Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland ticks off the days, his pen going click-click-click against the plastic cover of his desk calendar. Starting on Jan. 26, Detroit embarks on a four-game Western road trip interrupted by a Red Wings-flavored All-Star Game in Los Angeles, goes home long enough for the players to tousle their children's hair, sets off on another three-game swing followed by the Olympic hockey tournament (which is basically a series of Wings intrasquad scrimmages with drug testing) and finally plays back-to-back games at Tampa Bay and Miami before a 36-hour layover at home en route to Pittsburgh. Holland looks up and smiles. "Some of our star players could be home for four days out of 33," he says.
The Red Wings won an NHL-best 30 of their first 43 games, but like video-game heroes they look only ahead, certain that just behind them lurk monsters and dragons, that the first month of the season was too good to be true. The team's new goalie, Dominik Hasek, beat his former Buffalo Sabres teammates in his first match against them; Luc Robitaille scored the winning goal in his first game against his former team, the L.A. Kings; and Brett Hull scored twice (once in overtime) against the Stars in his return to Dallas. Still, a wizened team with a pronounced streak of cynicism has contempt for fairy-tale beginnings, and no one believes the Wings have played up to their abilities in more than a dozen games. "There have been some good things, but that doesn't mean we've put it together," says Steve Yzerman, the longest-tenured captain in NHL history. "Sometimes we've gotten by on talent."
Yzerman makes it sound as if that's a bad thing instead of one of the fringe benefits of a $66 million payroll and a dressing room with its own Hall of Fame annex. The nine Red Wings who are a cinch to be bronzed—Hasek, Hull, Robitaille, Yzerman, defensemen Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Brendan Shanahan—had combined for 3,225 goals through Sunday, which is more than nine NHL franchises have scored in their histories. Scotty Bowman, a Hall of Famer himself, knows all about coaching stars: His Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s won four straight Stanley Cups and placed nine players in the Hall.
The difference is that Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson were 27 when the Canadiens won the last of those Cups, in 1979, while Yzerman, Hasek and Hull will be 37 by June. If Detroit wins it all this season, it will be with 11 core players who are 32 years or older, including two in their 40s—the most on a Cup-winning team since the '67 Toronto Maple Leafs had two players 40 or older.
There is a fine line between experienced and old. During this season's first half Bowman occasionally cobbled together the league's first 600-goal line: Yzerman, Hull and Robitaille. The Red Wings' age might prove to be a red herring—the soon-to-be 40-year-old Chelios, who is having his best season since he won his third Norris Trophy, in 1996, and the 41-year-old Larionov are two of the team's fittest players—but it will be an issue until the Red Wings drink champagne from the Cup.
After a desultory 2-0 Wings loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 17, a personal trainer called Art Regner's postgame radio show on WXYT in Detroit to say it was scientific fact that the human body breaks down most rapidly between the ages of 35 and 40. Hull, beer in hand, wandered over to Regner's makeshift broadcast center, in an old bathroom across the hall from the Wings' dressing room, to catch some vox populi. When Regner filled him in about the trainer's call, Hull tapped his temple and said, "It's all up here, man."
Next month's Olympics are the wild card that even the smartest of teams may not be able to calculate. A league-high 10 Red Wings have been selected by national squads—all of Detroit's future Hall of Famers except Robitaille, plus defenseman Fredrik Olausson and pot-stirring winger Tomas Holmstrom, who were picked by Sweden—but that is, at best, an honor that comes with a price. Four years ago the Colorado Avalanche sent a league-high nine players to the Winter Games and suffered a post- Nagano swoon of Olympian proportions. Gulping hemlock like Gatorade, Colorado capitulated 4-0 to the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. Detroit's Olympians are divided among five nations, so, as Bowman notes "Only two of our guys are likely to come home happy from Salt Lake." Coupled with a daunting schedule and the heavy travel that afflicts the only Western Conference team other than Columbus in the Eastern time zone, the Olympics could be the hat trick that saps Detroit before the playoffs.
"This team understands that it can't leave it all at the Olympics or all in the regular season," Holland says. "Given the playoffs the last three years"—in which Detroit has won just two series—"this is a very motivated group. The energy and emotion of a hockey player are a big part of how good he is, and we have to make sure the guys are fresh physically and mentally. It helps having an experienced coach like Scotty."
Bowman already is micromanaging ice time. He has given his fifth and sixth defensemen, Mathieu Dandenault and Jiri Fischer, more minutes so that Lidstrom and Chelios don't play almost 60 minutes combined. Bowman has also canceled morning skates on game days at home, something he first did on Dec. 19, before a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks that broke a spell in which Detroit had scored only five goals in seven games. The Red Wings also called up forward Sean Avery, a coltish minor leaguer, to inject enthusiasm into the fourth line.
By March, Avery might have proved to be out of his depth, and Dandenault and Fischer might have played themselves out of regular minutes, but no matter. That is the advantage of the Red Wings' big lead. (They were on top of the second-place Blackhawks by seven points in the Central Division and had a 19-point cushion over the Calgary Flames, who were in position for the West's final playoff spot.) Bowman is free to treat the next three months as a lab experiment, throwing Fedorov on defense as he did against the Minnesota Wild on New Year's Eve and fiddling with lines, defense pairs and even defensive systems.