The Detroit Red Wings Model


The Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League have enjoyed unparalleled success in the past two decades. This year marked the 21st consecutive year in which the Wings reached the post season playoffs, a professional sports record. During that time, the Wings have won four Stanley Cups and reached the Stanley Cup Finals six times.

The Red Wings are more than a successful sports franchise that has proven adept at winning games. They are a highly successful business organization from whom we can all learn valuable business and leadership lessons, including:

It starts at the top. Mike Ilitch built a great pizza empire and has proceeded to build a great sports/entertainment empire, as well. Ilitch surrounds himself with great players (pun intended), provides the vision and let’s his team do its job. He backs it up with ample resources, though he doesn’t spend money in the George Steinbrenner manner. Ilitch hires the best, demands the best, and usually gets the best.

Build the right management team. The Red Wings have one of the best general managers in all of sports in Ken Holland. Holland has been masterful in developing managers who work for him who are among the best in the business, including legendary coach Scotty Bowman and the current coach, Mike Babcock. Less well known has been Holland’s ability to development expertise throughout the organization. After the NHL lockout a few years ago, the league salary cap was cut by almost half. The greatest impact was felt by The Red Wings and the New York Rangers, both of whom had major hits to their salary structure, which would cause them to lose several players and possibly hinder their future ability to succeed. Holland’s most amazing feat was to manage the cap in such a way that the Red Wings have managed to stay near the top of the league, including winning another Stanley Cup a few years ago.

Recruiting the right talent. The Red Wings have been masterful at identifying and drafting players not highly sought after by other organizations. Detroit was the first franchise to thoroughly scout European leagues, from where they identified many of the players that have led to their amazing run.

Develop your team. The Red Wings have been patient in bringing their talent along through the system. While other organizations are often promoting players to the NHL out of necessity, the Wings are notorious for requiring players to spend more years honing their skills at lower levels and gradually breaking into the big time. The Wings have hired outstanding mentors/coaches throughout their minor league system who have proven adept at “coaching up” their young talent.

Stay the course. The Wings organization understands their plan and how to make changes at the right time. It isn’t always about spending money to solve weaknesses on the roster. It’s about identifying the right player, at the right time and for the right price (see the salary cap discussion above).

Treat people well. Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers. One of many common traits that runs through the two organizations is that players want to play for the Ilitch-owned teams, because they are treated so well. It’s not about the money, which can be made on any number of teams. It also isn’t about being pampered or babied. The coaches on Ilitch’s teams, Mike Babcock and Jim Leyland, are tough, demanding, hard-nosed individuals. It’s about respect, fairness and knowing that the people at the top genuinely care about you as individuals. Those characteristics are not present in every clubhouse in sports.

It also helps to win. The Detroit Red Wings are the perfect example of how an organization, built with the proper values and a plan executed by the right people can develop into a winning organization that sets standards others will wish to emulate.