Monday, April 5, 2010

Round one, coming up

When interviewed at the end of Spring Training, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had some very interesting things to say about his team, as reported by the Chicago Tribune:
"Don't Hate Ozzie. Hate the White Sox," Guillen said Wednesday of his crusade to put the rest of the American League on notice. "A lot of people hate me. I want them to hate my team, too. Because we want to kick some (butts). Nobody hates anybody when you're horse(bleep). When you're horse(bleep), nobody cares about you. When you're good, that's the people you want to beat, the people you hate the most. It's so many things. People give people attention when they have success."
That's not the kind of sentiment you see frequently from athletes, much less their coaches or managers.
I was thinking about his quote this morning, as I read through a Twitter stream full of linked articles and blog entries full of vitriol coming from Red Wings fans.
The Detroit Red Wings have dominated the Western Central division for nearly a decade - eight years - and, like the New York Rangers, have wholeheartedly long-embraced the ideal of "Go ahead and hate us, because we are just going to kick your ass." (Those of you reading this who may be more MLB than NHL fans can aliken the Wings to the Yankees or the Braves.) The Red Wings are perhaps even more willing than Republicans to use the scare tactic to get people to believe they're the tough guys in town.
Also, no matter how "fierce" some newer teams may be in their rivalries (Flyers vs. DC for example), you simply cannot touch the levels of the rivalries between "Original Six" teams. While the Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens is considered the oldest and most bitter, certainly the Blackhawks vs. Red Wings is not all that far behind (more so, even, than Chicago vs. St. Louis) - a rivalry which dates back to 1926.
After a 5-5 kickoff for the season, and a record with just a few more wins than losses, many would say that Detroit's record this year has been hurt by the large number of injuries that plagued its roster this year. That certainly may have made a difference; but this same team also fielded 9 Olympians -- the most out of any team in the league, and it would've been 10 if Tomas Holmstrom hadn't been on the injured list. And while they only had two medalists (Brian Rafalski of the US team, and Valtteri Filppula of Finalnd), there was still an impressive load of talent that went to Vancouver.
Detroit also didn't sweep any clubs this year. (Beating a team in its only matchup of the season can hardly be called a sweep.) Now, for one-off games, the Wings beat the Bruins, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Rangers, Senators, and Tampa Bay. They were dominant against the Canucks (3-1), Blue Jackets (3-1), Nashville (4-2), and San Jose (3-1).
But in one-off games, they were also beaten by the Thrashers, Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Panthers, and Maple Leafs. The Oilers - bottom of the league by a good 16 points - beat Detroit three out of four matchups this season, two of those in shootouts; and St. Louis also won 4 of their 6 matchups. And how many of those teams are going to the playoffs? The other teams Wings lost more than won against were Chicago (2-3) and Dallas (1-3).
All other teams they've faced this season, they've come away with equal numbers of wins and losses.

Blah, blah, blah - at the end of the day, it's all statistics. There's a lot of teams who are going to the playoffs this year who, in the past few weeks, have had their collective butts handed to them by the worst teams in the league during recent games, which should tell you that statistics mean exactly jack and squat to predicting what can happen in ANY given game.
Now, going into the playoffs, There has been a lot - A LOT - of discussion around various fan boards, blogs, etc. questioning who will the Red Wings end up facing in the playoffs, and whether or not a particular team's fans (and/or players) would want to face Detroit in the first round. Many people seem to be saying, "Sure, let Detroit face __, that way it'll eliminate __ from the first round." 

Why not BE the team that eliminates Detroit from the first round?
This takes me back to Guillen's comment about how he rather have people hate his team, because usually it's the teams that are doing well that people hate. There's mighty few teams more hated than the Red Wings, and sure, part of it has been their long-standing dominance. But they have also been very dominant not only as a skilled team, but as a physically brutal team.
The swing in hockey, however, seems to be shifting towards speed, skill and finesse - and dare I even whisper it, grace - instead of simple sheer physicality. If you doubt that, look at the recent ruling about head shots. Sure, the NHL governance board is a little slow about taking measures to protect their most valuable asset - their players - but at least that finally passed. (Hey, it only took 11 years for them to make helmets mandatory after Bill Masterson died of massive head trauma during a game. Not surprising it took them another 21 years to decide that hey, getting clocked in the head mayyyyybe isn't such a hot idea.)
I would dare even offer the thought that Detroit wants the rest of us to fear, and even loathe their hockey team; they don't seem to reject the idea of being called the league bullies. After all, if you hate a team, you're going to dread playing against them, and if you dread playing against them, then you fear them a little going onto the ice, and maybe you don't play as good as you should/could/are capable of doing.
Do I think Detroit could play a purely-finesse game? Sure, absolutely; you don't win division/conference titles or a Stanley Cup without having those skills. 
The rest of the conference has got to stop dreading Detroit. At the end of the day, they're just another team; and every team has weaknesses. (Yeah, even the blazing-hot Capitals have weaknesses, somewhere.)
What really doesn't help is fandom rivalry. One blog entry I read this morning (Wings-biased) basically translated as, "Yeah, you and your little Cub Scout army better be quakin' in your boots cuz we are coming to town to kick your arses for being so uppity as to think you are so great for taking the Division title from us, and all. FU."
Seriously - these are the same fans who wonder why their team has been nicknamed the "Scum"?  Or why other teams' fans like to chant "Detroit sucks"? Hmm, maybe it's the elitist, fake-all-shocked-and-innocentness they pull out when somebody slings back the same mud. (Really, should we believe that Wings fans are all "Hey, welcome to our place, put up your feet and have a beer!" when our fans show up at their stadium?)
Detroit has figured out that being the bully on the block has worked for them so far, and their fans are willing to perpetuate that idea.

But you know, the bully always ends up with his comeuppance.

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