Sunday, June 1, 2008

The new standard bearer in pro franchise excellence

Since winning their fourth championship in the last 10 years, the San Antonio Spurs, those of the floptastic and uninspiring gameplay, have been lauded as the standard bearers of excellence among all professional sports franchises. Indeed, a Sports Illustrated cover from last year hailed them as such. Had the Patriots not executed the finest choke job of the modern sports era (in fact, has their been a bigger choke job ever? Eli Manning won the Super Bowl, for crying out loud!) perhaps they would have unceremoniously ripped the mantle from the Spurs, all the while Bill Belichick pointing and chanting "Nanny nanny boo boo, stick your head in doo doo NFL!" With the Patriots flopping like the Spurs, and the Spurs flopping against the Lakers like, well, also like the Spurs, the window has been opened for the most dominating team you have most likely never seen.

My journey with the Red Wings began during the 1994-1995 NHL season. Seinfeld was in full swing back when Thursday really was must see. Teenagers were just getting over the Seattle grunge movement, Dr. Dre was tearing up the radio, Napster was still a few years off, and a younger version of me was learning the ins and outs of one of the hottest extreme sports out there, before we even knew what extreme sports were. I was an in line skater. My buddy Bryan and I had been skating around Las Vegas for years, but were just finding out how enjoyable street hockey was. Of course, checks and hits produced scrapes and scars, because we were rarely smart enough to wear protective gear.

During this time, I realized Hockey was ultimate dopeness. Today's crazy teens might have called it "sick". Either way, I realized that I was going to have to follow the NHL, and that I would need a team. Being a native Las Vegan, I've had to poach my favorite teams from other cities. Steve Young made me a believer in the 49ers, and I have loved them since the Cowboys first beat them in the NFC championship. I followed one of my favorite UNLV players in Arman Gilliam to the NBA and have been a Phoenix Suns fan ever since. Hockey was a trickier proposition. I had no previous link to the sport, other than the fact that I was now going to be a fan. I had to choose my team well. During this process, I read in an SI article that talked about how the Detroit Red Wings were currently in the midst of the longest Stanley Cup draught (27 or 28 years, I believe it was) so there was compelling drama. They were an original six hockey team and they had been the team of Gordie Howe so they had tradition. They had sweet unis, which any of my friends will tell you is extremely important to me. Lastly, they threw octopi on the ice during the playoffs, symbolizing the number of wins required to win the Stanley Cup in the original playoff format. When I realized that I could be a hockey fan AND piss off PETA at the same time, I was sold.

You can see then, why this bitter and disenfranchised Suns fan has had the chance for ultimate redemption during one of the best times in all of pro sports, when basketball and hockey frolic for a rollicking month, and thrust un-reality TV back to the depths from which it sprung. The Red Wings are en route to another Stanley Cup, and the Spurs, the previous gold standard for pro sports, will reluctantly lose their tenuous grip on the unofficial title of "most successful pro franchise".

So, why will the mantle of greatest pro franchise be unceremoniously ripped from the San Antonio Spurs by the Detroit Red Wings? Let's compare the franchises. First, obviously, the most important measure by which any franchise should be considered, number of titles won.

San Antonio: 4 Detroit: 4*

Now, I may jinx my team, and maybe they will suffer one of the biggest collapses in the history of the NHL, but I'm going to call the Stanley Cup in their favor with them up 3-1. I could just wait for them to win to see, but it's much more dramatic to make the call early. Now, we have this raw number, let's judge the quality of these titles. One of San Antonio's titles came in a strike shortened season. Oops, strike one against them. Two of San Antonio's titles came against the Juggernaut known as...The New Jersey Nets?!? Strike two. NBA Finals ratings have tanked when the Spurs are there. Not really a measure of their greatness or not, but rather a measure of America's good taste, but they are boring, so we are going to count that as strike three.

Finals appearances since 94-95

San Antonio: 4 Detroit: 5

Now, you may judge and say "Wait a minute, they made it one more time, but they didn't win." Indeed, but just as the adage says, better to have won and lost, than never to have won before. Yes, that one loss in the Finals came in a strike shortened season, but all of Detroit's wins came in legitimate full length seasons. Advantage, Red Wings.

Conference Finals since 94-95

San Antonio: 7 Detroit: 7

Pretty even statistic here. San Antonio doesn't lose any ground, but doesn't gain any either. I would argue, however, that it is more difficult to win in the NHL playoffs, where the game's name changes to "Goalie" and a hot man between the pipes can knock off even mighty juggernauts.

Seasons with best regular season record since 94-95

San Antonio: 4* Detroit: 5

This statistic is important, because in the discussion of successful pro franchises, win percentage usually gets tossed out there at some point, and the NHL will get the short end of the stick every time because of its point system because games could end in ties until the recent rule changes. It's like trying to compare apples to oranges. The end result, however, cannot be disputed. How many times have these franchises been the standard for regular season excellence. Detroit has done it one time more, but San An gets a dreaded asterisk for sharing the best record with Dallas one year. Oops! To be fair, I should mention that the mighty Red Wings were upset in the first round one year having won the President's Trophy (record for most regular season wins/points) BUT, the difference is, a set back like that would derail lesser franchises for years. Just look at how the Dallas Mavericks have reeled since losing to the Golden State Warriors in the first round. What did Detroit do? Rebound to make a conference final and Stanley Cup final. Much in the way wily job candidates make their negatives positive in job interviews, so do the Red Wings turn a colossal blunder into an example of their unending commitment to winning.


Now, beyond these measures of excellence, what are some of the intangibles that must be considered? All Detroit has done since the 94-95 season is win. Detroit has suffered no losing seasons in that time, and San Antonio has. The last time Detroit didn't qualify for the playoffs was the 85-86 season. In this years Stanley Cup finals, the Wings held the Pens scoreless through the first 2 games, an NHL record. Detroit has continued their winning with 3 different coaches, while San Antonio has had the luxury of one coach. The Red Wings have accomplished what they have in essentially one less season than the Spurs, losing an entire NHL season to a work stoppage. And speaking of the work stoppage, the NHL drastically revamped their rules and implemented a salary cap. The Red Wings have reached a conference final since that time and, presumably, will win the Stanley Cup this year under the new rules.

Final Verdict

You don't watch the NHL. That is a fairly safe assumption given their marginal ratings. In not watching, however, you have missed the most dominant pro franchise since 1994, and their winning is not done yet. So, if you learn nothing more from this little article, know this. If you want to really look like you know sports, and you ever happen upon someone who asks you "So who's the best team in the NHL this year?" Just answer the Red Wings. Season in and season out, you've got a great chance of looking like a genius.

Go Wings!!!

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