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 36: May 21, 1997
The backstory: In the 1991 playoffs, the Red Wings beat the Blues, 4-3, in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena for a 3-1 series lead in the first round. Forget for a moment the Wings lost the series by dropping Games 5, 6 and 7 by a combined score of 12-3. Rarely in the team’s recent history had the Wings played a Game 4 at home with the opportunity to take a 3-1 series lead, which more often than not is the deficit of doom in the NHL. But in one night, the Wings would have that opportunity against the Avalanche, the defending Stanley Cup champion, in the Western Conference finals. In 1966, in the Cup finals, the Wings could have gone up, 3-1, on Montreal but lost, 2-1 (and were eliminated in six games). In 1964, in the semifinals, the Wings could have gone up, 3-1, on Chicago but lost, 3-2 in overtime (but advanced in seven games). And in the 1964 Cup finals, the Wings could have gone up, 3-1, on Toronto but lost, 4-2 (and were eliminated in seven games). In 1961, in the semifinals, the Wings could have gone up, 3-1, on Toronto and won, 4-1 (and advanced in five games). So, for only the sixth time in 36 years, the Wings were in a position to take a 3-1 lead at home. They had succeeded twice and failed thrice. Only two Wings remained from the 1991 team: Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. On the eve of Game 4, Colorado goalie Patrick Roy and coach Marc Crawford continued their yapping. For Detroit, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov admitted he wanted to be considered “the bad boy.”
Down but defiant: Despite the Avs’ two-games-to-one deficit, Roy didn’t lack for bravado. Keith Gave described it in the Free Press: “If the late comic actor John Belushi spoke with a French accent, he would sound a lot like Patrick Roy. You remember that scene in the movie ‘Animal House’ when Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky gave the famous frat-house speech: ‘Over? It’s not over until we say it’s over.’ Well, Roy delivered that speech in as many arrogant words, essentially telling the Red Wings to bring their best or expect the worst. Coming as close to guaranteeing a victory as a guy can get without actually saying the words, Roy poke-checked the onus squarely on the Wings. ‘Everybody’s ready for Game 4,’ Roy said, speaking in no uncertain terms for his teammates and taunting the Wings. ‘I really want to see how much Detroit is ready to play. That’s what I want to see.’ Uh, Patrick, Detroit enters leading the Stanley Cup semifinals, 2-1, buddy. ‘It kind of makes me laugh about the reaction from the media saying we’re in trouble and all that,’ Roy said. ‘We don’t care what’s happened so far. It’s what’s going to happen from now until the end of the series. And it’s time for us to win.’ Such talk doesn’t surprise anyone in the Wings’ locker room.”
Crawfordspeak: Crawford on Game 4: “We’re going to be better in a lot of areas. We’re going to forecheck better. We’ll go to the net better. We’ll be in the face of the Detroit Red Wings as a team better. That’s what it’s going to take.” Crawford on Roy: “The thing about Patrick that makes him great is he backs up everything he says. Patrick is a great competitor. When he talks, people listen. He’s a very charismatic guy. He does a great job as a leader on our team. He doesn’t talk just to be heard. He talks when he has something to say.”
Crawford vs. Konstantinov: A day after Crawford said Konstantinov was a master of dirty tricks and deserved a penalty on every shift, Konstantinov kept smiling and laughing. “He’s thinking I’m bad? I like this,” the Vladinator said. “I want to be the bad boy.” Bending the rules? “A hockey game is cheating. If you’re not cheating, you can’t win. You need to come out and do things nobody knows about.” Time in the penalty box? “The ref pays attention to me all the time for the last six years. I know what to do. I just need to control my emotions a little, try to skate away when they hit from behind after the whistle.” Konstantinov did take exception when a reporter tried to compare him to Colorado antagonist Claude Lemieux because of much how they irritated opponents. “No,” he said emphatically. “We’re different. Much different.”
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They said it: From Lemieux: “When you start looking next to you for the answer, the problem is probably within you. We’ve got some leaders on this team, and I’m one of them. I have to step it up; I have to play better. Other guys know they have to play better, and the entire group has to play better. We’ve addressed that and we’re ready for it.” From Konstantinov: “I remember last year. They never talked about our players or anything. They just went out and played the game. Now they talk and talk. I think the reason they start talking is because there’s something wrong. Our team? We just go out and play.” From Kris Draper: “Respect has to be earned, and the way things went last year, they beat us in six games. They not only earned the respect of this hockey club, but the respect of the whole league. … Why should they respect our hockey club? Hopefully, though, we can go out and earn it.”
Off the ice: From early January to the middle of March, the Wings lost or tied 11 games that they led in the third period. That’s hardly the trait of a Stanley Cup contender. When associate coach Barry Smith returned in early April after a three-month sabbatical to coach in Sweden, he questioned the Wings’ conditioning. “The attitude at that point in time was, ‘OK, it’s time to put the hammer down,’” Smith said. “Let’s start getting ourselves doing the extra things we have to do.” That meant hitting the stationary bikes after games. That meant pumping iron in the weight room. “Give credit to the boys,” Smith said. “They’re the ones that did it.” In the playoffs, the Wings had owned the third period and overtime. “We’re seeing the conditioning benefits in the playoffs,” trainer John Wharton said. The Wings had outscored teams, 14-6, in the third period and 3-0 in overtimes. They had outshot teams, 208-143, in those periods. Their defense had been outstanding, led by Mike Vernon’s 1.08 goals-against average and .958 save percentage in those periods. Wharton said he also was impressed by the players’ eating habits before and after games and how they were getting enough rest, especially on the road. The health-kick leader, naturally, was Yzerman at age 32. “You see Stevie Y in there getting on the bike,” Draper said, “and it makes it that much easier to work out.”
Famous last words: From Konstantinov: “Last year, we had a great skill team and many great players. This year, we have a lot of guys who can run players. We can be in their face. It’s very important to do the dirty job like that so the skill players can score goals.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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