Damien Cox: Rejuvenated Hockeytown has everything but a winner — your move, Mr. Yzerman

DETROIT—In Chevrolet Plaza outside Little Caesars Arena, a place where thousands of Detroit Red Wings fans could theoretically gather to watch their favourite team outdoors on a giant screen, it’s all but silent on game night. Two small children do cartwheels. Otherwise, it’s empty, waiting for excitement to return.

The rink itself is gorgeous, the prettiest in the NHL, one part of a remarkable renaissance in downtown Detroit. They call it The District, and on this Friday night Woodward Avenue is bustling with traffic and activity. Comedian Joe Rogan is delivering his brand of humour a couple of blocks away at the historic Fox Theatre. Country star Luke Bryan is drawing a sellout crowd over at Ford Field, home of the NFL Lions, and the Red Wings have a home game.

Restaurants and bars are filled with patrons, while others wait 30 minutes for a seat. An Ann Arbor-based Cuban joint opened a new outlet this month. The sounds of a live rock band reverberate throughout The District, and thousands of people walk the streets with a freedom and sense of safety that simply was not possible or appealing 25 years ago.

If you saw what downtown Detroit looked like in 1995, you can’t help but be astonished at the transformation.

For the Wings, when the city was down in the dumps and the population was shrinking at an alarming rate, they were riding high with the NHL’s flashiest team. Now that a sense of self-respect, growth and even prosperity has come back to Motown, it’s the hockey club that struggles to win games.

Talk about a reversal of fortunes.

For those of us who watched the Wings set a standard for the rest of the league for 25 years, it just seems so strange now. The team is weak. If there was a belief in some corners that the mere return of the sainted Steve Yzerman to the organization would immediately return the club to its winning ways, the early results this season have quickly disabused everyone of that notion.

Yzerman preached patience when he supplanted Ken Holland last summer, and there will have to be a great deal of it in the next few years. Some nights will be tough, as may well be the case this Tuesday when Holland returns in command of the vastly improved Edmonton Oilers.

This past Friday night, the Wings meekly succumbed to another young team on the way up, the Buffalo Sabres. The Wings, 2-0 losers in their seventh consecutive defeat, seemed lifeless and unimaginative, a team without stars or even, at least this night, exciting prospects. So far this season, Detroit has scored 23 goals in 11 games, the second-worst offence in the NHL.

Optimistic Wings fans might have looked at Buffalo and seen their team in the not-so-distant future. But they’d have to acknowledge the Sabres have Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, and at the moment the Wings don’t have a young player comparable to either.

That type of athlete might arrive next summer in the NHL draft. There’s a good crop of elite prospects. The Wings need their Eichel, their Connor McDavid, their Auston Matthews.

For now, the contrast with their past couldn’t be more vivid. For a generation, the Wings delivered wins in architecturally uninspiring Joe Louis Arena, perched on the edge of the Detroit River. The Wings made the building memorable by filling it with history and the roars of victory. It was distant enough from the decaying downtown for hockey fans to feel somewhat removed from the more negative images of Motor City.

In those days, the Wings were all about delivering substance without pretty packaging. They were an oasis beside a sinister and seemingly hopeless urban desert where abandoned houses were simply bulldozed.

Today, it’s all about the packaging for the Red Wings. It has to be. They no longer have substance to sell. Attendance is holding its own for now in the third season at Little Caesars, but against Buffalo — for most of the night — the lower bowl resembled what you see during Maple Leafs games right after intermission. Lots of empty seats.

The Wings have no cap problems because they have no expensive stars. That translates into some optimism as the team may have more than $40 million U.S. to spend next summer. They’ll just need something to spend it on, which is where Yzerman comes in.

In Tampa, he walked into a situation where Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman had already been drafted. In Detroit, there are two sixth overall picks, forward Filip Zadina and big German defenceman Moritz Seider, learning in Grand Rapids. Evgeny Svechnikov and Michael Rasmussen still have lots of upside.

The skills Yzerman showed in Tampa while building an organization — acquiring useful players and drafting stars outside the first round — are what will turn this organization around. He hasn’t said a great deal since being hired. That’s smart. There’s not much to say at this point, and so much work to do.

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The NHL will be the better for it when Hockeytown rises again. That’s going to take three to five years at least, and by the time Detroit is back in the Stanley Cup playoffs and Little Caesars Arena hosts its first post-season contest, The District will be among the best NHL places to be in the spring. Trust me.

The Wings just have to get there. For now, they have to be about packaging, waiting for the substance to return.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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