Remembering the Wings’ strike-shortened 1994-95 season

Goalie Mike Vernon was 19-6-4 for the Detroit Red Wings in the strike-shortened 1994-1995 season.

On October 1, 1994, the night the Detroit Red Wings were scheduled to open the 1994-95 season against the St. Louis Blues, Joe Louis Arena stood silent. The day before, NHL owners had announced that the new season would be “delayed” two weeks. Players called the postponement a lockout.

The ’94-95 NHL season would eventually be played, but its start was delayed by a prolonged labor dispute between owners and the Players Association. The two sides had been working on a new contract for 16 months but were still far apart. There were four main points of contention: a rookie salary cap, free agency, salary arbitration, and revenue splits to aid small-market clubs. The players had bargained in good faith, promising not to strike during the regular season or playoffs. But owners wanted to play hardball.

That evening, frustrated fans got their hockey fix at The Palace of Auburn Hills, where 20,182 of them showed up to watch the Detroit Vipers make their International Hockey League debut with a 7-3 victory over the Cleveland Lumberjacks. The crowd easily eclipsed the IHL single-game attendance record. While the new guys in town were competitive and put on a fun show (players skated out of a giant smoke-breathing snake’s mouth), they still weren’t the real deal.

The Red Wings stayed home. Their solidarity was admirable. Stars like Steve Yzerman, who was out $17,460 a day in salary, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with lesser-paid brethren like second-year goalie Chris Osgood, who could ill afford to lose $1,085 a day, as the lockout dragged through the early autumn and into winter. “We’re not going to break,” insisted Shawn Burr. “When hockey players get down to crunch time, that’s when we stick together. That’s how we’ve been raised since we were three years old. I’ll live on nothing before I turn on my friends.”

Mike Ilitch had mixed emotions. As the owner of the league’s most valuable franchise, he was the kind of overly generous boss who had placed new VCRs in players’ lockers at Christmas, given Yzerman a $50,000 bonus for scoring his 50th goal, and bought a private jet for the team so that the players wouldn’t have to spend as many evenings away from their families.

But he also knew that the economics of professional sports was changing. A few weeks earlier, a similar disagreement had resulted in the cancellation of the balance of the 1994 major league baseball season, including the World Series. As owner of the Tigers, he understood that annual hikes in ticket prices could not keep up with escalating salaries—though he conveniently forgot that he had helped unleash the beast now devouring professional hockey through his own extravagant signings of free agents.

The impasse lasted through the Christmas holidays and into the new year. Finally, just as it appeared that the NHL would become the second major sport that year to lose a season because of labor strife, owners and layers reached a compromise agreement. Ilitch was one of a handful of hardliners who thought that owners should stand firm on the issue of a team salary cap, but he was outvoted by fellow magnates. An abbreviated 48-game schedule was put together.

The Wings opened January 20, 1995, with a 4-1 victory over Chicago at The Joe. They quickly climbed to the top of the overall standings and stayed there. They finished with a 33-11-4 record and 70 points, giving them the President’s Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Scotty Bowman’s Wings would have to wait a couple of more years to win their first Stanley Cup, however, as the New Jersey Devils stuck a pitchfork in them in a Finals sweep.

The Players Association was satisfied that the work stoppage had been worth it. The final deal provided for free agency beginning at age 32 and a salary cap on entry-level players only. The league’s labor problems mystified Detroit’s Russian players, however.

“This would never happen in Russia,” said Vlady Konstantinov. “They tell you to go play in Siberia, you go play in Siberia.”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.