Detroit may not be everyone’s idea of a nice place to visit, but for those who wear the Winged Wheel, it's a great place to play.
Over the past 15 years, the Red Wings have become one of the preferred destinations for NHL players. Part of that has to do with the team's on-ice performance – the Wings have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 17-straight seasons, dominated their division for the past decade and are three wins away from their fourth Cup in 11 years.
But there's more to it than that. Under the ownership of the Ilitch family and administration of GM Ken Holland and his staff, the Wings have built an atmosphere that has made Detroit a place that players want to go to -- and once there don’t want to leave.
Team captain Nicklas Lidstrom, a career Red Wing since entering the NHL in 1991, says a big part of the reason is that ownership is committed to bringing the Stanley Cup to Detroit every year. It’s why he signed a two-year contract extension midway through the season, rather than test the free-agent market this summer.
"I think it's the winning tradition," he said of what makes playing in Detroit special. "They always put a competitive team on the ice. They're an organization that really wants to win, and they've made the commitment as long as I've been here. To be able to be one of the best teams and have a chance to play for the Cup, that's one of the reasons I signed here in midseason when I could have waited until after the season and gone elsewhere. I wanted to stay here because of the good teams we've had here over the years."
Lidstrom is one of five Red Wings who've been on the team for all three Stanley Cups since 1997. Goalie Chris Osgood, who was on the 1997 and 1998 teams, is trying for his third.
Forward Darren McCarty, one of the three-time winners, spent time with Calgary and battled personal problems before earning his way back onto the Wings' roster late in the season. The native of Windsor, Ontario, right across the river from Detroit, is more appreciative than most about the chance to play near home – and for a family-run team.
"I think it's as close to playing in Canada as you can be," he said. "As an organization, it's unbelievable. Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are some of the best owners in the NHL. It's a family atmosphere. I think you see it in the way that the people who are here, there's not a lot of turnover, not a lot of people in and out. It's a family atmosphere, and that really goes a long way. It's an extended family – the Detroit Red Wings – and they make you feel a part of it."
Forward Dan Cleary, a first-round draft pick by Chicago in 1997 who played with three teams before coming to the Wings in 2005, couldn't be happier to be in Detroit. The on-ice success is great, he says, but like McCarty, he enjoys the atmosphere established by the Ilitches that pervades the organization.
"I've been on a few different teams, and Detroit has something different about it, the way they treat you," he said. "Off the ice, Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are very well-respected. They love their team and they always say hi to the players. It's a good place to be."
Center Kris Draper, another three-time Cup winner with the Wings, has played all but 20 games of his NHL career in Detroit after being acquired from Winnipeg in June 1993. The Toronto native, who turned 37 on Saturday, has no interest in going anywhere else.
"The Ilitches and the whole organization have been nothing but first-class since I've been here," he said. "The fans are great. Even with the economy, the fans are still great. All they want to do is see us win. I've met a lot of great people here. I love playing here and couldn't see myself going anywhere else."
Although today's NHL is a business as well as a sport, Draper feels the Wings do an excellent job of downplaying the business aspects while creating an atmosphere that's conducive to winning and attracting players who want to win.
"When you're a player here and you see what's presented to you, what opportunities you have, you recognize that there's not a lot of organizations out there like the Red Wings," he said. "You know that players are going to come and go, but when you talk to players around the League and they ask about things here, you tell them and they say 'Wow.' I think that's why this organization her never had a difficult time bringing in free agents. It's just a great place to play hockey.
"As much of a business as it is right now, with the numbers and the salary cap, guys still want to stay here and still want to come here. It's a tribute to the organization."
So is the fact that even a part-timer like Aaron Downey, who hasn't dressed for a single playoff game this spring, gushes over being a Red Wing.
"What it's all about, it’s about family spirit and I think that is the difference between this locker room and all the other locker rooms I’ve been in," said Downey, who came to the Wings after playing for five other teams. "Some of the other locker rooms have been pretty corporate."
Loyalty and history mean a lot to Downey, who feels other teams should emulate the way the Wings operate.
"You start looking at these pictures on the wall and Stevie Y (Steve Yzerman) walks in to hang out with the boys. No wonder this team is successful," he said. "The GM (Ken Holland) comes down here in jeans and running shoes. That’s when you have a special team – when your GM is shooting (stuff) with all the players and your assistant GM is shooting (stuff) with all the players. They make you feel a part of it, and that’s what builds winners.
"If you want to build a winning hockey team or a winning attitude, it all starts with the ownership for one and it all starts with the love and it filters down to the players. Look at the loyalty to the organization. How many guys have been here for three Cups? You can count them on two hands. Whenever you have family with lots of love, you can overcome anything, right?"