DETROIT — In the spring of 1990, communism had fallen in Eastern Europe. Nelson Mandela had been released from a 27-year stay in prison. Mike Tyson, a boxer whom many believed to be invincible, had been knocked out in 10 rounds by Buster Douglas, an underdog from Columbus. The city of Toledo was a few months from appointing Michael Bell as its fire chief.
The Detroit Red Wings were packing their bags and heading home. It was the last time Detroit was not among the 16 NHL teams that qualified for the playoffs.
The Red Wings are the Eastern Conference’s second wild card and open a first-round series at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Atlantic Division leader Boston. It marks Detroit’s 23rd consecutive playoff appearance, a model of consistency in major professional sports.
“They’re all satisfying, every year,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the Red Wings clinched a playoff berth April 9 in Pittsburgh. “Kenny [Holland, the Red Wings general manager] has been here forever and they keep finding a way to keep winning. It’s good for us.”
The Bruins hold the NHL record with 29 consecutive playoff appearances (1967-1968 to 1995-1996), and the San Jose Sharks have the second-longest current streak of consecutive postseason appearances with 10.
Still, 23 years of playoff qualification — interrupted only in 2005 because of a league lockout — is not something the Red Wings openly brag about.
The feat is more along the lines of business-as-usual, even if it is older than Red Wings forwards Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, and Tomas Jurco, and defenseman Brian Lashoff.
The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs? Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist was 7 months old. The NHL still only had 21 teams and the Toledo Storm of the ECHL were more than a year away from playing its first game.
The Red Wings played in the Norris Division, considered at one time to be an NHL punching bag — the Pittsburgh Penguins once petitioned the NHL to move from the Patrick Division to the Norris so the organization would have a better chance at winning — and struggled at the start of the 1989-1990 season.
From Oct. 24 to Nov. 17, the Red Wings were winless in 12 games. Six months after the Red Wings ended the regular season with a 3-3 tie at Philadelphia, Bryan Murray replaced the fired Jacques Demers behind the bench at the start of the 1990-91 season.
The Red Wings finished 34-38-8 and third in the Norris Division, eliminated by Brett Hull and the St. Louis Blues in seven games in the first round of the 1991 playoffs.
That 1991 series began what is considered a certain standard in the NHL and in professional sports. It’s also become a model for the team they’ll face this week.
"I have great respect for that organization,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said during a Monday press conference at Boston’s TD Garden. “Great respect for Kenny Holland, Mike Babcock, the Ilitch family. I followed them for a lot of years — maybe that long, 23 years.
"They like developing people in the minors, but they also find players elsewhere in trades and in free agents, and that's what we try and do.”
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