Road to Stanleytown: 1997 Detroit Red Wings dominate Game 1 vs. Avalanche — and lose

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 30: May 15, 1997

The backstory: Three hundred and 51 days after Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face with a cheap shot into the boards and the Colorado Avalanche ended the Red Wings’ 62-victory season in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the bitter enemies embarked on another series to determine who would play for the Stanley Cup. Despite all the anticipation in Michigan and Colorado — and really all the hockey-playing world because of the intensity of the rivalry and the large cast of international stars — Game 1 should have been canceled. Because it was boom-boom, out go the lights at Denver’s McNichols Arena a half-hour before the scheduled opening face-off. A generator failure on a stormy night knocked out the power. Backup generators immediately kicked in — but not for the entire 22-year-old arena. Concession areas, restrooms and the press arena were without power. WJR-AM (760) improvised by broadcasting over the phone in the dark for the entire game. Ken Kal and Paul Woods took turns talking. “It’s like being roommates and you’re on the same line,” Kal said. “You keep passing it back and forth and hope the operator doesn’t cut you off.” The ice, however, wasn’t a laughing matter. Two failed compressors — after a 77-degree afternoon — led to mushy conditions. Puddles formed throughout the rink. Heavy traffic areas, such as in front of the benches, near the goalmouths and in the corners were so soft, it looked as if players were skating in sand. Yet, because there was enough power for the TV feeds, the NHL decided the show must go on. “We just kept our fingers crossed,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. To which Keith Gave wrote in the Free Press: “Which is pretty much how this league operates.”

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The rest of the story: Unlike the 1996 conference finals, the teams had swapped roles a year later. In 1996, the Wings were the heavy favorite after those record-setting 62 regular-season victories and the Presidents’ Trophy. The Avs were no slouches as the second seed, after a 104-point season and having notched the league’s second-most goals, but the Wings recorded 27 more points and, although scoring one fewer goal, allowed 59 fewer goals than Colorado during the season.

In 1997, the Avs were the prohibitive favorite. They were the defending Stanley Cup champions — having swept the Florida Panthers after breaking the Wings’ hearts and Draper’s face — won the Presidents’ Trophy with 107 points and scored the most goals. The Wings’ regular season was considered a significant disappointment. They finished second behind Dallas in the Central Division with 94 points — a staggering 38-point drop from the previous season — but they allowed the second-fewest goals (one more than Dallas) and scored the sixth most (24 fewer than Colorado). Plus, the Wings had tweaked their roster by getting bigger and stronger, goaltender Mike Vernon, after a subpar, injury plagued season, was playing the best hockey of his career and, as the playoffs progressed, Detroit had committed to a disciplined approach to team defense, physical play and retaliatory penalties.

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Game 1: The Wings deserved to win the opener, dominating the Avalanche for all but a five-minute stretch of the third period, when Colorado scored its goals in a 2-1 victory. The Wings had three times as many scoring changes and nearly twice as many shots (35-19). Yet, the game was scoreless entering the final period. At 1:13, Brendan Shanahan knocked in a one-timer following passes from Martin Lapointe and Steve Yzerman. But only 27 seconds later, after Valeri Kamensky’s backhander hit the post, Avs captain Joe Sakic put the puck through Vernon’s five-hole. Mitch Albom described what happened 4½ minutes later this way: “And then we had a bad sense of déjà vu. Here came a fast break by the very fast Avalanche players — who make Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers look as if they wore cement boots. Boom, boom, boom. A terrific setup pass by wondrous Joe Sakic, a rifle assist by evil Claude Lemieux and a quick death score by omnipresent Mike Ricci.”

Afterward, Shanahan said with a sigh, “They don’t need many chances to cash in.” Yzerman said: “They’re really great scoring off the rush. They’re probably the best team in the league at that.” The rest of the game was, well, like the rest of the game. Albom wrote: “The rest was just a portrait of Wings frustration — a déjà vu of its own. It was Sergei Fedorov at point-blank range, smacking the puck off of Patrick Roy’s stick, and Vladimir Konstantinov slapping a dead-sure shot off Roy’s body, and Martin Lapointe digging and digging and finally chipping the puck free from Roy’s skate — only to have the whistle blow with the puck an inch from pay dirt.” Before long, it was over and the Wings had lost for the first time in seven games. In the locker room, they lamented what might have been and what they knew should have been. “We had a lapse,” Shanahan said. “I thought after we scored, we sat back for a bit. … To not come away with a win is disappointing.” “We held our own,” Larry Murphy said. “That makes it hard to swallow.” Across the way, the Free Press reported “the smiles in the Colorado locker room were about as bright as the hallways. … Tentative play by the Avalanche dampened its celebration.” Forward Eric Lacroix said: “We weren’t too happy with the way we played the first two periods. We kind of sat back a little.” Ricci, a nemesis with three goals and eight points in the 1996 series, said: “We were very unhappy with our power play. … We’re just going to go back to basics.” Defenseman Adam Foote said: “We can’t take bad penalties in the playoffs. It’ll cost you most nights, but tonight it didn’t.” Roy said: “I don’t think we played our best game of the playoffs. The good thing is we still found a way to win.”

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Worth noting: Referee Terry Gregson laid down the law right from the get-go. With a slew of NHL bigshots in the arena, at least partially to ensure Fight Night at the McNich didn’t erupt, Gregson called everything. Often, Wings coach Scotty Bowman shook his head in disgust, especially when Peter Forsberg drew two penalties 32 seconds apart in the first period — a charge on Slava Kozlov and a trip on Kirk Maltby. Even though the Avs were scoring on 38% of their playoff power plays, the Wings killed off the five-on-three, helped when Lemieux cross-checked Konstantinov from behind. … The Wings killed all five Colorado power plays, but went 0-for-6 themselves. For the playoffs, the Avs successfully had defended 51 of 54 power plays. … Forsberg appeared fully recovered from his concussion in the previous series against Edmonton. … Kozlov and Fedorov, with three shots apiece, outshot the entire Avalanche team in the second period, when Colorado had two. … Lemieux’s seven-game goal-scoring streak ended two shy of Reggie Leach’s 1976 record set with Philadelphia. … Free Press headlines: Page 1A — A pass, a shot — a sense of déjà vu. Sports front — Avs draw first blood.

Off the ice: The goal judges didn’t have power for their red lights. So, they were issued white towels.

Famous last words: Albom concluded his column: “And so the Wings begin this series just as they began last year’s — down a game. Still, there were reasons to be optimistic. They played well. No one got hurt. Vernon was generally excellent. And all they realistically hoped to do out here was win one game. If the teams play a similar contest Saturday, the Wings have a chance. Of course, so do the Avs. But no one said this would be an easy series. They did say the lights would work.”

BEFORE THE SERIES: Patrick Roy jabs Scotty Bowman on eve of Game 1

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 RedWings.PictorialBook.com. (It’ll make a great Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via myersgene@comcast.net.

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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