Road to Stanleytown: Avalanche coach accuses Wings’ Vladimir Konstantinov of dirty tricks

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 35: May 20, 1997

The backstory: For the first time in nearly a week, the Red Wings and Avalanche could pause to catch their collective breaths. After three games in five days, the schedule for the Western Conference finals called for two off days between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit. So, the Avalanche, although down two games to one, didn’t go on the ice at all. Only a dozen Wings did so for an optional practice — just enough for a game Darren McCarty called “shinny on the lake.” His team lost. “The goalies pick the teams,” he said. “I got picked by the wrong goalie again.” While there wasn’t a lot of skating by the conference finalists, there was plenty of yapping. Colorado coach Marc Crawford led the charge by calling defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov a master of dirty tricks who deserved a penalty every shift. In turn, McCarty called his teammate a “Russian Canadian.” Crawford also said center Peter Forsberg should be drawing 45 penalties a game.

Vlad the Impaler? Crawford used his off-day news conference to attempt to convince the NHL’s referees to keep a closer eye on Konstantinov, a Norris Trophy finalist for the first time who had only two penalty minutes in the series. “We’ve got to play very physical against Konstantinov,” Crawford said. “We have to expose the fact that he’s clutching and grabbing all the time. He could get a penalty every shift he’s on the ice.” Crawford’s gripes at times, though, sounded like high praise for the Valdinator. “Konstantinov is very, very adept at grabbing the stick and holding it under his arm. … There were a number of opportunities where he had a stick under his arm and he was able to keep his feet moving and keep in the play. It’s a skill, and he’s very good at it. But it also is a penalty.” Told about Crawford’s comments, Konstantinov laughed. “He can say whatever he wants to,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him. They want to do something, and they start complaining. I just start laughing when they start complaining.” Wings coach Scotty Bowman didn’t laugh, insisting Konstantinov didn’t do “any flagrant stuff” and refused to comment on the officiating to avoid a $10,000 fine. Associate coach Dave Lewis, who played 1,008 games as an NHL defenseman, wondered whether Crawford “watched the same game I watched.” He added: “Vladdie is the ultimate competitor, and maybe he gets criticized unfairly for that. It’s something you’d like to be able to extract from Vladdie’s blood and put in some other players’ blood. He’s the kind of guy that’s always in your face, and he throws other players off that way.” His teammates vouched for him, of course. McCarthy said “I’m glad he’s on our team, because he would be a hell of a guy to play against.” Defenseman Larry Murphy said he never noticed Konstantinov clutching and grabbing. Sergei Fedorov said Konstantinov played the same way he had in their Red Army days — always tough and always aggravating. And then Avs defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre declared: “In the playoffs, you get away with a lot of things. It’s just a matter of not getting caught. Konstantinov has done a very good job of not getting caught. I’d like to get away with the things he gets away with.”

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An avalanche of comments: Although down 2-1 in the series, Colorado took solace that it played much better in Game 3’s 2-1 loss. Asked about the necessity to win Game 4, Crawford said tersely, “Losing Thursday is not an option.” Captain Joe Sakic said: “We played better in the last game, and there’s still another level we can reach. I’m sure in Game 4 we’re going to do that.” Lefebvre said: “The Wings said they should have won the first game. We feel we should have won Game 3.”

An avalanche of no comments: The Avalanche, though, was tight-lipped about a meeting involving the four team captains after Game 3. There were heated comments in the locker room. Keith Gave wrote in the Free Press: “Goalie Patrick Roy is rattled. Witnesses saw Roy, who appeared agitated, being settled down by veteran teammates, including Sakic, outside the team bus. … Strange, but isn’t Roy supposed to be a calming influence on his team?” Alternate captain Mike Keene, who famously called the Wings gutless and homers after Fight Night at The Joe, did admit: “Some players had some things to say. That was the time to say it.”

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Out East: The Flyers regained home-ice advantage over the Rangers with a 6-3 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden. Eric Lindros, limited to two shots on goal in the opening two games, recorded the first playoff hat trick of his five-year career. He had three shots in the first period and six for the game — half of which went in. “You saw tonight what kind of a great player he really is,” said Flyers coach Terry Murray. In goal, Philadelphia used Ron Hextall, who replaced Garth Snow after he surrendered five goals on the Rangers’ first 10 shots of Game 2. Hextall played brilliantly for two periods, until Russ Courtnall scored twice in the first 4:02 of the final period. That tied the game at 2. New York’s Wayne Gretzky tied it again at 3 with 5:39 to play. Thirty-eight seconds later, the Flyers went ahead for good when Trent Klatt converted a two-on-one. Less than two minutes later, Rod Brind’Amour, the former Spartan, scored on a breakaway. And in the final minute, Lindros completed his hat trick with an empty-netter.

Off the ice: The Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who gave the Wings all they could handle in the second round, fired Windsor native Ron Wilson, the only coach in their four-year history. Wilson just had led the Ducks to their first winning season, playoff berth and series victory (over Phoenix in seven games). “I am very disappointed and hurt,” Wilson said. “I’ll have to get this Mighty Ducks tattoo off my rear. I didn’t argue about this dismissal. I’m not going to beg for a job. … My dad, Larry, who was fired by the Red Wings, told me you become a better coach after the first time you’re let go.” The late Larry Wilson, who won a Stanley Cup as a center for the Wings in 1950, coached the team to a 3-29-4 record in 1976-77 and never was an NHL head coach again. General manager Jack Ferreira said Wilson was fired not because of money or his record but for “philosophical differences.” The Associated Press reported Ducks management was unhappy Wilson had become too much of a one-man show. Ferreira admitted: “Let’s put it this way: Ron’s a good coach. He’s also a good quote.” Wilson, 41, wasn’t expected to be unemployed for long. The Bruins, Canadiens, Coyotes and Sharks all had openings. During the Wings’ sweep of the Ducks — which featured a single overtime, double overtime and triple overtime games — Wilson’s name was bandied about as a possible successor to Bowman, whose coaching contract expired after the season.

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Famous last words: Crawford took potshots at the Wings’ defensive corps: Nicklas Lidstrom, Slava Fetisov, Bob Rouse, rookie Aaron Ward, Konstantinov and Murphy. Crawford’s comments were aimed mostly at Fetisov and Murphy, who weren’t the swiftest skaters as they approached age 40. “We finished checks,” Crawford said, “and when you’re doing that against that defense, you’re going to cause them to cough the puck up a lot more often. They play basically with five defensemen, and they’re not the quickest group of defense that you ever assembled in the NHL. They are very, very effective if you give them time, but if you don’t give them time, then they’re vulnerable.” Elsewhere, Dave Perkins wrote in the Toronto Star: “Just imagine, though, the final dagger thrust to Leafs fans being Larry Murphy’s winning a Stanley Cup ring. Yeah, him. The player who caused those knowledgeable Toronto fans to make bovine noises whenever he touched the puck.”

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 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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