Three years ago, shortly after he bought the Detroit Red Wings—the once proud Dead Things, who under previous owner Bruce A. Norris, a charter member NHL Old Boy, had failed to qualify for the playoffs in 14 of 16 seasons—Mike Hitch said, "This franchise is a sleeping giant waiting for someone to do something with it."
Oh, was it ever. For beneath the shell of those sooty, cold Motor City winters beat the heart of the best hockey town in the entire U.S.A. Better than Boston, better than New York, better than Minny or Chi-town or Philly. Motown loves its pucks. And guess what, all ye hale and hearty Old Boys, ye Ballards and Wirtzes and Zieglers, who have fought off the 20th century with the vengeance of the Huns? This summer the sleeping giant awakened.
And here's the fun part: In so doing, one sleeping giant prodded another one out of its slumber. Free agency. The NHL, thank goodness, will never be the same.
Between June 5 and Aug. 19, Detroit general manager Jimmy Devellano, armed with the pocketbook of the upstart Hitch, who owns the Little Caesars Pizza chain (1984 sales: $290 million), outbid every team in sight to acquire the services of five coveted U.S. college free agents and three NHL veteran free agents and went to considerable lengths to import a 20-year-old Czechoslovak defector named Petr Klima, whom the Red Wings had drafted in 1983. The total outlay? Reportedly as much as $6.75 million, a commitment to improvement that has the Fat Cats around the league yowling. "There are 20 owners in the league who are totally teed off," whined Pittsburgh general manager Eddie Johnston, who lost 40-goal scorer Warren Young to Detroit. "They've upset everybody."
Poor babies. Of course, the way not to upset everybody, the way to keep your NHL cronies happy, is Pittsburgh's way—keep a rein on the checkbook, build through the draft and finish last, last and next to last the past three seasons. Be patient, Pittsburgh fans. For 18 years, that's what they have been told. As have fans in Toronto, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit.... Since 1967-68, know how many teams have won the Stanley Cup? Five.
"If I wait for the entry draft players to come through," says Devellano, "I'll have a beard down to my toes. We had to do something creative."
Devellano's strategy in his first three seasons in Detroit was to make quick-fix trades for veterans like Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams and Ivan Boldirev and to sign battle-scarred free-agent Brad Park. That kept the wolves from the door—the Red Wings made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, but the long-term benefits of those deals were negligible. "You can't keep putting patches on patches," says Jimmy D.
Solution? To throw dough in the face of two of the NHL's most cherished Old Boy maxims. Namely: 1) You can't buy an instant winner; 2) free agents should be left to twist in the wind.
So when Young's Pittsburgh contract expired this summer, Devellano stepped in with a $1.2 million offer over four years for the 29-year-old leftwinger. The Penguins cried foul. Then Devellano outbid Minnesota and Washington, respectively, for veteran defensemen Harold Snepsts and Mike McEwen, both of whom signed one-year deals for $175,000. The reaction? Tampering charges were filed against the Red Wings by the North Stars, the Capitals and the Penguins—charges that NHL president John Ziegler ruled groundless.