These are the biggest Detroit sports stories of 2016

Clockwise from top left: Gordie Howe’s memorial service at Joe Louis Arena; Matthew Stafford; Calvin Johnson; Michael Fulmer; and Dylan Larkin.

As 2016 draws to a close it’s time to look back at the biggest sports stories of the year.

1. Gordie Howe’s death

After battling health issues for a few years, Gordie Howe died on June 10, 2016. More than 35 years after his final game, the former Red Wing is still considered the greatest hockey player in history. Don’t believe it? Ask no other expert than Wayne Gretzky, who was on hand for #9’s memorial service. According to The Great One, there was never anyone better than Gordie.

The death of Howe closed the book on an era of Detroit hockey that saw the Red Wings dominate the game with their “Production Line” of Howe, Sid Abel, and Ted Lindsay.

If they ever build a Detroit sports Mt. Rushmore, Gordie will be up there with Joe Louis, Al Kaline, and Isiah Thomas.

2. Stafford and Lions come from behind to win again and again…

Say what you want about Matt Stafford (and his detractors are many and vocal), but the kid can ball. He has the strongest arm of any QB in Lions’ history and his heart is as big as Ford Field. In 2016 he set an NFL record with eight fourth quarter come-from-behind victories, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat over and over again. Five times his last drive won the game for the team, which sits in great position to advance to the NFL Playoffs for the second time in three years.

Through 14 games, the 2016 Detroit Lions have set an NFL record with eight fourth quarter comeback wins. The defense has emerged as a solid group and their special teams is one of the best in football. With Matthew Stafford at the helm, the team is driving toward a playoff season. In the last 46 regular season games (also known as the Jim Caldwell Era), the Lions are 25-21 and have played some of the most exciting football in recent memory in Detroit.

3. Rookie stars Larkin and Fulmer arrive on the scene

When you do something as a rookie that not even Steve Yzerman did, it’s a big deal in Detroit. In 2015-15, Dylan Larkin led the team in goals with 23, becoming the first rookie since Mike Foligno to do that. The 19-year old made the All-Star team, took more than 200 shots (joining Marcel Dionne, Reed Larson, Dale McCourt, and Sergei Fedorov as the only Detroiters to do so), and led the team in plus/minus rating and game-winning goals.

The Tigers didn’t know what to expect from the group of young pitchers who arrived in spring training last February to battle for a spot in the rotation. The bearded Micheal Fulmer didn’t earn a spot, but within a few weeks after the season started he was starting every fifth day and making himself known. For most of the season, the big righthander from Oklahoma City led the American League in ERA. He never seemed to tire of taking the ball, and not long after entering the Detroit rotation he was setting records. His 33 1/3 scoreless inning streak was a Tiger rookie record. He pitched ten straight quality starts and won six straight decisions, the first Detroit rookie to do that since Justin Verlander in 2006. He was rewarded for his efforts, becoming the fifth Tiger to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

The future is bright for the Wings and Tigers and their fans as long as they have Larkin and Fulmer on their side.

4. Tigers battle to final day for playoff spot

The 2016 season was frustrating and challenging for the Tigers. The starting rotation suffered injuries to two members and another starter struggled all year. As a result, three rookies were thrown into the fire earlier than expected. The injury bug bit Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez. Victor Martinez struggled. Expensive free agent Justin Upton was nearly invisible for four months. The team was 46-42 and 6 1/2 games out of first at the All-Star break. Then the offense woke up, the team went on an eight-game winning streak in late July, and clawaed to within two games of the Indians. Behind a resurgent Justin Verlander and a suddenly-hit Upton, the Tigers fought their way into the playoff race and battled to the final day of the season with a chance to earn a wild card. Unfortunately they lost two tough games to the Braves on Saturday and Sunday and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

5. Red Wings extend playoff streak to 25 seasons

Only four teams in NHL history have made the postseason in at least consecutive 25 years. In 2016 the Red Wings joined that select group, as they extended their playoff streak that started in 1990-91.

The 2015-16 team was not a great team, they were a team in transition, a mix of young and old players. The offense was clunky at times and the goaltending was very inconsistent. But somehow, helped in large part by rookie Dylan Larkin (see #3 on this list), head coach Jeff Blashill guided the team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For the third straight season the team was eliminated in the first round, for the second straight time by the Lightning, but the streak continued.

6. Verlander returns to Cy Young form

There were some critics who were whispering that Justin Verlander’s best days were behind him, that he was never going to be a dominant pitcher again. Even though JV put up an impressive second half in 2015, the critics still felt he was in decline. They were flat wrong.

In 2016, Verlander was the best pitcher in the American League. Nevermind that the baseball writers gave the Cy Young to former Tiger Rick Porcello (really?), Verlander was the best pitcher in the league. For the first time in history a pitcher got the most first-place votes for the Cy Young but lost the award. That’s because two morons who write about baseball in Tampa left Verlander off their ballots.

Those idiots aside, it was obvious in ’16 that Verlander was “Must-See’ again. He led the league in strikeouts and allowed the fewest baserunners per game. He added 16 games to his total, bringing him to 173 for his career, all with Detroit. He’s now seventh all-time in franchise history in wins, eighth in innings pitched, and second in strikeouts.

In 2016, Verlander did something he hadn’t even done in 2011, when he won both the Cy Young and MVP awards. JV made 18 straight starts in which he allowed three earned runs or less.

7. Pistons return to the NBA Playoffs

After six years missing the playoffs and five coaching changes, the Pistons are on track again. Where that track will lead is uncertain, but it looks pretty good. In his second season leading the team, Stan Van Gundy improved the team’s record by 12 wins, the largest jump since 2000-2001. The Pistons are fun to watch again thanks to a few exciting players.

Andre Drummond is rounding out into a perennial All-Star and one of the best true big men in the game. The big guy started the 2015-16 season with 11 straight double-doubles. He later became the first Piston to record back-to-back 20 point/20 rebound games since 1985. He led the NBA with 66 double-doubles.

Point guard Reggie Jackson and shooting guard “KCP” (Kenatvious Caldwell-Pope) are also key members of the young Pistons, who were swept by Cleveland in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. However, the team battled gamely in the series.

8. Datsyuk retires and returns to Russia

After years of speculation, Pavel Datsyuk ended his NHL career and announced that he would return to his native Russia to play European hockey after the conclusion of the 2015-16 season. “The Magic Man” had nothing more to prove — having won two Stanley Cups with Detroit in a great 14-year career.

9. Megatron walks away from football

This one really puzzled a lot of fans. In a written statement in March, Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson announced his retirement from football. And just like that, one of the best weapons in the game was no more.

Johnson was a three-time First Team All-Pro and a six-time pro Bowler in his nine-year career. In 2012 he had one of the greatest seasons ever by a receiver, catching a league-high 122 balls for a record 1,964 yards. The previous year, “Megatron” had gathered in 1,681 yards to lead the NFL. But ultimately, despite his phenomenal success, Johnson was finished with the game.

At the age of 30 and already with more than 11,000 yards to his credit, Johnson said that football was “no longer fun” and that he was “fed up” with the game. He cited the tremendous toll the game took on his big body as the primary reason he was not motivated to play the game.

for the Lions fans it was the second stinging retirement by a legend, following the 1997 sudden and stunning retirement by running back Barry Sanders.

10. Pistons announce move to downtown

In 2017, the Red Wings will begin play in a new arena, which is pretty big news in itself. But late in 2016 the Detroit Pistons made headlines when they revealed that starting with their 2017 season they will also play their home games at the arena, which is located in Detroit. As a result, for the first time since 1974, all four Detroit teams will play their home games downtown. In fact, the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons will be within blocks of each other.