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Hockeytown Hilights: a light in the black


note: audio from Game 2 of the opening round series, narrated by Sid Abel and Bruce Martyn

by Ryan Hammond

Waiting through the preseason of our discontent is not easy for fans, and several times harder on players who sit on the cusp of roster spots. There are many skaters destined for Grand Rapids, though older noggins can dream up worse fates. Imagine spending the 1970s in a Red Wings jersey.

The ‘70s were a dispiriting decade for Detroiters, and doubly so for Wings fans. Motown Records left for L.A., the factories left for the boonies, moneyed residents fled to the suburbs, and rot permeated the city’s once proud hockey franchise.

An inept ownership hired powerless executives to run a hapless team, and only the most loyal fans could endure an era remembered as “Darkness Under Harkness.” The legends of the ’50s and ‘60s were either retired or hobbling out the door, and a long string of first round draft picks were wasted on a franchise that didn't seem to know what it wanted or needed. The boys in red and white became perennial cellar dwellers, openly mocked as “The Dead Things.”

There were a few bright spots though. Marcel Dionne and Mickey Redmond dazzled the home crowds during the Nixon administration, and the 1977-78 season saw General Manger Ted Lindsay and head coach Bobby Kromm leading the home team to a first round playoff victory. Lindsay’s return came with much fanfare, promoted under the slogan “aggressive hockey is back in town.” Some credit defenseman Dave Hanson (of Slapsot fame) with the phrase. Hanson didn’t stay in Detroit for long, but his strategy had become conventional wisdom by 1977; if you didn’t have the most talented team in hockey, a good contingency plan was to be the meanest.

Detroit squads of the disco era had garnered reputations as disorganized patsies. Players like Dennis Hextall, Dan Maloney, and Dennis Polonich were determined to change that. They all exceeded the 150 penalty minute marker, and the team spent over 1500 minutes in the sin bin, trailing only Philadelphia’s infamous “Broadstreet Bullies.”

Players like Nick Libett, Paul Woods, and Terry Harper weren’t known for their fisticuffs, but helped keep netminder Jimmy Rutherford’s GAA below 3.30. There were some solid offensive contributions as well. Dale McCourt had a strong rookie season with 72 points, and Andre St.Laurent came in just behind at 70, with the best tally of his career. Reed Larson had the first of many stellar seasons from the back end, toiling in relative anonymity for a player of his talents. His 60 points tied an NHL scoring record for rookie defensemen.

All of this was good for a record of 32-34-14. A sub .500 season would be disastrous for several other teams, but it gave the ragged Wings squad something to hang their hats on. It also meant a playoff berth in the top-heavy Prince of Wales Conference.

Detroit’s first round opponents were the Atlanta Flames, a modestly successful franchise toiling in a southern market where hockey had no history and garnered little interest. Cliff Fletcher’s squad had several players who would put up solid numbers over the next few seasons, and goalie Daniel Bouchard often found ways to win contests that should have been out of reach. He would later inspire a young goalie named Patrick Roy to accomplish similar feats on a bigger stage.

Hextall recalls the Wings acting with a sense of conviction. “We went into Atlanta with a lot of enthusiasm, we were determined not to lose.” That mindset bore fruit, as Detroit stormed to a 5-3 victory in game one, notching three power-play goals and a shorthanded tally.

Game two proved to be a much more challenging affair. The score was tied at 2 all, with a minute and a half left in the third period, when rookie right wing Billy Lochead came down the left side. He shook off a defenseman, deked the goalie, and shot the puck in from an extremely sharp angle.

Lochead was a draft day bust after going 9th overall in 1974 and only scoring 131 points in 330 NHL games. On that night, however, he was a hero. The Wings had swept the best-of-three series, and fans poured into the hallways of the Olympia, shouting his name, cheering “we’re number one!”

The thirty-eight year old Harper was amazed. “I don’t think crowds yelled that when I played with Montreal, at least I don’t remember hearing it. That seems so long ago now. This is much more exciting.”

Harper had broken in with les Habs 15 years prior, and this would prove his last full season in the NHL. In a fitting storyline, the Wings were thumped four games to one by Montreal in the next round. The image of a helmet-clad Scotty Bowman besieged by a torrent of fan-thrown garbage was embarrassing, but there were also encouraging sights. Reed Larson and Dale McCourt would steadily improve for the next few seasons, and aging Czech defector Vaclav Nedomansky came alive during the playoffs. He would prove a valuable asset over the next two years.

Sadly, their contributions were not enough. The Wings would miss the post-season for the next five years, and Larson was the only player from the ’78 squad who was still a regular when wunderkind Steve Yzerman arrived in ‘83.


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