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A tale about the Red Wings’ first ‘Euro’ team

With the Red Wings-Blues game-day updates and news regarding Johnny Wilson’s passing (both updated around 6:30 PM) haven fallen off the main page, here’s a little ditty which surprised me: according to IIHF.com’s Szymon Szemberg, the World Junior Championship’s chairman, long-time hockey exec Al Coates, once laced up the skates for former Red Wings owner Bruce Norris’s first attempt to establish a European arm of the Red Wings’ franchise—so the Wings’ long association with Europe as a place where it invested in talent, as it turns out, kinda started backwards:

[F]rom the international perspective, it is his pioneer days with Detroit’s European farm club London Lions that are the most intriguing. You see, the 1973-74 edition of the classic British team (the original Lions existed 1924-33) was unique in the history of hockey. Can you name any other team that played 72 exhibition games during a “season” and then folded?

Background: Detroit owner Bruce Norris wanted to create a European pro hockey league in the early 1970s, and he had the London Lions tour the continent as promotion for those ambitions. For European NHL fans the London Lions were as close as you could get to watching a real NHL team on a regular basis. Apart from Swedes Ulf Sterner, Tord Lundström and goalie Leif “Honken” Holmqvist (all IIHF Hall of Famers), all players were North Americans, the jerseys almost a replica of the Red Wings’ and the logo a winged lion.

In the early ‘70s, when it could take two days to get NHL scores – and week-old old grainy game footage a couple of times a month was the only visual proof that the league really existed – the London Lions had almost a religious following in Europe. The Lions won 52 of their 72 games, touring as hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters in 11 European countries.

Some of the barn-storming stories Al told this blogger the other day are not fit to print, but these are facts.

“We lived in hotels for seven months and had a three-month road trip during the season. I was trainer, part-time interpreter, road secretary, and equipment man. One night, as we stood five hours at the Czechoslovak border and the guards wouldn’t let us in, I finally bribed our way in. We had a game in Prague the next day.”

“We were a travelling road show. We had wives and kids with us. And the way we got through is that everyone just pitched in. We got billed as either the Canadian national team or a real NHL club, so everywhere we went everyone was geared up to beat us.”

In 1974, when Bruce Norris realized that the European resistance against his pro league was too strong, the London Lions were dissolved. But among young European fans of North American hockey, never to be forgotten.


Update: For the hell of it…

• The Saginaw Spirit will be hosting one Larry Murphy tomorrow. Murph will sign autographs prior to the Spirit’s game vs. Windsor;

• The Grand Rapids Griffins get back to work tomorrow, and their weekly press release details their upcoming workload:

Wed., Dec. 28 - GRIFFINS at Lake Erie Monsters - 7 p.m. - ESPN 96.1 FM / AHLLive.com

Fri., Dec. 30  - Peoria Rivermen at GRIFFINS - 7 p.m. - WOOD 106.9 FM/1300 AM / AHLLive.com

Sat., Dec. 31 - Milwaukee Admirals at GRIFFINS - 6 p.m. - ESPN 96.1 FM / AHLLive.com

Back in the Swing: The Griffins played just one game last week, dropping a 4-3 decision in overtime to the Abbotsford Heat on Wednesday before beginning a five-day Christmas break. They will be back in action on Wednesday at 7 p.m. for a critical North Division road game against the Lake Erie Monsters. The Griffins have played the Monsters twice this month, winning a 3-2 game on Dec. 16 before being shut out 3-0 the following night. The team will return home for its first meeting of the season versus the Peoria Rivermen on Friday at 7 p.m. before taking on the Milwaukee Admirals in the annual New Year’s Eve game on Saturday at 6 p.m. to close out 2011.

Climbing the Standings: The Griffins have made up ground in the Western Conference during the month of December, earning points in seven of their nine games this month (and eight of 10 overall) with a 4-2-1-2 record. The team is currently in a three-way tie for third in the North Division with Hamilton and Lake Erie, sitting just three points out of a playoff spot. A successful week could see the Griffins begin 2012 in second place, a spot they haven’t held in the North Division since Nov. 2.
Promotions Galore: The Griffins are closing out 2011 in style, with a pair of home games to welcome in the New Year. Friday’s contest versus Peoria features dollar beer and hot dogs from 6-8 p.m., while supplies last, as well as other popular Friday promotions, including: College Night, which allows college students to purchase a lower bowl ticket for $13 (or $11 in advance at The Zone) and stop by the McFadden’s concourse table to receive a free pass to the post-game party at McFadden’s; and Free Ride Friday, which provides complimentary fare on the Rapid to or from the game by showing your ticket to that night’s game. Saturday’s contest versus Milwaukee is the 15th Annual New Year’s Eve Celebration, featuring giveaways, special jerseys and post-game entertainment. The first 2,000 fans will receive a Griffins team poster, courtesy of Fox Honda. The team will wear jerseys designed by Jason Valenti of Sayre, Penn., who won the Griffins’ annual jersey design contest held over the summer. All jerseys will be signed by the respective Griffins player and auctioned off following the game inside the Fifth Third Vault, with proceeds benefitting GVSU club roller hockey. Post-game activities include West Michigan’s largest indoor fireworks display immediately following the game, and a J&H Family Stores post-game open skate.
On the Mend: The Griffins got good news last week when defenseman Travis Ehrhardt returned to practice for the first time following a shoulder injury suffered on Oct. 16 at Rochester. He is expected to return to game action within the next two weeks. The Griffins are also expecting to receive Jan Mursak from Detroit on a conditioning stint this week. Mursak, who logged 86 points (39-47—86) in 184 games with Grand Rapids from 2008-11, hasn’t seen game action this year after breaking his ankle in a Sept. 25 preseason game.

Milestone Watch: Joey MacDonald is one game shy of 200 as a Griffin and 400 as a pro…Jamie Johnson is one game shy of 600 as a pro…Greg Amadio is four games away from 200 as a Griffin…Brent Raedeke is five games from 100 as a Griffin.

• Griffinshockey.com’s Kristi Page also profiled Tomas Tatar:

Tatar started his third AHL season slowly, with just one goal and two assists in the team’s first eight games, but has since caught fire with 18 points (5-13—18) in his past 15 games. He says that the start is not unusual for him.

“I had a rough start; I had a rough start last year, too,” Tatar explained. “As of right now, I feel more confident and I think I am making more plays early in games, so hopefully I will keep producing and make sure we are going to win more games.”

Despite his slow start, he has proven to be an offensive leader player for the Griffins this season. Head coach Curt Fraser is pleased with Tatar’s offensive output as well as the strides he’s been making in becoming a better two-way player.

“You can’t just look at his numbers this year. He has been doing a great job killing penalties, and his defensive abilities have really picked up,” said Fraser. “Overall, he has been doing a terrific job for us.”

Although Tatar is hoping to get the Griffins into the playoffs, he always keeps his dream of playing in the NHL in the back of his mind. After appearing in nine games for the Red Wings last season, and scoring his first NHL goal in his first NHL game on Dec. 31, 2010 versus the New York Islanders, his dream seemed closer than ever. Tatar got another chance this when he was called up on an emergency basis on Dec. 15, but he was sent down without seeing any game action.

“It is always nice to be with the Wings, but it’s just too bad I didn’t get to stay up there longer,” Tatar said. “I just have to work hard to get back [to Detroit], starting with more producing and more wins here. I am sure I will be back up there soon.”

• And this little ditty seems perfect to end upon given the main topic at hand, via the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman:

Had a really interesting conversation with a player last week. He was saying his (struggling) team needed an identity. Then, he went on to list some teams that did have one. “You know that Boston is going to pound you and make you pay physically. You know that Chicago is going to dare you to try and skate with them. You know that Vancouver is going to try to get you to take penalties and make you pay on the penalty kill. And you know that Detroit is going to turn the other cheek while winning all of the one-on-one battles.” Then, he added, “We need to be more like the Red Wings.”

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.