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 38: May 23, 1997
The backstory: The time had arrived for the Colorado Avalanche and its coach to pay the piper. After their dismal 6-0 defeat in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena, the Avs had one day to fly across the country and to figure out how to prolong their reign as Stanley Cup champions. Their boss, Marc Crawford, had to sallow his pride, publicly apologize and pay a $10,000 fine after trying to storm the Red Wings’ bench, screaming his lungs out at Scotty Bowman and drawing coast-to-coast comparisons with a lunatic. Yes, in a week, hockey life had turned hard in the Rocky Mountains. Yes, the prohibitive underdog Wings led the Western Conference finals, three games to one. Yes, only 13 times in NHL history — out of 156 instances, or 8.3% of the time — a team had overcome the 3-1 deficit of doom. But … still … the Wings expected the Avs’ best effort yet in Game 5. And … for the record … the Avs had proof in their midst that comebacks could happen. The Penguins were the last team to recover from a 3-1 hole, rebounding against the Capitals in a first-round series in 1995, which they also did in 1992. On those Washington teams was Keith Jones, a former Western Michigan Bronco and a second-line forward for the Avalanche until a knee injury in the playoffs. “Keith Jones was on those Washington teams,” Avs captain Joe Sakic reminded the media. “If you want, we can bring him out here.”
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Truth and consequences: Despite the 204 penalty minutes, bloodshed and stickwork in Game 4’s third period, the NHL did not suspend or fine any players. Crawford also escaped major punishment, except for his fine for climbing the glass that separated the benches, which counted under league bylaws as “dishonorable” conduct. Crawford, though, apologized for his rampage. And Bowman, of all people, offered an olive branch by backtracking on a reprimand directed at Crawford. “I embarrassed the league and, more important, I embarrassed my team,” Crawford said. “And for that, I am sorry. There’s no way you can justify anything like that. If you try, it’s wrong. I was wrong.” During the incident, with his eyes bulging, his arms flailing and his vocal chords exploding, Crawford was stung when Bowman told him, “I knew your father before you did, and I don’t think he’d be too proud of what you’re doing right now.” A day later, Bowman reconsidered how Floyd Crawford might view the incident. “Then again, maybe he would be (proud),” Bowman said, “because he’s a competitor. His father was an ultra-competitor.” Bowman knew the elder Crawford from his junior days with Belleville (Ontario). “He played a lot like (Vladimir) Konstantinov. He just hated to lose, and he didn’t give an inch.” Marc Crawford’s brother, Lou, played in the Buffalo organization when Bowman was general manger. “The Crawfords are tough people,” he said. “Emotions go, and sometimes they just snap.” Crawford also said he was willing to apologize directly to Bowman. “If anybody feels the need for me to apologize, I will,” he said. “I’m sorry. I really am. … You can’t justify it.”
GAME 4: Red Wings route Avalanche as fights, benches erupt
The last stand? As for Game 5 in Denver, the Wings said all the right things, including that Game 4’s mayhem would not carry over. “There’s too much at stake for all that other stuff,” said grinder Joe Kocur, who earned 14 penalty minutes and contributed an assist in Game 4. “But it will be a tough, physical game.” Martin Lapointe said: “They’ll be ready to play. … They won’t want to take any stupid penalties.” Larry Murphy said: “It’s an old cliché, but the fourth win is always the toughest one to get. It’s definitely true in this case.” The Avs, meanwhile, replaced their boasting and bravado with a dose of modesty. Well, except maybe for defenseman Adam Foote, who declared: “We’re not going to give them credit for something they didn’t do. We know what we gotta do. We just gotta do it.” But Sakic said: “Obviously, they’re playing a lot better as a team than we are right now. We’ve been playing tight. But we have a chance to regroup and get a win on home ice. Then we can worry about the next one.” Crawford said: “Our challenge in Game 5 is to find a way to get our guys to play better. … It starts by playing real sound in our end. … There’s no doubt in our minds we’re capable of playing better.”
Worth noting: Center Igor Larionov was expected to play in Game 5 despite a monster welt on his left calf, the result of a vicious Mike Keane slash during the third-period violence. “He’s not big in statue,” trainer John Wharton said, “but he’s big in heart and courage.” … Colorado superstar Peter Forsberg missed practice with what the tight-lipped Avs called a charley horse. However, he was woozy after Game 4, had trouble walking to the team bus and suffered a concussion two weeks earlier. The Free Press added: “He has been the target of intense hitting by the Wings, mostly within the rules, and has just one assist in the series.”
Out East: After Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, Drew Sharp wrote from Madison Square Garden: “As if there wasn’t enough already to build the legend that’s becoming Eric Lindros, the megastar used the final 6.8 seconds to send mouths everywhere agape in amazement.” Lindros put the Flyers on the brink of their first Stanley Cup Finals in a decade by scoring a power-play goal in the closing seconds for a 3-2 victory over the Rangers and a 3-1 lead in their series. The Flyers went on the power play with 1:35 left in regulation because Jeff Beukeboom’s high stick struck John LeClair in the face and drew blood. Mike Richter made several saves, but the Rangers couldn’t clear the zone with 15 seconds left. Ron Brind’Amour, the former Spartan, hit LeClair to Richter’s left, but not liking his angle, he slid a pass across the slot to Lindros. His backhander cleared a diving Adam Graves and Richter’s right shoulder for his fourth goal in two games. “That might have been the biggest goal I’ve had in my career,” Lindros said. “You might consider it luck, but sometimes you need luck to win.”
Off the ice: Before his birthday on May 3, Slava Kozlov had two goals in seven playoff games. Since he turned 25, he had six goals and two assists in seven games. Kozlov had a theory about his increased production, besides increased ice time and playing more often than not with other Russians. A pet rock with the word “believe” engraved across it now sat in his locker. “On my birthday, May 3, some lady sent it to me in the mail,” Kozlov said. “I just keep it and put it in my locker. It is lucky, I think.”
Famous last words: More on the Game 4 violence. From Kocur: “No one’s proud of it. Fighting is way down in the league, but it’s still going to a happen.” From Brendan Shanahan: “When you’re right in the middle of it, it’s tough to be objective. We all were certainly right in the middle of it. No one wants anybody to get hurt, but sometimes emotions get escalated.” From Arthur Pincus, NHL vice president for public relations: “We understand it’s an intense series. Do we prefer it? Do we want it to happen? No. We’re sorry it happened.”
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 email@example.com.
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 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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