From the Best to Worst in Just a Matter of Years
Between the National Hockey League seasons of 1933-34 and 1965-66, the Detroit Red Wings enjoyed great playoff success. Detroit won the Stanley Cup on seven occasions and the team was finalists eleven more times.
A combination of factors, similar to that of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the same era, contributed to the downfall of the Red Wings during the last half of the 1960’s. The Red Wings fortunes would spiral downward after the 1965-66 season and wouldn’t start to turn around until after 1982. Subsequently the team was dubbed the Dead Wings and even the Dead Things by their fan base and pretty much everyone else around the NHL.
From 1966-67 to the end of the 1982-83 season, Detroit qualified for the playoffs on just two occasions. In 1969-70, the Red Wings were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. In 1977-78, Detroit took out the Atlanta Flames two games to none in the preliminary round then were taken out by the Montreal Canadiens in the next round, four games to one.
The low point came in 1976-77 when the Wings mustered just 16 wins while losing 55. The team would score just 183 goals while allowing 309. Detroit finished 13 points behind the next worst team, the Colorado Rockies. Their 183 goals were more than 40 less than the next team up the ladder. Walt McKechnie led the team with just 25 goals and 59 points.
After Alex Delvecchio had remained as team captain from 1962-63 until his retirement after the 1972-73 season, the team went through 16 captains in nine years before Danny Gare brought stability in leadership. Gare remained captain for four seasons before Steve Yzerman was given the captaincy that he would carry for nearly two decades.
Each year, because of their low standing, the Wings were able to pick early in the NHL Amateur Draft. Each year, they chose very promising junior players. However, very few panned out. If they did make the NHL club, they tended to get traded off before their careers took off.
Why were the Dead Wings born? As mentioned, there was a combination of reasons. As the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams for the 1967-68 season, the ‘Original 6’ teams were no longer allowed to protect junior players and bring them up through the ranks. This alone hit the Red Wings and Maple Leafs hard because both had great veteran teams that were full of players that simply ran out of good years near the end of the 1960’s. When the greats like Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio retired, there wasn’t a system full of young talent to replace them anymore.
The energy crisis and subsequent economic downturn in the 1970’s especially affected the Detroit area. The consequences of this meant there just wasn’t much money for the team to spend to bring in great players.
Old school ownership and inadequate management also took its toll on the team. The Dead Wings simply couldn’t compete in the ancient Olympia Arena playing by the ancient rules of the Norris family.
What finally turned the team around, was a new owner in Mike Ilitch, a new home named the Joe Louis Arena and a jackpot fourth overall draft pick in the 1983 entry draft named Steve Yzerman. The team still continued to go through growing pains but was definitely on the road to recover. The Wings finally made it back to the Stanley Cup finals in 1994-95 and won the Cup two years later, 1996-97.