Why the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup win still means so much, 25 years later

Detroit Free Press

The 2021-22 season marks the 25th anniversary of the Detroit Red Wings‘ 1996-97 season, in which they snapped a Stanley Cup drought of more than four decades. To commemorate the anniversary — for one of the most-beloved championship teams in the history of Detroit sports — the Free Press has crafted a new hardcover book, “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” “Stanleytown 25 Years Later” costs $39.95, but you can save $10 by preordering at RedWings.PictorialBook.com. The book will ship Sept. 24. The following is an excerpt from that book: 

In the end it wasn’t close. It couldn’t have been. Not after what the Red Wings had been through the previous two seasons. Not after what the fans had been through the previous 41.

A sweep?

Of course.

It had to be that way. And when the final seconds ticked off in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and captain Steve Yzerman leaped into the arms of goalie Mike Vernon, and the Wings finally — FINALLY! — had won the Cup, it felt like relief.

But also joy.

Unadulterated. Boundless. Liberating.

The kind of joy only felt when a franchise and those who loved it slip out from four-plus decades of … well, misery? Heartache? How about history? Even now, 25 seasons later, the rumble from old Joe Louis Arena reverberates.

[ How to order new book commemorating Red Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup ]

The elation lasted for days, weeks, heck, throughout that summer of 1997. You could hear it on the streets, where cars blared their horns. You could see it there, too, as drivers festooned their windows with flags of the Winged Wheel, flapping in the breeze, a red-and-white rainbow that stretched from the

Ambassador Bridge to the Mackinac Bridge and back.

Hockey might not have the broad appeal of football or even baseball, and we can debate where basketball falls into the mix. But on the June night the Wings clinched the Cup, after all the pain and disappointment and the finals sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils two seasons before, after all that, the Wings grabbed the hearts of everyone.

And made them whole again.

No wonder folks crammed, jammed and stuffed themselves onto Woodward Avenue to celebrate, whooping and howling and serenading Yzerman and Vernon and Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov and Kris Draper and Igor Larionov and Darren

McCarty, who scored the put-away goal in Game 4 on a slick crossover that’s still talked about today.

A million people showed up at the parade that day. A million more would tell you they were there. That’s how it goes when you make history, and everyone wants a piece of it.

And that’s how it goes for the 1996-97 Wings, who scuffled a bit through the regular season, who looked, at times, as if they’d missed their window when they lost in consecutive playoffs after blistering opponents both winters, who couldn’t quite shake the questions about toughness and grit and, let’s just say it: heart.

Not that those questions were fair. Hockey is like that. Puck luck and all that.

Still, when the Wings welcomed the Colorado Avalanche in late March — OK, welcomed isn’t quite right. How about when the Wings suited up at The Joe on March 26 to play the Avs after having lost to them the three previous meetings that season, the questions were growing louder.

Could they skate with their rival? Or, more accurately, their nemesis?

Colorado knocked them out of the playoffs the season before. Handled them easily, truthfully. And the pattern held through the next season until that night in late March, and McCarty pummeled Claude Lemieux, and the teams brawled, six-on-six for a while.

The Wings won in overtime. They answered a few questions.

Mostly their own.

“It was that one game where we felt like everything sort of came together for us against Colorado,” Shanahan said two decades later. “That was the real switch for us and Colorado, where we gained a psychological advantage and carried that into the playoffs and really played well against them in the playoffs.”

Shanahan said that game was the most important of that era. Not just the fighting, but how it galvanized the team.

From there, the Wings bullied their way through the playoffs, dismantling the Blues and the Mighty Ducks before performing an exorcism against the Avalanche. By the time they reached the Flyers in the finals, there was no question. And no chance … for Philadelphia.

What felt impossible six weeks earlier felt inevitable in the lead-up to the series. Yeah, Philadelphia was big. Yeah, the Flyers had Eric Lindros, the future of the league at the time. Which only added to the motivation for the Wings.

Not that they needed it.

Besides, there was always someone else, right?

When Yzerman was in his prime, gliding across the ice like few others, he did so in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky and then Mario Lemieux. He was a great player, an all-time player, but the third-best player of his generation.

You could say that was a metaphor for the franchise he made his own, and for the city he played in as well. All of that played into the euphoria when he and the team finally won the Stanley Cup on June 7, 1997. And all of it played into the region, too.

You want to know why a million people celebrated together and a few million more celebrated apart the rest of the summer?

There it is.

As Yzerman said the night the Red Wings clinched the Cup:

“They always say, ‘He’s a good player, but he didn’t win it.’ And now they can’t say that anymore. No matter what, they can’t say it.”

He was talking about himself, of course. But he was talking about his city, too. The Wings’ city. And the moment four decades of weight faded away.

You don’t have to try hard to feel the freedom even now.

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