The Top Organization In U.S. Sports

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 24, 2009
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Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski celebrate after Rafalski’s goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals

While the Detroit Red Wings failed in their quest to tame the hype machine that is Sydney Crosby, and to take home a second straight Stanley Cup, the Wings can take solace in the fact that it is the best-run and most successful franchise in North American professional sports.

We’re not about to fold European soccer or subcontinent cricket into the mix. Let them have their own argument. And this isn’t an all-time argument - that honor belongs to the Yankees and their 26 World Series titles. The Montreal Canadiens come close with 24 Cups.

But among the groups currently taking the field, court or ice, no team has been more successful or less problematic than the Wings since they returned to the Stanley Cup Finals after their 30-year drought ended 14 years ago.

Since 1995, the Wings have reached the finals six times while winning four. Their finals victory total is one more than the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl wins and is tied with the Yankees (titles in 1996, ‘98, ‘99 and 2000) and the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA Finals wins in 2000, ‘01, ‘02 and ‘09). The Lakers tied the Wings in finals appearances and have done more in less time than their best-of competitor, needing only nine years compared with the Wings’ 13. The lockout cost the NHL one year.

A second stat favoring the Wings is that the team boasts the highest winning percentage among its fellow league leaders over the stated time frame. Granted, styles of play, league rules, free agency, injuries, uptight athletes and a hundred other points of interest factor into the success and failure of an organization. But when it’s all said and done, Detroit tops the list by winning at a .668 clip. New England is second at .651, with the Lakers third at .650. The Yankees have won 59.6 percent of their games. Even if ties are factored in, which are unique to the NHL and were for that reason left out of the equation, the Wings still managed to win 60.9 percent of all the games played. An interesting side note to this comparison is that only the Wings and Yankees have failed to log a losing season during the period.

One of the best testaments to the franchise’s organizational skills is that the team has been able to remain successful after the league adopted a salary cap following the work stoppage. Prior to 2005, the NHL was the only league not to have a cap, luxury tax or some type of profit-sharing program to help bolster the league’s weaker teams. The Wings took full advantage of their financial might. Just as the Yankees had done for decades, the Wings bought talent by the pound, culminating in 2002 when they traded for and signed three soon-to-be Hall of Famers in Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. The new collective bargaining agreement caused a fire sale around the league as teams were forced to dump talent to save money. Detroit didn’t miss a beat, winning one title and coming within a single game of winning a second.

Their reputation for wooing talent was further enhanced when Marian Hossa, a four-time all-star with Pittsburgh, spurned the Pens long-term offer to take the Wings’ one-year deal. Think back when Johnny Damon left Boston to sign with New York and you get an idea of how big that was.

The biggest factor in the Wings’ success is that they boast professional sports’ best front office executive. Ken Holland has been masterful in mining the deeper rounds of the draft for talent. Two-time Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk was a sixth-round pick, Henrik Zetterberg came in the seventh, and goalie annoyer Tomas Holmstrom didn’t get picked until the 10th round. Two out of these three may end up in the Hall of Fame. This type of late-round success has enabled Detroit to bring along young talent at a reasonable pace and not rush them simply because of their draft status.

Holland’s leadership has also made the Wings one of sports’ few drama-free organizations. He’s greatly benefited from the efforts of former captain and current vice president Steve Yzerman, who set a professional level of decorum that each player is expected to follow.

Unlike the Yankees or Lakers, who get as much air time on Entertainment Tonight as they do on SportsCenter, the athletes in the red sweaters get attention for victories and not much else. This has much to do with the fact that the NHL just doesn’t draw the fan or media interest of other sports, and because the NHL boasts far fewer players head cases than their competitors.

Sean Avery notwithstanding.

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