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 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”
Day 46: May 31, 1997
The backstory: With the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus booted from Philadelphia’s CoreStates Center for a day, the Red Wings opened the Stanley Cup Finals four victories from their first Stanley Cup in 42 years. In 1955, when Detroit beat Montreal for the Cup in seven games, the Wings boasted the sport’s best player, Gordie Howe. (His possible competition, Montreal’s Maurice Richard, had been suspended for the playoffs after punching a linesman and slashing a Bruin in the head.) Howe set records with 12 points in the finals and 20 points for the playoffs. And with its seventh Stanley Cup, Detroit tied Montreal and Toronto for the most in NHL history. Since 1955, though, Detroit had failed in the finals in 1956, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1995. The Wings were underdogs again against the Flyers. “Huge” underdogs, according to coach Scotty Bowman. And the Flyers boasted Eric Lindros, if not the sport’s best player, the one the hockey world was crowning as the new king of the rink, passing the torch from the retiring Mario Lemieux and the aging Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Drew Sharp even wrote in the Free Press: “They figurately laid out the red carpet for him at the media session. All that was missing were the rose pedals.” Only 24 years old but a monster during the Flyers’ playoff run, Lindros tried to downplay his coronation. “I don’t even want to talk about this so-called torch,” he said. But Lindros knew he was good (11 goals and 23 points in 15 playoff games). He knew his team was good (12-3 in the playoffs). And he expected, as captain, to be hoisting a silver chalice before too long (the Flyers’ first in 22 years).
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Game 1: By the time the final buzzer sounded, the ice covered and the circus workers started retrieving their animals, the entire script for the series had been flipped. Here’s the Game 1 recap from “Stanleytown 25 Years” written by Jason La Canfora and Helene St. James:
Speed beat size. Almost everything beat Ron Hextall. And, lately, nothing could beat the Red Wings.
The Wings silenced a thunderous crowd at the CoreStates Center in Philadelphia — which tried to intimidate the Russian Five with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” — and whacked the Flyers, 4-2, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Wings hadn’t won a game in the finals since a 5-2 victory over the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum on April 26, 1966.
The Wings turned conventional wisdom on its head. Starting with the opening shift, instead of trying muscle against Philadelphia’s vaunted and gigantic Legion of Doom line, the Wings countered with their finesse and puck-handling defensemen, Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy. They also started the Grind Line of Kris Draper flanked by Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby, which came out hitting anything in orange and white.
When Vladimir Konstantinov took his turns on defense, he turned into a real-life Terminator. He made an early statement when Philadelphia’s Trent Klatt carried the puck across the blue line. Konstantinov lowered his body and launched himself right into Klatt’s chest. Klatt lost the puck and laid on the ice dazed from the violent hit.
“Every time that Vladimir was on the ice it was a game within a game,” coach Scotty Bowman said years later. “I don’t know if he intentionally did it, but he always targeted one of the bigger, tougher players on the other team. He was not a guy that would fight a lot, but he would hit a lot and that bothered many aggressive players because they weren’t used to that. … Vladimir Konstantinov was a game-changer.”
Other trends were apparent, too. The Flyers’ three-game winning streak was over, and all of their weaknesses were exposed.
An older, thin defense turned the puck over considerably and helped the Wings take a lead they never lost. Paul Coffey, the former Wing and future Hall of Famer, was slow afoot and error prone. And Hextall, who began the playoffs as a backup, broke his team’s back in the opening minute of the third period.
The Wings took a 3-2 lead into that period, but the Flyers had scored late in the second period and came out flying, primed for a comeback.
Then Steve Yzerman wheeled through the neutral zone, got one skate across the blue line and fired, just for the heck of it, from 60 feet. Hextall tried a kick save and the puck beat him five-hole — an unforgivable error that couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“I could have knocked nine pucks into the corner,” said Yzerman, who beat St. Louis’ Grant Fuhr in the first round with a 90-footer. “I didn’t.”
The Philly fans booed Hextall, who said he “offered no excuses for that fourth goal” and then offered an excuse: “I didn’t see it all the way.”
Yzerman and Bowman weren’t the only Wings to surprise the Flyers. Detroit had three breakaways in the first period — by sniper Brendan Shanahan and the Grind Line’s Joe Kocur and Maltby. Guess which two buried their chances.
Maltby, a recent Sports Illustrated cover boy, disproved the SI jinx moments after Shanahan was stuffed. Eric Lindros misplayed the puck trying to enter the Detroit zone on a power play, and Maltby broke in alone with Draper.
Maltby dished to Draper in front of the goal, and Hextall dashed to cover him. Draper returned the favor to Maltby, who fired into the vacant right side of the net for a shorthanded goal just 6:38 into the series.
The lead lasted only 59 seconds. And the Wings went more than nine minutes without a shot.
Another grinder would change that.
Kocur intercepted defenseman Kjell Samuelsson’s clearing attempt and waltzed in on Hextall. Kocur went hard to his forehand, and when Hextall bit on the fake, Kocur roofed his backhander.
“In practice,” Kocur said, “I try that move all the time, and the puck usually ends up in the corner by the boards.”
Draper added: “How do you think I feel? I’ve got my left wing on the cover of SI and my right wing goes backhand, top shelf.”
The Wings’ third goal came about midway through the second period. Sergei Fedorov won a face-off in the Detroit end, and he got the puck back on the rush through the neutral zone. Murphy jumped in for a two-on-one, but this was Fedorov’s play all the way. He held the puck and unleashed a wrist shot that beat Hextall high to his glove side.
The Legion of Doom line made it 3-2 with 2:49 left in the period — the goal by John LeCair with assists to Mikael Renberg and Lindros. But in the third period, Yzerman scored his long-distance goal after 56 seconds, Mike Vernon made all the saves and the Wings controlled play.
“I’m not overly excited with it,” Yzerman said of the W. “It’s a good start to the series, but it is just getting under way, and winning the first game isn’t necessarily an indication of the way the series is going to go.”
The Flyers, meanwhile, blamed the loss not on anything Detroit did, but on everything Philadelphia didn’t do.
“This is as poor as we’ve played in a month-and-a-half,” coach Terry Murray said.
“I don’t know what you attribute it to; it was an unfortunate night,” said Lindros, who was caught on TV mikes yelling obscenities and an ethnic slur at Slava Fetisov, and who afterward, with his linemates, complained about their ice time.
“It’s frustrating to come out and play like that,” LeClair said.
It would only get worse …
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Lindros vs. Konstantinov: True to his word, Bowman did not play Konstantinov and Lidstrom together against the Lindros line. But one of them almost always was on the ice. Despite their battles during the regular season and all the hype leading up to the finals, Konstantinov and Lindros didn’t spend the game in each other’s face. Until the final 2½ minutes. With the Wings up, 4-2, Lindros vented his frustration near Detroit’s blue line by raising his stick toward Konstantinov, possibly in an attempt to spear him. Instead, his stick caught Konstantinov’s jersey and looked as if it would come out the back. Konstantinov lost his stick in the process. Lindros steered him toward the boards. As they arrived, Konstantinov grabbed onto Lindros’ stick and Lindros threw a relatively weak right that landed on the left side of Konstantinov’s face. Lindros was sent to the penalty box for roughing with 2:12 left in the game. During the last Wings-Flyers game in January, before Lindros dazed Konstantinov by slamming him against the boards, Konstantinov got under Lindros’ skin and goaded him into three minor penalties. Flyers coach Terry Murray said he wasn’t concerned by Lindros’ late penalty, even though it effectively dashed any hope of a comeback. He argued Konstantinov could have been sent off, too. “Eric has done an outstanding job with us discipling his focus throughout the year and the playoffs,” Murray said. “It could have been called either way. He deserved a penalty and maybe there could have been a holding or obstruction call on it. He just did what he felt he had to do, maybe set something up for later in the series. But I am not concerned about it.”
Worth noting: For a change, the Wings didn’t dominate the shots-on-goal statistic. It was Detroit 30, Philadelphia 28. In their previous 16 playoff games, the Wings had outshot their rivals in 15 (often by large margins) and tied with the Avalanche in Game 3. … Murphy led the Wings with a plus-4 rating, followed by McCarty at plus-3. … Fedorov took a game-high five shots. … Lindros finished with two assists, four shots, a minus-2 rating and one minor penalty. … Flyers rookie defenseman Janne Niinimaa, who would be fourth in the Calder Trophy voting, posted a minus-3 rating.
Off the ice: Detroit finally made an effort to counter the 20-foot-long Flyers jersey that Philadelphia put on its most-famous landmark, a statue of William Penn that stood atop City Hall more than 500 feet off the ground. A day earlier, the Free Press published suggestions from readers for decorating landmarks and, using Photoshop, showed what the Spirit of Detroit statue outside the City-County Building would like look wearing a giant Wings jersey, a goalie mask and goalie pads. Lo and behold, the famed statue now donned a giant Wings jersey. Also, a half-dozen Wayne County workers, working in light rain after a directive from county executive Ed McNamara, put a pair of regular Wings jerseys on the twin chariot riders atop the courthouse on Randolph. Special projects director Rob Zeiger told the Detroit News: “I wish we’d had time to mock up the chariots as Zambonis.”
Famous last words: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sportswriters were dumbfounded by the Flyers’ performance in Game 1. From Tim Panaccio: “They hit everything in sight. They had pressure on the puck every second. They forced turnovers all over the ice. Sounds like a typical Flyers game plan, eh? Well, it was Scotty Bowman’s game plan, and his club worked it to near perfection.” From Timothy Dwyer: “The Flyers got buried because they played small, and once again, their weakness in goal was exposed. For the first 38 minutes, they played like a team with amnesia. They forgot they were the biggest team in the league. How could this happen?” From Ray Parrillo: “Unlike the porous Pittsburgh Penguins, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight from Buffalo and the injury-ravaged New York Rangers — the Flyers’ first three opponents in the two-months-long Stanley Cup tournament — the Red Wings don’t come with so many accommodations. Hit these guys, they hit back. Attack them, and they counter with the speed and clever stickwork that can turn the rush back in the other direction in a blink. And it’s almost mind-boggling how many interchangeable parts Detroit coach Scotty Bowman has at his disposal as he waves four lines over the boards.”
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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 email@example.com.
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.”)
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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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