Book excerpt: When the Detroit Red Wings made Steve Yzerman cry

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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The following is an excerpt from “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings,” written by Free Press sports writer Helene St. James and published by Triumph Books. 

On June 7, 1997, sitting in his owner’s box at Joe Louis Arena, Mike Ilitch watched as his kids popped the cork on the bottle of 1982 Moet champagne he had bought when he purchased the Red Wings. Three floors below, everyone in the dressing room was soaked from champagne showers.

The Wings had smashed a 42-year drought and uncorked a fantastic party. They had silenced doubters and enthralled fans. The centerpiece of the celebration was the Stanley Cup, a trophy that looks good being hoisted, hugged, and chugged from. Steve Yzerman took it home with him that night, tucked away in the trunk of his silver Porsche. He had waited 14 years for this moment, had endured trade rumors and injuries, to get to this night.

The Wings were 20 minutes from going to St. Louis down two games. But then Kris Draper spotted an opportunity to score during a penalty kill and made it 1-1; three minutes later, Larry Murphy used the momentum to make it 2-1. With that, the series was tied. Yzerman scored the winning goal in the next game to put the Wings up 2-1. But it was what he did the next game that really swayed the series and stoked Yzerman’s legend. Grant Fuhr shut them out, the Wings falling 4-0. After the game, Yzerman stood up in the visitors’ room at the Kiel Center and spoke for 10 minutes. Players were still in their uniforms.

“We’ve just got to play harder,” Yzerman said the next day. “Our top players have got to play harder. We’ve got to produce and lead the team. Everybody has a certain expectation and responsibility, and you’ve got to play up to them.” Yzerman spoke softly, but he led loudly. He scored 3:22 into Game 5, and capped the 5–2 victory by setting up Murphy’s goal. It was the first time in the playoffs coach Scotty Bowman used the Russian Five an entire game. The Wings went back to the Kiel Center and won Game 6 3-1.

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Next up: the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Wings would sweep their fowl opponent, but it took 18 periods of hockey to do so. Game 2 was epic. Vyacheslav Kozlov, the quietest guy in the locker room, raised the roof at the Joe when he scored in triple overtime. The game lasted 101 minutes, 31 seconds on the ice — but 5 hours and 40 minutes for spectators. “No big deal,” Kozlov said after the 3-2 final. “Not for Red Wings. We have good shape. We can play couple more overtimes. No problem.”

It was 3:30 am in Detroit on May 9, 1997, when the Wings secured a trip to the Western Conference finals. Their archival was next.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche boasted three of the top four scorers in the playoffs in Lemieux, Joe Sakic, and Peter Forsberg. The Avalanche used home-ice advantage and won Game 1. The Wings took Game 2. Mike Vernon stole Game 3 with a 27-save performance. Game 4 was a 6-0 rout: Igor Larionov scored twice in the first period, and the Wings led, 5-0, after the second. The only shots the Avalanche took were cheap ones — they took six penalties in the first period, three more in the second. Colorado coach Marc Crawford became so irate in the third period that he tried to get to the Wings’ bench, screaming obscenities. Steve Yzerman stared in disbelief. Scotty Bowman toyed with Crawford, telling his younger colleague that he had known his father and that his father would be embarrassed at Crawford’s hysterics. Crawford later apologized, but not before the NHL fined him $10,000.

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Fans at the Joe saw the Wings eliminate their archrival, two months to the day after the March 26 brawl between the teams at the Joe.

The Philadelphia Flyers were waiting.

Game 4 fell on a Saturday night. Nicklas Lidstrom scored in the final minute of the first period to make it 10. At 13:02 of the second period, Darren McCarty scored to make it 2-0. It was a beautiful goal: McCarty faked out Flyers defenseman Janne Niinimaa inside the offensive blue line, swooped around him, and cut to the net.

And with that, the Wings had their Cup. Yzerman hoisted the Cup above his head, his gap-toothed smile a mix of relief and joy. He skated to the Wings bench so that owners Mike and Marian Ilitch could touch the Cup, then took his victory lap around the ice.

“I would have preferred to go with everybody in the beginning,” Yzerman said. “I wanted to go as one big group.”

Yzerman passed the Cup to Slava Fetisov, who held it up with Larionov. It was a very conscious, very telling choice on Yzerman’s part. It revealed the respect he felt was due to the two men who had done so much to liberate Russian hockey players from Soviet red tape.

“The last couple of days I thought who I wanted to give the Cup to,” Yzerman said. “I thought about Slava. He and Igor, what they stand for, are good examples for younger players…. All five Russian players were significant players and great guys.” Players took turns taking laps with the Cup. Bowman put on skates and took a lap too. “That was great,” Yzerman said. “I’ve seen it all. He doesn’t show emotion. He doesn’t let us get too close to him. For a few minutes there, he was one of us.”

In 1993, after the Toronto Maple Leafs eliminated the Wings in the first round, Yzerman cried in a back room at the Joe until 4:00 am. The next spring, when his season ended with a stunning first-round upset by the San Jose Sharks, Yzerman cried until 3:00 am. Finally, the Joe was a place for celebration. “He tried to get it for 14 years, and now he gets it,” teammate Tomas Holmstrom said. “I almost started crying.”

Holiday gift

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at

Contact Helene St. James at Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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