Red Wings’ Victory Follows in Tradition of Detroit’s Melting Pot

This article first appeared in The Detroit News on June 18, 1998.

The U. S. and Russia waged a bitter Cold War for most of the last half century. But you would never know that if you watched the Detroit Red Wings win a second straight Stanley Cup by sweeping the Washington Capitals.

In game four Tuesday, there was Sergei Federov of Russia gracefully setting up American Doug Brown for Detroit’s first goal of the game. Later, Igor Larionov, the former Soviet player of the year, made a perfect pass to Brown for his second goal—the last that the dominating Red Wings would need to score in a lopsided series.

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The hard-nosed Red Wings are a triumph of multiculturalism—following a formula that has worked in Detroit’s automotive industry.

The sun never sets on Detroit’s hockey empire. To win at hockey in a free market, Detroit discovered the need to cross the Atlantic—not only for talented players, but also for fresh ideas. When in Sweden, for example, Red Wing associate coach Barry Smith studied hockey there and brought back the "left-wing lock," which has strengthened Detroit’s defense.

There is a paradox here. Detroit had to be open to new ideas and to hiring players of different backgrounds and languages. But these players, in turn, had to be open to leave their countries—and put aside their ethnic chauvinism and their adoring local fans.

Slava Fetisov, Detroit’s stellar defenseman, was a national hero in Russia. He was captain of the famous Red Army team in the 1980s and a winner of two Olympic gold medals. Ten years ago, when he asked the Soviets if he could play in the National Hockey League, he was threatened with being reassigned to Siberia.

"It was tough in the beginning," Fetisov says. "It was tough to get out of the country, to fight against a Communist system. . . . Many times I would think, "Why am I here? Why did I do it?"

The desire to be free is at least part of the answer. The gritty Fetisov joined Boris Yeltsin and other courageous Russians in facing down tank guns on Red Square. At last, in 1991, the Soviet tyranny collapsed and Fetisov and other hockey stars were free to choose where and how to live.

Bringing such motley talent to Detroit is one thing. Molding it into a championship team is another.

Russia and Sweden have been rival nations for much of this millennium; they fought wars against each other in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. But in the 1900s, Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom of Sweden joined the Red Wings and assisted Slava Kozlov and Sergei Federov, the Russian playmakers. In Canada, Quebec has threatened to secede from the dominion, but Martin LaPointe of Quebec has blended with Steve Yzerman of British Columbia and Brendan Shanahan of Ontario to make Detroit’s offense generate goals.

Veteran coach Scotty Bowman, who was born in Montreal and coached there for eight years, knows well the need to blunt the ethnic differences that can so easily divide players. Early last year, he let the Russian Five play as a unit; but, for the good of the team, he later melted them in with the other ethnics on different starting lines. Players needed to know one another, Bowman argued, in order to trust each other. This move cut down on the amount of Russian that was being spoken in the dressing room, which had created a little tension. And it emphasized that the players needed to speak to each other—in English.

Interestingly, the Ford Motor Company is a major sponsor of Detroit’s hockey games. Also, Ford provided Mustangs last year for the Red Wings’ players to ride in during their victory parade—when the Stanley Cup was returned to the Motor City.

The building of the current Red Wings hockey team parallels the building of Ford Motor Company. Both have thrived on immigrants and new ideas. Henry Ford searched far and wide for people, materials, and ideas to help him make the best car on the market, a car "so low in price that no man making a good salary [would] be unable to own one."

In his rise to the top, Ford had to overcome scores of nearby car companies. He scoured much of the world for talented workers and imaginative builders. As a result, Ford Motor Company became a melting pot of immigrants and races, with those from Scandinavia and Canada leading the way. Charles Sorensen from Denmark went from pattern maker at $3 a day to production manager for the entire company. James Couzens from Canada was the business manager; P. E. Martin, a French Canadian, was plant manager in Dearborn; and William Knudsen, from Denmark, later helped Ford build branch assembly plants throughout the country.

During the 1920s, Ford’s multicultural team had won over 50 percent of the world’s car market. Detroit became a magnet for capitalists everywhere. As Joe Louis, the future heavyweight boxer, said of his move from Alabama to Detroit, "Ford paid more on the job than you’d ever get on the farm." Sergei Federov might say the same thing about the Red Wings: "The work is only seasonal, but they pay more than you’d ever get on the Soviet collective farms."