DETROIT >> Ken Holland swiveled away from a visitor in his office at Joe Louis Arena, picked up a thick book and plopped it onto his desk.
“This collective bargaining agreement was put in place for parity and competitive balance,” the Detroit Red Wings general manager said. “The CBA gave us the salary cap, and that has made it even harder to win and get into the playoffs.”
The NHL’s salary cap was established following the lockout in 2005 and designed to bring powerful teams like Detroit back to the pack. It took a while to slow the storied franchise, but it has happened.
For the first time since the 1989-90 season, the Red Wings can make tee times in mid-April instead of growing beards and chasing a Stanley Cup.
Detroit was officially eliminated from postseason contention late Tuesday night, signaling the end of a remarkable run that started when nine of the league’s current 30 teams didn’t exist.
The Red Wings rallied in the final days of recent seasons to grab spots and extend their playoff streak to 25 years, tying the third-longest run in league history. They simply didn’t have enough standouts this season, and injuries took away a small margin of error in their first season without Russian superstar Pavel Datsyuk in more than a decade.
“It hurts,” said Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is missing the playoffs for the first time in his 14-season career. “We’ve been a part of something so great for so long here, making it to the postseason. The last couple of years, it’s been a struggle to get in, but we found a way to do it.
“It’s going to be tough when it actually sinks in and you’re going to be part of that team that didn’t continue. But after that, you’re probably going to be proud of it.”
The Red Wings, and their fans, will have a lot of great memories of a spectacular stretch of seasons that included four Stanley Cup championships.
Back when the run started in the 1990-91 season, 21-year-old Russian rookie Sergei Fedorov was proving he was worth the risk it took to whisk him away from the Soviet national team — a former Red Wings executive picked him up in Portland, Oregon, in a limousine and put him on a private plane. He teamed up with another future Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman, who was arguably in the prime of his career when the run started.
In the fifth year of the postseason streak, Detroit lost to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final. The Red Wings hoisted hockey’s coveted trophy in 1997 to end a 42-year title drought and repeated the next year as champions. Since then, no team has pulled off that feat.
“This team was a legitimate competitor for the Stanley Cup for a lot of years,” said Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It wasn’t just a four or five-year span, it’s been a 20-year span they’ve been legitimate contenders for the Cup. Kenny’s done a tremendous job of managing the team and keeping it competitive on a yearly basis.”
Boasting a bunch of future Hall of Famers, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002 under coach Scotty Bowman. Perhaps most impressively, they did it again in 2008 under coach Mike Babcock in the third season of the salary cap era after having to drastically cut back on their New York Yankees-like spending sprees.
“When you look back at how good the team has been in the 90’s, to the salary cap era after the lockout in 04/05 which made it so much harder to keep the streak going and still being a team that was competing for the Cup,” former defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom wrote in an email Wednesday. “The league is celebrating 100 years and the Wings made the playoffs the last 25 years, that’s an amazing streak!”
Holland, though, and his staff were unable to find late-round gems such as Zetterberg and Datsyuk, drafted in the seventh and sixth round, respectively, to keep the talent coming. He also couldn’t afford to keep players he wanted, including Marian Hossa, who left Detroit to cash in on free agency and help the Chicago Blackhawks win Stanley Cups.
And now that the run is over, even competitors aren’t celebrating.
“I feel remorseful that this is happening, especially in the last season at Joe Louis Arena,” said Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who helped Pittsburgh hoist a cup on Detroit’s home ice in 2009. “When I was a young kid, growing up in Michigan as a fan of this team, it was known as Dead Wings era. The Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs back then and then they got great players like Yzerman, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the franchise has been a remarkable example of consistent excellence for many years.”