Like a lot of folks in Detroit, I’ve known Dave Lewis for a while. And that’s the problem. He has been here as a player. He has been here as an assistant coach. And he has been here as head coach.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
In sports, it breeds the door.
So Lewis is out today as the Red Wings’ skipper. What should we make of this? Well first, let’s admit, just talking about hockey – as if it’s actually, you know, a sport that plans on playing sometime soon? – is almost exhilarating, isn’t it? I pretty much forgot we had a team.
But with this sudden news – and this morning’s scheduled news conference to deliver it officially – I was reminded. I was also reminded that the Red Wings didn’t do so hot on their last trip to the playoffs. And they did even worse the year before – despite a really expensive payroll and some amazing talent. And Lewis was there for all of it.
So is anyone shocked that with a new season and a new collective bargaining agreement and a new roster looming on the horizon, the Red Wings would want a new coach? About the only reason they wouldn’t let Lewis go is that he has been here for a while.
But, as I mentioned, that’s the problem.
Remember, Lewis took the reins after working years under Scotty Bowman. If coaching were comedy, that’d be like bringing in Steven Wright after Sam Kinison. Lewis always has been somewhat laid back, but under Bowman, he was even more so. He was the guy the players went to when Scotty drove them mad. He was the voice of reason when Bowman was the mouth that roared.
That worked as an assistant. But players get used to coaches in certain roles, and I’m not sure the Red Wings ever got comfortable with the Comfort Guy becoming the Take Charge Guy. It’s a little like your camp counselor becoming your school principal.
I always thought it was good when Scotty “scared” the players. It might not have been fun, but it was productive. The Wings won under Scotty. Not because of his unpredictable temper, but that didn’t hurt. Hockey coaches often employ that style. Pat Burns. Marc Crawford. Mike Keenan.
Lewis wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a screamer. Don’t misunderstand. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy – that’s not fair – but compared to Bowman, he was. When Lewis ascended to the head-man role, he did his best to swing his weight. But players who used to tease him as “Leewwwwie” didn’t worry about getting bowled over. Part of coaching is motivation, and part of motivation is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being replaced.
Lewis never really wielded that. It’s not that he can’t.
It’s just that he can’t do it here.
On the horizon
In truth, I think Lewis, whose contract is up anyhow, will do better in another city, where he arrives with a pedigree that’s impressive, even awe-inspiring. He has several Stanley Cup rings. He learned under Bowman, the Jedi master himself. He has coached the biggest names in the business – Yzerman, Shanahan, Lidstrom, Fedorov, Hasek.
That’s impressive anywhere in the hockey world – except Detroit. The Wings need a little pants kicking. The man Ken Holland is reportedly courting, Mike Babcock, comes with a reputation of being intense, a detail guy. Maybe that’s a good idea.
The fact is, it is better to part with a coach too early than too late. Look at the Pistons. They dumped Rick Carlisle when he was winning for them because management sensed the peak had been reached. They may do the same with Larry Brown – and he just went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
So splitting with a coach who didn’t get the team past the second round of the playoffs isn’t shocking, it’s just sad, because Lewis is a good guy and we all like him. But there’s an old expression about being a hero in your hometown.
It rarely works.
With any luck, Lewis rides into some other city and gets the credit he deserves. And the Red Wings get someone who is not their pal, not their former comforter, but their new butt-kicking coach.
And they kick some butt this season.
There is going to be a season, right?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.