himself another nomination in 1998 alongside teammate Nicklas Lidstrom. By the trade deadline, Detroit is once again competitive, and is once again making moves to ensure that they have a team ready for a Cup run. The additions of Dmitri Mironov and Jamie Macoun give the team even more talent in the blue line, as the Wings finish strong in March and April. At the end of the season, the Red Wings finish with 98 points, good enough for 5th in the West.

Detroit’s first-round series see the Wings pitted against the St. Louis Blues. The Blues had been tied with the Wings on points, but thanks to tie-breaking procedures, the Blues would hold home ice advantage. It wouldn’t help them, though, as Detroit ended up forcing a split in the first two games of the series in St. Louis. The Wings would then go on to win the next three, eliminating the Blues in five games. Next up were the President’s Trophy-winning Edmonton Oilers, who had beaten San Jose in six games. Given a chance late in his career to make an impact in the playoffs against his old team, Wayne Gretzky would come up clutch, scoring an OT winner in Game Two and a hat trick in Game Six. The sixth game was the last of the series, as the Wings would eliminate the Oilers to move on to the Conference Final.

Next up was another team recovering from a hard-hitting series, the Dallas Stars. Led by a tough centre tandem of their own in Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Modano, the Stars had just come off of a bruising series with the Colorado Avalanche that would remind a few of the battles the Avs had with Detroit in recent years. The seven-game series left them somewhat weakened for their clash with the Red Wings, who managed to take Game One on Dallas’ ice. Though the Stars would win the next one, Detroit would claim both of their home games, then follow up a Game Five loss with a 2-0 win at the Joe Louis Arena in Game Six. Detroit was once again off to the Stanley Cup, and once again, the mood in the city was one of confidence. Every citizen and every fan across the globe truly believed that this was the Wings’ year.

Standing in the way between Detroit and the elusive Stanley Cup would be the Washington Capitals. Led by former Anaheim bench boss Ron Wilson, the Caps had rode the incredible goaltending of Olaf Kolzig all the way to the Final, but it didn’t hurt that they had the duo of Joe Juneau and former Red Wing Adam Oates putting up points at will. Unfortunately for them, the Wings had their own ace in Wayne Gretzky, who, for one glorious series, would forget he was 37 years of age. Given a chance late in his career to hoist the Cup, and reeling off a disappointing Olympic tournament in Nagano, the Great One would live up to his moniker with 9 points in 4 games in the Cup Final. All of those games would be wins for the Wings, who would finally break a 43-year drought. It would only be too perfect that the first player Gretzky would hand the Cup off to would be Sergei Fedorov; even after the contract squabbles, Fedorov was a Red Wing, through and through, and he had shown as much determination in their playoff run as anyone, even #99 himself.

The Stanley Cup parade in Detroit was a great outpouring of emotion for the entire city. With Detroit beginning to succumb to financial distress, and many beginning to move away for better lives elsewhere, the city needed a feel-good story. The Pistons were no longer the dynasty of the late 80s. The Lions were unable to make any deep playoff runs, and the Tigers were going through a poor run. The Wings’ win represented something for the people of Detroit to truly feel good about, in an era where much of that feeling was hard to find. It was also a personal victory for Wayne Gretzky, who proved that he could still win a Cup, and for Mike Ilitch, who had made that daring trade so many years ago to bring Wayne in. Many Wings fans attended the 1998 Entry Draft in Buffalo to give the Detroit management team a standing ovation. The team would use their 23rd pick on winger Milan Kraft, a promising Czech player out of Plzen.

Though the past season had been so successful for Detroit, the 98-99 campaign was a year in which the Wings were now left with the truth that things could only do downhill from there. Slava Fetisov, so key a player for the past few years, had already hung up the skates, and there was speculation that Wayne Gretzky would be following suit. For almost all of the season, he remained mum on the issue, but late in the regular season, he would confirm that this year would be his last, no matter the result. His team would do their best to try and make it a season to remember, as they finished at the top of the newly-reformed Central Division with 89 points. As a Division winner, they would automatically get the 3rd spot in the Western Conference rankings.

Detroit’s opening round series in 1999 would be against the St. Louis Blues, a rematch from the first round of the previous year. Knowing it would be Wayne’s last year, fans flooded the Joe Louis Arena, many holding signs of appreciation for the Great One. Gretzky would return the love with five points in the series, three of them coming in a humongous 9-1 win in Game Two. In the end, the Wings were just too strong for the Blues, winning in a sweep.

If the first round was a love-fest, the second round was a constant outpouring of emotion every night, as the Red Wings would square off with the Edmonton Oilers. Gretzky couldn’t even step on the ice for a shift without the fans getting on their feet at the Skyreach Centre, saluting the Great One for all the great years he had given them in the 1980s. It didn’t matter that he had now spent more time in Detroit than Edmonton; to Oilers fans, he was still their own, a boy in the WHA who became a man in the NHL. The last game of his career would come in Detroit in Game Six, a game in which the Oilers would win 5-2. If only to put a perfect last line in the story, it was Steve Yzerman, one of the players given up for Gretzky in that infamous deal, who would score the game-winning tally.

THE WINGS FROM 1988-1999: Without a doubt, the Red Wings gave up a lot to secure the services of Wayne Gretzky. And while he never reached the heights of the mid-80s with the Oilers, he was still one of the best in the game early on in his Wings tenure. Even in two of the last three years of his career, he managed to lead the league in assists. He would go on to put up almost 1,200 points in Detroit, breaking many of the records once held by another legendary Wing, Gordie Howe. Fittingly, when it was announced that Gretzky’s #99 would be immediately retired league-wide in 2000, his banner was hung right next to Howe’s – having long admired “Mr. Hockey”, Wayne would now be side-by-side with his idol in Red Wings history.

As they were in 1988, the Wings were beginning to find their legs after being a poor team for so long. The deal to get Wayne Gretzky would only speed up the process, as they became a playoff contender almost overnight. The deal also allowed the Wings to make deep playoff runs much earlier than they were expected to, and by 1994, they were once again a Cup finalist, only to lose to the New York Rangers. This can be attributed to the way that the various general managers built the team, doing very well with late-round drafting, and building with talented players from Russia. At their peak, the Wings had two formidable units: the “Russian Five”, and whatever line Gretzky was playing on. It would take a while, but eventually, Detroit would get the Stanley Cup that they had been waiting for in 1998, ending a duck of over 40 years.

As it stood in the OTL, however, Detroit had won two Cups. A reason for this can be traced all the way back to the Gretzky trade itself. Having traded Joe Murphy in the deal, they never have him available for the trade that would bring Jimmy Carson to the team. (In fact, Los Angeles would not part with him so easily this time around, having failed to get Gretzky in ’88.) Not having Carson means that they can’t make the deal to bring Paul Coffey over to Detroit, which in turn means that they can’t trade Coffey to Hartford for Brendan Shanahan, who would become one of the key snipers on those Cup-winning teams. In addition, because of their immediate status as a playoff team in 1990, they never get the chance to draft Keith Primeau, who would be another important player on those Red Wing teams before being included in the Shanahan trade.

So, as they start the 1999-2000 season, the Red Wings look as follows:

Slava Kozlov – Sergei Fedorov – Pat Verbeek
Tomas Holmstrom – Igor Larionov – Darren McCarty
Kirk Maltby – Kris Draper – Doug Brown

Wayne Primeau – Stacy Roest – Ted Drury

Nicklas Lidstrom – Vladimir Konstantinov
Steve Duchesne – Larry Murphy
Mathieu Dandenault – Sean O’Donnell

Chris Osgood
Brian Boucher

Obviously, the omissions are much bigger than the additions here. There is no “Stevie Y”, and no Brendan Shanahan to carry the goal-scoring load. On the bottom 6, however, the team is much more solid than they already were. They already have reliable defensive presences in Maltby and Draper, but their fourth line is comprised of three centremen that can rotate in and out of the face-off circle as needed. If any of them get injured, there’s always Dan Cleary to step in if needed, as he is still young enough to be considered a solid prospect. The blue-line core has three distinct units: the young shut-down pair of Dandenault and O’Donnell, the over-the-hill offensive duo of Murphy and Duchesne, and the in-their-prime all-around pairing of Lidstrom and Konstantinov. Finally, the team’s goaltending is very solid, with Chris Osgood always reliable in goal, and Brian Boucher looking to be an excellent back-up.

Now, you may have noticed Vladimir Konstantinov’s presence in this line-up. This is because of circumstance. In 1997 in our timeline, the Red Wings would win the Stanley Cup, and a few days afterward, a few of the Russians on the team – Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov, and trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov – would leave a party in a limo driven by chauffeur Richard Gnida. Because they don’t win the Cup this time around, there is no party, and the accident doesn’t happen. Konstantinov is never left quadriplegic, and is still on the ice, now playing in what is usually considered the prime of a blue-liner’s career.


 

ON THE NHL AS A WHOLE

THE OILERS FROM 2000-TODAY: In the original timeline, the Oilers spent much of the early 2000s treading water in the Western Conference. They spent that time period hanging around the 8th place spot in the Conference, managing a couple of playoff appearances in that time. In this timeline, they are far better. The alteration starts with established players like Markus Naslund and Steve Yzerman, and continues with the development of young prospects like Scott Gomez and Martin Havlat. So fruitful is the Edmonton pipeline that the team can afford to trade away Jason Allison and Doug Weight in future years, getting even more quality players in return.

The early 2000s start off with the Western Conference a four-way dogfight. Dallas are still a strong team, as are Detroit and Colorado. But Edmonton has now risen to the level of a regular season powerhouse, grabbing a few playoff series along the way. It’s entirely likely that the Oilers even stop their provincial rivals Calgary from moving on to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, and Edmonton themselves may even take their place. Even despite their collection of talent, however, there would always be something to hold the team back, whether it was poor play from a top forward, or a goaltending choke-job. Indeed, Edmonton would have issues between the pipes following Tommy Salo’s Olympic humiliation in 2002, as following an embarrassing loss to Belarus in the quarter-final, Salo would never regain the confidence he once had.

As the new era of hockey dawns following the lockout of 04-05, the Oilers make a bold run in the first year following the work stoppage. Even without someone like Ryan Smyth, Edmonton is still rife with leadership, and still have many of their key players. Someone like Markus Naslund or Steve Yzerman could easily replace Smyth’s leadership and goal-scoring abilities in the playoffs, and the team now has a true #1 centreman in Scott Gomez. The magical run still happens, and not even Dwayne Roloson going down to injury late in the playoffs can stop the Oilers from claiming their first Cup since the infamous Gretzky trade. As the main on-ice piece going back to Edmonton in that deal, the Cup win was sweetest for Steve Yzerman, who would hoist Lord Stanley’s trophy in his final NHL game.

Following that Cup win, however, the troubles begin. Chris Pronger, acquired prior to the 05-06 season, would still want out. Steve Yzerman would call it a day after over 20 years in the NHL. Scott Gomez would head to the New York Rangers in search of a better contract, and Martin Havlat would be traded out of town as well. In the years that follow, the Oilers are steadily dismantled, just as they were in the late 80s and early 90s. By 2010, little is left of the Cup-winning team, replaced instead with a few middling prospects and a handful of depth players. The team isn’t quite bad enough to duplicate the three straight 1st-Overall Picks of the OTL, but they possibly do manage to get one in that time. The team also may miss out on Connor McDavid, and are still hanging around the league’s cellar at this point.

In the midst of all the years of altered history, a couple of reputations are changed, one more so than the other. Firstly, Steve Yzerman never alters his game the way he did in the OTL, and thus doesn’t become the legendary two-way player that he is remembered as. Instead, he spends much of his time in the 90s as a winger, eventually returning to centre on the second line behind Scott Gomez late in his career. The reputation of Glen Sather, meanwhile, is greatly rehabilitated thanks to the team’s drafting record in the 90s in this timeline. The Oilers never make the total mistakes of drafting players like Steve Kelly, Tyler Wright, and Joe Hulbig, instead getting several NHL superstars, Markus Naslund chief among them. The one year that Sather does make a mistake is in 1994, as he gets Brett Lindros in place of Ryan Smyth; with all of the great players that he gets in other years, though, Brett Lindros is a blip.

THE RED WINGS FROM 2000-TODAY: A bold move had made the Red Wings a contender for most of the 90s, but it was the subtle moves that would dictate the 2000s in Detroit.

Though the team had mixed success with 1st-Round selections, their track record with later picks had already proven effective. The 1989 Draft had produced three superstars for Detroit in Nicklas Lidstrom (3rd Round), Sergei Fedorov (4th Round), and Vladimir Konstantinov (11th Round). 1994 10th-Rounder Tomas Holmstrom was already contributing at the NHL level, and would quickly become notorious for his ability to screen a goalie in the offensive zone. And eventually, picks from 1998 and 1999 would make their mark with the Wings as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk began to get NHL time.

Indeed, Detroit was not only finding good players in the late rounds, but players who would go on to be cornerstones of the club in the new millennium. Without the likes of Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios, the 2002 Cup victory likely never happens, but their 2008 Cup victory is still intact, thanks to many of those late draftees. Zetterberg and Datsyuk, by this point, have evolved into a duo similar to Gretzky and Fedorov, although neither would come close to Gretzky in his prime. Lidstrom, even though he is pushing 40, is still an elite NHL D-man, and becomes one of the few to crack the 1000-point plateau soon after.

The Wings, just as in our timeline, fade throughout the 2010s, eventually being forced into a long-needed rebuild by 2016. Their streak of playoff appearances would finally come to an end in 2016-17, but by that point, the team had amassed 29 straight years in the post-season, tied for the all-time record with the Boston Bruins. In that year, the Wings would suffer another huge loss in the death of long-time owner Mike Ilitch. Ilitch had proven himself to be one of the most committed owners in sports thanks to his continued investment into the Red Wings, but had also made himself a valued member of the community thanks to his many charitable ventures.

As one final aside, it is worth taking note of the career of Vladimir Konstantinov in this new timeline. Having never been involved in that horrible crash in 1997, Kostantinov would continue his career as a key blue-liner on Detroit’s teams during the late 90s and early 2000s. He would continue to play alongside Nicklas Lidstrom for the rest of his career, racking up a couple of extra Norris Trophy nominations in the process. After the 2002 season, Vladimir hangs up the skates, having played 11 seasons in the National Hockey League following his departure from Russia. He would be the subject of debate amongst voters for the first few years following his career, but would finally be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.

THE LOS ANGELES KINGS: Having missed out on their chance to get Wayne Gretzky, the Kings are forced to go forward with what they have. What they have isn’t entirely bad, though; they have a pretty good duo up front in Jimmy Carson and Luc Robitaille, both of whom broke the 50-goal and 100-point marks in 87-88, the second season in the league for both players. Add in a veteran forward in Bernie Nicholls and a rapidly improving offensive defenseman in Steve Duchesne, and you have the makings of a respectable team, even if they wouldn’t be contenders for a while yet.

That “yet” doesn’t come. Though Carson is still solid for a few years, he would, of course, never reach the heights that Gretzky did, and that alone would be enough to earn him the wrath of owner Bruce McNall, still fuming at never getting the Great One. The goaltending would start off poor, and even though Kelly Hrudey would come in and become the regular starter, he would never be able to step up his game in the playoffs when it matters most. Much of the glory days that came about thanks to Wayne Gretzky never happen. Their 92-93 run is instead confined to the first round or two, much like many of their playoff appearances. By the middle part of the decade, Los Angeles is back in the background, an afterthought team.

It is by this point that the walls begin to close in on Bruce McNall himself. Having admitted to several instances and forms of fraud, both in public interviews and in court, the now-former Kings owner would be incarcerated, and replaced in Los Angeles by Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen, who would have trouble even meeting payroll. They, too, are bought out, this time by a mid-level local investor; without the attention the club had received via Gretzky, it is unlikely that Philip Anschutz or Edward P. Roski would be willing to mount a bid. The team is stuck in the bottom for much of the later part of the decade, but because of this, there is a good chance that they get Joe Thornton in the 1997 Draft. Though Thornton takes a couple of years to become an impact player in the NHL, he does hold down the fort for a while.

The 2005 Draft Lottery ends up much the same for the Kings, who in this timeline, still make their playoff appearance in 2001-02, thus relegated to only two balls in the draw. They still end up with the 11th pick, and still select Anze Kopitar, which proves to be a solid move, if unsexy at the time. Kopitar, much like in the OTL, becomes the eventual cornerstone of the Los Angeles Kings, and by the early 2010s, the team is now a regular Cup contender. There is little residual impact from the Gretzky trade by this point, and the Kings still win at least one Stanley Cup – likely even both. The impact from the Cup win (or wins) is enough to give the Kings greater respectability in the grand scheme of things, and could even serve to trigger a small boom in Southern American states for the sport of hockey.

And speaking of “booms”…

THE SOUTHERN BOOM: The greatest impact the original Gretzky trade had was the immense increase in interest in the sport of hockey from what could be deemed “non-traditional” markets. Not only did a hockey team in Los Angeles, California become the centre of attention, but it also sparked enough enthusiasm for the game in the South to allow franchises in places like Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia to pop up. Furthermore, teams would be moved to states like Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina, spreading the NHL to places where one could count on one hand how many people had played professional hockey before.

The biggest reason for this boom was the fact that Gretzky had been traded to Los Angeles, which was, at the time, part of the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States. It was home to much of the entertainment industry, and top players in any sport were sure to become national icons when they played there; just ask Magic Johnson of the NBA’s Lakers, or Bo Jackson of the NFL’s Raiders. Detroit, even at the time, was shedding population, and while it still had cultural importance, it was nowhere near the pop-culture epicentre that Los Angeles was. With Gretzky now going to the Red Wings instead of the Kings, the impact of his trade is severely dulled south of the border. Of course, there would still be increased interest in hockey thanks to the trade, but never to the extent of the OTL.

As such, the landscape of the hockey world is drastically changed in this timeline. As it stands, many of the expansion and relocation plans still take place, with the league still eventually growing to 30 teams by 2000-01. While none of the franchises change, how they fare in the new NHL, especially post-lockout, does. The teams can be grouped into four categories: Those who thrive in this new NHL, those whose fates are unchanged, those who struggle more than usual (or who struggles when they didn’t in the OTL), and those who fail outright.

The Thriving Teams are mostly comprised of franchises that are located close enough to the Detroit Red Wings to experience an effect. The first of these is not an expansion or relocated club, but a team from the original expansion back in 1967-68. Though they are a couple of states over, the St. Louis Blues spent around 30 years in the same division as the Wings, and were in the Norris Division with Detroit at the time of the trade. They have been pretty successful attendance-wise since the Gretzky trade, but having Wayne even closer creates a bigger boom in the city, and as a result, the Blues are now among the league leaders in attendance every year. Columbus, too, becomes a bona fide hockey city, with their attendance never dropping below 15,000. And finally, even though they are already in the “State of Hockey”, the Minnesota Wild are now a guaranteed sell-out, and become a featured team on nationally-shown games much more frequently.

The Unchanged Teams each have a certain set of circumstances that affect them. The first of these is the Chicago Blackhawks, who still suffer from horrible attendance in the early 2000s. This is not due to any effect from the Gretzky trade, but from the poor ownership of Bill Wirtz, who made many decisions that alienated Chicago hockey fans. The local minor-league team, the Wolves, still manage to outdraw the Hawks at their peak, and when Bill dies (and his son Rocky takes over), the team recovers to the point where they are once again a major draw. Also here are the Colorado Avalanche; having already hosted an NHL team before, there is enough interest for the team to make it viable from the start, and winning a Stanley Cup in their first year in the city certainly doesn’t hurt matters.

The Strugglers are many of the teams that were brought in following the Gretzky trade, with a few long-time franchises. The obvious one here is the Los Angeles Kings, who aren’t as successful at the gate as they were in the OTL, and they are joined by expansion franchises Tampa Bay, San Jose, and Nashville. The Sharks and Predators aren’t quite bad enough in the attendance rankings to suggest relocation, but they do take a hit from less attention to hockey in the Southern United States. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has major ebbs and flows, and effectively lives off of the money of traveling hockey fans from up north. Of the relocated teams, Dallas suffers a tad, but not enough to make a difference, but Carolina are now in serious trouble, and are talked about more frequently as a relocation candidate.

The Failing Teams, for the most part, are in Southern places where there is already a franchise. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks are first on this list; with no Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles to drive up interest locally, there isn’t enough to support two franchises. Anaheim struggles out of the gate, and by the mid-2000s, they are a prime candidate for relocation. The Ducks’ expansion cousins in Florida suffer a similar fate, as Tampa Bay beat them to the punch, and by the 2010s, they are relocated as well. The Atlanta Thrashers start off badly, and never recover from there, moving to Winnipeg within ten years. Finally, Phoenix – the team that has been a subject of relocation rumours for years – is moved just shy of fifteen years after they themselves had moved from Winnipeg.

Of course, the fates of these NHL teams are intertwined with the man that had done so much to protect and cultivate Southern teams over the years…

OTHER LASTING EFFECTS: Though he wasn’t on board in time to oversee the expansion of the league to San Jose and Tampa Bay, Gary Bettman did join on as commissioner just as Anaheim and Florida joined the league, and was still in the role when Nashville and Atlanta entered the NHL. In addition to the expansion teams, three teams located south during the early part of Bettman’s reign: Quebec (to Colorado), Winnipeg (to Phoenix), and Hartford (to Carolina). Make no mistake, the southward migration of the NHL, whether by adding new teams or relocating other ones, is one of the hallmarks of Bettman’s tenure as commissioner. In this timeline, it is also one of the factors that eventually does him in.

As detailed in the last section, not all of the teams that are around today make it in this new timeline. With all of the Mighty Ducks, Coyotes, Thrashers, and Panthers retreating to the Northern United States and Canada, the “Southern Experiment” is seen as a failure – not an egregious one, but enough that the overall health of the league is affected. The first lockout of Bettman’s tenure, which happened in 1994-95, served to slow any momentum that the Wayne Gretzky trade might have generated for the game of hockey in North America, and the second lockout, which cancelled the entire 2004-05 season, would directly contribute to several of the above teams looking for greener pastures up north. Southern expansion would be seen as Bettman’s “baby”, so to speak, and with the effects being much more negative in this timeline, Gary never lasts as commissioner.

On one final note, the alteration of the timeline leads to two long-suffering franchises potentially having their Cup droughts ended, one way or another. Firstly, because Los Angeles is unable to mount a real challenge in 1992-93, the Toronto Maple Leafs reach the Stanley Cup Final, and would have a very real chance of beating the Montreal Canadiens. This would end what was at the time a 26-year drought for the Maple Leafs, and help shed the “Curse of Ballard” once and for all. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, never have to face the Dallas Stars in 1999, and there is thus no Brett Hull crease goal. Edmonton would be a good team, but they would never be able to solve Dominik Hasek the way Dallas could. The Sabres, who began play in 1970-71, would finally have their first Stanley Cup.


 

In case you were wondering, that jersey pic is from the Ninety Nine All Stars Tour, which was played during the 1994-95 lockout.

Coming next month, the potential story of a true global hockey superstar – What if Valeri Kharlamov had played in North America?

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