This version of Mitch Albom’s Game 6 column for the Detroit Free Press appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of 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. The Red Wings advanced to the finals with a 3-1 victory over Colorado on May 26, 1997.
The game was in the final minute, the Colorado goalie was pulled, and finally … finally … there really was nothing standing between the team and the dream. Brendan Shanahan raced to a loose puck, took good aim and put that baby in the open basket, unleashing a flood of noise that could be heard all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
Guess who’s coming for Stanley — again? From a warm summer Saturday, two years ago, deep in the swamps of New Jersey, the Red Wings had been waiting to get back to this night. Waiting for a chance to redeem their squandered potential, to correct the road they mistakenly turned off when last they journeyed to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“This team has so much character,” said a sweaty but happy Mike Vernon, the goaltending hero of the series, after the Wings dethroned defending champion Colorado with a 3-1 victory that sealed the Western Conference finals, four games to two. “Now we’re going for the big one.”
Well. One big one at a time. This night was already a Game 7 disguised as a Game 6. The Wings dared not blink. They did not blink. They dared not tire. They never tired. They dared not lose. And so they did not lose.
“I told the team that they would rue the day if they didn’t show up and play the game of their lives,” coach Scotty Bowman said. “You always want to remember the game that put you into the Stanley Cup Finals, not the one that you didn’t win to get there.”
Right. The Wings had way too much of that in 1996. So this Monday, Memorial Day, marked the death of bad memories, and all the redemption you could squeeze into one thumping, bumping, crazy-loud hockey rink. Bye-bye, Claude Lemieux. Au revoir, Patrick Roy. See you, Joe Sakic.
Colorado was the team the Wings needed to beat to heal their wounds. The Avs snuffed the Wings last year, left them bleeding and humbled, sent Kris Draper to the hospital. The hunger for revenge simmered all season, like a giant poison stew.
Finally, that odor was gone. It began to waft in the second period, when Martin Lapointe fired a slap shot at Roy. The goalie tried to catch it, then sank in disbelief when it went past his glove and trickled into the net. The supposedly unbeatable Roy stared at his glove, as if there were a hole in it.
There was no hole. Not in the glove, anyway.
But the invincibility of Colorado was shot. The deciding nail came one period later, when Sergei Fedorov slapped one shot at Roy, then took his own rebound and poked it through. This was the same Sergei Fedorov who missed most of the first two periods because he could hardly breathe after slamming himself into an opponent for a check.
“How does it feel to beat these guys?” Doug Brown was asked. “Losing last year was so bitter.”
“This is exactly the opposite of bitter,” he said, grinning. “You find the adjective.”
OK. How about sweet, delicious, satisfying, cleansing, enthralling, complete? Any of those work?
Detroit was the better team in four of the six games, some might even say five of the six. It wasn’t just the big moments — the spectacular goals, the nerve-jangling saves — it was all the moments between the big moments that won this thing.
It was every hard check and every two-man sandwich on a speedy Colorado player. It was every fight the Wings skated away from. It was all the rushes that went unrewarded with goals but kept the flow of the game red, red, red. It was the endless trade imbalance on the shots-on-goal board.
And it was heroics, too. Like captain Steve Yzerman going coast-to-coast in Game 2, like Slava Kozlov doing all the scoring in Game 3, like Igor Larionov with two fast goals in Game 4, like Fedorov injuring himself, then coming back to score the killer in Game 6.
It was Shanahan firing like a madman all night long, finally hitting pay dirt on the last goal of the series.
“I knew from the moment I came here they kind of got me for this series,” he said. “All I can say is thanks to this organization. And we’re not finished yet.”
No, they’re not. Now they head for Philadelphia, another hockey town where they had waited a long time for a Stanley Cup. The Flyers were big and tough and had the league’s most eagerly awaited superstar, Eric Lindros, looking to scratch his name into the Cup. And, of course, there was Paul Coffey, whose departure — in the Shanahan trade — might have been the turning point of this Detroit season.
But for now, it felt good to be rid of all that anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, bad memories, visions of Sakic shooting and Roy pumping his stick and Lemieux laughing at his destruction.
And the best way to avoid a return of those emotions was simple: Win four of the next seven games.
Yzerman accepted the Campbell Bowl and quickly skated off with it. Two years ago, he held it over his head and enjoyed the fans’ celebration, only to feel despair four games later. Looking back, he felt bad about that, as if he and his team had somehow celebrated prematurely.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” he said this time.
OK. No big deal. The Wings had simply reached a plateau on this mountain, a place to take out the canteens, swig a few sips, glance around at the view, and then pack up and keep ascending. The Holy Grail was just over yonder hill.
Got the bowl. Want the Cup.
Have fun storming the castle, boys.
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