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Red Wings' buzz zapped by economy, lockout, high expectations @NHL

DETROIT - Not long ago, the Detroit Red Wings had the hottest ticket in town and flags with their winged-wheel logo were sticking out of car windows all over Michigan.

But the team's buzz is slowly fading.

It got so bad that five months ago, the Red Wings hosted games in the playoffs with rows and rows of available seats.

Hockeytown needs to get its groove back.

The organization has aggressively tried to market its once-popular product, dropping some ticket prices as low as US$9 and plastering images and messages on billboards.

A week before the opener against the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks at Joe Louis Arena, a block of 15 seats was available - at $44 apiece - in a corner of the upper bowl.

"The No. 1 thing that has hurt us from a fan's standpoint is the Michigan economy," general manager Ken Holland said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The state has been rocked by a sagging automobile industry, but it didn't stop a record 3 million-plus fans from flocking to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers play in 2007.

It also didn't deter spectators from filling Ford Field, The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan or Spartan stadiums to support the Lions, Pistons, Wolverines and Spartans.

Unlike the other teams in the sports-crazed state, the Red Wings have had to deal with obstacles they couldn't control.

-A lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season.

-Steve Yzerman's retirement.

-Reshaping a team that once looked like a Hall of Fame wing on ice.

"In hindsight, the work stoppage hurt us because some people found other things to do with their time and money," Holland said. "There's not a lot we could do about that, as an organization."

Captain Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the best players in NHL history, but the five-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman doesn't sell tickets like "The Captain" did before retiring a little more than a year ago.

Yzerman just isn't quite the draw anymore as a team executive, watching games high atop Joe Louis Arena in a suit.

"That's true," he said with a chuckle.

Yzerman was one of several Hall of Fame-calibre players the Red Wings featured when they won three championships between 1997 and 2002.

"When we won the Cup in '02, we had Igor Larionov, Luc Robitaille and Tomas Holmstrom on the fourth line," Lidstrom said. "Fans have seen great players here for such a long time, they get to used to it."

Or spoiled.

Though the Red Wings no longer have a star-studded roster, they have accomplished quite a feat by staying very competitive despite having to slash about half their payroll two years ago.

After a string of early exits in the playoffs, Detroit was among the final four teams standing last season.

Shawn Ellis, a season-ticket holder, went to games early in the post-season only to pass on attending the Western Conference finals because of the steep price.

The 48-year-old Dearborn resident noticed the empty red seats at Joe Louis Arena, but he doesn't agree with those who think it was a reflection of the team's popularity.

"Is it a lack of interest in the Wings? I don't think it is as much that as it is the economy," he said. "It's also a statement that the lockout also had a lot to do with the empty seats."

Detroit's big move in the off-season was signing defenceman Brian Rafalski, a three-time all-star born in Dearborn, but it didn't register as a splash with mainstream fans.

In some ways, the Red Wings seem to be a victim of their own success because they've won so much and have done it in spectacular ways with all-time greats. It seems almost impossible to duplicate the formula.

The Red Wings will try, of course.

"Our focus is on putting a good product on the ice," Holland said. "If we do that and get off to a good start, I would like to think we could get some of that buzz back about our team."

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