Inside the crammed quarters of Detroit’s famous Lafayette Coney Island, autographed pictures of US Presidents, rock stars and random celebrities line the wall. In the far corner, a short waiter wearing all white yells out someone’s order,
Two coney! Mustard! One with! Chili-chee fries! Verner!
Next to me, a waiter slides a glass full of Vernor’s ginger ale across the table. I glance up at the photograph above me. It’s a signed photo of Nicklas Lidstrom standing with the owners of the restaurant, who for the last several decades have had their doors open late in order to feed the throngs of celebrating Wings fans.
It goes without saying that Lafayette Coney Island has seen a decrease in coney-dog sales over the past three NHL playoffs. The Red Wings have failed to move beyond the Western Conference Semi-finals in their last three years. In any other city, this might sound like a good run, but this is Detroit, and Wings fans border on a sense of entitlement when it comes to playoff appearances for their team. Call the Red Wings the Yankees of hockey, if you will.
The photographs on the wall surpass the realm of memorabilia. The pictures of Red Wings past and present are more than just fan photos, they symbolize the legacy of success created by the Red Wings organization, led by owner Mike Ilitch and General Manager Ken Holland.
Since the mid-90s, The Red Wings have boasted some of the stronger lines in the Western Conference, culminating during the mid-to-late 90s with the “Russian Five” line featuring Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Kozlov. After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Wings re-loaded, and in the summer of 2001 assembled one of their more impressive teams in organization history.
After failing to three-peat, and a couple of lackluster seasons to follow, the Wings responded by adding veteran defensemen Chris Chelios from the Chicago Blackhawks, defending Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek, and forwards Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull. They went on to win another Stanley Cup in the 2001-2002 season. Of course, all of this goes without noting the historic careers of Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, who were cornerstones of the organization during this era.
Throughout the 90s and 2000s, everything seemed in place, and the Wings went on to appear in the playoffs every single year. In fact, the Wings record of 21 consecutive playoff appearances sets the NHL record: the last time Detroit missed the playoffs was the 1989-90 season. The next closest streak is held by the San Jose Sharks who appeared in 8 straight postseasons.
Success isn’t easy to let go of. That’s why the thought of missing this year’s playoffs is devastating to Detroit fans. There is a sense that the heroes of old are long gone – the Yzermans, Lidstroms, Holmstroms, McCarty’s, Drapers, Maltbys and Osgoods are only glimmers in the past. Detroit must carry on with its patchwork roster, and shortlist of understated stars like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Gone are the days of the Russian Five, phenom Sergei Fedorov, the blue-collar grit of Steve Yzerman and the “Grind-line” of Kris Draper, Joe Kocur, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty.
It’s just not the same. Go down to “The Joe” as Joe Louis Arena is affectionately called, and ask anyone above 30. They will tell you that things aren’t like they used to be.
Success comes with a price. When you’re up for so long, it’s incredibly hard to come down, and for a city like Detroit that’s seen more hard times than most US cities, coming down from the long, strange hockey trip has been difficult.
Making the playoffs for 21 years in a row is a big deal for any organization, in any sport. Being one of the top landing spots for free agents in their prime, and superstars on the decline doesn’t come without repeated playoff appearances, like the Red Wings have had since the 90s. However, being a desirable landing spot has more to do with having a real chance to compete in the Stanley Cup Finals, which the Red Wings haven’t done since the 2008-09 season when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games. Simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough, anymore, and the glaring text “Hockeytown” at center ice may be a moniker of the past.
As I wade through the chili sauce on my plate, and take the last bite of my coney, I look up at all the photos around me. I take a sip of my Vernor’s, and wonder when the next time this room will be filled with Red Wings fans, coming from The Joe, after celebrating another Stanley Cup win. I have to remind myself that for the first time in 21 years, this Red Wings team might fail to make the playoffs, and if I come down for a coney, it will be without the satisfaction of victory.
It might be a long time before it happens again, but in the meantime, I have the pictures on the wall to remind me of the decades of success. For now, we’ll still call it Hockeytown, but the feeling in my gut tells me that hard times are around the corner.