They had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and only made the postseason once in the previous 13 years.
But all of that changed after a twist of fate at the 1983 NHL Entry Draft.
But when the New York Islanders took LaFontaine with the third pick, the Red Wings took a smallish center named Steve Yzerman.
Not to take anything away from LaFontaine, because he was a fantastic player in his own right and would go on to have an excellent career of his own.
But this chain of events would become one of the best things to ever happen to the Red Wings franchise.
Yzerman had just completed his second year with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes. He had racked up 91 points (42 goals, 49 assists) in just 56 games. Great numbers, but probably not as good as they could have been.
Steve did not have the same opportunity to pad the stats as other draft-eligible players. Peterborough coach Dick Todd attempted to ingrain the team concept into his young players and rolled four lines at all times.
During his rookie season in the NHL, it was obvious that Stevie Wonder was something special. He notched his first goal and an assist in his first game against the Winnipeg Jets, and went on to score 39 goals and 87 points in 80 games.
He played in the All-Star game and was named to the All-Rookie team at year’s end.
Yzerman finished as runner-up in the Calder Trophy balloting for Rookie-of-the-Year honors to Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender Tom Barrasso.
And the Red Wings made the playoffs. This was a sign of things to come.
His sophomore season, it was more of the same…30 goals, 89 points. And Detroit made the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
In his third year, Yzerman scored 42 points in the first 50 games before suffering a broken collarbone. The injury kept him out of action for the rest of the year, and not coincidentally, the Red Wings failed to make the playoffs.
Prior to the start of the 1986-87 season, then-Detroit head coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman captain of his club.
Once again the Red Wings made the playoffs, this time making it all the way to the Campbell Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in five games.
In 1987-88, Stevie Y. recorded his first 50-goal and 100-points seasons, and Detroit won its first division title in 23 years.
The Red Wings again made it to the Campbell Conference Finals, but once again would fall to the eventual Cup champion Oilers in five games.
The captain was leading by example and at times, carrying the Wings on his back.
Over the previous couple of seasons, Detroit GM Devellano had added players such as Gerard Gallant, Petr Klima, Adam Oates and Bob Probert to complement their burgeoning superstar.
1988-89 was a landmark season for Yzerman. Taking his game to yet another level, number 19 would score a career-high 65 goals and 155 points, a point total surpassed only by the likes of legends Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
One of the greatest goals you will ever see against the Chicago Blackhawks on February 26th, 1989, and Yzerman’s 59th of the season. Sorry for refreshing the memory, Darren Pang.
Detroit would again win the Norris Division title, but would be upset in the first round by the Blackhawks. Yzerman would win the Lester B. Pearson Award, voted the league’s best player by the NHLPA.
Head coach Demers had a great quote as to just how much his captain meant to the team: “I know how Glen Sather (Edmonton coach) felt all those years coaching Gretzky. I feel the same way about Steve. He does everything for us. I don’t know if he can get any better.”
The 1989-90 season saw Number 19 achieve more personal glory, but the team faltered badly. Yzerman scored 62 goals and 127 points, but the Red Wings finished dead last in the Norris and missed the postseason.
It would be the last time during Stevie “Wonder’s” tenure in Hockeytown that Detroit would not qualify for the playoffs.
The 1990-91 campaign was an important one for the Red Wings as they added Russian center Sergei Federov to the fold.
With Yzerman and Federov, Detroit boasted two of the best pivots in the game. Stevie Y. would again finish with more than 50 goals (51) and 100 points (108), but the team was bounced in the first round in seven games by the St. Louis Blues.
In the 1991-92 season, Yzerman again led the Red Wings with 45 goals and 103 points. Detroit won the Norris Division, but was swept in the division finals by Chicago.
Stevie Y. posted incredible numbers once again in 1992-93 with 58 goals and 137 points, but the Red Wings were taken out in the playoffs by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
This was the sixth consecutive, but final season that Number 19 would post 100 points or more.
On February 24th, 1993, Yzerman recorded an assist against the Buffalo Sabres for his 1,000th career NHL point. He was just the third Red Wing player to do so, along with “Mr. Hockey” himself, Gordie Howe, and Alex Delvecchio.
The 1993-94 season saw Detroit bring in Scotty Bowman to take over the reigns as coach. Bowman and Yzerman didn’t hit it off very well right from the start.
Bowman’s strict, regimented coaching style was tough to get adjusted to, and the coach felt that his captain wasn’t committed enough to defensive play.
Yzerman’s year was further strained as he missed 26 regular season games with a herniated disc, but he would still go on to score 24 goals and 82 points in just 58 games.
The San Jose Sharks would pull off the upset of the playoffs in the first round as they beat Detroit in seven games.
Following the season, Stevie Y. had surgery to remove the herniated disc.
The 1994-95 was interrupted by a lockout of the players by the NHL team’s owners. The regular season consisted of just 48 games, and Yzerman tallied 12 goals and 38 points in 47 games.
The Red Wings made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but were promptly swept by the New Jersey Devils.
The Cup once again had eluded Yzerman and Hockeytown.
The Stanley Cup was always something Stevie Y. dreamed of someday winning.
Yzerman said: “As long as I could remember, since I was 5 years old, I watched the Stanley Cup. I stayed up, made a point of watching it presented, watched the celebration in the locker room, and always dreamed that maybe I’d get there.”
During the 1995-96 season, Yzerman led his Red Wings to one of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history.
Steve ended the year with 36 goals and 95 points, and Detroit went on to record a league-record 62 wins and 131 points, which was just one point off of the Montreal Canadiens record set in 1976-77.
Yzerman recorded his 500th career goal on January 17th, 1996, against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche.
In the 1996 playoffs, Stevie Y. scored maybe the most memorable goal of his career.
When game seven of the Western Conference Finals against the St. Louis Blues went to a second overtime, Stevie “Wonder” went to work.
Yzerman picked up a loose puck from Gretzky at the Detroit blueline. Number 19 carried the puck through the neutral zone and just as he crossed the St. Louis blueline, blasted a slap shot past Blues goaltender Jon Casey and just under the crossbar for the series-winning goal.
But the Red Wings would lose in the Western Conference Finals in a brutal six game series to the eventual Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
In the 1996-97 campaign, Stevie Y. notched 22 goals and 85 points, sacrificing offensive numbers to play a more disciplined game for his task-master coach.
The captain and his team were rewarded with another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, this time winning it in a sweep over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The victory brought the Stanley Cup back to Hockeytown and ended a Red Wings drought that dated back to the 1954-55 season.
For an encore in the 1997-98 season, Stevie Y. and his Wings made another run to the Finals, this time sweeping the Washington Capitals for their second consecutive Cup victory.
Yzerman scored a career-high 24 points in 22 playoff games along the way and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP.
There was an emotional scene during the Red Wings’ on-ice celebration, as Yzerman and company shared their triumph with defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, who had been severely injured the previous year in a car accident following their Cup victory over Philadelphia.
Konstantinov was brought out to center ice in a wheelchair as Yzerman the Wings shared the moment with their fallen teammate.
November, 1999 was a special month for Yzerman. He recorded his 600th NHL goal, 1,500th point, and 1,200th game during the month.
At the end of the 1999-00 season, the captain was awarded the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.
This was the consummation of Bowman’s influence on Yzerman’s game, making him one of the most complete players the NHL has ever seen.
The 2001-02 season was a mix of emotions for the captain. He missed 30 games with a knee injury, but Detroit went on to win their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, this time in five games over the Carolina Hurricanes.
On January 21st, 2002, Stevie Y. registered his 1,000th career NHL assist, becoming just the 9th player in league history to reach the mark.
Injuries started taking their toll on Yzerman’s body, and his totals began to drastically drop off.
At age 37, Stevie Y. underwent knee realignment surgery and missed the first 66 games of the 2002-03 campaign. In 16 regular season games, Number 19 scored just two goals and eight points.
Following the 2002-03 season, Yzerman was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance.
Teammate Kirk Maltby said: “It’s easy to go out there and follow his example and play as hard as you can. You see him going out and blocking shots and playing through pain, you can’t help but try and do the same thing.”
Teammate Brett Hull added: “It begins and ends with Steve. People like him don’t come along very often. The way he carries himself, in this town, there’s almost an onus on the rest of us to be like him.”
Detroit GM Ken Holland: “Like a fine wine, he seems to get better with age. Even in the last couple of years he has looked faster and quicker. He makes us go both in practice and in the games. Steve Yzerman has accomplished so much in this league and when the younger players see how committed he is to working on his game and working on his conditioning, they’d better follow suit. Steve sets the pace for everything we do and he makes us go.”
Scotty Bowman added: “I know now he’s a very considerate athlete. He tries to be a good role model. They say athletes shouldn’t be role models, but I don’t agree with that. He’s conscious that he’s a good athlete. He does a lot of things that people don’t know about, and that’s the way you want to keep it. People ask a lot of his time. He gives it.”
On March 31st, 2006, Stevie “Wonder” tallied his 691st goal, passing Lemieux for eighth place on the all-time NHL goal-scoring list.
On July 3rd, 2006, Yzerman called it quits on one of the most storied careers in NHL history. He moved into Detroit’s front office and was part of the 2007-08 Stanley Cup championship.
On January 2nd, 2007, Yzerman’s #19 jersey was retired in a ceremony prior to a game against the Anaheim Ducks.
Stevie “Wonder” also excelled in international play.
In 2002, he became one of only three players to win an Olympic Gold medal (with Team Canada) and a Stanley Cup in the same year (the other two were Ken Morrow in 1980 with Team USA and the New York Islanders, and Brendan Shanahan, who was also on the same Canadian Olympic team and the Red Wings with Yzerman in 2002).
Former Blackhawks goaltender Pang, a childhood friend of Stevie Y., said: “I believe winning the Stanley Cup and the gold medal the same year was something Steve Yzerman will look back on and be proud about. He was struggling with the knee and some thought that might be the end of his career. It might have been for somebody else. He fought his way back. He wanted to compete.”
Yzerman was inducted into the Hockey Hall-of-Fame in 2009, fittingly elected in his first year of eligibility.
In February of this year, Yzerman was the general manager that assembled the Canadian team that again won Olympic Gold, this time in Vancouver.
1,514 regular season games over 22 seasons, all with the same team. 692 goals and 1,063 assists for 1,755 points, Yzerman is the sixth leading scorer in the history of the league.
196 Stanley Cup playoff games, scoring 70 goals and 115 assists. Three Stanley Cup championships.
People in the hockey community use many fitting words to describe Yzerman. “Complete”. “Leader”. “Courageous”. “Captain”. But the one word that perhaps describes Yzerman best would be “Legend”.