Road to Stanleytown: How Eric Lindros went from Michigan youth phenom to Red Wings rival

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 42: May 27, 1997

The backstory: With the Stanley Cup Finals still four days away, the Red Wings and Flyers extended the holiday weekend by giving their players a Tuesday off. Detroit had dispatched its archnemesis, the Colorado Avalanche, in six games, the last on Memorial Day. Philadelphia had eliminated the New York Rangers in five games a day earlier, its third straight series to go only five games. But Stanley Cup fever in 1997 never took a day off. The predictions and analyses, predictably, were in high gear. Yes, neither team had won the Cup in ages — Philly since 1975, Motown since 1955. Yes, the Flyers were big and bad with the best offense in the playoffs. Yes, the Wings were retooled from past playoff pastings and were playing incredible hockey with toughness, discipline, skill and big-time goaltending. But the Free Press posed the real burning question: How could Detroit combat Philadelphia’s bold move of draping a 20-foot-long Flyers jersey 500 feet off the ground on a statue of Pennsylvania founder William Penn?

TRENDING: ESPN’s ‘Unrivaled Red Wings vs. Avalanche’ trailer leaks and will give you goosebumps

Eric the Scared: As captain of the Flyers and center for their Legion of Doom line, Eric Lindros, at age 24, continued his emergence as the next big thing in the National Hockey League. His 11 goals and 23 points were second in the playoffs, behind Colorado’s Claude Lemieux (13 goals) and Joe Sakic (25 points). Plus, Lindros had played two fewer games. With the Wings idle, longtime Free Press hockey writer Keith Gave detailed the eight months Lindros spent in the metro area as a junior phenom, playing 14 games for Compuware, scoring 52 points and racking up 123 penalty minutes and putting in time with Canada’s national and junior national teams. Gave’s work: “Eric Lindros could slam down five peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, no problem. And his typical warm-up for a Chinese meal was five egg rolls. But his voracious appetite for success now has his surrogate mom worried sick. ‘This is just unbelievable,’ Judy Vellucci said. ‘I’m actually sick to my stomach.’ Judy and Frank Vellucci opened their Farmington home to the young Lindros in 1989, when he spent a season playing Junior A hockey for Compuware. He arrived a frightened 16-year-old who, when left alone on his first evening at his new billet, locked himself in the bathroom, counting the tiles and flushing the toilet. He later confessed that watching ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ had given him a misguided impression of Detroit. But the frightened boy grew up — and up, and up — to become the terror of the NHL, the 6-foot-4, 236-pound captain of the frightful Philadelphia Flyers, who will face Judy Vellucci’s beloved Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. … The Wings are trying to win the Cup for the first time since 1955, when Vellucci was a young girl. And she remembers the joy it brought a city. ‘I’ve always wanted my sons to experience the thrill of a Stanley Cup,’ said Vellucci, the mother of six. ‘And now to have Eric on the other team …’ Lindros spent eight months with the Vellucci family before leaving to continue his junior career with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League. Ultimately, he became the NHL’s first overall draft pick in 1991, by Quebec. But he refused to play for the Nordiques, who finally traded him to Philadelphia in one of the biggest deals in NHL history. ‘He treated our family with nothing but respect,’ said Mike Vellucci, 30, the fourth of the family’s five boys. ‘He’s a very nice guy — not arrogant, but very confident. And everything he does, he does at 120%. He plays to win.’ Mike Vellucci had a black eye and bloody nose to prove it. Seems he got caught with a Lindros elbow during a pickup basketball game in the yard. ‘He plays to win,’ Mike Vellucci said, ‘and he’ll do whatever it takes.’ Which no doubt is what Wings coach Scotty Bowman will tell his players about Lindros, the prototypical hockey player of the 21st century — big, strong, fast, smart and mean. And fiercely competitive. … The Lindros whom Judy Vellucci remembers is a youngster who logged all his daily and lifelong goals in a little black book, but a kid who might have trouble finding that book in a messy bedroom. ‘He was an absolute slob,’ she said. ‘His bedroom was the worst.’ But she also remembers a young gentleman devoted to his family back in Toronto and an excellent student who graduated from Farmington High. … ‘He’s just different,’ Judy Vellucci said. ‘He’s special. He’s not like the rest of the world, truly. He’s so disciplined. So focused. Even when he was 16, he worked harder and was more dedicated than any young person I’ve ever met — in every area.’”

One man’s view: Gave also provided his early take on the finals: “The Wings like their chances. ‘I feel very confident,’ said one Wings official after debriefing scouts who attended the Philadelphia-New York series. The Flyers, he said, are suspect on the blue line after their top defensive pairing, and the Wings should be able to get to the goaltender, whether he’s Ron Hextall or Garth Snow. A concern for the Wings, however, is that the Flyers haven’t been pushed in these playoffs, winning each of the three rounds in five games. Another worry is that Flyers captain Eric Lindros is at the top of his game, a physical and offensive force the likes of which Detroit hasn’t faced in these playoffs. But the Wings have a weapon of their own. He is the Vladinator — “No pity. No remorse. No fear.” — Vladimir Konstantinov, the Russian imitating an Austrian speaking Spanish in an American action film in one of the most popular videos shown each game on the center-ice scoreboard. Lindros vs. Konstantinov. It will be the featured matchup in the finals. Count on it. And count on this, too, Flyers fans: ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ The curse is about to end. Wings in five.”

In Philly: Like the Wings with Bowman, the Flyers were led by a lame duck whose coaching contract expired after the playoffs. In late October, after a 5-7-0 start by the Flyers, newspapers throughout Canada reported coach Terry Murray was on the verge of being fired. Speculation continued for months that Murray, whose brother Bryan led the Wings before Bowman, was a goner at the season’s conclusion. So, general manager Bob Clarke used the off day to announce: “If he wants to be back, yeah, he’ll be back.” To which, Murray said: “I don’t want to go anywhere else. I love it here. … It’s one of the prestigious organizations in the entire league.”

MORE: Mitch Albom flashback: Red Wings pound Patrick Roy, Avs to make 1997 Stanley Cup Finals

Adios, Avalanche: A final statistical look at the Western Conference finals: The Wings outshot the Avs, 215-127. … In third periods, the Wings outscored the Avs, 8-3, and outshot them, 74-38. Half of the Wings’ goals came in those periods. (The final tally was 16 Detroit goals, 12 Colorado goals.) … Mike Vernon posted a 1.87 goals-against average. Throw out the four goals in 22:23 from Game 5 and his mark dipped to 1.20. Colorado’s Patrick Roy allowed 2.49 goals a game. … Sergei Fedorov was the leading scorer in the series with seven points — four assists and three goals, including the series-winner. Next came Sakic with six points — four goals and two assists. A quartet scored five points — Detroit’s Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Martin Lapointe and Colorado’s Valeri Kamensky (although he did not score a goal). … The plus-minus leaders checked in at plus-3: Kozlov and defenseman Bob Rouse. Lemieux led Colorado at plus-2. … The Wings won the battle of special teams — 10.5% (4-for-38) vs. 6.9% (2-for-29) on the power play and 93.1% (27-for-29) vs. 89.5% (34-for-38) on the penalty kill.

Press clippings: From Bob Kravitz of the Rocky Mountain News: “It becomes clearer with each passing night: The evening of March 26 changed the dynamics of hockey’s most heated rivalry.” From Woody Paige of the Denver Post: “The Cold War is over. Say it ain’t so at The Joe, Joe.” From Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Warning to the Flyers: These Red Wings aren’t as big as you. They aren’t quite as deep. And the only place in Detroit you’ll find anything as powerful as Eric Lindros is at the end of an assembly line. But when their jut-jawed little coach has this free-wheeling team playing in passionate union, the Detroit Red Wings can be as good as anyone in the NHL.” From Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News: “Oh, the Motown reaction. You’d have thought Honda and Toyota went out of business.”

Off the ice: For more than 125 years, a statue of William Penn had stood atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. Until the 1980s, because of a so-called gentleman’s agreement, no skyscraper was erected taller than the brim of Penn’s hat, more than 500 feet off the ground. The giant black-and-orange Flyers jersey city leaders draped on the statue was created a few years earlier when the team threatened to make a playoff run. But it was never put in place. It did tour shopping malls, was displayed in the Flyers’ arena and was signed by 13,000 fans. At 20 feet tall and 26 feet from arm tip to arm tip, it required 87 square yards of nylon. Yes, it was pretty impressive. So impressive that the Free Press put a photo of it on Page 1A. With these words: “We’re not impressed. We know Wings fans can do better. How about a hockey glove (Joey Kocur’s?) on the Fist? Or a big wing on the Tire? Tell us how to honor the Red Wings by adorning a Detroit landmark.” Readers could call in their suggestions or use a relatively new-fanged technology growing in popularity with the masses, email.

Famous last words: Kocur, noted Grind Line enforcer, was a virtual quote machine after the Game 6 victory over Colorado. From Darren McCarty: “Joey Kocur said it best when we were huddled around. He said, ‘Don’t worry, boys, the next one feels even better.’” Kocur won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994. From Kocur while smiling: “Philly is a lot like us. We’ve got some big guys, too. I really haven’t had a chance to do any scouting of them. But I think my line will be seeing a lot of action.”

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.”)

To access our most exclusive sports content, like the stories linked above, become a Free Press subscriber with this special offer

Stay informed on what’s happening across Michigan: Subscribe to our news alert emails.

Articles You May Like

Quick Hits: The Feeling Gru-vy Edition
The Red Wings should offer sheet Rasmus Sandin
Red Wings Announce 2022 Exhibition Schedule
3 Oilers Trade Partners for Zack Kassian
WATCH: Red Wings introduce Derek Lalonde as new head coach

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.