600 Civic Center Drive
Detroit, Michigan 48226
Telephone: (313) 396-7544
Fax: (313) 567-0296
Web site: http://www.detroitredwings.com
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Ilitch Holdings Inc.
Sales: $97 million (2004)
NAIC: 711211 Sports Teams and Clubs
Winner of ten Stanley Cup championships, the Detroit Red Wings are one of the most successful franchises in the National Hockey League (NHL). The team is backed by a passionate fan base and the deep pockets of its corporate parent, Ilitch Holdings Inc., the holding company for Michael Ilitch, who made his money with the Little Caesars pizza chain and also owns the Detroit Tigers major league baseball team, large portions of Detroit real estate, and other business interests. One of only a handful of NHL teams that had the financial resources to field a contending club every year, the Red Wings now face a different competitive environment after an impasse with players over a new collective bargaining agreement resulted in the cancellation of the 2004–05 season. Eventually a settlement was reached that called for a cap on the amount of money each club could spend on players.
Although the Red Wings are considered one of the NHL's "original six" clubs, the team actually joined the league a decade after it was established. The NHL's roots reach back to the 1910 merger of two so-called amateur Canadian hockey leagues who were weary of raiding one another's players at a bounty and decided to form the National Hockey Association (NHA). Soon, another professional league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), was raiding NHA players, but the two circuits came to an accommodation and their regular season champions began playing for the Stanley Cup, which was first awarded in 1893 to the winner of a tournament of amateur hockey teams. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 disrupted play in the NHA and the teams' owners took the opportunity to reorganize and rid themselves of the nettlesome owner of the Toronto franchise. In a Montreal hotel on November 22, 1917 the National Hockey League was born, and it now played the PCHA for the Stanley Cup. The PCHA began to experience financial difficulties in the early 1920s and merged with another professional league, the Western Hockey League (WHL), whose franchises were generally located in small markets. Unable to pay the salaries offered by NHL teams, especially after the NHL began to expand to large American cities, WHL players were sold off. By 1926 only the NHL was left standing and the Stanley Cup became its exclusive property.
During the period of American expansion no fewer than five Detroit groups attempted to receive an NHL franchise. The winners were granted a franchise in May 1926 and in September of that year bought the entire roster of players of the WHL's Victoria Cougars at a cost of $100,000. The Cougars had won the Stanley Cup in 1925 and lost in the finals in 1926. In that first season as the Detroit Cougars, the team actually played its home games across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, as it awaited the construction of its own building. Despite the purchase of talent, the Cougars got off to an inauspicious start, posting the worst record in the NHL for the 1926–27 season. Fans were not overly interested in paying to watch a losing club, and as a result the team finished its first year $80,000 in debt.
Prospects for the Detroit franchise began to pick up the next season. It moved into its new home, The Olympia, which at the time of its opening in 1927 housed the largest rink in the United States. That year also brought Jack Adams, who became the coach and general manager and would remain in charge for the next 35 years. Success did not come quickly, however, as the team failed to make the playoffs in three out of the next four years. Even changing the team's name from the Cougars to the Falcons in 1930 did nothing to turn around Detroit's fortunes. With the country mired in the Great Depression, the team was forced into receivership, and to make payroll Adams had to reach into his own pockets. But Adams and his hockey team would soon be rescued from tight-fisted ownership in the form of a wealthy grain merchant, James Norris, who bought the team in the summer of 1932.
Norris made his fortune trading in grain in Chicago but he grew up in Canada, where he was a star athlete, an accomplished tennis and squash player in addition to an amateur hockey player. He also had been a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (MAAA), a sporting club that because of its origins as a cycling club sported a logo of winged wheels. Norris had tried to establish a second NHL team in Chicago only to be blocked by the Chicago Blackhawks' owner. Instead Norris bought the struggling Detroit franchise and in October changed the team's name to the Red Wings. For a logo he modified the MAAA graphic, incorporating an automobile wheel and tire that was more appropriate to Detroit, the home of the U.S. auto industry. Free of money worries, Adams was now able to exhibit his talent as a coach and an executive and began assembling a winning team. The Red Wings lost in the Stanley Cup semifinals during their first year under Norris ownership and lost in the finals during the second. After failing to make the playoffs the team then won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1936 and 1937.
Norris had a partner when he acquired the Detroit franchise and The Olympia, Arthur Michael Wirtz, a young Chicago real estate mogul. Together they also would acquire the Black-hawks' home, Chicago Stadium, and eventually the Black-hawks. The two men acquired interests in arenas and convention centers around the country, including Madison Square Garden in New York as well as facilities in St. Louis, Omaha, and Indianapolis. This circuit became the foundation for any number of ventures, including ice shows, the birth of the National Basketball Association, rodeo, college basketball doubleheaders, and professional boxing matches.
Other NHL franchises did not fare as well as the Red Wings during the Depression. Some transferred to other cities while others simply folded. By 1942 the league had just six teams—Boston, Chicago, Montreal, New York, Toronto, and Detroit—which would become known as the "Original Six." No new teams joined the NHL for another 25 years.
During the war years the Red Wings won a third Stanley Cup in 1943 and although a championship would escape the team for the rest of the decade it began to lay the foundation for one of the greatest teams ever to play in the NHL. Players included forward Ted Lindsay, defenseman Red Kelly, goalie Terry Sawchuk, and the legendary forward Gordie Howe, whose arrival in 1946 marked the beginning of a golden era in Red Wings' history. In 1950 Detroit regained the Stanley Cup, and in that year one of the team's most enduring traditions was born when a fan threw an octopus onto the Olympia ice. The eight tentacles represented the eight wins needed in the two best-of-seven series a team had to win in order to take the cup. Every Red Wings playoff run that followed would feature the appearance of numerous octopi hurled onto the ice to the delight of Red Wings' fans.
James Norris died in 1952, several months after the Red Wings won their fifth Stanley Cup, and ownership of the team passed to his children, Bruce Norris and Marguerite Norris. Marguerite was named president, becoming the NHL's first female executive. Growing up in Chicago, she had never seen the Red Wings play in Detroit. She held the position for four years before Bruce Norris took over. While she was president the team won two more Stanley Cup Championships. Although the team remained competitive for the next decade, these would be the last titles the team won for the next 40 years.
By the time the NHL expanded, doubling to 12 teams for the 1967–68 season, the Red Wings had descended into mediocrity. The team finished out of the playoffs 16 out of 18 years during this period, an especially poor showing given that only five of the league's 21 teams failed to qualify. The Red Wings moved to a new home, Joe Louis Arena, in December 1979, but even new accommodations were not enough of an attraction to lure fans to watch a talent-starved team. The season ticket base was reported to be 2,500 but had more likely slipped to just 1,500. It had been a slow, long decline for a proud organization, but by the early 1980s the Red Wings were a team saddled with debt and unable to fund the kind of organization required to field a contending club.
In June 1982 the Detroit Red Wings changed owners, when the club was purchased by Michael Ilitch for a paltry $11 million. A Detroit native, Ilitch, like James Norris, had been an athlete as a youth. He was a minor league baseball player in the Detroit Tigers' system whose career was prematurely ended by injury. Instead of sports, he turned his attention in the late 1950s to pizza, founding Little Caesars, which carved out a niche as a pick-up only operation. By controlling costs he was able to undercut the competition and open more shops. At the time Ilitch bought the Red Wings, Little Caesars was still a regional company, but within four years it would be a national player with about 1,000 units. Ilitch only bought the Red Wings after he failed in his attempt to acquire his beloved Tigers, who were wrested away by cross-town pizza rival, Domino's Tom Monaghan. Ten years later Ilitch would succeed in gaining control of the Tigers, but in the meantime he poured money into the Red Wings, building up every aspect of the team's malnourished organization as well as making improvements to Joe Louis Arena.
Although it took time for the Red Wings to assemble a winning team, Ilitch showed quicker results in restoring attendance through marketing efforts that included giving away free cars during games. The number of season ticket holders soon increased to 16,000 and once the team became contenders, losing in the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1987 and 1988, the Red Wings became one of the NHL's most valuable franchises. But the team took a step back during the 1989–90 season when it once again missed the playoffs.
The team promoted a bevy of young talent in the early 1990s that formed the nucleus of an excellent team, but it took the hiring of the NHL's most successful coach, Scott Bowman, in 1993 to mold that talent and bring in key veterans to forge a champion. A year later the Red Wings returned to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1966. Although it lost four games to none to the New Jersey Devils, Detroit served notice that it was now a serious contender, and with Ilitch's dedication to winning it planned to maintain a place at the top of the league for years to come. After losing in the conference finals in 1996 to the eventual champions, the Colorado Avalanche, the Red Wings won their eighth Stanley Cup, the first since 1955, in the spring of 1997, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers four games to none. Despite losing one of the league's best defensemen, Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was ended by injuries suffered in an off-season automobile accident, Detroit defended their title the following year, this time sweeping the Washington Capitals.
Colorado continued to be an arch-nemesis of the Red Wings, defeating them in the second round of the playoffs two years in a row to close the 1990s. Detroit retooled its roster in the 2000s, bringing in a number of veteran players who meshed well with Bowman's system, the likes of older stars such as defenseman Chris Chelios; forwards Pat Verbeek, Luc Robitaille, and Brett Hull; and goalie Dominik Hasek. The additions to the roster resulted in the Red Wings accumulating a league-best 116 points in the regular season of 2001–02 and the team claiming its tenth Stanley Cup when it defeated the Buffalo Sabers. Bowman, who had now won nine Stanley Cups as a coach, stepped down as coach, although he would stay on as a consultant to the team.
Bowman was replaced behind the bench by Dave Lewis. The team remained very much a contender for the Stanley Cup, but failed to reach the finals the next two seasons. But by now the focus was no longer on the ice but in the board rooms where league officials and representatives for the players negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. Although large market teams like Detroit, Philadelphia, Colorado, Montreal, Toronto, and New York Rangers were doing well, smaller market clubs were losing money and claimed they were unable to compete fairly against the bigger clubs. In truth, unbridled spending was no guarantee of success (witness the difficulty New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto had in winning a championship). But the small-market teams would not be satisfied with anything less than a cap on players' salaries, which they contended was way out of line with the kind of revenues the NHL was able to generate, in order to achieve some kind of fiscal certainty. From the players' perspective, the owners had only themselves to blame for outbidding one another on players. Moreover, the cries of poverty were met with a degree of skepticism. Hockey was merely part of a greater whole, the arena business, as it had been from the days of Norris and Wirtz, who viewed hockey like concerts or conventions, as a way to fill dark nights on the arena calendar. The hockey business might have been struggling, but the arena business was thriving. In addition, the value of hockey franchises increased steadily. A case in point was the Red Wings, which according to Forbes was worth $248 million in 2004, a significant increase over the $11 million Ilitch paid for the club some 20 years earlier.
The players were adamantly opposed to the idea of a salary cap. After negotiations broke down between the players and league in 2004, the owners locked out the players, resulting in the cancellation of the 2004–05 season, the first time that a professional sports league had been forced to cancel an entire season because of a labor impasse. Both sides, realizing the tremendous harm being done to the sport, returned to the bargaining table and in the summer of 2005 finally hammered out an agreement that included a salary cap and an automatic cut in player salaries. The deal was in fact less favorable to the players than the final offer on the table before the season was canceled. Every club was now limited in the amount of money it could spend on players, who now changed teams at a dizzying clip. Many of the headlines in the summer of 2005 related to the player signings of small-market clubs. Whether the competitive balance in the NHL would be significantly altered remained to be seen. It was just as likely, however, that strong organizations like Detroit would continue to find a way to stand above the rest. Whether spectators would return to the arenas to watch hockey after a year's absence was also an open question. In Detroit, known for decades as Hockeytown, it was likely that the Red Wings would be welcomed back by its fans with open arms.
St. Louis Blues Hockey Club L.L.C.; Nashville Hockey Club LP; The Columbus Blue Jackets; Chicago Blackhawks (Wirtz Corporation).
Diamond, Dan, et al., Total Hockey, Kingston, N.Y.: Total Sports, 1998.
Greenland, Paul R., Wings of Fire: The History of the Detroit Red Wings, Rockford, Ill.: Turning Leaf Publications, 1997.
Henderson, Tom, "Profile: Mike Ilitch, Owner, Little Caesars, Detroit Red Wings," Detroit Free Press, August 9, 1982.
McGraw, Bill, "Ilitch's Local Success Is Legendary," Detroit Free Press, June 20, 2000.
Stein, Gil, Power Plays: An Inside Look at the Big Business of the National Hockey League, Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1997.