Road to Stanleytown: Mike Vernon’s magical 1997 Red Wings playoff ride just beginning

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 28: May 13, 1997

The backstory: With the opener of the Western Conference finals two days away, the Red Wings held their final practice at Joe Louis Arena and flew to Denver. The Wings and Avalanche made little news and did little to fan the flames of the supercharged rivalry.

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In Denver: Avs two-way superstar Peter Forsberg participated in a full practice one week after suffering a concussion, and pronounced himself fit for Game 1. “I’m a little tired,” he said. “I might be a little bit rusty in the beginning, but hopefully I can get it going by the second or third period.” He was the Avs’ leading scorer during the regular season with 86 points.

In Detroit: Wings grinder Kris Draper said he was bracing himself for a barrage of negative attention in Denver from fans and media. “I’ve never gone into another arena being the bad guy,” he said. “I know right off the bat they’re going to want to come after me. Or Mac. Or Vernie. Or Igor. Heck, he’s the one who started it all that last game. I think they’ll be able to spread it around, as far as guys to hate.” Mac, of course, was Darren McCarty, who on March 26 at The Joe pummeled Claude Lemieux for his cheap shot on Draper in the 1996 conference finals. Vernie was Mike Vernon, the goalie who blooded Patrick Roy in a center-ice battle. Igor Larionov, who never had thrown a punch in his professional career, ignited the free-for-all by standing up to Forsberg along the boards.

Ref from Wings-Avs brawl reveals why Darren McCarty stayed in game: ‘Paybacks are a bitch’ ]

The Big Picture: Mitch Albom in the Free Press wrote about Vernon, who struggled during the season, remained in a contact dispute and somehow started playing the best hockey of his long career with a 1.80 goals-against average. Albom wrote: “Vernon went from backup to frontrunner. From sitter to starter. From expendable to invaluable. It is one of the most magical stories in the NHL playoffs. Vernon is 34, in his 14th NHL season, and since he spends nights trying to stop a small piece of rubber from getting past him, you’d think funny bounces would not catch him off guard. You would be wrong. ‘Don’t ask me; I have no idea why Scotty (Bowman) started me in the playoffs,’ he says. ‘I didn’t ask him. I haven’t asked him. But I was as shocked as anyone.’ … How crazy is this? If the Wings go on to win the championship, and Vernon stays in net, he will end up winning more games in the playoffs than he did all regular season.” Albom called Vernon’s personality “as layered as his equipment.” Albom wrote: “He can be, at times, all of the following: intelligent, belligerent, talkative, curt, gentle, abrupt, humorous and devoid of a sense of humor. ‘I have my moods,’ Vernon admits. ‘I can be a bear with a sore ass.’”

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Off the ice: This was life in the late 1990s: For five bucks, the Wings announced, fans could watch the road games on a big-screen TV at The Joe. Festivities were to include a light show, Al the Octopus and hot tubs. Also, tickets for the home games were to go on sale, although they already were spoken for because fans had to line up a few days earlier for the right to purchase them.

Famous last words: Avalanche captain Joe Sakic on Forsberg, 23: “He’s the biggest part of our team. When he’s out there, I think it really backs other teams up and gives us two solid lines that can really do some damage. He’s such a complete player at such an early age. He’s one of the top two or three players in the league.”

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

DAY 27: Road to Stanleytown: Wings try to quell emotions in run-up to Avs rematch

DAY 26: Road to Stanleytown: Wings confident ahead of semifinal rematch with Avs

DAY 25: Road to Stanleytown: Why Steve Yzerman admitted Wings were ‘different’

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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