May 31, 2009 / 10:03 PM / 10 years ago

As Motor City stalls, Hockeytown's Red Wings soar

DETROIT (Reuters) - All that separates the headquarters of U.S. automaker General Motors Corp and the hockey arena where the Detroit Red Wings play is a 10-minute walk along the banks of the Detroit River.

Members of the Detroit Red Wings celebrate their overtime series win over the Chicago Blackhawks in their NHL Western Conference Final series in Detroit, Michigan, May 27, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

But the two organizations are worlds apart.

The Red Wings are on the cusp of renewed glory, vying for a second consecutive Stanley Cup, the trophy symbolizing the National Hockey League championship. They have won it four times since 1997.

The team is playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a rematch of last year’s best-of-seven finals that Detroit won four games to two. The Red Wings won the first game in this year’s series on Saturday.

GM, on the other hand, is headed for an expected bankruptcy filing on Monday as the U.S. recession and the lack of easy credit have hammered sales.

Faced with a slumping economy — Michigan’s 12.9 percent unemployment rate in April was the nation’s highest — the Red Wings have become a rare symbol of hope and success for the greater Detroit area of several million people.

“We’ve grown numb from the job losses and bad news,” said unemployed auto worker Scott Watkins while watching Saturday’s game at a bar in suburban Madison Heights. “Without the Red Wings, what else would Detroit have to cheer about?”

Hockey is America’s fourth most popular professional sport behind football, baseball and basketball. In Detroit — sometimes dubbed Hockeytown and which borders on the hockey hotbed of Canada — the game is huge.

The Red Wings have enjoyed more recent success than Detroit’s other professional teams. The basketball Pistons last won a championship in 2004. The baseball Tigers played in the 2006 World Series but have not won it since 1984. The National Football League Lions failed to win a single game last season.

After the Red Wings’ championship last year, several hundred thousand people poured into Detroit’s largely depopulated downtown to celebrate.


The contrasts between the Red Wings’ success and GM’s failure are stark.

GM has been in a downward spiral for years, dependent on trucks and large sport-utility vehicles and losing market share to foreign competitors like Japan’s Toyota.

“I think at some point, GM forgot they actually had to sell cars to people,” said automotive historian Bob Elton. “They just kept talking to themselves and didn’t notice they had actual competition.”

The Red Wings could not be more different. Bought in 1982 by Mike Ilitch — founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain and owner of the Detroit Tigers — the organization has built one of the NHL’s strongest dynasties.

Stuck with poor draft picks — in the NHL draft system, poorer-performing teams get the first pick of promising young players while better teams get what’s left — the Red Wings spend years turning those players into stars. The team has also been creative, picking up strong performers from countries like Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden.

They also acknowledge their fans’ yearning for a success story in a city devastated by decades of decline and decay.

“If we can spread a little joy in the world, we’re happy to do that,” said Henrik Zetterberg, a Swedish star on the team and last year’s most valuable player in the playoffs. “We’ll do all we can to bring the Stanley Cup back.”

Elton said that unlike the Red Wings, GM had failed to give consumers what they want while blaming missteps on external factors.

“Whenever GM failed, they had an excuse like high gas prices,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for sweating the details,” he added. “The Red Wings sweat the details. Toyota sweats the details. GM doesn’t.”

Editing by Peter Cooney

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