Detroit still ranks high for NHL fans despite Wings' struggles
The Wings teams from the mid-1990s – led by the 1997 team shown with the Stanley Cup – made some long-lasting memories for NHL fans in Detroit.
Despite the fact that the Red Wings have missed the playoffs the past two seasons and have finally admitted they need to rebuild, Detroit still finishes as the second-best city in the U.S. for hockey fans, according to a ranking by the website WalletHub.
The website ranked each hockey city in regards to NHL and NCAA teams using more than 20 criteria. The result: Detroit is second to Boston overall but is No. 1 when only the NHL is considered.
Boston is ranked as the third-best NHL city. But when college teams are factored in, Boston, with four Division I college teams (Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern) in or immediately around it, finishes first.
Detroit is No. 56 for college hockey. Which is not to say Michigan is short of top D1 college teams. But those teams boost the ranking of the cities they’re located in. So Ann Arbor, home of the Wolverine hockey team, is No. 2 for college hockey cities and tied with several other Michigan cities for No. 24 in the NHL category. Overall, Ann Arbor is No. 24.
Pittsburgh – whose Penguins won the two Stanley Cups before the Washington Capitals won it this year – is No. 2 among NHL cities.
Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano was taken aback by Detroit’s high ranking, given the team’s recent lack of success.
“It sort of surprises me,” he admitted.
The Wings last won the Cup in 2008 and then lost to the Penguins in the finals the following season. They reached the playoffs for the next seven seasons (stretching its playoff streak to 25 seasons – but advanced to the second round only three times. They were eliminated there on each occasion.
By contrast, the Bruins have made the playoffs in eight of the past 11 seasons, the past two in a row. They won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost in the Cup final in 2013.
Another big plus for Detroit is Little Caesars Arena, where the team moved this season after almost 40 years at Joe Louis Arena.
“The Ilitches built the most beautiful individual building in the world,” Devellano said. “Nothing compares to Little Caesars Arena.”
Another positive influence is the residual benefit from the great success the Red Wings achieved in the “Hockeytown” era, which began in the mid-1990s after 42 years of failure: Four Stanley Cups, six trips to the Cup final, eight visits to the conference final and many superstars, most of whom are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kris Draper played on all four of the Stanley Cup winners (1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008) during his 20-season NHL career, 17 with Detroit.
“I would say a lot of it has to do with the organization being an Original Six franchise that had a 25-year playoff run during which it won four Cups,” said Draper, who is now a special assistant to the Wings’ GM. “The generation that I played in created a lot of memories.”
While WalletHub’s ranking highlighted NHL and NCAA hockey, it did not address another level in which Detroit and Michigan excel: Youth and amateur hockey.
The quality at those levels in the metro-Detroit area is among the best and most competitive in the U.S. The area has become a breeding ground for players who continue to excel at the collegiate, junior, minor pro and NHL levels.
The AAA or Tier I level is particularly competitive with such nationally accomplished and respected organizations as Little Caesars, HoneyBaked, Compuware, Belle Tire, Victory Honda and Oakland Jr. Grizzlies.
“I think we’re top five in the United States,” said Victory Honda governor Bill Smith. “You have the support of Michigan’s corporate community in Little Caesars, Compuware and Victory Honda, for example, and when you have corporate support, that means you have a lot of resources.”
Many players from other parts of the country come to the Detroit area in order to play AAA hockey. Among them are Chicago Blackhawks star right wing Patrick Kane, who is from the Buffalo area but played his Midget Minor season with HoneyBaked, and Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, who is from Pittsburgh but came to the area to play three seasons (Bantam Minor, Bantam Major and Midget Major) with Little Caesars.
The hottest family of hockey amateurs recently moved to the area to take advantage of the opportunities for elite hockey players. The Hughes family relocated here from Toronto with their sons Quinn, Jack and Luke – they live in Plymouth - because of the opportunities for elite hockey players.
Quinn, a freshman defenseman at Michigan last season, is expected to be a top-10 pick in the weekend's NHL Draft. Jack, who is with the NTDP in Plymouth, is the favorite to be the top overall pick in next year's NHL Draft. And Luke has already committed to play at Michigan after his Bantam Major season with Little Caesars in 2017-18.
One of the features of Little Caesars Arena is the BELFOR Training Center, which is a separate practice rink for the Red Wings and the main home rink for Little Caesars Tier I teams.
Draper is also the coach of Little Caesars 16U (Midget Minor) team.
“It’s unique being in Little Caesars and practicing in the same facility as the Detroit Red Wings,” Draper said.
Draper was interviewed for this story during the Stanley Cup Finals and pointed out how great it was to see enthusiastic sellout crowds not only inside the Las Vegas and Washington arenas but also outside those arenas, where thousands more fans watched the games on giant viewer screens.
And he can’t help but imagine what that would look like in the Red Wings’ new, state-of-the-art home.
“At Little Caesars Arena, I can’t wait to see the team get back to the playoffs,” Draper said. “With a sellout crowd and the Chevrolet Plaza (located at the southeast corner of LCA) packed with six, seven or 8,000 fans.”