Road to Stanleytown: Detroit Red Wings luck out with home ice for West semifinals

Detroit Free Press
Gene Myers |  Special to Detroit Free Press

In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

The Free Press has commemorated that historic quest with a new book: “Stanleytown: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 14: April 29, 1997

The backstory: The Red Wings returned to practice during the day before their next opponent was determined throughout the night. A pair of Game 7’s — Edmonton at Dallas and Phoenix at Anaheim — finally set the pairings for the Western Conference semifinals.

At Detroit: Since they didn’t know whether to prepare for the Stars, Mighty Ducks or Coyotes when taking the ice at Joe Louis Arena, the Wings played each other. Their scrimmage featured the line combinations that were so successful in Game 5 and 6 victories over St. Louis: the Russians, Steve Yzerman with Brendan Shanahan and Kris Draper’s Grind Line.

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At Dallas: With a victory over the seventh-seeded Oilers, the second-seeded Stars would have played the third-seeded Wings and owned home-ice advantage. But the Stars lost in overtime for the third time in the series, 4-3. Todd Marchant scored the game-winner at 12:26 on a breakaway, moments after Edmonton’s Curtis Joseph made a spectacular, diving backhanded glove save on Joe Nieuwendyk. “That was the greatest save I’ve ever seen,” said Oilers forward Doug Weight, a Warren native. The Oilers earned a semifinal matchup with the top-seeded Colorado Avalanche. And the Oilers’ victory ensured the Wings would play the fourth-seeded Mighty Ducks or the fifth-seeded Coyotes.

At Anaheim: Through six games, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya had scored 10 of the Ducks’ 14 goals. So it was a surprise when Dave Karpa’s slap shot from the point beat Nikolai Khabibulin only 3:11 into Game 7. When the Ducks, in their first playoff series since joining the league in 1993-94, added two more goals by the midpoint of the second period, well, their 3-0 victory was signed, sealed and delivered. Jason La Canfora wrote from the Pond for the Free Press: “The Ducks were up, 3-0 — a safe lead for any team, a virtually insurmountable lead for a team that traps as well as Anaheim. They could have used the second intermission to begin preparations for the Red Wings.” During the season, Detroit struggled mightily against the trapping Ducks, going 0-3-1 and getting outscored, 7-3. Game 1 was announced for three nights later at The Joe.

Off the ice: An era ended when Blues center Craig MacTavish announced his retirement a few months shy of his 39th birthday. He was the last player in the NHL to play without a helmet. He made his debut in December 1979, with Boston, right before the NHL mandated headgear. His final game was against the Red Wings, a Game 3 loss in the first round of the playoffs. “Whether someone else would choose to go without one, I hope not,” McTavish said. “I hope not for their sake. Certainly, it’s very dangerous out there without a helmet.” He won three Stanley Cups with the Oilers and one with the Rangers.

Famous last words: After practice, Draper only could laugh when asked whether he had a playoff preference among the Stars, Ducks and Coyotes. “Well,” he said, “we didn’t fare too well against any of them in the regular season, eh? But it’s a whole different ballgame in the playoffs. I haven’t really thought about who I’d like to face. It doesn’t matter — all three places have warm weather, so I’ll be all right with that.”

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Relive the glory: The Free Press has crafted a 208-page, full-color, hardcover collector’s book with fresh insights and dynamic storytelling about the 1996-97 Wings. It’s called “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story on How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” It’s only $29.95 and it’s available at (It’ll make a great Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via

More to read: Another new Wings book arrived in April from Keith Gave, a longtime hockey writer for the Free Press in the 1980s and 1990s: “Vlad The Impaler: More Epic Tales from Detroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest.” It is available through Amazon and other booksellers and a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Vladimir Konstantinov Special Needs Trust. (Plenty of Gave’s prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

Even more to read: Red Wings beat reporter Helene St. James, who helped cover the 1997 Stanley Cup run, recently wrote “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Detroit Red Wings.” Featuring numerous tales about the key figures from 1997, “The Big 50” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. (Plenty of St. James’ prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

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