Road to Stanleytown: Detroit Red Wings had Flyers looking, sounding like Avs after Game 1

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 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 47: June 1, 1997

The backstory: Could it be déjà vu? Could it be a repeat of the Western Conference finals? Could it be Detroit’s 42-year Stanley Cup drought really would end in a week or so? The Red Wings’ 4-2 victory in the opener of the Stanley Cup finals not only resembled the early games against the Avalanche on the ice, in the locker room after the game and after the next day’s practice, the Flyers sounded like the Avalanche. Philadelphia had two days to figure out why the Wings dominated all facets of Game 1 and how to prevent it from happening again. For Game 2, Flyers coach Terry Murray pondered a goaltender change and revamping his defensive pairings. He already promised to use his fourth line sparingly so that the Legion of Doom line could play more. For a team heavily favored and down only one game, an air of desperation seemed to mix with the animal smells at the CoreStates Center, where the circus returned, and at the next-door Spectrum, where the teams practiced.

Same Old Opponents: How bad had the Flyers played? “I don’t know what you attributed it to,” captain Eric Lindros said. “It was an unfortunate night.” Linemate John LeCair said: “For us to come out flat is very frustrating and disappointing.” In the Free Press, Helene St. James wrote: “Was that the Colorado Avalanche wearing the Flyers’ uniforms? What else could explain Philadelphia’s 4-2 loss in Game 1? The Flyers looked almost as inept as the defending Stanley Cup champions did in all but Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. The Flyers looked tentative, they weren’t skating, they didn’t forecheck and they weren’t using their strength. They couldn’t get out of the neutral zone. They didn’t bang and crash the net. After the game — and again after practice — the Flyers also sounded exactly like the Avalanche. They didn’t expound on the hard work, skill and talent of the Wings. Instead, they blamed their loss not on anything Detroit did, but on everything Philadelphia didn’t do. … Unlike the Avs, the Flyers didn’t say anything too stupid or inflammatory, such as question the Wings’ manhood or desire. But, like the Avs, the Flyers spent a lot of time trying to explain what went wrong in one of their biggest games of the season.” Lindros also said: “We weren’t getting the puck in deep, which could have been a problem the Avalanche had. It’s a problem we had as far as just keeping things basic and getting the puck in deep. If we stay with our simple game with just getting to our forecheck, we can accomplish things.” To which, St. James wrote: “Sound familiar? It’s exactly what Avalanche captain Joe Sakic said after Games 1-4. Now it’s Lindros carrying the torch of the embarrassed captain and talking a good game.”

Decisions, decisions, decisions: Murray praised, criticized and then pondered the fate of goalie Ron Hextall, who struggled in the first period and whiffed on a 60-footer from Steve Yzerman early in the third period. “I haven’t decided right now,” said Murray, who had switched from Garth Snow to Hextall early in the Eastern Conference finals. “Hexy played well. We gave up several odd-man rushes. On the three goals that were scored, we made the mistake in front of him. The fourth goal was a big goal. We’ve got to get a stop on that. That’s not knocking Hexy. It’s just the way it is in the business. You need some spectacular stops in the playoffs. Certainly, you need the routine stops.” … The Flyers’ blue-line corps coughed up the puck, didn’t clear the crease and looked slow at times. Everyone had rough moments, including Paul Coffey, the former Wing and future Hall of Famer. The worst moment belonged to veteran Kjell Samuelsson, playing in his second game since January neck surgery. His ill-advised pass in the first period led to Joe Kocur’s breakaway goal. “It was a stupid play,” Samuelsson said. “I didn’t see him at all. I can’t defend that at all. It was a dumb pass even if I made it in the summer rather than in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was just stupid.” Murray said Samuelsson, who he started, might be benched for Game 2. “In all fairness to Kjell,” he said, “you can’t recreate the speed and flow of an actual game in practice.” Murray’s options, however, might hinge on the status of Petr Svoboda, who suffered a foot injury and played sparingly in the third period. … The Legion of Doom line of Lindros, LeClair and Mikael Renberg complained that it didn’t see the ice enough and didn’t play together enough. At times, Murray used rotated players from his fourth line — Daniel Lacroix, Dan Kordic and John Druce — in Renberg’s place. “I will go more to three lines,” Murray said. Wings coach Scotty Bowman flummoxed Lindros’ Legion of Doom, as well as Murray, by throwing all kinds of different combinations at the line. “Look,” he said, “we can’t match up against that line, so I throw different lines at him, and I kept trying to keep our guys as fresh as possible.” Lindros even suggested his coaches were too concerned with counteracting the Wings’ lines. “Maybe we were thinking too much as far as who we want all these matchups against,” Lindros said. “Just playing hockey might be the way to do it.”

20 YEARS AGO: Au Rev-Roy! Remembering the night Red Wings destroyed hated Avalanche

A new hero every day: After the Wings’ practice, Mitch Albom caught up Kirk Maltby, the Grind Liner who scored three regular-season goals and opened the scoring in the finals with his fourth playoff goal. Highlights of his column:

There were llamas and trapeze artists and the air smelled like horse droppings. The circus had taken over the building again where the Stanley Cup Finals were being staged, so the players had to dress in one locker room, then take a shuttle bus — or worse, walk across the parking lot, fully dressed except for their skates — maybe passing a few clowns and the fire-eating man. All this to get to a second building, across the way, where ice was available.

It was confusing, embarrassing, almost comical — more proof that the NHL still doesn’t know how to coordinate the big-time championship it so desperately craves. And if you were a veteran Stanley Cup player, perhaps you’d complain that the whole scene was not worthy of a finals.

Kirk Maltby wasn’t complaining. He took the shuttle bus past the animals. He walked into the other building. He skated with a dozen other teammates in an optional practice. Optional? Yes. Optional. Most of the guys out there were backups, scratches, players who may not see any ice time in this championship series.

Maltby was the only one who was a starter the night before. He was the only one who scored the opening goal of the series. He was the only one who currently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover of Sports Illustrated?

In every Stanley Cup championship, there are a few stories that make it all worthwhile, that remind you why hockey is such a refreshingly guy-next-door sport, that make you smile despite the llamas, horse droppings and utter confusion by the NHL front-office staff.

Kirk Maltby is one of those stories.

Of course, even with the SI cover, fans in Philadelphia are wondering where Maltby came from. They were expecting maybe that Fedorov guy or that Shanahan guy to score the first goal against them. Instead, on a Flyers power play less than seven minutes into Game 1, Maltby, only 24 years old, poked the puck away from none other than the great Eric Lindros and took off down the ice. He did a little give-and-go with Kris Draper, then flipped the biscuit over Ron Hextall’s shoulder to give the Wings their first point of the finals.

Maltby is out there to bump and grind. He’s on the checking line. But somewhere in these playoffs, he has turned into an offensive threat.

“Well, they say this is the time of year when they really count,” Maltby said.

He smiled. He is one of those players having the time of his life — at exactly the right time. Last season, he was with Edmonton, in the basement, suffering the long, cold, sunless skies. And now he’s on the cover of SI and hearing his name boomed out over TV sets around the globe.

You have to wonder what’s next for a kid like this. Will he win the lottery? Will Madonna call and ask whether he’d like to father a child?

Or will he simply continue to overachieve, lacing his gritty physical play with goals that leave the opponents shaking their heads and saying, “Maltby scored? Maltby?”

This much is certain. Guys like Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Vernon will have to win this series for Detroit, but guys like Maltby can put them in a position to do so. That’s why every name on the Stanley Cup is the same size.

Iceman, please cometh: Despite promises to the contrary, the ice at CoreStates Center became an issue during the opener. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “The smell of lions and tigers and elephants wasn’t the only remnant left behind when the circus gave way to the NHL for Game 1. Since the huge doors on the docking bays at the CoreStates Center had to be open during the circus ring’s conversion to a hockey rink Friday night and Saturday morning, the ice was terrible. … Another problem was the heat. The open doors let much of the warm outdoor air into the air-conditioned arena.” The Free Press wrote: “The CoreStates Center ice was soft and sloppy for Game 1. … By game time, it was still possible to see little holes in the ice where the cable anchors for the trapezes had been. That, coupled with rising temperatures, gradually softened the ice as the game worn on.” Wings equipment manger Paul Boyer combated the problem with Maximum Edge, a metal polish applied to the bottom of a blade to reduce friction. “It makes soft ice feel like hard ice,” Boyer said. “It gives my guys the same feeling they get at Joe Louis.”

Off the ice: For a second day, fans flocked to the Spirit of Detroit to see the statue decked out with a giant Wings jersey and to pose in front of the downtown landmark. One woman arrived on the scene and told the Free Press, “I thought we were the only crazy ones.” Still, where the jersey came from and who put it there remained a mystery. Detroit police told the paper that they had “no idea.”

Famous last words: Keith Gave lashed out at Flyers fans for their “hatred” and treatment of the Russian Five. Philadelphia had a long history of ill will toward Soviet players and didn’t sign its first Russian until 1991. Gave wrote: “This is a city that should be ashamed of itself. Somebody should tell these people that the Iron Curtain has crumbled, that the Berlin Wall has fallen, that communism, for all practical purposes, is dead, that there really is no need to build a bomb shelter beneath the sparkling new CoreStates Center, that the opponent is not the Red Army but the Red Wings.” In his column, Gave extensively quoted Igor Larionov: “I don’t know why people hate us. When we go on the road, people hate us, maybe because they don’t want to see some Russians kick some butt of the Americans. But what can we do? We can’t really change that. It’s a lack of intelligence, that’s all.”

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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