-- Think of the Detroit Red Wings
and the first think that likely comes to mind is that they've got a lot of experience on the roster. Seven Detroit regulars on this year's Stanley Cup-winning team are 35 or over – and that doesn't include future Hall of Famers Dominik Hasek
and Chris Chelios
, who spent the Final watching rather than playing.
Five members of this year's championship team have been on all four of the team's Cup winners since 1997, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom, and 35-year-old goaltender Chris Osgood has won three. But the Wings also have a core of younger players for whom the Stanley Cup Final was a novelty – so having some wiser heads to learn from was incredibly valuable.
"I think it's the biggest key," 26-year-old Brett Lebda said of being able to tap experienced veterans like Lidstrom for advice on how to handle all the hoopla. "I just look at these guys and how they conduct themselves.
"If you look around here (in the dressing room), it's kind of a circus. You kind of get lost in it, but you look at how they handle it and just follow suit."
The passing of knowledge and experience goes back more than a decade. McCarty was among those who learned about what it took to be a winner from players like Steve Yzerman, who helped turn the Red Wings from an NHL laughingstock in the 1980s to the League's elite organization today.
"A lot of us learned about winning and playing from the guys who have had a long, long tenure here," said McCarty, who was bought out by the Wings in 2005, played in Calgary and returned to the team just before the playoffs. "It's sort of what the nucleus is all about. It hasn’t really changed."
Despite his absence, McCarty is still one of the senior Wings – a "Core of the Four" member, if you will. Lebda is far from the youngest Wing – rookie center Darren Helm is all of 21 – but he said he's gotten a lot of useful knowledge by leaning on older teammates.
"It's contributed a lot to our success in the playoffs," Helm said. "These guys have been though it all before. Some of us younger guys, who've been here since the lockout with the (first-round) loss to Edmonton (in 2006) and Anaheim last year; this year, we're a little better prepared, and that's how we've gotten this far."
No team has been as successful as the Wings since the early 1990s. Detroit has made the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL. They’ve won four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons – the most by any team since the Edmonton Oilers won five in seven years from 1984-90. So there's a lot of knowledge and experience to pass down.
"They’ve been through it all," Scotty Bowman, a Wings’ consultant and coach of the first three Wings' Cup winners in 1997, '98 and 2002, said of the core group that was on his championship teams. "They're able to pass that experience down to somebody coming in."
Like many of the younger Wings, Helm said he's gotten a lot of help from his older teammates, especially the group that's now got four rings.
"It helps seeing how they work, how they prepare," he said. "They've all been through it, they know what to expect and they help us stay calm."
The older vets have also worked to enable youngsters who spent their time during the Stanley Cup Final practicing in the mornings and watching in the evenings to feel part of the process of winning a championship.
"Around here, it's unbelievable," said 24-year-old defenseman Derek Meech, who played 34 regular-season games, but was a spectator throughout the playoffs. "I'm surprised how accommodating the guys have been to me – making me feel like a part of the team, one of the boys. It's kind of like a family atmosphere. I definitely look up to these guys."
Meech said he has worked hard to learn from the older players – in his case, that especially means Lidstrom, the NHL's best defenseman and the first European to captain a Cup-winning team.
"It's not just one thing; it's an accumulation," he said when asked what he's learned this season. "You try to soak up as much knowledge as you can from these guys – like how calm Nick is and how he never makes a mistake. He's so consistent. He makes it look so easy. That kind of stuff – I get good positive feedback all the time."
Goaltender Jimmy Howard, who spent most of the season with the Wings' AHL farm team in Grand Rapids and hasn't seen a minute of playoff action, also said the chance to learn from veterans is a career boost.
"Throughout the year when you get called up, you try to learn, you try to soak it all up," he said. "Just this short period of time I have been up here during the playoffs again this year, it’s been good. I mean, how laid-back Oz (Osgood) is. You can’t tell if it is Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final or the first game of the regular season. He's got the same demeanor every single game, and that's probably why he has been so successful.
"Reading off of him and reading off other guys every single day and how hard they work. They are in the weight room on the bikes, making sure there bodies are prepared. It’s a great learning tool."
Another young defenseman, Kyle Quincey, has had callups in each of the last three regular seasons and played 13 playoff games in 2007. He didn't play in this year's postseason, but agrees that that chance to learn from veterans who know how to win is invaluable.
"I think I take it for granted a lot who I am dealing with day to day," he said. "We sit here and talk about it and we are talking about guys like Lidstrom, Draper, Chelios, Ozzie, Dom (Hasek). All these guys have been there so many times. They just ooze confidence and they ooze experience and just can’t help trying to be around them all the time and learn from them.
"The back end of this team is so unbelievable, and I'm just grateful to be able to be around them and learn so much so that when I do get my time to play, be it here or someplace else, I'm going to have all that teaching and it's going to come to me, hopefully."
Though Meech would have preferred playing for the Stanley Cup to sitting and watching his teammates win it, he realizes that with a team like the Wings, sitting and learning is part of the education of a winning hockey player.
"For sure," he said when asked about wanting to play. "Everybody wants to contribute. I'd love to be in the lineup, but that's just the way it is. I'm paying my dues as a rookie in this League and I'm learning from this whole experience. It will be nothing but beneficial for me in the long run."