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Wings players get Christmas wish

Two-days off for the holiday is best gift of all for players

Saturday, 12.24.2011 / 2:49 PM / News
By Bill Roose  - Managing Editor | DetroitRedWings.com
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Wings players get Christmas wish
CALGARY, Alberta – Many things have occurred throughout their illustrious careers, making Nicklas Lidstrom and Gordie Howe similar in a myriad of ways.

Each has legendary status, four Stanley Cup championships, and enough individual postseason hardware to fill Santa’s sleigh, putting both men in a uniquely elite class. But there’s one thing that separates the two Hockeytown heroes – and that’s Christmas Day.
Gordie Howe played 21 times on Christmas and the Red Wings and Maple Leafs met 12 times on the holiday between 1930-67. (Photo by Getty Images)

While Howe and his teammates played 21 times on Christmas, Lidstrom – now in his 21st NHL season – is fortunate that he’s never known the anxiety of being away from his family on the feast of the Nativity.

“Wow. That wasn’t much of a Christmas for them,” said Lidstrom, who was unaware that the NHL regularly scheduled Christmas Day games prior to 1972.

“We’re always looking forward to a couple of days of rest at Christmas,” Lidstrom said Thursday night, as he packed his equipment bag following the Wings’ 3-2 loss to Calgary at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

“Usually, as far as I can remember, we’ve always had road games right before Christmas, and they can be a little difficult,” Lidstrom continued. “It seems like we’ve always played the 23rd on the road. It’ll be nice to have that extra day off before Christmas this year. We’re certainly looking forward to the break.”

Between 1926, when Detroit was granted an NHL franchise, and until 1968, Christmas Day was just another game day at Olympia Stadium. During that time, the organization played 38 times on Christmas with 30 of those games at the old Red Barn on Grand River Ave.

Guys like Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel and Alex Delvecchio played nearly every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve of their illustrious hall-of-fame careers. For Gordie Howe that meant playing 21 Christmases and 22 New Year’s Eves. Then there was 1955 and ’60 when Howe’s Red Wings played back-to-back with road games on Christmas Eve followed by train rides back home just in time to play Christmas night at Olympia.
 
“It’s your work and you really don’t have much of a choice, you just do it,” said Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom, referring to the NHL life in a much earlier era. “Not much you can whine about. But now we as players get a couple of days off and that’s good.”

As the story goes, players and their wives complained to league president Clarence Campbell, who finally put an end to the league’s old Christmas Day tradition following the 1971-72 season.

Now, 40 years since the NHL last dropped the puck on Christmas, the Wings’ players are thankful that the league shuts down for a few days to observe the holiday.

“I don’t want to play on Christmas. To me those are days that you should have off,” Wings defenseman Brad Stuart said. “I understand the purpose of having games on Christmas; it’s going to create a lot of attention, but for me those are days that you should have off and I’m glad that we still do.”

The Wings last played on Christmas in 1971, dropping a 5-3 decision to the Maple Leafs when Toronto's Bill MacMillan scored three goals at Maple Leaf Gardens. MacMillan is the last player in NHL history to get a Christmas hat trick.

In all, the Wings had a 15-18-5 record on Christmas Day. They also played five times on Christmas Eve, including a 5-0 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Gardens in 1972 – the last time the Wings played on either Dec. 24 or 25.

Holmstrom is in his 15th season and said that he can’t image having spent Christmas away from his family on one of the most sacred holidays of the Christian calendar.

“It’s a time that you should spend with your family and we’d surely like to have a longer break around Christmastime,” the Wings power forward said. “But for me, being around the family at this time is real important.”

While it’s been 43 years since the Wings last played on Christmas, road trips like this week’s three games in four days to western Canada haven’t been all that uncommon. In 1996, they traveled to four cities (Colorado, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton) in six days. And again in 1999, they went on another pre-holiday odyssey, one that took them from California to the Carolinas with three games in four nights between Dec. 19-22.

The Red Wings were also involved in a few significant Christmas Day milestones. They’re the only franchise to win an overtime game on Christmas, defeating the Brooklyn Americans, 3-2, in 1941, back when the NHL first played OT. The extra sessions disappeared during World War II and didn't return until 1983, well after the league prohibited Christmas games.
I don’t want to play on Christmas. To me those are days that you should have off. - Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart

Detroit also scored the most goals by a team in a holiday game. Eighty-one years ago, the Detroit Falcons – a precursor to the Red Wings – celebrated Christmas by beating Toronto, 10-1, in 1930.

Christmas games were a thing of the past by the time rookie center Cory Emmerton was born 23 years ago in St. Thomas, Ontario. Even at the younger level leagues, he remembers Christmas being the one day of the year that nobody played.

“I think for the most part, everyone tries to avoid playing games on Christmas, though there are a lot of Boxing Day games, definitely,” said Emmerton, from St. Thomas, Ontario. “I just don’t ever remember playing on Christmas, but there probably were sometimes when I had to leave for tournaments on Christmas Day.

“I think it’s great for families to celebrate as much as they can. It’s fun to watch sporting events on Christmas Day, but I’m glad it’s not us.”

As a first-time dad, goalie Jimmy Howard, he might be the most appreciative of the Wings that the NHL doesn’t play on Christmas.

“I’m very excited. It’s going to be different,” said Howard, who’s looking forward to the first Christmas with his two-month-old son. “I’m sure he still has no idea what is going on, but he’ll be happy when you change his diaper and give him a bottle, but for mom and dad it’s going to be a totally new experience and I’m looking forward to sharing it with Rachel.”

Leagues like the Swedish Elite League shutdown for an even longer period than the NHL, thus allowing players to get home so they can spend quality time with their families.

Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson understands the dynamic of the NHL situation, but he certainly misses his family during this time of year.

“In Sweden we get probably two weeks off from hockey at Christmas, so I never really played on Christmas,” Ericsson said. “For me, holidays like Christmas have always been about family, but now that I live over here it’s kind of different. I wish we could have a few more days so I could go home to Sweden and see my family more, see my nieces more, but right now it’s not possible so I try not to think about it too much.”

While the NHL will give it a two-day rest, the NFL and NBA will fill fans’ stockings. And many of the Wings hope that it stays that way for years to come.

“I’m sure that it would generate a lot of interest and revenue for the game, people are home and they want something to do and turn on a game,” Stuart said. “But for myself, I’d much rather have my day to enjoy my family. One day off isn’t going to hurt anyone, but I certainly see why leagues feel that they have to do it.”

Howard added: “I think that we deserve to be able to spend time with our families. We’re constantly on the road going back-and-forth all over the country and to be able to get these three days is going to be great for us.”

So will Howard be watching the other leagues this weekend?

“I won’t watch the NBA, but I will watch football that’s for sure,” he said. “I’ll be glued to the TV Saturday watching the Lions and I’ll probably watch the game Sunday between Green Bay and Chicago.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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