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Motown Changes Gears

Detroit's passion for hockey has taken a back seat during Pistons' run in the Finals

June 14, 2004|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — They call it Hockeytown, USA, but maybe the signs should be taken down, given a good sand-blasting and replaced with a new moniker.


The Detroit Pistons are this city's go-to team right now, subtly hip-checking the Red Wings aside, perhaps only temporarily, but perhaps not.

The long-in-the-tooth Red Wings were eliminated last month in the second round of the NHL playoffs, but the Pistons made it past Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, still alive despite some pundits' predictions of a Laker sweep.

It's enough to make the old-timers blush.

"It's not Hockeytown," former Piston center Bob Lanier said. "It's the Pistons' city. They're the big draw now."

Success fills seats, a fact the Pistons know well. They led the NBA in attendance this season with an average of 21,290 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a suburban arena 30 miles north of downtown.

The Pistons, the youngest of the four major pro teams in Detroit, have redrawn the city's annual entertainment hierarchy to look like this: Pistons or Red Wings, Lions, the Henry Ford Museum, Tigers.

It will be interesting to see where the Pistons fall in place in the coming months in a city strongly attached to the Red Wings and their 10 Stanley Cup championships, including three since 1997. But with the Red Wings growing older and an NHL owners' lockout on the horizon, the Pistons could again be the hottest ticket in town next season.

It probably won't be the Lions or Tigers, who have had minimal success the last 35 years, the lone exception being the Tigers' World Series victory in 1984. The Tigers, who almost set the record for most losses in a season last year, have won four World Series since they began play in 1901, mostly undergoing the same cycle every season, hope followed by despair.

"Back in the mid-1930s, when the Lions and Tigers and Red Wings were good and Joe Louis was [heavyweight] champion, I think the Tigers were the team then," said former play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Tigers from 1960 through 2002.

"They've got a longer history and more tradition than any of the other teams. I don't know about now because lately they've fallen on bad times and the interest has fallen. I think the interest is always commensurate with winning in any market. After the Tigers had their rise to ascendancy, people then saw the Red Wings as the team to go with. Now we're into the Piston period."

The Lions won an NFL championship in 1935 and three more in the 1950s, but they haven't made it to a Super Bowl in a state that fills football stadiums every fall for Michigan and Michigan State games.

The opening of Ford Field downtown in 2002 has reinvigorated Lion fans, but last season's 5-11 record could mean more of the same quality of play next season.

Former Lion linebacker Chris Spielman believes football could still carry the state.

He was on the 1991 Lion team that won the NFC Central with a 12-4 record and advanced to the NFC championship with a 38-6 pasting of the Dallas Cowboys in January 1992. That game, played in front of 79,835 fans, was considered to be the loudest crowd ever to watch an NFL game at the Pontiac Silverdome.

"It's the only football town that can put 100,000-plus in a Michigan game, 80,000-plus at a Lions game and 80,000-plus in a Michigan State game, all in the same weekend," he said. "If you take a formal poll of what the favorite sport is in Michigan, I would bet almost anything it would show football as the dominant winner."

But even Spielman acknowledged, "Of course, Detroit's nickname [Hockeytown] speaks for itself."

The Red Wings, symbolized by Steve Yzerman, team captain since 1986, won over the city with Stanley Cup runs in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

To support the argument that hockey is still the city's top sport, one only had to pick up a recent Detroit News.

There was dutiful attention paid to the Pistons before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, but a headline above the fold of the front page of the sports section read: "Draper wins Selke." Red Wing forward Kris Draper had won the Selke Award as the NHL's top defensive forward.

That's Hockeytown: The Red Wings, out of the playoffs for nearly a month, still get plenty of newspaper space.

Whether the Pistons win the NBA title or not, and regardless of whether they supplant the Red Wings as the city's most popular team, they have made inroads, Lanier said.

"They're building for the future," he said. "I expect to see them here in the Finals next year."



*--* Glory Days Titles won by Detroit teams: STANLEY CUP Red Wings (10) * 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1997, 1998 and 2002 NFL CHAMPIONSHIPS Lions (4) * 1935, 1952, 1953 and 1957 WORLD SERIES Tigers (4) * 1935, 1945, 1968 and 1984 NBA FINALS Pistons (2) * 1989 and 1990


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