Road to Stanleytown: Mitch Albom, Drew Sharp make Red Wings-Flyers 1997 predictions

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 44: May 29, 1997

The backstory: With the Stanley Cup Finals two days away, the biggest newspapers in the rival cities — the Detroit Free Press and the Philadelphia Inquirer — published their preview sections for the series. For the Freep, Mitch Albom, Keith Gave, Jason La Canfora and Helene St. James predicted the Red Wings would end their 42-year Stanley Cup drought; Drew Sharp sided with the Flyers. For the Inky, all seven sportswriters predicted the Flyers would end their 22-year Stanley Cup drought. The day’s news, however, revealed that the Wings already were victorious in two off-the-ice, unofficial competitions.

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In the Freep: The Free Press preview cover featured a paper doll cutout under the headline “Body by Scotty” and a story about how Scotty Bowman, as coach and director of player personnel, and Jimmy Devellano, as senior vice president, retooled the most successful regular-season team in NHL history — a squad with 62 victories in 1995-96 — into a younger, stronger, more physical team built for the playoffs. The paper doll had Joe Kocur’s left, Darren McCarty’s right, Vladimir Konstantinov’s elbow, Igor Larionov’s head, Steve Yzerman’s heart, Brendan Shanahan’s body, Sergei Fedorov’s left leg, Mike Vernon’s right leg, Slava Kozlov’s stick, Vernon’s five-hole (surgically repaired for the playoffs) and Lord Stanley’s elusive cup.

La Canfora wrote: “Bowman and Devellano added seven significant players and expanded the roles of others, always with a view toward the playoffs. One year later, the team they built in the ruins of the loss to Colorado in the 1996 Western Conference finals would dominate that same Avalanche. The 1997 Wings are everything their coach and management believed, hoped and prayed they would be. They are a team born of the guts and intellect of Bowman, Devellano and assistant GM Ken Holland.”

In the Inky: The Inquirer preview cover featured a giant photo of Eric Lindros with the headline “Promised Land.” Among the section’s stories was a look at Bowman with the headline “Great dictator: He wins Cups, but few friends.” A story by columnist Timothy Dwyer with the headline “A cool Lindros will face a new tormentor” told how Eric the Great adopted a turn-the-other-cheek attitude during the playoffs but now would come face-to-face (or maybe elbow-to-face) with Konstantinov.

Dwyer wrote: “The fuse has been snuffed. Beginning tomorrow, Lindros will face his latest tormentor, a guy who happily takes on the role of doing everything legal and otherwise to try to make Lindros lose his famous hockey temper, haul off and whack somebody before being sent to the penalty box. And Vladimir Konstantinov is a master tormentor. Some players say he is the best in the league. He makes Ulf Samuelsson look like a milk-swigging altar boy. ‘He is one of the dirtiest defensemen in the league,’ Flyers coach Terry Murray said the other day after practice. He heard snickers from the local reporters when he said this. ‘He is,’ Murray insisted. ‘Every time he hits, he leaves his feet and he’s got his elbows up.’”

In the news: The Legion of Doom returned to its original configuration when Murray said right wing Mikael Renberg would rejoin Lindros and John LeClair. Renberg had been dropped to the second line because of a recurring left ankle issue; rookie Dainius Zubrus assumed Renberg’s place and performed well. … Murray also told defenseman Kjell Samuelson, 38, that he would start Game 1, his first start since undergoing disk surgery on his neck in January. He missed 39 games and only returned for the clincher in the Eastern Conference finals.

“I was a little surprised because I still haven’t played much,” Samuelson said. “But I think Terry wants to get a little more experience at the blue line.” … Bowman said that Konstantinov and Nicklas Lidstrom, his top defensemen who can log 30 minutes a game, likely would play together only when killing penalties. Throughout the playoffs, Bowman had not tried matching lines and had used Lidstrom with Larry Murphy or Bob Rouse and Konstantinov with Slava Fetisov. (The final defense pairing — Rouse with rookie Aaron Ward — played sparingly.)

The picks are in: From Albom: “You know why I like this Red Wings team to win? Because they’re all on the same page. They have accepted Scotty Bowman, with all his odd habits, and they don’t complain and they don’t moan and groan and they are united in purpose and in spirit. Also, I can’t resist driving all my old friends in Philly crazy. Wings in seven.” From Gave: “The Legion of Doom vs. the Russian Five. The Nasty Brothers vs. the Fargo Line. Mike Vernon vs. Ron Hextall. A first Stanley Cup for Yzerman or Lindros? This series has it all. But best of all it’ll feature hockey the way it’s meant to be played — tough, physical and in your face. In the end, Philadelphia’s size will be no match for Detroit’s speed and size. And Vernon gives the Wings the decisive edge in goal. The good news: The Wings finally end their drought. The bad news: They do it in Philadelphia, beating the bullies of Broad Street. Wings in five.” From St. James: “The Flyers are the biggest team in the league, but the Wings are not that much smaller and they are much faster and can forecheck Philly into submission. Legion of Doom? Hah! Meet your old pal Vladdie, who is better than anyone else in the NHL at taking Le Grande Bebe Eric right out of the game. Ron Hextall? He’s no Patrick Roy. He’s not even Guy Hebert. The result? A Paul Coffey turnover leads to a Stanley Cup-winning goal by Brendan Shanahan. Wings in six.” From Sharp: “The Wings probably think they have Lord Stanley’s hardware all secured after getting past Colorado. They felt the same way heading into the finals two years ago and probably still haven’t learned their lesson. Mike Vernon returns to the five-hole flop of the ’95 finals and Philadelphia turns ‘Hockeytown’ into ‘Chokeytown.’ Flyers in seven.”

DAY 43: Brendan Shanahan trade pays off for Wings; Kirk Maltby makes SI cover

DAY 42: How Eric Lindros went from Michigan youth phenom to Red Wings rival

Off the ice (and in the city): After Philadelphia with great fanfare put a 20-foot-long Flyers jersey on its most-famous landmark, a statue of William Penn that stood atop City Hall, the Free Press asked its readers how Detroit could top that. And, as usual, Detroiters were up to the task. The front page featured, thanks to Photoshop, which was in its infancy back then, the Spirit of Detroit statue outside the City-County Building wearing a giant Wings jersey, a goalie mask and goalie pads. On the back page, thanks to Photoshop and Freep photo technician Christine Mackey, the Wings logo was on the giant Uniroyal tire along I-94, a hockey glove was on the Fist statue downtown and one of the RenCen’s towers was shaped like the Stanley Cup along the river.

Off the ice (and in the car): During the Wings’ playoff run, it seemed like every other car was adorn with vinyl red Winged Wheel flags on white plastic poles. Defenseman Larry Murphy, acquired at the trade deadline, expressed his amazement with the phenomena after the Wings eliminated the Avalanche.

“I wish I had a cut of that action,” he said. “Detroit is the hockey town. They’ve had great support. It’s really a broad-based support you see here throughout the area.” The Free Press reported that more than 100,000 car flags had been shipped to Michigan the last 10 days by the two companies that made them under a license from the NHL. In comparison, Flyers fans had purchased 7,000 car flags. “This is something I’ve never experienced in my 10 years in the business,” said Larry Zientarski of Livonia, who represented the companies, Tag Express and Fremont Dye, in Michigan. “I’ve got lots of disappointed retailers who I just can’t get flags fast enough, and the orders keep coming in.”

According to the Wings, the car flags, at $15 a pop, were their top-selling merchandise item at Joe Louis Arena. According to the NHL, the Wings sold more merchandise nationwide than every other team. (The Flyers ranked sixth.)

Famous last words: Trent Klatt, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound wing who injured two Rangers in the last round with hard, legal hits, said the Flyers had two mission-critical targets: Konstantinov and Lidstrom. “We’re going to be looking for them. But it can’t just be me. It’s got to be a team effort.”

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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