Road to Stanleytown: 1997 Detroit Red Wings feeling fearless ahead of huge Game 6 vs. Avs

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 40: May 25, 1997

The backstory: At 7:30 p.m. Memorial Day, the Red Wings and Avalanche were slated to play Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at Joe Louis Arena. For the Avs, obviously, it was must-win, because they trailed 3-2in the series. For the Wings, just as obviously, it felt like must-win, because they struggled mightily to win at Denver’s McNichols Arena and they carried the weight of 41 straight seasons without a Stanley Cup. Detroit, though, had won six consecutive playoff games at The Joe, dropping in the spring of 1997 only Game 1 against St. Louis in the first round.

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But the Avs were the defending Stanley Cup champions, determined to battle to the bitter end and buoyed by their 6-0 victory in Game 5, the first time they dominated the Wings from opening face-off to final buzzer in the series. With a victory, the Wings would receive the Campbell Bowl, which they weren’t to touch or hoist per hockey superstition, and would play the Philadelphia Flyers for a silver chalice they could party with all summer — touching it, kissing it, hoisting it, drinking from it, posing with it, putting babies in it and certainly performing other activities the Hockey Hall of Fame, as keepers of the Cup, would prefer remain out of the public domain.

Game 6 preview: Did the Wings consider their Memorial Day showdown as must-win? “We do,” Brendan Shanahan said. “We have to have that killer instinct.” Coach Scotty Bowman reiterated to his charges that they were in the catbird’s seat, not the Avalanche. “They are thinking they’re in a good spot now,” he said. “We’re 6-1 at home. … They should have confidence. … I just told them we don’t have to worry about any game except (Game 6). We don’t have to think about what might happen after it. We have the opportunity to win one game and be in the Stanley Cup Finals. We’re not in a bad spot. We’re in a good spot.”

As for the Avs, after finally playing like champions, they, too, were feeling good about themselves and believing they could be the 14th team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 deficit. “I’ve never felt as confident as I do with this team,” said Claude Lemieux, who scored first his two goals of the series in Game 5. “You always want to win in your heart, but sometimes in your mind you know something is missing. I don’t feel that way with this club.”

DAY 39: 1997 Wings frozen out by Avs in Western finals Game 5

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

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

Out East: Former Spartan Ron Brind’Amour scored twice as the Flyers eliminated the Rangers, 4-2, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in a decade, winning each of its three series in five games. In the first period, Eric Lindros opened the scoring for the Flyers at 5:18. The Rangers took the lead with goals 26 seconds apart. But John LeClair, on Lindros’ Legion of Doom line, tied it at 15:53. All four goals came on the power play. At 19:06, Brind’Amour scored for a 3-2 lead. In the third period, at 6:43, he added the insurance goal. For the series, Lindros finished with five goals and four assists — three assists in Game 1, a hat trick in Game 3, the winner with 6.8 seconds left in Game 4 and a goal and an assist in Game 5.

“Eric wanted this so bad,” said his coach, Terry Murray. “He’s been a very hungry player in the playoffs.” Lindros’ nine points tied LeClair and New York’s Wayne Gretzky for the most in the series. “He has stepped it up,” Rangers coach Colin Campbell said. As tradition, Lindros did not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy when an NHL official tried to hand it to him. “I wasn’t going near it,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s something we all talked about before. … We haven’t done anything yet.” Philadelphia’s lone Cups came with its Broad Street Bullies teams in 1974 and 1975. In 1987, the Flyers lost in seven games to the Edmonton Oilers, led by Gretzky and Mark Messier, who were on the losing end of the 1997 conference finals.

Off the ice: The Avs’ victory in Game 5 not only prolonged the series, it extended the life of “Red Wings,” a parody song on Denver’s KOA-AM (850) sung to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” The parody’s backstory was almost as intriguing as its lyrics. It was written by a Denver musician, Mark Bradford, 42, who grew up in Mount Morris, graduated from Plymouth Salem High School in 1973 and who, in the spring, wrote anti-Blues and anti-Mighty Ducks songs for WOMC-FM (104.3). In fact, he had written song parodies for radio stations around the country. “Business is business,” said Bradford, who became an Avalanche fan during its two seasons in Denver. “I can put aside team allegiances when I’m putting a song together.” The lyrics:

When you play in Detroit, and each year you’re destroyed

Red Wings

When you fight a lot, but you haven’t won squat

Red Wings

You will lose, Avs will win, wait and see

Red Wings

When all your stars are from the USSR

Red Wings

At the game all your fans have octopus in their pants

Red Wings

Open wide, Crawford rules, Detroit sucks

Red Wings

Gonna send Claude Lemieux to break a jawbone or two

Red Wings

Gonna kick your butts, ’cuz we hate your guts

Red Wings

Open wide, Crawford rules, Detroit sucks

Red Wings

Famous last words: From Bowman at Joe Louis Arena, where the Wings practiced in preparation for Game 6: “We weren’t strong in front of their net. Until the whistle goes, all bets are off. You can poke at the loose puck all you want. We need to do a better job at getting to rebounds. In front of our net, we need to be stronger, too. That takes care of the defense and the other takes care of the forwards. We just need to be better in front of the nets.”

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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 (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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