TORONTO – In a salary cap system, it’s hard to imagine there’ll be another NHL team as powerful as the 2002 Detroit Red Wings.
There are as many as 10 players from that group that could one day be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame – not to mention coach Scotty Bowman, who was inducted back in 1991. The official number will swell to four on Monday night when Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull officially join Igor Larionov in the Hall.
The former teammates all marvel at the special season they spent together.
“I don’t think that could ever be put together ever again, you know,” said Robitaille.
Brian Leetch and Lou Lamoriello will join the trio of former Red Wings in the Hall of Fame class of 2009.
Even though Robitaille will be remembered mostly for the time he spent with the Los Angeles Kings, the only time he lifted the Stanley Cup was as a member of the Red Wings back in the spring of 2002. That came after a five game victory over Carolina in the championship series.
Robitaille and Hull were each nearing the end of their careers at that point and helped bolster an attack that featured Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom and a young Pavel Datsyuk.
The addition of the two veterans helped get the team over the top.
“It just gave us scoring depth,” said Yzerman. “Over the course of a season, the more depth and scoring you can have, it just alleviates (the pressure). If a guy is injured, guys cool off for a while, somebody was always kind of picking up goals. It became particularly evident in the playoffs.
“We really had balanced scoring. I think at the end of the day, that was the difference playing Colorado in the semis, then ultimately against Carolina. Despite winning in five, they were relatively close games. We were able to generate, get more production from all four of our lines.”
In today’s NHL, teams are usually forced to use a mix of young players and inexpensive veterans to fill out the bottom half of their roster. There simply isn’t enough space under the salary cap to pay someone of Robitaille’s quality and use him as a third-liner at times.
One thing that struck him about the special season in Detroit is the expectation of excellence that was outlined on his first day with the team.
“I remember the first words at the beginning of training camp coming from Scotty Bowman and Ken Holland were: ‘We’re here to win the Stanley Cup so we’re going to start preparing for it now,”‘ said Robitaille. “So they actually had strategized about training camp and we were going to have a certain types of practices and making sure already that we were thinking of not getting any injuries and so forth.
“And that kind of blew me away thinking when you showed up at camp the first talk was about, ‘OK, we want to play all the way to June so we’re going to manage what we’re doing now because it’s going to be a long ride.”‘
It’s reasonable to think another six guys from the 2002 Red Wings have a chance to be enshrined in the Hall – Lidstrom, Shanahan, Fedorov, Datsyuk, Dominik Hasek and Chris Chelios.
Even still, it wasn’t something they acknowledged at the time.
“The players don’t sit around ever and discuss, ‘Well, I think we’re going into the Hall of Fame,”‘ said Yzerman. “It never comes up in a conversation. We’re just a group of players. There were a lot of guys on that team, very good players, that aren’t going to go into the Hall of Fame.”
Hull played for five different NHL teams over his career, but considers his time in Detroit particularly special. The opportunity to play for Bowman and spend so much time around future Hall of Famers was unique.
“I was lucky enough to kind of feel what it was like to be an old New York Yankee,” said Hull. “I got to play for Casey Stengel, one of the greatest coaches that ever walked the earth. I had more fun in the one year of playing for Scotty than I did my whole career. We just seemed to have the same philosophy. We thought the game the same way.
“To play on that team with him coaching, it felt like you were on a team with (Mickey) Mantle and Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, all those great players. It’s scary.”