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After a seven-hour drive from Chicago to the Twin Cities and an even longer wait inside the Met Center during the 1989 NHL entry draft, the 246th player chosen threaded his way to the Red Wings' table. Team officials were hard-pressed to match the face to the name they just had announced because kids who are drafted so late tend to make no impact beyond delaying the first round of expense-account beers. They certainly don't materialize at the draft table. The jerseys with the winged-wheel emblem had been handed out long ago to high picks, so chief scout Neil Smith grabbed his Red Wings coffee mug and presented it to 12th-rounder Jason Glickman. "Here you go, buddy," he told the goalie. "This is for you." Glickman took the mug, rinsed out the dregs in an arena restroom and drove home to obscurity.
Glickman never actually had a cup of coffee in the NHL. (His pro record: 1--2, 6.00 goals-against average, .814 save percentage with the ECHL's Knoxville Cherokees in 1991--92.) He is 40 now, married with two children, owns a vending machine business and coaches a hockey team of Chicagoland housewives called the Mother Puckers. That Red Wings mug sits on a desk at home, holding pens and pencils. But at least Glickman has the honor of having been the last selection of the defining draft in Red Wings history, the one with which the franchise created the brand and the team that—after a 6--1 victory over the Blackhawks in Glickman's hometown on Sunday—was one win from appearing in the Stanley Cup finals for the sixth time in 14 seasons.
The Red Wings' familiar surge to the Western Conference finals, their eighth since 1995, is a testament to the values that were implanted two decades ago. That Wings draft—an unparalleled bonanza that netted current captain Nicklas Lidstrom and franchise building blocks Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov in addition to longtime NHL players Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner and Dallas Drake—was the result of an epiphany, an insight into hockey's future that has informed almost every subsequent move of an organization. When Mikael Samuelsson scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the conference finals on a three-on-one passing play with Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler—a sequence so crisp and delightful that it lacked only the strains of Sweet Georgia Brown—the principles first advanced in 1989 were on full display. There is a jagged line connecting the dots from today to that day when the Red Wings laid the foundation for the best sports franchise in North America.
The Red Wings' peerlessness (box, page 60) is remarkable because after using its financial muscle to win before the salary-cap era, the team weathered the 2004--05 lockout that changed the rules of the game and the marketplace, and kept right on winning. The truth is, the Wings always seemed to have more brains than money. The franchise is so astute that without ever scraping bottom and gaining high draft picks like Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it has selected and developed replacements for stars such as the departed Fedorov and the retired Steve Yzerman with hardly a stumble. The emphasis on puck possession and neutral-zone regroups started in the mid-1990s with former Wings coach (and now Blackhawks consultant) Scotty Bowman, but the roots took hold in 1989.
"At the time of that draft, Hockeytown was Yzerman, [coach Jacques] Demers, [owner Mike] Ilitch and the Bruise Brothers [Bob Probert and Joe Kocur]," says Detroit general manager Ken Holland, the team's Western junior scout in 1989. "The franchise had come back after some down times. Those men put hockey back on the map here, but that draft sustained it. We're still living off it."
When the Red Wings' staffers walked into the gathering dusk outside the Met Center on June 17, 1989, there was no sense that they had made history. They had grabbed players they had targeted—what team doesn't make that claim?—and had Ouija-boarded others. As then G.M. Jim Devellano told scouts every draft day, "If we get two NHL players, we'll be real happy."
Detroit had in fact picked seven NHL-bound players, who would play 2,997 games for them (and 5,721 overall in the league) and win a combined nine Stanley Cups along with many other accolades (sidebar, right). Equally important, the team created a paradigm that day, reordering its priorities to value skill above passport. The world was changing inside and outside the Met Center. Five months after Red Wings executives entered the arena with stacks of bulky scouting reports, the Berlin Wall fell. The Red Wings were balancing scouting evaluations with the thorny issue of player availability: when, or if, the best Soviets would be allowed out.
A further complication was a rule that made teenagers eligible only in the first three rounds. The Wings took undersized 18-year-old center Mike Sillinger first. "That's the big joke," says Sillinger, who has played for a record 12 NHL teams and is now with the Islanders. "On a list with Fedorov and Lidstrom, Sillinger's the first-rounder."
While geopolitical forces clashed half a world away, creative tension gurgled within the organization. At opposite poles were Devellano, the G.M. who, says former Detroit executive vice president Jim Lites, "liked big North Americans, preferably Canadians, ass-kicking players," and Smith, the scout who viewed the game through a different lens. The Red Wings were picking 11th in a 21-team league, and Smith thought they needed to recalibrate their approach. Even though the Soviets had allowed journeyman Sergei Priakin out that year—he played two regular-season games for Calgary—Russian and Czech stars were still the NHL's forbidden fruit. With patience, Smith decided, they could be the draft's low-hanging fruit.
"What I'm most proud of is that we dared to do it," says Smith, now a broadcaster and a Ducks consultant. "Today it doesn't look daring at all, but it was. Jimmy D didn't especially like Europeans.... His meat and potatoes was always going to be the Western and Ontario leagues. In those days a lot of hockey people shared that prejudice. The Russians and Czechs were Communists. The Swedes were chickens. What are they going to do when they get punched in the face? Even I was asking that question."