Gallant recalls making Wings scoring history with Yzerman, MacLean

Gerard Gallant, now 51, is in his first year behind the bench with the Florida Panthers.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — With each return visit to Joe Louis Arena, the memories still tend to overwhelm Gerard Gallant. They’re all good, but some of them are sad, too.

"Every time I come back, I think of all the good times here, those teams, playing with guys like Probie (Bob Probert) and Shawn Burr," Gallant said, mentioning two of his former teammates who have died in recent years, long before their time.

More mature Wings fans — meaning those older than the millennials who pack the Joe these days and seem to spend more time in the concourse galleria than in their seats — will remember Gallant fondly on those Jacques Demers-coached teams that shocked the NHL with two trips to the Stanley Cup semifinals that followed one of the worst seasons in team history.

Gallant, 51, is in his first year behind the bench with the Florida Panthers, and they played a tenacious, hard-nosed games that made it uncomfortable for the Wings — just like Gallant played when he wore the winged-wheel. The result was a 4-3 Florida win and the end of a four-game win streak.

Coincidentally, that streak began just eight days before, when coach Paul MacLean brought his Ottawa Senators to town. For awhile, it seemed like they were trying to bring the band back together around JLA. Where’s Steve Yzerman?

As all-time great Red Wings forward lines go, it’s hard to do much better than the Production Line, when Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay flanked Sid Abel. In 1950, they finished 1-2-3 in league scoring, a feat never again rivaled.

In fact, though, when Demers put Gallant on Yzerman’s left and MacLean on his right during the 1988-89 season, magic happened — and they became the highest-scoring line in club history.

"Not too many people know that," Gallant said.

That’s oversight that needs to be corrected.

Asked what he remembered about that experience, Gallant smiled. "It was fun," he said. "And I remember Stevie was pretty good that year, too."

Indeed, Yzerman finished 65 goals and 90 assists for 165 points, all club records. Gallant chipped in 39 goals among 93 points — and 230 penalty minutes. And MacLean had 36 goals in 71 points in the only season he played in Detroit.

The trio accounted for nearly 45 percent of their team’s 313 goals that season, and 52 percent of its 629 points in 80 games. By comparison, Lindsay led the league in a 70-game season with 23 goals, 55 assists for 78 points — and 142 penalty minutes. Abel (34-35-69) and Howe (35-33-68) followed, and of course they all wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Production Line scored 40 percent of its team’s goals that season, and 55 percent of the Wings’ points that year.

Up in the press box, Nick Polano, the former Wings coach and front-office executive (and the covert escort of defectors from Eastern Europe), looked across the ice at Gallant behind the bench and remembered a much younger version.

"I brought him up from the minors to Detroit," Polano said, "and when I did I told him, ‘Bring all your stuff with you because you’re not going back.’"

He didn’t. Polano only had Gallant for a year before being bumped upstairs, but he loved the way he played.

"He was a tough kid, a tough competitor," said Polano, now a Detroit-based scout with Ottawa. "And I’ll tell you, he was a (expletive) to play against."

Just like the Panthers were Tuesday night, providing a blueprint for other clubs looking to slow down this young and fast Detroit team. Forcheck hard, bump into them, make it uncomfortable enough that they start coughing up the puck, which they did all night long against Florida.

"I like our team," Gallant said. "It’s a good group, and I have a great rapport with them. We’ve got some good young players and some great character guys like we had on those ’80s teams. We’re going to turn the corner soon."

Gallant also likes this Wings club.

"They’re really good. They’re dangerous," he said. "They’ve got more talent than most teams, and they move the puck so well."

What other standout teams has Gallant seen so far?

"Tampa Bay," he said quickly, mentioning the club his old center-ice man, Yzerman, has assembled. "They’ve got a lot of good young players, and they’re all playing really well. Steve’s really doing a great job with that organization."

And the circle of life in the NHL continues.