Feast and famine: A look at Detroit Red Wings’ traditional Thanksgiving Eve games

Detroit Free Press

Playing on the eve of Thanksgiving has been a tradition for the Detroit Red Wings since the franchise’s first year in the NHL.

Then known as the Detroit Cougars, they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks — the spelling was changed to Blackhawks in 1986 — on Nov. 24, 1926, and won, 1-0. Back then, the holiday was proclaimed by U.S. Presidents to be celebrated in the last Thursday of November, and the Wings went through a few years where they played on the holiday. In 1928, the Cougars played on Thanksgiving at Montreal, stuffing the Maroons, 7-6. In 1929 the franchise was known as the Detroit Falcons, and celebrated playing on Thanksgiving with a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

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Thanksgiving officially was established as the fourth Thursday in November with a bill signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 26, 1941. The Wings — who had been renamed in from the Falcons in 1932 — played the night before, losing 7-1 at the Boston Bruins.

Gordie Howe became a part of the Thanksgiving Eve tradition on Nov. 27, 1946. The Wings lost, 6-1, to the Canadiens, but Howe had an assist.

In modern times, the Wings had a four-day break surrounding the holiday in 1991, but Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert and Sergei Fedorov got to ride in a float in Michigan’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

The holiday has held appeal to many a foreign-born Wing over the years.

“It started with friends inviting us over for the holiday meal,” Nicklas Lidstrom said in 2007. “But then my wife started cooking the meal herself. I think it’s a great tradition.” Fellow Swede Niklas Kronwall said the holiday “is about being thankful for what you have.”

Perhaps Dominik Hasek, a Czech, put it best: “I think Thanksgiving is great because usually it’s a day off from hockey and you can watch the football and eat a turkey. It’s just such a peaceful day.”

On this season’s team, rookie Lucas Raymond, a Swede, is looking forward to his first Thanksgiving.

“I understand it’s a big thing here and we will for sure celebrate, maybe have a little dinner with some of the guys, but I don’t know too much about it,” Raymond said. “For sure, we will eat turkey, I just don’t know where.”

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Here is a look back at memorable Thanksgiving Eves in the Ilitch era.

Famine

The Wings were at the bottom of the 21-team standings, and lost, 4-2, to the first-place Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 24, 1982. This was the first Thanksgiving Eve game since Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the team in June that year. The Wings hadn’t won in 11 games, but 17,133 did show up to watch the game at Joe Louis Arena.

Stevie Y

A rookie named Steve Yzerman gave fans something to be thankful about in the fall of 1983. He didn’t have a point when the Wings played the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 23 before 15,869 fans at the Joe, but celebrated a 3-0 victory. Yzerman was back on the scoresheet the next game, contributing a goal as the Wings came out of Thanksgiving with a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Czech it out

Rookie Petr Klima, whose daring escape from what was then Czechoslovakia had been masterminded by the Wings, put on a star performance in a 4-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 27, 1985. Klima collected the puck, cut through his own crease, flipped the puck between a defender’s legs and took off up the ice. As Klima put it afterwards: “You can do sensational things” with the puck.

The Feast

The scoreboard at Joe Louis Arena malfunctioned during the Nov. 25, 1987, game against the Winnipeg Jets. The scorekeepers couldn’t keep up as the Wings turned a 6-3 deficit into a 10-8 victory. Even coach Jacques Demers had trouble keeping tally. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t even know what the score was at one point.” Demers asked one of his assistant coaches, but “he didn’t know either.” The Wings scored six unanswered goals in less than eight minutes in the third period, delighting the 19,546 packed into the Joe to watch the Wings feast.

Eurovision

All that time in the 1980s spent scouting overseas and drafting European players was on display when the Wings hosted the Minnesota North Stars on Nov. 21, 1990, in a game that drew 19,584 fans. Swede Johan Garpenlov, a fifth-round pick from 1986, scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory. His fellow rookie, a young Russian named Sergei Fedorov, drafted in the fourth round in 1989, had an assist.

Sweet taste of revenge

Fedorov was the prime dish when the Wings took on the San Jose Sharks at the Joe on Nov. 22, 1995. He scored twice in the 5-2 victory, extending his seven-game point streak to five goals and eight assists. The most satisfying performance though, belonged to Igor Larionov, who had been acquired from the Sharks a month earlier. Larionov scored on a penalty shot in the third period.

Thanks, Shanny

Brendan Shanahan had joined the Wings with minutes to spare before the 1996-97 season opener, part of a blockbuster trade made to strengthen the Wings’ Stanley Cup hopes. He showed off just what a spectacularly good trade it was with a natural hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 27. It was the Wings’ first hat trick since Slava Kozlov netted three in Patrick Roy’s infamous final game in Montreal.

Glistening goodies

Never mind the game (it was a 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 27, 2002); on Thanksgiving Day, players were treated to a team dinner at the Fox Theatre, with the Rockettes serving the main course. They set out a silver platter as the centerpiece of a round table — but when the lid was lifted, there glistened the 2002 Stanley Cup rings. The rings were made of gold and featured a Cup made of diamonds, overlaid with a winged wheel made of rubies, with a diamond as the axle.

Somber holiday

The Wings romped the Colorado Avalanche, 7-3, on Nov. 23, 2005, but it was a tough game to get through because of what happened two nights earlier, when defenseman Jiri Fischer suffered a seizure, requiring CPR and the use of a defibrillator. “You fear for the guy’s life at that moment,” Yzerman said. Within 45 minutes, Fischer was announced to be stable and doing well. He never played again, but has worked since for the organization as part of hockey operations.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

Need a gift?

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact Helene at hstjames@freepress.com

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