Sometimes a book teaches you as much about the kind of reader you are as it does about its focal topic.
In the case of On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft, written by Helene St. James (who covered the Wings for the Detroit Free Press for many years), I learned that when it comes to sports books, I gravitate toward those that unpack a specific event or an individual athlete’s career.
That’s not what On the Clock is.
Even though I’m not the right reader for On the Clock, its ideal audience is clearly out there — that is to say, longtime, hardcore Red Wings fans who would relish the book’s anecdotal, stat-supported, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the franchise’s long and storied history.
As the subtitle indicates, many of the short chapters in this 250-plus-page book tell stories of specific drafting choices made over the years and how they would prove to alter the Wings’ fortunes.
But of course, the team, being one of the Original Six, predated the NHL draft by more than three decades.
As St. James writes, “On June 5, 1963, executives for the six teams met at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. … The draft was a noble idea, but in its first iteration had almost no impact. All the best young players already had sponsorships with teams. The 1963 draft was such a sparse event that there were only four rounds, and teams could pass on making a selection.”
The contrast between this modest hotel meeting among a few executives and the uber- hyped, televised drafts of today is striking, to say the least. Although St. James’ book isn’t chronological in structure, readers do, as they progress through the book, get a more comprehensive idea of the road that led to this draft-as-media-spectacle moment.
Many chapters focus on the acquisition, impact, and career of a single player (Konstantinov, Lidström, Fedorov, Holmström, Probert, etc.) as well as the scouts and team managers instrumental in the decision to bring them on. Perhaps inevitably, though, St. James begins the book with an account of how and why the Wings came to land a certain young Canadian named Steve Yzerman.
Though the team had hoped to draft Pat LaFontaine — both for his skills and his local ties — and would get its chance at a pick after only three other teams had made their first choices, LaFontaine’s name was called third, by the New York Islanders. As St. James tells it:
“On June 8, 1983, at the Forum in Montreal, Yzerman wasn’t who Ilitch wanted. Yzerman was a reserved, shy teenager, presciently wearing a red tie, but he was not a name that resonated with the two people who had turned one pizza store into a multimillion dollar business and who then had turned to reviving the Wings.”
Yzerman, of course, became a team captain at the tender age of just 21 and went on not only to lead the Wings to three Stanley Cup wins but also to become the face and the heart of the franchise.
Recognizing that sports fans are often stat wonks, St. James also offers up chapters like “The 1,000 Club,” which highlights Wings players who have reached the milestone of playing in 1,000 games; “The Greatest Draft Class” (1989); and “The 10 Best Picks in Franchise History” (although even the casual fan could guess who’s at No. 1).
In addition, St. James chronicles the team’s low points (the 1970s, for instance, when they were known as the “Dead Wings”) and tragedies (such as the 1997 limousine accident that ended Vladimir Konstantinov’s career), noting the team’s propensity to keep pushing forward in spite of heartbreaking setbacks.
Finally, On the Clock ends as it begins: with its focus on Yzerman — but this time, it chronicles his post-player path to the Wings’ general manager office (“Consolation to Corner Suite”), where he is the one making the case for draft choices. Through his own words, you come to understand how thoughtful and careful he is in this particular duty. “We all have children, and trying to predict at 17 and 18 what they are going to be at 23 and 24, where they are going to be, what their interests are going to be — it’s difficult,” Yzerman says.
It’s a statement that applies to young athletes in all sports, of course. No matter how much research and scouting one does, St. James reminds us, “the NHL Draft is a gamble — and the Red Wings have left the table with some of the best picks in history.”
This story is from the February 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.