Detroit Red Wings cherish tradition on New Year’s Eve: Don’t mess with Steve’s Eves

Detroit Free Press

Playing on New Year’s Eve is a Detroit Red Wings franchise tradition that dates back nearly a century, and one the Wings are all the more thrilled to continue this year.

It has been a tumultuous time, one that has heightened appreciation of what might  have been taken for granted in the past. COVID-19 forced the Wings to shut down after playing the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 18 — with two games postponed before Christmas and two more this week — so Friday’s match against the Washington Capitals is a welcome sign of normalcy.

“Anytime you play at home, you have an advantage, and Little Caesars Arena has proven to be a great building for us, a great advantage from a momentum standpoint,” coach Jeff Blashill said Thursday. “The crowds have been awesome. They’ve given us tons of energy.”

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Partisan support is always appreciated, especially since the Capitals shook off their holiday rust when they played Wednesday. But at least Lucas Raymond joined the post-Christmas exodus from COVID-19 protocol and was back on a line with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi at Thursday’s practice. Only Nick Leddy remained in quarantine.

The Wings (15-13-3) improved to 11-3-2 at home when they beat the Devils two weeks ago. Playing largely in empty arenas last season because of the pandemic has raised appreciation for the difference fans make, especially around the holidays.

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“It was unfortunate the Monday before Christmas, the game against Colorado, was canceled, because those are always great crowds,” Blashill said. “The New Year’s Eve crowd is always a great crowd. I’ve got a large contingent of my own family coming down. I know it’ll be a great crowd. All year, it’s been great, and these types of nights it increases it.”

The Wings last played on New Year’s Eve in 2019, when they lost 2-0 to the San Jose Sharks, because the pandemic pushed the start of the 2020-21 season into the new year.  Overall, the franchise is 37-24-8-2 on New Year’s Eve.

The first time the franchise rung out the old year was as the Detroit Cougars on Dec. 31, 1927, in a 6-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators at Olympia Stadium. The next time was in 1936, by which time the club had been acquired by James E. Norris and renamed. The Red Wings defeated the New York Americans, 4-2.

The tradition gained traction in the 1950s. Since 1955, the Wings have only failed to suit up on New Year’s Eve a handful of times — in 1994, 2004 and 2012 because of labor disputes, and in 2013 and 2016 because they instead played outdoor games on New Year’s Day.

Steve Yzerman, the captain-turned-general manager, was a huge fan of playing on New Year’s Eve. His tradition began in 1983, when he was part of a 4-3 victory over the Black Hawks at Joe Louis Arena. (A few years later, the ‘Hawks changed their name to one word.)

As 2022 beckons, here is a look back at memorable New Year’s Eves in Red Wings history.

Gordie’s Eves

Future franchise legend Gordie Howe earned an assist in his first New Year’s Eve game, in 1946, in a 5-4 victory at the New York Rangers. Howe scored a goal on New Year’s Eve in 1947 and again in 1949. In 1951, Howe had a hat trick against the Montreal Canadiens, scoring at even strength in the first period, and twice during power plays in the second period. The Canadiens ruined the evening by winning, 5-4, but Howe had another hat trick on New Year’s Eve in 1961 and that night, the Wings won, 4-2. Howe’s most productive New Year’s Eve was in 1969, when he had a goal and three assists to push the Wings past the Minnesota North Stars, 6-3.

The Worst Eves

The 1970s — fittingly, considering it was the decade of the “Dead Wings” and the “Darkness with Harkness” — featured some terribly un-festive eves. On December 31, 1970, the Wings were hammered, 8-3, by the Black Hawks at Olympia Stadium. The Black Hawks were up, 3-0, halfway through the first period. The Wings got as close as 4-2 in the second, but neither Jim Rutherford, who started the game and allowed five goals on 23 shots, nor Don McLeod, who allowed three goals on 16 shots, were able to withstand Chicago’s attack. In 1977, the Wings endured a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Bruins, with Ron Low getting shellacked in net and future color commentator Paul Woods among those in the lineup.

Steve’s Fantastic Eve

New Year’s Eve 1987 was a memorable one for Yzerman: He had a goal and three assists in leading the Wings to a 7-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues. That stretched Yzerman’s scoring streak to 18 games, breaking Alex Delvecchio’s franchise record of 17 straight games, set in Feb. 20-March 17, 1965. “The Captain has been fantastic,” then-coach Jacques Demers said. “He’s been phenomenal.”

Yzerman was his usually unassuming self about breaking a legend’s record, saying, “It’s nice, I guess. Alex was a great player, but I’m sure somebody will come along and break this record some day.” Yzerman’s point streak ended after 22 games (20 goals, 30 assists) and he was right, somebody did break it — him. From Nov. 1, 1988-Jan. 4, 1989, Yzerman had a point in 28 straight games, with 29 goals and 36 assists.

Steve’s Quiet Eve

In 1996, the Wings unveiled the “Hockeytown” campaign that runs to this day. The slogan celebrated the Wings’ glorious history, and yet someone messed up and scheduled a concert on New Year’s Eve. “It’s too bad,” Yzerman said at the time. “I thought it was a great tradition. I enjoyed having a New Year’s Eve game. One of the first things I notice when I looked at the schedule was that we didn’t have one this year.” The Whiplash Bash, featuring Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent, rocked the Joe instead.

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The Starry Eve

New Year’s Eve 1999 got a lot of attention because of Y2K fears that the change in digits would lead to a worldwide infrastructure collapse. The Wings spent the evening playing to a 4-4 tie with the Los Angeles Kings. The Wings hosted the Kings again on New Year’s Eve in 2000, and that night was one to cheer. Yzerman scored first and last, with assists both times from fellow Future Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Igor Larionov. The Captain, the Perfect Human and The Professor — now those were auld acquaintances that should not be forgot.

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. 

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