When Steve Yzerman hoisted the Stanley Cup and skated a lap at Joe Louis Arena on June 7, 1997, the Detroit Red Wings ended a drought that had lasted 42 years.
The lap with Lord Stanley was repeated in ’98 and 2002. Yzerman retired in 2006, and celebrated his fourth Cup, in 2008, as a member of the front office. “The Captain” returned as “The General Manager” (which doesn’t quite have the same ring) in 2019, charged with guiding the Wings back to the playoffs and adding to the franchise’s 11 titles.
The Wings are at 13 years and counting since their last Cup.
When put in perspective, that’s not much of a drought. Of the other Original Six franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won the Cup since 1967, the Montreal Canadiens since 1993 and 1994 for the New York Rangers. When the Boston Bruins won the Cup in 2011, it was their first since 1972. The Chicago Blackhawks have fared better recently, winning three times from 2010-2017.
There are multiple clubs that are still waiting for their first Cup: The Arizona Coyotes (dating back to the franchise’s origin as the Winnipeg Jets), Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights and the Winnipeg Jets ( dating back to the franchise’s origin as the Atlanta Thrashers).
When the Wings celebrated in 1997, there were 26 teams in the NHL. When the expansion Seattle Kraken begin play this fall, there’ll be 32.
Amid this, Yzerman is trying to break what’s already a five-year streak of the Wings being done when the bell tolls for the regular season.
“Someone will ask, when are you going to make the playoffs, what’s your timeline,” Yzerman said last week. “I simply can’t give one, because it’s a guess.”
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Yzerman spent nine years as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which already had elite center Steven Stamkos and elite defenseman Victor Hedman on the roster when he arrived in 2010. Though he was gone by the time the Bolts won the Cup in 2020, that roster very much bore Yzerman’s stamp — but the Bolts also missed the playoffs three times during his tenure.
Yzerman experienced how hard it is to build a champion as a player. He was drafted in 1983. The Wings were ousted in the first round his first two years and missed the playoffs his third year. They advanced to the conference finals in 1987 and 1988, but lost both series to the Edmonton Oilers in five games.
The following year it was back to being ousted in the first round — but 1989 was also the year the Wings hit the motherlode in the draft, coming away with future Hall of Famers in defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and forward Sergei Fedorov plus defenseman Vladimiar Konstantinov. That draft was pivotal to the Wings ending their drought — not that anyone knew that at the time.
“I’m dying to have a 1989 draft,” Yzerman said. “At the time, I was on the team. You’re curious about the draft as a player on any team. You see who you got. I had played against Sergei at the World Championships. Vladdie, I think, was on that team as well. So I knew them. I played against Nick the year after he was drafted. But going into the draft the player I knew the most was Sergei. He was one of the best players on their men’s team, which was a tremendous team at that time.
“Somewhere along the line if we can get a draft that’s even half of that, I’d be thrilled.”
Yzerman’s first hand-picked rebuilding block, Moritz Seider, looks like he’ll emerge as a No. 1 defenseman. Maybe this draft will be the one that nets a No. 1 center. Players such as Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Zadina and Filip Hronek have established how they can be factors. Trade-deadline acquisition Jakub Vrana looks like he will play a role, as does Joe Veleno, who joined the team late in the season after spending the year in Sweden.
While the Wings look like they are going in the right direction, Yzerman is right to eschew drawing up a timeline. For even with the talent added in that epic 1989 draft, it took eight more years for the Wings to be the last men standing.
NEED A GRADUATION/FATHER’S DAY 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).
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 email@example.com