In the opening scene of his book,
Detroit: An American Autopsy, author Charlie LeDuff describes a dead man being found encased in four feet of ice, with only his feet sticking out, at the bottom of the elevator shaft in an abandoned building. A sub-culture fraternity of “urban explorers” discovered him while playing hockey on the ice from the water that had collected in the basement of the building. More than 24 hours and three calls to 911 later, somebody finally came to retrieve the body.
The subsequent 285 pages don’t get any less depressing. LeDuff chronicles his hometown’s demise from being the birthplace of the middle class to leading the United States in illiteracy, dropouts, unemployment and foreclosures. He takes readers on an odyssey that includes crooked politicians, policemen who drive ancient cruisers with holes in the floorboards and firemen reduced to stealing screen doors from abandoned houses and selling brass fire poles. LeDuff’s Detroit is a place where arson, murder, bureaucratic corruption, racial conflict and despair have become a way of life. He talks in gritty, raw detail of his sister who was lost to the sex trade and the streets of Detroit and her daughter who died of a drug overdose. He recounts a visit to the Wayne County morgue after an errant bullet from the gun of a Detroit policeman killed a seven-year-old girl. The medical examiner tells LeDuff her death is the natural conclusion from the disease of which she suffered. “The psychopathology of growing up in Detroit,” he says. “Some people are doomed from birth because their environment is so toxic.” It’s all dark, depressing material. And it’s all true. None of this “based on a true story” stuff. By any measure, the once leviathan engine of the American economy is in tatters and stories like LeDuff’s are becoming more and more commonplace. It has become a storehouse for those seeking misery in the human condition. Detroit’s inner city has approximately 700,000 residents (not counting those who left in August) and in July it became the largest metropolitan center ever to declare bankruptcy. So it seems an odd time to announce hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for a new arena for an NHL team owned by a billionaire pizza magnate. But there’s almost no pushback, no angry throngs brandishing pitchforks. Perhaps there’s a feeling of helplessness or people are just too tired. But maybe, just maybe, the Detroit Red Wings are an outlet of positivity for all those hardworking, struggling people. Perhaps the Red Wings have built up so much goodwill with all the winning and Stanley Cups and 22 straight years in the playoffs that paying almost 60 percent of a $450-million downtown arena is seen as a worthwhile investment. Or perhaps in a city where everything has looked so bleak for so long, people want to celebrate the accomplishments of a team on the rise. And there is the distinct feeling the Wings are on the rise, which sounds a little strange given their status as perennial Stanley Cup contenders for the better part of two decades. Despite leading the league in man games lost to injury, they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, losing in overtime of Game 7 to the eventual Stanley Cup champion after holding a 3-1 series lead. Their American League farm team won the Calder Cup and there’s a promising group of young players ready to complement some of the most talented offensive players on the planet. With the additions of Daniel Alfredsson, a longtime NHL captain, and Stephen Weiss, a potential 25-goal man, the Wings are moving to the friendlier confines of the Eastern Conference and serving notice that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“In my opinion, this last year is the first season we got better since ’09,” says coach Mike Babcock. “We were a legitimate hockey club by the end of the season. From Game 22 on, we got better and better and better. This year, we were a much better, deeper team than we’ve been in the past couple of years.” It was that promise for a championship that prompted Alfredsson to vacate his seat as de facto mayor of Ottawa to come to Detroit, even though both teams finished with the same number of points last season and reached the same juncture of the post-season. But the Wings will be playing in the Eastern Conference, which will make life easier for everyone from their fans to their equipment manager. Two years ago, the last time there was a full season, the team travelled 42,865 miles and was on the road for 64 days, 48 of which were outside the Eastern time zone. With the Wings playing in the East under the league’s new realignment, they will travel 35,324 miles this season and spend 53 days on the road, only 21 of which will be out of their time zone. Switching conferences could translate into a 10-point jump for the Wings in the short term, largely because they have historically feasted on Eastern teams. Over the five seasons from 2007-08 through 2011-12 (remember, they didn’t play against the East last season), when you back out the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets and replace them with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Wings have a 68-28-12 (.685 points percentage) record against East teams. (Having the Blue Jackets move with them might have been their greatest stroke of luck, considering their 17-8-2 record against them over the past five seasons.) And just imagine what Babcock will be able to do with 11 additional practice days that used to be spent travelling when the team was in the West. He’s not sure the players will be so happy about dealing with their cranky coach more often, but the logistical advantages will be enormous. “It’s a huge deal and I don’t care about the travel hours, I care about the time change,” Babcock says. “When I was in Anaheim, I didn’t even feel the time change when I was going in the other direction. But when you live in the East and you play in the West, for some reason it wears you out more. I don’t know why that is, but that’s my own study. With all the man games we lost this year, I have to believe fatigue played a part in that.” Babcock is actually right. Experts say it’s significantly more difficult to move your body clock back to an earlier time. It’s believed going west to east requires 30 to 50 percent more recovery time. Yeah, and that’s all the Wings need, the added advantage of playing in the Eastern Conference. They were already a prime location for free agents by virtue of their contender status. And in a free agent pool that was shallow by most standards, the Wings did as well as anybody. After years of toiling in obscurity with mediocre teams in Florida, Weiss will have the chance to play with a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Alfredsson, who was rejuvenated while skating with the young talent in Ottawa, will have his 40-year-old fires stoked by playing with the team’s top-end forwards. The supporting cast upfront is strong with mid-range players such as left winger Justin Abdelkader, who’s emerged as a valuable contributor, and Babcock believes if Darren Helm can ever get back to good health, he could be the best third-line center in the NHL. The Wings are set in net with Jimmy Howard, who’s emerged as an elite goalie. Defense is where questions lie. Once the most feared in the league at both ends of the ice, the Wings ‘D’ remains a work in progress. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson aren’t Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, though they’re adjusting to being leaders. Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl are steady but scare no one as a second pairing. The wildcards are Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser. Both have impressed early in their NHL careers, but neither has played anywhere close to a full season. In Alfredsson the Wings get yet another low-maintenance Swedish player who plays both ends of the ice well and gives the team the right-handed shot that’s lacking in its forward ranks. (He can play the point on the power play, too.) The acquisition of Weiss gives them a second-line center behind Pavel Datsyuk, allowing Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to play together. The Wings need more scoring and Weiss should help in that area. In his past six seasons he’s been healthy, Weiss has had 48 points or more in five of them and the Wings think he can be a consistent 25-goal, 60-point producer. Yes, they lost Valtteri Filppula, but he’s put up more than 40 points only once in his career. So with Alfredsson and Weiss providing some secondary offense, the Wings think they’ll have more than enough scoring for the next couple seasons. “On the one hand, it’s a team of stability, but on the other hand, it’s a team in transition,” says GM Ken Holland. “We’re trying to compete like everybody else is.” Wait a minute, here. We’ll buy the notion that, in the past decade, enough players have retired from the Wings to put together an all-star team. But everyone else doesn’t start with a 1-2 punch of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Everybody else doesn’t have Babcock behind the bench and Holland orchestrating the moves off the ice. They certainly don’t have the Wings mystique and they don’t have a core of young players coming off an AHL championship and pushing veterans for their spots. Nor do they have the tradition. Consider that the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won two Stanley Cups in the past four years, have a total of five championships in their 87-year history. That’s just one more than the Wings have won in the past 18 years. And there’s the sense the Wings are in some ways cashing in on that success and goodwill by getting the public purse to open for their new downtown arena that’s scheduled for completion in 2017. The optics of it aren’t ideal given the city’s plan to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy and there’s no getting around that. Most of the money for the arena, however, is coming from a pool of property tax money that, by state law, can be used only for economic development. Any money that would be funneled out of that tax from Detroit schools is reimbursed by the State of Michigan. So while those critical of the use of public funds to build an arena have a point, it won’t be paid for with money that would otherwise go to education or healthcare. For each of the next 35 years, $12.8 million per year will come from the economic development money, $2.2 million from other property taxes and $11.5 million from Olympia Entertainment, the company owned by Wings owner Mike Illitch. The rink is part of a $650-million plan to convert 45 acres of downtown land near Comerica Park and Ford Field into a retail, residential, office and restaurant area with the arena as the anchor. Whether or not a new arena can save downtown Detroit is open to debate, even among those who study these things. Andrew Zimbalist, one of North America’s leading sports economists, co-wrote a paper in 2000 that concluded, “there is no statistically positive correlation between sports facilities and economic development,” but even he sees some merit in the Detroit project. “You can look at it as something that might have a slightly positive stimulative effect on the Detroit economy, at least in the short run when constructions are going on,” he says. “If they decided to take all this state money into education, into police, street lights, infrastructure, that would be better for Detroit. But the notion that what they’re trying to do is to create some life in downtown Detroit, I don’t think you can scoff at that. It makes some sense to try it. I don’t think it’s a magic bullet, but I’m not altogether negative about it.” If you read the work of LeDuff, you don’t get the sense there’s any magic bullet for Detroit at all. If you listen to Babcock, the city is on the verge of rising from the ashes and is poised to flex its muscles once again. Holland has lived in the area since 1995 and Babcock can often be found running along the river after team practices, so they know the city and its people. Babcock was talking to some recent university graduates working at the Quicken Loans headquarters in downtown Detroit who said the company has agreed to help subsidize their rent if they live in the city. “We’re turning the corner like we haven’t since I arrived there,” Babcock says. “Detroit is about ready to take off. It’s opportunity time now in Detroit.”
If it’s opportunity time for Detroit, it’s also opportunity time for the Wings, a franchise that can no longer count on drawing full houses just because the team is one of the best in the NHL. Between 1996 and 2007, the Wings had a string of 452 consecutive sellouts, which is no small achievement considering Joe Louis Arena holds 20,066 fans. But as the Big Three automakers have foundered, everyone has taken a hit, including the affluent suburbanites who make up much of the Wings’ fan core. At one time, the team had a season-ticket base of 17,000 with a lengthy waiting list. That fell to 12,000 three years ago, but is now up to north of 14,000. “Even though the economy has been challenging for everybody in Michigan over the last number of years, they’re fighters,” Holland says. “It gives people an opportunity to forget about everything for a little while.” If there are those looking to escape their troubles, the Wings have done a remarkable job of helping them do that over the years. For his part, Babcock is hoping the additions and the move to the East will make the Wings a legitimate powerhouse in the NHL, but he knows they’re only summer theories. And nobody knows what effect the 2014 Olympics will have on the team, which stands to have almost half its roster playing in Sochi. But these are the Wings we’re talking about here. Renewing rivalries with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens with a team that looks to be built for now and the future should have fans excited. And if anyone deserves some positive karma in their lives, it’s the good people of Detroit.