The run by the Detroit Red Wings as the most dominant team in the NHL for the better part of two decades gained its momentum in 1989 on the floor of an arena that is no longer in service. It is a tale combining enough good fortune, skill, conviction and intrigue to power a best-selling page-turner.
Looking back on it now, 26 years later, Hockey Hall of Fame executive Jim Devellano, the Detroit general manager at the time, keeps coming back to the same thought about the historic draft that moved the Red Wings indelibly forward.
"I don't think there was a better draft in the history of hockey than our draft, the Red Wings' draft, in '89," Devellano said. "I'm also here to tell you there was some luck involved."
It's all part of the story of how Devellano, the rest of the Detroit front office, and his scouts changed the fortunes for a historic franchise and sketched the blueprint for a two-decade run as the NHL's most dominant team from the draft floor at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., on June 17, 1989.
When the last selection was announced that day, the haul for Detroit included Swedish defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, 18, who was taken in the third round (No. 53) and dynamic center Sergei Fedorov, a 19-year-old from Russia who was taken in the fourth round (No. 74). Each will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of fame on Monday.
Those two alone would make the '89 class spectacular. But the other pieces make it legendary, perhaps the best in the history of not only hockey, but all the major sports.
Before picking the two European superstars in waiting, the Red Wings selected forward Mike Sillinger from Regina in the Western Hockey League with their first-round pick (No. 11) and defenseman Robert Boughner from nearby Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League with their second-round pick (No. 32).
Sillinger played 1,049 NHL games, including 129 with the Red Wings. Boughner played 630 games, although none with the Red Wings.
After drafting Lidstrom and Fedorov, more NHL talent was located. Center Shawn McCosh was taken in the fifth round (no. 95); he played in nine NHL games and scored a goal. Forward Dallas Drake arrived in the sixth round (No. 116); he retired in 2008 having played 1,009 NHL games, scoring 177 goals, and winning the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008.
Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, Detroit's 11th round pick (No. 221), appeared in 446 games in a career that was cut short by a limo accident he was involved in the day after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997.
Lidstrom and former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, now general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, said they believe Konstantinov would also be in the Hockey Hall of Fame if not for the accident.
There were misses for Detroit in the 1989 draft: Seven of the 14 players selected never played in the NHL. But the successes outweighed all else.
"That draft set the tone for the Wings," Lidstrom said.
The seven selections who made it to the NHL combined to play 5,955 games with 1,227 goals and 2,367 assists for 3,594 points. In 726 Stanley Cup Playoff games, they combined to score 441 points. Lidstrom, Fedorov, Konstantinov and Drake have nine Stanley Cup titles.
Twenty-six years ago, Lidstrom and Fedorov were gutsy picks, long shots in their own ways, from the unheard of Lidstrom to the unknown factor with Fedorov.
"What I thought was, Fedorov was definitely an NHL player if he ever got out of Russia, and I was really excited about Lidstrom," former Red Wings director of amateur scouting Neil Smith said. "I was really excited that this guy could be an NHL player that we just stole in the third round. Nobody knew about him."
In that way, they picks were the poster boys for a new philosophy of scouting being undertaken by the Red Wings. Instead of limiting scouting on the international level to major tournaments, Detroit in 1989 started diving deep into the European leagues to find players other teams missed.
Lidstrom was playing on an irregular basis for his senior team in Vasteras during the 1988-89 season. To properly scout him, the Red Wings had to work harder than others were willing to.
It became the template for how other unheralded Europeans were discovered and drafted before becoming NHL stars: forward Tomas Holmstrom (10th round, 1994), forward Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998), forward Henrik Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999), defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (ninth round, 2002), forward Johan Franzen (third round, 2004) and forward Gustav Nyquist (fourth round, 2008).
"Go get underrated Europeans, don't take chances on North Americans," Smith said of the strategy. "It's not a work of genius even though everybody talks about it as it is. Getting Datsyuk and Zetterberg was just what we'd been doing. They were just carrying on our game plan.
"That draft of '89 set up the blueprint for what to do. It not only gave [the Red Wings] good fortune with six NHL players, but it set up the next 25 years and it gave them a blueprint to reinforce it with more of that. They put trust in doing that, and it's worked for them for all these years."
Detroit also took risks on players who were behind the Iron Curtain, hamstrung by Cold War politics, knowing full well they may never get to play in the NHL.
Fedorov and Konstantinov eventually found their way to Detroit, but the Red Wings could have had forwards Pavel Bure and Sergei Nemchinov and passed.
"We had the Iron Curtain, communism, and we thought we'd get these guys when they were 29 or 30, that we'd put them on our reserve list, just tuck them away," said Ken Holland, the Detroit GM who was a Western Canada scout at the time. "Within two years, both Fedorov and Konstantinov were on our team."
How the 1989 draft unfolded, from the scouting to the scheming to the indecision to the eventual selections, is a study of a management team ahead of its time.
"It can't happen again because guys like Lidstrom and Fedorov, now they go in the top five," Holland said. "It's a different time. You can't have those kinds of drafts. You can still get three, four or five players out of a draft, but you're not going to get two Hall of Famers and a bunch of people who will play in 1,000 games.
"It has to be one of the best drafts in history."
"In 2015, it looks like a no-brainer. In 1989, when Nicklas Lidstrom was 6-foot-2, 168 pounds and played 20 games with two assists, it's a different story. It takes a little bit more guts to make that call at the table. Everybody thinks it was obvious, but it was gutsy." -- Red Wings scout Christer Rockstrom on drafting Lidstrom
To understand Detroit's philosophy going into the 1989 NHL Draft, you have to first understand the history of Devellano, the man making the ultimate decisions.
He helped Bill Torrey put together the dynastic New York Islanders teams of the early 1980s by building through the draft and selecting future Hockey Hall of Fame players Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin.
Devellano wanted to build the Red Wings through the same drafting model used to form the Islanders, but expansion put more teams at the draft table and made the pickings in the middle rounds a bit more scarce.
"I thought, 'I'm trying to build a team here through the draft and it's going to take forever if you only get one guy a year,'" Devellano said.
A new pipeline of players had to be developed. So Devellano sent Smith to Europe with an assignment.
"Find a full-time scout," Devellano said. "Let's comb Europe. Let's find out what is over there. Neil Smith went over and hired Christer Rockstrom."
Smith found Rockstrom driving a cab in Stockholm.
"Christer picked me up to take me to a game, he couldn't speak very good English, but we started talking about hockey players, this and that, and I told Jimmy we should hire him as a part-time scout," Smith said. "This was the first year I was ever in Stockholm. And we hired him as a part-time scout."
Rockstrom, who would become the Red Wings' full-time European scout, was the perfect fit. A former junior hockey player in Sweden, he had connections across the Swedish Elite League and could develop them across Europe. He was in his early 20s, unmarried, and loved going to hockey games to watch players.
Rockstrom was the first to see Lidstrom, in one game in 1988. He was impressed and made a mental note to return the following year to find out more about the intriguing prospect.
"He was tall, lanky, wasn't strong and was not a big hitter," Rockstrom said. "People in the NHL were looking for size and physical play, and Nicklas wasn't that type of player. He had skating and skill, but what stood out was the hockey sense."
Rockstrom said it took injuries to two defensemen for Lidstrom to get in the lineup for Vasteras in 1988-89. Even then, Rockstrom said, there was no guarantee Lidstrom would get off the bench.
"He played 20 games with the senior team (in 1988-89) but he probably only played in 12 of them," Rockstrom said. "You had to know when to be in the building because you could go see that team play five or six times in a year and never see Nicklas play."
Rockstrom always knew when to go because he had a friend on the team, Jorgen Holmberg, who would tip off Rockstrom in enough time to make the four-hour trip.
Eventually, Rockstrom told Smith he had to come see Lidstrom play. After doing so, Smith was convinced the Red Wings should draft him before the end of the third round.
At that time, draft rules limited the selection of 18-year-old European players to the first three rounds unless they played at least two seasons with their senior team. Lidstrom didn't meet the latter criterion.
"I said to Jimmy, 'If we don't take this guy in the third round this year, he will go in the first round next year after he plays at the World Junior, so we've got to take him in the third round because that will be our last shot at him,'" Smith said. "Central Scouting had him hardly even on the list of Europeans because they hadn't really seen him."
Central Scouting, the service run by the NHL, is a clearinghouse for draft prospects available to all the League's teams. Because Lidstrom did not have a high profile among scouts, few teams knew about his potential.
Discretion became key. Rockstrom, Smith, Holland and Devellano were the only people in the Detroit organization who knew about Lidstrom for fear word might get out about the young Swedish defenseman the Red Wings were targeting.
Smith and Rockstrom even had to ward off agent Don Meehan, who heard of Lidstrom and brought him up in conversations with Smith and Rockstrom.
"We didn't want one of the biggest agents in the business to market him to other people," Rockstrom said. "That's what the agent is supposed to do, and we knew what he was doing, but Neil told me to keep it quiet, just watch him, don't mention his name, and go back home. That's what scouts do all the time. Why would this be any different?"
The scheming worked. Devellano never saw Lidstrom play but trusted his scouts and the Red Wings drafted him with little fanfare. Lidstrom didn't know he was picked until he got a call at his home in Vasteras.
"If you're Jimmy D, you're probably like, 'Why isn't someone taking this guy?'" Holland said. "But to Neil and Christer's credit, they knew Europe well enough to know that Nick Lidstrom was playing off the radar and were very comfortable that nobody was going to go in there and really [mess] this up."
The selection generated little reaction in Sweden.
"I didn't hear anything," Rockstrom said. "Nobody said anything to me. I didn't have anybody saying 'He's no good,' or 'You made a heck of a pick.' There was nothing. I didn't hear anything."
Fedorov was different. He was well known, playing for the Soviet national team on a line with Bure and Alexander Mogilny.
Smith and Holland saw Fedorov play in a tournament in Anchorage, Alaska and were convinced he was capable of being a top-six forward in the NHL. Yzerman, representing Canada, played against Fedorov in the 1989 World Championship, months before the draft, and came away impressed enough to tell Devellano about him.
"We saw the Bure-Fedorov-Mogilny line, and I mean it was electric, dynamic," Holland said. "So Jimmy D, going into that draft, was open-minded."
Smith said he wanted to draft Fedorov in 1988, when he was 18 years old, but couldn't convince Devellano. In 1989, Devellano no longer had doubts.
"My thinking was, 'Let's call a spade a spade; how many fourth-round picks who are North American make it big?' Very few," Devellano said. "So what I said to myself was, 'This is the best 19-year-old in the world and I'm going to pass on him to probably take a minor-league player?' Forget about that, he's coming on the Red Wings' list and we'll worry about it in the future.
"The Iron Curtain dropped and we got him."
Devellano said the reaction to drafting Fedorov was louder than the Lidstrom selection, but it was mostly negative from people who thought the Red Wings wasted a pick on a player who would never come to North America.
"You don't know when you're going to get these guys, but you had to start to take chances on them," Smith said.
Two years later, Lidstrom scored 60 points in 80 games as a rookie for the Red Wings. He would win the Stanley Cup four times and the Norris Trophy seven times, all for Detroit.
"I thought he'd be good, but I'm not talking about seven-time Norris Trophy winner," Smith said. "If I knew he was that good, or even half as good as he was, I should have been taking him first. You don't know that. You do the best you can."
Fedorov defected with the help of Red Wings personnel in the summer of 1990 and had 79 points in 77 games as a rookie in the 1990-91 season. He scored 908 points in 954 games with the Red Wings.
"If you make the Soviet national team when you're 19 or 20 years old, you're a heck of a hockey player, but he became better than we expected," Rockstrom said. "That's how it goes. There's a lot of luck involved in it."
"Both those boys were high in character, good picks, it's just that they get dwarfed by the fabulous careers of Lidstrom and Fedorov." -- Jimmy Devellano speaking about Mike Sillinger and Robert Boughner
Devellano was an unabashed fan of Sillinger, sold on him enough to tell him the night before the draft that if he was around at No. 11, the Red Wings would take him.
Smith said he tried to go over alternate plans with Devellano in case Mats Sundin, who was the No. 1 pick in 1989, was to fall to Detroit. He said Devellano wanted no part of it; Sillinger was his guy.
"He was somebody that I personally saw several times," Devellano said. "He was just a heck of a junior hockey player in Regina. He was just a real good hockey player and his career wound up proving that."
Sillinger wanted to believe Devellano, but he was 18 years old and didn't know who to trust.
Mike Sillinger (Photo: Getty Images)
"They tell you this, but I don't know if you're supposed to believe them," Sillinger said. "I'll never forget it. I remember to this day still. I was sitting with my parents at the draft, I had my fingers crossed, and I'm just going, 'Red Wings, Red Wings, Red Wings.'"
Detroit delivered on the promise to Sillinger and then drafted Boughner in the second round. He was a local player from across the river in Windsor, but he never played for the Red Wings.
"As I got playing for the organization in the farm system, I looked up and said, 'Jeez, I'm trying to make it as a defenseman here and I've got two guys right from my same draft jumped into the NHL and are obviously great players [Lidstrom and Konstantinov],'" said Boughner, now an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks. "It was a tough spot for me to be in, but a heck of a job by management and scouting for that draft."
Sillinger and Boughner had successful careers, but they realize part of their fame stems from being the answers to a trivia question: If Lidstrom was a third-round pick and Fedorov was a fourth-round pick, who did Detroit get in the first and second rounds?
"We can talk about it in a joking way that I was a higher draft pick than Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov," Boughner said. "But it was so different back then. People don't realize that. When they say 'I can't believe you were in that draft and picked ahead of those guys,' and I say, 'Well, do you remember the circumstances of why that happened?' People forget that."
"Looking at it at the time, I think the Red Wings were pretty proactive in going after Russian players. To get Sergei in the fourth and Vladdy in the 11th, they were elite players. They kind of got the jump on the rest of the League." -- Steve Yzerman on the Red Wings picking Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov
After the Red Wings selected Fedorov, their draft started to go along with one North American after another. They got McCosh in the fifth round and Drake in the sixth; Drake worked out.
"Just a good pick by our Billy Day, our scout out of Northern Michigan," Smith said.
But it was back to the old ways of selecting North American players who were long shots at best. Detroit had five picks from the seventh to 11th rounds and none of them played in the NHL.
It didn't have to be like that. Smith didn't want it to be.
Everybody knew Bure, but not everybody knew if he was eligible to be drafted after the third round because of the games-played criterion that was also a concern with Lidstrom.
Jim Lites, now president of the Dallas Stars, was an executive vice president with the Red Wings at the time. He said they were told on the draft floor that Bure was not eligible. Smith insists that the Red Wings knew he could be selected, and he wanted to take Bure in the fifth round.
Lites said Devellano wouldn't do it because he promised Smith one Russian and he got him with Fedorov. Smith said Devellano wasn't sure if Bure would ever leave the Soviet Union, whether legally or through defection.
The feeling was, once it got to the sixth round, the Red Wings were going to draft Bure and deal with his eligibility later.
NHL president Gil Stein eventually ruled Bure was eligible and the Vancouver Canucks drafted him at No. 113, three spots ahead of Detroit in the sixth round.
"Before we took Drake, Neil Smith said, 'Why don't we take the other Russian? None of these guys are going to be as good as Bure is going to be,'" Lites said. "Jimmy Devellano said, 'I'll give you one more Russian, but later in this draft.' That was Konstantinov in the 11th round."
The Red Wings got Konstantinov because of Smith's reliance on the taxi driver-turned-scout from Stockholm.
"I used to turn to Christer in the late rounds and said, 'OK, it's your pick, who do you want me to take?'" Smith said. "Anybody that was left and from North America, there was no chance."
So when it came to the 11th round, Smith, as he would do, turned to Rockstrom and asked for his pick. Rockstrom reminded Smith of the captain of the Soviet team that got into the big brawl with the Canada during the 1987 World Junior Championship in Piestany, Czechoslavkia.
"He says, 'Konstantinov, we should take him,'" Smith said. "So we did."
Konstantinov became the muscle on Detroit's Russian Five that included Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Viacheslav Fetisov.
"He could step up and hit someone in the neutral zone or go end to end with the puck," Lidstrom said of Konstantinov. "When you're playing against that line, you're not thinking about getting hit or someone is going to run you over, but when you have Konstantinov there, he could do that. That gave freedom for the other four guys."
Detroit's final pick was American goalie Jason Glickman, whose professional career was limited to three games with the Knoxville Cherokees of the ECHL in 1991-92. Smith said that 246th pick could have been someone else, someone with impact.
"Christer told me there was a senior player in Russia that he thought would play in the NHL," Smith said. "I was like, 'OK, but Jimmy said no more Russians; we have enough Russians.' So we don't take the guy. That summer, I go to New York as the general manager, and the next draft, the 1990 draft, look at our 12th round pick for the Rangers and you'll see the name Sergei Nemchinov. That's who would have been on Detroit."
Nemchinov wasn't on the Red Wings. It mattered little.
Devellano, Smith, Holland and Rockstrom left the Met Center late on June 17, 1989 hopeful and happy with their haul but unaware of how in one day they sketched the blueprint for a run of dominance.
The Red Wings haven't missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1990-91, Lidstrom's rookie season. They have won the Stanley Cup four times and have been to the Cup Final six times since 1995.
"It completely changed our franchise," Yzerman said. "Totally changed it."