Road to Stanleytown: Red Wings roll past Avs in Game 6 to reach 1997 Stanley Cup Finals

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.”

ALBOM ON GAME 6: Red Wings pound Patrick Roy, Avs to make 1997 Stanley Cup Finals

TODAY’S WINGS: What goalie Magnus Hellberg’s Worlds performance means 

Day 41: May 26, 1997

The backstory: At the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, two days after the United States upset the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice, the Americans still needed to beat Finland to capture the gold medal. They were trailing after two periods, 2-1, when coach Herb Brooks told his team filled with collegians: “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your (expletive) graves. … Your (expletive) graves.” The U.S. scored all three goals in the final period.

Before Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at Joe Louis Arena, with the Red Wings leading the Avalanche, three games to two, coach Scotty Bowman delivered a similar message to his veteran-laden team: “I told the team that they would rue the day if they didn’t show up and play the games of their lives. 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.” On the evening of Memorial Day, the Wings took the ice determined to show a killer instinct, to avoid a trip to Denver for Game 7, to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons and to preserve the dream of ending Detroit’s 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

As Mitch Albom wrote in the Free Press afterward: “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.”

Game 6: Thanks to an empty-net goal by Brendan Shanahan, the final score was 3-1, but that did not reflect the pounding administered by the Wings. The Avalanche was outshot, 14-3, in the first period and 16-5 in the second period, when Martin Lapointe gave the Wings a 1-0 lead they never relinquished. How Jason La Canfora described it in the Free Press: “A city’s hopes are renewed. The impossible seems possible again, the Red Wings’ winning the Stanley Cup. A 42-year dream is four victories away. Picture Steve Yzerman’s name inscribed inches from Gordie Howe’s. Mike Vernon’s near Terry Sawchuk’s. Vladimir Konstantinov’s by Red Kelly’s. The 1955 Detroit Red Wings and the 1997 Wings gracing the most sought-after trophy in professional sports. It could happen. … What a victory it was, avenging last spring’s loss to Colorado in the conference finals. … The fans came through, too, providing a high-decibel soundtrack for the victory.

“The Wings are 7-1 at The Joe, with seven straight victories. That streak seemed safe from the start of the game. … The Wings could have placed a cardboard cutout of Vernon in net, and no one would have known the difference. Play was in Colorado’s end. Momentum was built, and the puck was cycled in Colorado’s end. … This is Mike Vernon’s time, Igor Larionov’s time, Steve Yzerman’s time. … This might be the future Hall of Famer’s best chance to hold the trophy above his head, to see his name carved in silver, to ride through the streets of Detroit in grand style as a city cheers its heroes with a parade. It could happen.”

DAY 40:1997 Wings feeling fearless ahead of huge Game 6 vs. Avs

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

DAY 38: Wings route Avs in Game 4 as fights, benches erupt

How it happened: The Wings’ second shot of the second period broke the scoreless tie. Larionov, double shifting with Sergei Fedorov in the locker room for treatment, stole the puck in the neutral zone and lofted a backhanded pass to Lapointe, who just had jumped off the bench. He launched a missile from the top of the face-off circle to Patrick Roy’s right, the waist-high shot handcuffing him, nearly ripping his glove off and trickling behind him into the net. The Wings finally led at 3:29. “I just put my head down and buried it,” Lapointe said.

Bowman said: “That was huge. If they would have got the first goal after we had outplayed them so bad, it would have been a travesty.” Although the Wings had outshot the Avs, 30-8, after two periods (and would finish with a 42-16 advantage) and totally had dominated Game 6, a one-goal lead could evaporate in an instant, on a beautiful play or a flukish bounce. They needed a cushion — and it came from their leading scorer in the playoffs, who missed most of the first and second periods because he couldn’t breathe after checking defenseman Aaron Miller along the boards. Before Games 4-6, Fedorov needed the same delicate injections he received during Game 3 for a severe costochondral rib injury — the tearing of the tissue where the rib joined cartilage. He returned in the third period of Game 3 and set up Slava Kozlov for the winning goal. About five minutes into Game 6, while checking Miller, Fedorov smacked the boards awkwardly, knelt on the ice on all fours for several minutes and needed assistance to reach the locker room.

“I didn’t have any breath,” he said. “I couldn’t even talk to the trainer. It seems funny now. I basically had no gas in the gas tank. I feel pretty low then.” As he did during Game 3, Yzerman urged Fedorov to do what it took to return. And return he did, joining Doug Brown and Kozlov on the ice with 10:30 left in the second period. He even drew a roughing penalty from Adam Foote on his first shift. “Four or five years ago,” trainer John Wharton said, “I don’t think he would have come back. For him to come back tonight is outstanding.”

Fedorov scored the series-winning goal at 6:11 into the final period. On the decisive play, Brown skated up ice and then won a battle along the boards to keep the puck in the Colorado zone. Kozlov took over and circled behind the goal before passing to Fedorov in front. Roy stopped Fedorov’s first shot, but Fedorov stuffed in the rebound. “I was behind the blue line,” Fedorov said. “I feel he was going to pass. I yelled, ‘Slava, Slava, Slava.’ I made a quick shot on the net, and I knew I would get the rebound. It was one of the biggest goals I ever scored.” It was Fedorov’s fifth goal and 14th point of the playoffs, all in the last 12 games.

The final drama: The Wings held the Avs’ big guns in check all night. Their four leading scorers — Joe Sakic, Claude Lemieux, Valeri Kamensky and Peter Forsberg — combined for five shots and posted a cumulative minus-8 rating. But Stanley Cup champions die hard, and with 5:12 left to play Scott Young scored to cut the Wings’ lead to 2-1. The nail-biting ended with Shanahan’s empty-netter with 29.8 seconds left. The rafters shook inside The Joe. For a change, a Shanahan goal wasn’t the series-winner — he scored those against the Blues and Mighty Ducks — but it was the finale in a revenge series. “I didn’t think I’d be here a year ago,” said Shanahan, acquired from Hartford for Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau in October. “I just appreciate the opportunity they gave me. … The thing I’m most proud of is we played four lines, we just rolled our lines. It was a really solid team effort.”

Enemies forever: The bad blood remained between Lemieux and the Wings. The latest twist unfolded during the postgame handshake line. The feud, of course, gained national prominence in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference finals, when Lemieux shattered Kris Draper’s face with a hit from behind. It gained legendary status when Darren McCarty pummeled (and kneed) a turtling Lemieux on March 26 during Fight Night at The Joe. On this Memorial Day, no bygones were bygones. Draper refused to shake hands with Lemieux. Then Lemieux refused to shake with McCarty, who was next in line. “Obviously,” Draper said, “there’s a lot of bad blood between these two hockey clubs. But you look the players in the eye, and they shake your hands and you shake their hands. Some guys that don’t like you a lot wish you good luck. I was just going through the line and I looked at him, and as soon as he saw me, he just kind of turned away and threw his hand out. So that’s an indication for me to just skate by, and that’s why I did it. If he would have looked at me. … It would have been nice if he had something to say. But, obviously, he didn’t. He feels he doesn’t have to do that. That’s fine. I looked at him, he looked away and stuck his hand out. That’s not sportsmanship. … That’s not up to me to go grab his hand. I didn’t do anything wrong.” Lemieux would only say: “That says it all, that says it all.” McCarty said he offered his hand in the spirit of sportsmanship. “He didn’t want to shake my hand,” McCarty said. “I’m not going to worry about it. He’s not real high on my priority list. I’m a better person than that.”

Not bowled over: A day earlier, when the Philadelphia Flyers won the Eastern Conference finals, captain Eric Lindros wouldn’t even touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. At The Joe, Yzerman accepted the Campbell Bowl and quickly skated off with it. Two years earlier, after the Wings eliminated Chicago to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 29 years, Yzerman held the bowl over his head and relished in the frenzy at The Joe. He came to believe the Wings celebrated prematurely. Not this time.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out it,” he said. The NHL announced the Wings and Flyers would start the finals five days later, on a Saturday night. Philadelphia held the home-ice advantage based on its 103 points to the Wings’ 94. During the season, the teams played a home-and-home three days apart in January. They tied in Detroit, 2-2, and the Wings won in Philly, 4-1. “We all know that finishing second in the Stanley Cup Finals means absolutely nothing,” Yzerman said. “You sit and watch every year and you get to know a lot of guys and you see them winning and envy is the exact word. I’m excited about the opportunity to try again.”

Off the ice: “Av-venged!” blared the Free Press’ headline.

Famous last words: From the tail end of Albom’s column: “It feels 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 — it feels good to be rid of all that, doesn’t it? Well, the best way to avoid a return of those emotions is simple: Win four of the next seven games.” (Read all of Albom’s column from Game 6.)

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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.

ore 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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