Road to Stanleytown: What Red Wings were thinking entering crucial Game 2 vs. Avalanche

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 31, May 16, 1997

The backstory: A new transformer in place, Ice Station McNichols remained a dump but at least it once again was a dump without puddles. So, the Red Wings and Avalanche practiced in relative peace between Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals. The NHL, its ice specialist and McNichols Arena’s facility manager assured the hockey world that there would no repeat of the power issues and the melting issues that plagued Game 1. The teams, meanwhile, acted unexpectedly after Colorado’s 2-1 series-opening victory. Jason La Canfora wrote in the Free Press: “The Red Wings aren’t looking to make any major changes after Game 1. The Avalanche is eager to watch tape, make adjustments and improve its effort. Can you guess which team won? The Wings were clearly the better team and dominated in almost every facet. That’s not always enough against the quick-strike Avalanche offense and superhuman goalie Patrick Roy.”

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The defending champions: Although the prohibitive favorite and the Stanley Cup champion, the Avalanche criticized its performance, praised the Wings and vowed to improve. “They played a great game and the play was in our end more than we’d like,” defenseman Aaron Miller said. “We have to put more pressure on them.” Center Peter Forsberg said: “We didn’t play well at all. We have to watch some tape and make adjustments. We’re happy we got the win, but we have to step it up. They played better than us.” Defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre said: “We have to play better and make sure we don’t give up as many shots and that we get more shots.” The Wings held a 35-19 edge. Coach Marc Crawford addressed an 0-for-5 power play: “We didn’t seem to all be in sync with one another. It seemed like there was a lot of individualism going on the power play.”

GAME 1: Wings dominate Avalanche — and lose in wacky opener

The challengers: Coach Scotty Bowman had little criticism about the Wings’ play. He wanted players to attack the net more and control more loose pucks — just like every coach in the history of hockey. “We’re proud of the way we played,” he said. “It’s a catch-22. You can’t be satisfied when you lose, but you have to be proud that we were able to play as well as we did.” The players moved past their disappointment in the locker room after Game 1 and professed confidence of ultimate victory. “We wanted to get off a lot of shots and we did that,” grinder Kris Draper said. “We wanted to have a physical game and we did that. The bottom line is winning and unfortunately with the game we played, we weren’t able to do that. But, with that said, there’s still a lot of confidence in this dressing room.” Goalie Mike Vernon said: “I don’t think they were at the top of their game, but we didn’t let them play at the top of their game, either. We had a good forecheck going and the majority of play was in their end. The team as a whole should feel positive we held them to two goals and 20 shots.” Grinder Darren McCarty said: “We’re confident we can do something special if we stick together. We all feel we played a pretty good game, but not good enough. We’ve been in this situation before. Something like this happens to every team in the playoffs. We can bounce back.” Forward Martin Lapointe offered a specific strategy to beat Roy: “He made some good saves, but he’s not invincible. He gives away a lot of rebounds in the high slot. We’ve got to jump on those.”

The blood feud: Crawford accused the Wings of targeting Forsberg, who missed the final two games of the conference semifinals against Edmonton because of a concussion. He was the Avalanche’s best skater and was all over the ice setting put plays and drawing penalties, although he admitted he tired in the third period because he hadn’t played in a week. Crawford pointed out defenseman Larry Murphy slashed Forsberg in the leg. “When a guy like Larry Murphy, who’s not known to do that, is doing it, you know it’s one of their ploys.” In turn, Crawford wanted the Avs to step up their physical play on offensive catalysts Steve Yzerman and Igor Larionov. “That’s just common sense,” Crawford said.

THE FUTURE: Where GM Steve Yzerman sees a fit for Wings’ top 2021 draft pick Simon Edvinsson

Out East: In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the third-seeded Flyers dominated the fifth-seeded Rangers, 3-1. Philadelphia’s Legion of Doom line — big bodies Eric Lindros (6 feet 4, 240 pounds), John LeClair (6-3, 225) and Dainius Zubrus (6-5, 225) — scored 148 seconds into the game, and the Flyers didn’t surrender a goal until 10 seconds remained. Zubrus scored the first goal; Lindros and LeClair assisted on all three goals. “We’ve got some big guys, and we’re going to bang some bodies and stir up some loose pucks,” Philadelphia coach Terry Murray said. The Rangers lost Game 1 for their ninth straight series, dating to the 1994 conference finals, but rallied to win six of the series.

Off the ice: A heart attack. That was the final verdict on why a transformer in one of the arena’s three power stations failed right before Game 1. Fred Luetzen, McNichols’ facility manager, said he didn’t think severe thunderstorms or a hot afternoon caused the problem. “This transformer is 22 years old,” he said. “Its life expectancy is way beyond that. But you see a 42-year-old man have a heart attack. Our substation had a heart attack. It’s been dismantled and sent to California to be rebuilt, and we’ve had a temporary one installed in its place. I can laugh about it now, but I couldn’t Thursday night.” Although the Game 2 forecast called for more late-afternoon thunderstorms and temperatures in the 80s, there was no cause for concern, according to Dan Craig, ice specialist for the Oilers and an NHL consultant. (The Free Press called him Mr. Freeze in a headline.) “Warm days don’t bother us at all,” he said. “We’ll have the ice manicured and ready.” Maybe the Wings will have hot water again in their locker room, which they didn’t after the opener.

Famous last words: From Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post: “There’s a hazardous building in Denver the NHL wants condemned. The Stanley Cup champions live in a dump. And the Colorado Avalanche loves it, because everybody else hates McNichols Sports Arena.”

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 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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