When was the best time to be a Red Wings’ fan?

Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman celebrate a win during the 1990s.

Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman celebrate a goal during the 1990s.

When was the best time to be a fan of the Detroit Red Wings?

Well, we know it wasn’t during the 1970s. (Sorry, those of you who are 45 years or older).

The Wings are one of the greatest franchises in the history of the National Hockey League. They’ve had at least four dynasties (maybe five or six depending on how you want to slice it). The team has won 11 Stanley Cup titles, the most of any American franchise, and the Wings have been to 24 Cup Finals. In their 88 seasons, the Red Wings have advanced to the playoffs 62 times, including the last 23 seasons in a row.

For the purposes of this history lesson I’m not going to talk about the 1920s, since the Wings were just being born and hockey was much different. Heck, in the 1920s, horse racing was a much more popular sport than ice hockey. By a large margin. Let’s start with the 1930s, when the Red Wings established themselves as a key early member of the NHL.

The 1930s: City of Champions

Two Titles, Three Stanley Cup appearances, Six Playoff appearances, Three 1st Place finishes

During this era there were only six NHL teams (The Original Six) and the season was only about 44-48 games long. Teams frequently got hot late in the year and went on to win titles. The Wings had hockey’s best record in 1934, 1936, and 1937. In the latter two seasons they won the Stanley Cup joining the Tigers (1935) and Lions (1935) as the best teams in pro sports during that era. Led by legendary coach Jack Adams, the Wings in the 1930s were a tough team with great defenses and stingy players in the net. The greatest player of this era was winger Syd Howe, a future Hall of Famer. By the end of the 1930s the Wings were the best U.S. franchise in the league and poised to challenge Toronto and Montreal in the next decade.

The 1940s: The Birth of Hockeytown

One Title, Six Stanley Cup appearances, Ten Playoff appearances, Two 1st Place finishes

World War II took many of the great players away from the NHL in the early 1940s. But the Wings still emerged as one of the best teams in the league in the decade, advancing to the Finals six times. But they lost in the Stanley Cup Finals five times, four of those against the Toronto Maple Leafs, their most important rival. In fact, five times during the decade the Leafs eliminated the Red Wings from the playoffs. Detroit’s only title in the 1940s came in 1943 when they swept the Bruins. Left wing Sid Abel led the team in this era, winning the Hart Trophy as MVP of the league in 1948-49.

The 1950s: The Golden Era

Four Titles, Five Stanley Cup appearances, Nine Playoff appearances, Seven 1st Place finishes

This is when you would have wanted to be a hockey fan in Detroit: in the ’50s when cars were rolling off the assembly line in auto factories, the city was booming, and the Red Wings had the best and most exciting team in hockey.

This was the era of The Production Line (Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, and young Gordie Howe), a trio of stars who dominated the NHL with their great skating, puck handling, and grit. If opposing teams wanted to focus on “Terrible Ted” they were sure to get beat by the quick shooting of Abel. Or if they decided to shadow Able to take him out of the game, Howe would destroy them with his toughness, passing, and goal scoring. Any one of them could have been the top scorer in the league in most seasons, but they worked as a unit and sacrificed their personal stats to win games. The Wings won the Cup in 1950, 1952, and in 1954 and 1955: four titles in six years. Goalie Terry Sawchuk was the best netminder in the game, maybe of all-time. The team also had tremendous defense. Only the Montreal Canadiens were able to compete with the Wings in the 1950s, in fact they eliminated the Wings three times in the postseason in this era. But the Wings were still the best team in the NHL in this time.

The 1960s: The End of the Howe Era

No Titles, Four Stanley Cup appearances, Six Playoff appearances, One 1st Place finish

In the 1960s the Detroit Red Wings skated their way to the Stanley Cup Finals four times in a six-year stretch. Gordie Howe was in his 30s and in many ways he was in his prime. He was faster, stronger, tougher, and smarter than any other player in the National Hockey League. In 1960 and 1963 he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

But the Red Wings still failed to win a Stanley Cup in the 1960s. In some ways the franchise was reaching to no avail to hold on to the glory of the 1950s. The trade that sent Sawchuk away was a mistake and it hurt the team for years. Even after he was reacquired, the team drifted away from success. Howe was joined by fellow future Hall of Famer Alex Delvecchio during this time, both of them at the top of their game. But it was Montreal (five titles) and Toronto (four) who kept the Wings from the winners’ circle in the 1960s. This was a frustrating decade for the Wings, and by the end of it the team had missed the playoffs for three straight years.

The 1970s: Dark Years

No titles or Stanley Cup appearances, Two Playoff appearances

What can we say about this decade? Gordie retired, the team had losing records in eight of the ten seasons, and they only made two meager playoff appearances. The low point came in the 1976-77 season when the team won only 16 games and fired Delvecchio (now coach) in the middle of the season. Let’s just try to forget the 1970s if you are a Red Wings’ fan.

The 1980s: Prelude to a Dynasty

No titles or Stanley Cup appearances, Five Playoff appearances, Two 1st place finishes

When the Wings drafted 18-year old Steve Yzerman in the 1983 NHL Draft they got their second choice (GM Jimmy Devellano wanted Detroit native Pat LaFontaine), but they couldn’t have gotten a better player to turn around the fortunes of the franchise. Within a few years Stevie Y was the team captain and the Wings were challenging the Oilers for Western Conference supremacy. The team didn’t often make a dent in the playoffs during the 1980s (they were eliminated three times in the first round), but they also went to the conference finals twice only to be brushed aside by Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers. But by the end of the decade the team was poised to make a drive for that elusive Cup in the 1990s.

The 1990s: The Greatest Hockey Team in the World

Two Titles, Three Stanley Cup appearances, Nine Playoff appearances, Five 1st Place finishes

If any era could challenge the 1950s, it was the 1990s when team captain Steve Yzerman led a team filled with superstars. Led by owner Mike Ilitch, who never shied away from paying whatever it took to keep the Wings stocked with great players, Detroit had several fantastic seasons. In 1995-96 the team went 62-13-11, setting a record for points (131) in a season. They won the Stanley Cup the next two seasons behind a team that featured Yzerman and The Russian Five. The Red Wings in the 1990s were playing with a chip on their shoulder: they hadn’t won a Cup since 1955, a drought of four decades. Coach Scotty Bowman helped change the culture of the franchise, guiding the team to the best record in hockey four times during the decade. The era was highlighted by a few heated rivalries, most notably with the Avalanche and Dallas Stars.

The 2000s: The Playoff Streak

Two Titles, Three Stanley Cup appearances, Nine Playoff appearances, Eight 1st Place finishes

After winning two titles in the 1990s, Ilitch poured even more money into his team in the early 21st century, attracting several superstars as he essentially built an All-Star team. The strategy worked even after Bowman retired and the Wings won titles in 2002 (the last with Yzerman) and in 2008. They also nearly won again in 2009, narrowly losing in a seventh game in the Finals. The arrival of Henrik Zetterberg ensured the continuation of the Wings’ playoff streak, which reached 19 years by the end of the decade. More than that, the Wings were dominant in this decade, finishing in first place in eight straight seasons under Bowman and the two coaches who followed him (including current coach Mike Babcock).

The 2010s: Reloading

No Stanley Cup appearances (yet), Five Playoff appearances, One 1st Place finish

So far in this decade the Wings have shown that their leadership is able and wise enough to rebuild the team and get it on track to challenge for the Stanley Cup again. Behind Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Wings of recent years have been exciting and dangerous, even pushing the eventual champion Blackhawks to seven games in the playoffs in 2013. But if the team wants to match the two titles that their predecessors won in each of the last two decades, they will have to get busy.

So when was the best time to be a fan of the Red Wings. The 1950s were sweet, as was the 1990s (really from 1991 to 2008 was pretty damn great). But the answer to the question is: the best time to be a Wings’ fan is when you are most in to the team, whatever era when you came of age with them. Maybe that time is now. If so, cheer on hockey fans!

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.