The Red Wings were barely into a transformational shift in their scouting and player development strategy when it all threatened to unravel.
Their first serious foray into Europe had produced an eventual MVP, Sergei Fedorov; a seven-time Norris Trophy-winner, Nick Lidstrom; and a Norris Trophy runner-up, Vladimir Konstantinov — all in the same 1989 draft. They then lost the guy most responsible for finding those players and advising the Wings to draft them when Christer Rockstrom defected to the New York Rangers, following Wings executive and chief scout Neil Smith to New York that summer.
But Wings management, liking what they saw of early draft returns from across the pond, moved quickly to replace Rockstrom. Then-general manager Jimmy Devellano dispatched Nick Polano, the former coach who became Devellano’s assistant, to Europe to interview a part-time cab driver and fishing guide to fill some pretty big shoes.
Karl Goran Hakan Pihl Andersson — Hakan to family and friends back in Stockholm, Sweden — won the job. And the Wings, whose lineup heading into Thursday night’s playoff opener at Tampa Bay includes 13 Europeans drafted under his watch, haven’t missed the postseason since. A 14th European, Marek Zidlicky, was originally drafted by the Rangers during Rockstrom’s tenure as their chief European scout.
A lot of people deserve credit for this 24-year postseason run that the Wings and their fans are enjoying. But those who deserve the most recognition get the least — the ones who beat the bushes, often battling icy roads along thousands of miles to see hundreds of games at tiny, sometimes remote rinks throughout Europe and North America. They include Detroit’s 14-man amateur scouting staff.
But when it’s done well and right, as it has been in Detroit for more than three decades now, it can also be terrifically rewarding. Thanks to some of his most prominent European draftees, Andersson also has four Stanley Cup rings.
Therein lies the answer to a question that somehow continues to mystify those who have been in and around the NHL for a career lifetime, like Mike Milbury, the former Boston Bruins defenseman who went on to work as a coach and general manager before landing as an NBC studio analyst.
"I am continually amazed at the number of guys they pull out of (a) hat," Milbury told a national TV audience in February.
He mentioned budding stars — such as forwards Tomas Tatar, Gus Nyquist and goaltender Petr Mrazek — all of whom the Wings are relying on heavily in these playoffs.
So what’s Detroit secret?
The truth is, there’s no secret other than being there. Seeing players. Again and again and again. Even at their practices. And networking with their coaches and others developing teenaged NHL prospects.
That’s where Andersson saw something in Johan Franzen that scouts who merely showed up for games never saw.
In a telephone interview recently from Sweden, Andersson told how Franzen was used mostly as a defensive center-ice man by his junior team.
"I happened to know his coach really well, and he kept telling me how in practice he does some amazing things," Andersson. "So I went to look in on some practices."
Andersson saw enough to convince the Wings to take a flyer on Franzen with their first pick in the 2004 draft, though it came in the third round (97th overall).
"We figured that if nothing else, Franzen could be a defensive guy for us," Andersson said.
Turns out, Franzen could do some amazing offensive things in the NHL, too, and he’s now halfway through an 11-year deal worth a whopping $43.5 million contract — though he’s missed most of this season with a concussion.
The point is this: Every other team in the NHL passed at least twice on Franzen. And they passed, often repeatedly, on nearly every other European drafted by the Wings since they got Pavel Datsyuk in the eighth round (171st overall) in 1998.
The lone exception? Defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who was taken by Detroit with the 29th overall pick in 2000, meaning every other team in the NHL had a shot at him except St. Louis, which owned the 30th selection.
The Wings knew they were gambling by spending a fourth-round pick (74th overall) on Fedorov, and to a lesser-extant their 11th-round pick (221st overall) on Konstantinov, since there were no guarantees either would be released by their Soviet Central Red Army club to play in the NHL. But they figured the gem of their immense haul that year was Lidstrom.
Which is why Devellano was so irked, and somewhat panic-stricken, when the Rangers "stole" Rockstrom from the Wings, as Devellano put it.
"Christer was our top European scout. He was responsible for Lidstrom," Devellano said. "So I said to Nick (Polano), ‘Get over there quick and find someone.’"
As it turned out, Rockstrom recommended Andersson, who when he wasn’t behind the wheel of a cab, or guiding fishermen on the rivers and lakes around Sweden, attended a lot of hockey games as Rockstrom’s sidekick. The way Rockstrom put it, Andersson was a young guy who had played hockey in Sweden, loves the game, "and he’ll work his ass off."
Polano went over to meet with Andersson, and immediately they began scouting potential Red Wings at the European championships for 18-year-old players in Malmo, Sweden. That’s where Polano introduced Andersson to the prototypical Red Wings player.
"You see that kid right there?" Polano asked, pointing to Slava Kozlov. "That’s the kind of player the Red Wings like."
Kozlov might have been on the small side, but he had sensational puck-handling skills and a scoring touch that would serve him well in the NHL. The Wings ended up selecting Kozlov with their third pick (45th overall) in 1990 — another gamble, since the Russians weren’t releasing players despite the fall of the Iron Curtain.
While size matters in today’s NHL — with players getting bigger, stronger and faster every year — some teams put too much emphasis on it to their own detriment. At least that’s how Andersson sees it. He’ll be in a conversation with other scouts about a certain player, and they’ll all scoff at his size and how he’ll never make it in the NHL.
That’s where a bit of fortune-telling comes into the equation, Andersson said. You have to expect that most of the 18-year-olds NHL teams are drafting haven’t quit developing. And that’s what might separate the Wings from other NHL clubs.
"I think we’re maybe a bit more open-minded about it," Andersson said. "That’s really what’s missing sometimes: projection. Every 18-year-old grows more — some a little, some a lot. I’ve heard people come over here and see a 5-foot-10 guy and say, ‘He’ll never survive.’
"But you give him 2-3 years, and all of a sudden, he’s 5-11 and 195 pounds — and his name is Henrik Zetterberg."
HOW MANY IS TOO MANY?
Mixing European-bred players into an NHL dressing room wasn’t the easiest thing to do when Detroit started putting together its renowned Russian Five in the late 1980s, followed by a surge of Swedes that soon followed.
Devellano recalls being confronted by one of the most important players on his roster, a Canadian who advised him against that strategy.
"Quit drafting all those (expletive) Europeans," the player said. "We’ll never win with them."
In fact, Andersson recalls, that issue was discussed extensively, both with Devellano as general manager and later with Bryan Murray, who succeed him, and eventually Ken Holland, who succeed Murray.
But in the end, Andersson said, "They all just said, ‘We just want good players … I don’t care if the other players have to take Russian lessons. We want the best players on the ice.’"
Which led to the Russian Five being instrumental in the Wings’ Stanley Cup titles in 1997-98. In 2002, several prominent Europeans — Russians Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk, and Swedes Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Kronwall — were important players on a star-laden Cup champion. And then Lidstrom was the first European to captain a Cup championship team, in 2008.
So it goes as a new generation of Europeans — Tatar, Nyquist, Mrazek and many more — strive to lead this franchise to continued prominence.
Thanks in no small way to Andersson and his five-man European scouting staff that includes Vladimir Havluj, Evgeni Erfilov, Ari Vouri and Nikolai Vakourov. They represent more than a third of Detroit’s amateur scouting staff, and they’ve accounted for more than half the present roster.
As for Anderson? He joins Holland and Devellano as the mainstays of this 24-year playoff streak.
"He’s been a wonderful employee," Devellano said. "He’s very respectful. He understands that the NHL is a North American league, and he’s very good at highlighting the guys he feels very strongly about. He’s also a very humble guy. He never got bigshot-itis, and he really could. He’s been widely acclaimed.
"You really wouldn’t believe how big Hakan is there. He could probably run hockey in Sweden if he wanted to, and very rightfully so. He’s certainly been a wonderful Red Wing."
Detroit’s Euro-Wings: C Pavel Datsyuk, 8th pick (171st overall), 1998 C/LW Henrik Zetterberg, 4th pick (7th round, 210th overall), 1999 D Niklas Kronwall, 1st pick, (29th overall), 2000 D Jonathan Ericsson, 10th pick (291st overall), 2002 RW Johan Franzen, 1st pick (3rd round, 97th overall), 2004 D Jakub Kindl, 1st pick (19th overall), 2005 C Joakim Andersson, 2nd pick (88th overall), 2007 RW Gus Nyquist, 3rd pick (121st overall), 2008 LW Tomas Tatar, 2nd pick (60th overall), 2009 G Petr Mrazek, 5th pick (141st overall), 2010 LW Teemu Pulkkinen, 4th pick (111th overall), 2010 RW Tomas Jurco, 1st pick (2nd round, 35th overall) 2011 D Alexey Marchenko, 7th pick (205th overall), 2011 D Marek Zidlicky, 6th pick by NY Rangers (179th overall), 2001
Other prominent Detroit draftees from Europe: C Tomas Kopecky, 2nd round (38th overall), 2000 LW, Jiri Hudler, 1st pick (second round, 58th overall), 2002 LW, Tomas Fleischmann, 2nd pick (63rd overall), 2002 C Valtteri Filppula, 3rd pick (95th overall), 2002 C Calle Jarnkrok, 2nd pick (51st overall), 2010