Road to Stanleytown: 1997 Detroit Red Wings frozen out by Avs in Western finals Game 5

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 39: May 24, 1997

The backstory: The Red Wings needed one more victory to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons and earn another shot at their first Cup since 1955. Everything was trending in the Wings’ favor. They led the Colorado Avalanche, 3-1 , in the Western Conference finals. They humiliated the Avs, 6-0, in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena. They dominated for all but short stretches during the entire series. Yet, every fan knew the Avs hadn’t played their best hockey, defending Stanley Cup champions didn’t go down without a fight and the Wings had won at Denver’s McNichols Arena only two times in 366 days.

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On this Memorial Day weekend, while the Wings were in Denver, the Stanley Cup actually was in Detroit. As part of a Bring the Cup Home sweepstakes, in which the winner would get the Cup for a day, hockey’s Holy Grail was displayed at JCPenney stores in Westland, Southland and Oakland malls. As much as the Wings longed for the Stanley Cup, their first order of business was to win — but not touch, according to superstition — the Clarence Campbell Bowl, awarded to the Western champion since expansion in 1967-68. The trophy, named for the NHL president from 1946-77, was crafted by a British silversmith in 1878.

Tables turned: The Campbell Bowl was in the building, but by the end of the opening period there wasn’t a chance the Wings would be tempted to touch it. For the first time, Colorado dominated Detroit. First, Yves Sarault leveled Larry Murphy behind the away goal, setting the tone as the Avs outhit the Wings for a change. Next, Claude Lemieux scored his league-leading 13th goal at 6:46, ending Colorado’s 92-minute, nine-second scoring drought, breaking a tie with Gordie Howe with his 70th playoff tally and equaling Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time.

Then, Lemieux scored again at 11:04, putting the Wings down by two goals for just the fifth time in the playoffs. Lemieux leaped twice to celebrate his goal. When Joe Sakic made it 3-0 at 15:34, the Avalanche was on its way to a 6-0 victory, reversing the Game 4 score. Along the way, the Wings didn’t rule the neutral zone and committed too many turnovers. “There wasn’t one good thing to say about this team,” Brendan Shanahan said. “Not a single player was happy with his game. It’s almost appropriate we got shellacked. It’s a good wake-up call.”

Vernie victimized: Mike Vernon’s night ended after Stephane Yelle, in his second game after knee surgery, scored at 2:23 of the second period. Often left without any help, Vernon surrendered the four goals on 11 shots. “At that point in time,” coach Scotty Bowman said, “we weren’t playing well enough to pull out the win, and he’s had a long stretch. He’s had no relief at all.”

Chris Osgood made his second mop-up appearance, gave up second-period goals to Sakic and Scott Young and stopped 15 of 17 shots. Colorado’s Patrick Roy, yanked in Game 4 after two periods and five goals, stopped 32 shots for his third shutout in nine home games and the 11th of his career. “I just have to give credit to the guys in front of me,” Roy said. “This was the best game we’ve played. We were outstanding as a team.”

DAY 38: Apologies abound from Marc Crawford, Scotty Bowman before Game 5

DAY 37: Red Wings route Avs in Game 4 as fights, benches erupt

DAY 36: Patrick Roy yapping, Vladimir Konstantinov laughing ahead of Game 4

Coachspeak: Bowman’s analysis of a miserable Saturday night: “They took the attack early in the first period. Obviously, we didn’t have enough attack. … We didn’t go after rebounds. … We didn’t shoot high when we could have shot high. … We didn’t screen. If you don’t do those things, you probably come out with a shutout against you.”

From Colorado coach Marc Crawford: “It was a good performance tonight, but we have to have a great performance, our best road game of the year, in Detroit. We know that. We’re well aware of it.”

Worth noting: Peter Forsberg tested a leg injury during warm-ups but was scratched at the last minute. Sarault took his place. Sakic centered his line with Valeri Kamensky and Lemieux. They combined for nine points: four assists for Kamensky, two goals and an assist for Sakic and two goals for Lemieux. … Turned out that the NHL did fine two Avs for their roles in Game 4’s third-period violence: Sandis Ozolinsh for slashing Tomas Sandstrom and Mike Keane for slashing Igor Larionov. Amounts were not revealed, but the maximum fine allowed was $1,000. … Each team went 0-for-6 on the power play. … There would be little rest before Game 6, scheduled for the evening of Memorial Day at Joe Louis Arena.

Off the ice: “Hockey Night in Canada” provocateur Don Cherry didn’t take kindly to comments Bowman made on the eve of Game 4. Irked that so many in the media were saying the Wings were winning easily and should end the series in five games, Bowman picked on his old CBC buddy in particular. “I told him, ‘I enjoy watching you as long as you don’t start believing the things you are saying,’” Bowman said. Cherry couldn’t let that pass. During the Game 5 broadcast, he declared, “I’m not a liar. I don’t care what Scotty says. Everything I say, I believe.”

Famous last words: The Denver Post caught up with Floyd Crawford, Marc’s father. During his son’s attempt to storm the Wings’ bench late in Game 4, Bowman admonished him by saying his father wouldn’t be proud of his actions. The next day, Bowman walked back those comments and said the coach’s father might well be proud because as a player he had been an “ultra-competitor.”

The elder Crawford told the Post: “Let’s put it this way. When I saw Marc getting in Scotty’s face, I wasn’t exactly throwing my hands over my eyes and moaning, ‘Oh, what foolish thing are you doing, son?’ To tell the truth, I kind of liked seeing it.”

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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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