Road to Stanleytown: Flyers reduced to ‘Team Chaos’ after 1997 Red Wings ring their bell

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 48: June 2, 1997

The backstory: The headline in the Free Press said it all: Let It Snow. Beneath it was a photograph of Flyers goalie Garth Snow between the pipes at practice — and he was making a glove save on a balloon. But how would he handle the pressure of his first Stanley Cup Finals and fast-moving pucks instead of dime-store novelties? His last time in action — starting Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers — Snow was yanked after surrendering five goals on 10 shots. On the eve of Game 2, after his team’s poor performance in the opener, Flyers coach Terry Murray announced wholesale changes to his lineup: a new goalie, two revamped lines, more ice time for the Legion of Doom, moves on the blue line and swapping out size for speed. The hockey world immediately labeled Murray’s new battle plan as a sign of panic.

The Free Press’ Keith Gave wrote: “The Flyers are suddenly Team Chaos, starting behind the bench.” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was no longer the only circus in town — plus it kept the teams from practicing yet again at the CoreStates Center. The Red Wings, meanwhile, went about their Game 2 preparations at the Spectrum next door and avoided doing or saying anything to draw attention away from the Flyers. In Detroit, meanwhile, hockey fans were up in arms: The Spirit of Detroit statue no longer was wearing its giant Wings jersey.

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Between the pipes: For the fourth time in the playoffs, Murray decided to switch goalies. In: Snow, a 27-year-old in his second full season, best known for huge shoulder pads that made the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder look like Frankenstein’s monster. Out: Ron Hextall, the same size but now 33, a decade removed from his rookie season in which he won the Conn Smythe Trophy even though the Flyers lost to the Oilers in the finals. Hextall’s failure to stop Steve Yzerman’s 60-footer early in third period, with the Flyers down only a goal, proved to be unforgivable.

“The decision is based on what I saw in the game,” Murray said. “I thought that the opportunity for us to get ourselves back into the game was taken away.” Idle for 14 days, Snow was stunned by Murray’s decision. “It came from completely out of the blue,” said Snow, 8-3 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. “I was surprised because I thought Hexy made some big saves for us and I thought that he played well.” Hextall, who was 4-1 with a 2.58 goals-against and .904 save percentage, appeared devasted. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I’m very disappointed. … But I’ve come to accept it because, like I’ve said before, we’ve got a coach who isn’t afraid to change his goalies at any time.”

History wasn’t on Murray’s side. No team had switched starting goalies since 1988, when Boston replaced Andy Moog with Reggie Lemelin, then changed back to Moog. Neither move worked. Edmonton swept the Bruins — in five games. Game 4 was canceled when the power went out at Boston Garden in the second period of a tied game. Eight times since 1967 a team switched starting goalies in the finals. Only the Oilers won the Cup, in 1984, in five games, when Moog replaced Grant Fuhr because of a Game 3 shoulder injury.

Forward lines: The Flyers’ size — they were the biggest team in the league — was considered a huge advantage before the series. But Murray wasted no time changing direction. “I want to get four lines in more of a skilled lineup right now,” he said, “simply because I don’t see a lot of the chippy play, the aggressive play, the fighting that there was is nonexistent now.”

Murray demoted Dale Hawerchuk, the aging former All-Star, from the second line to the fourth line. His place with Rod Brind’Amour, the former Spartan, and Dainius Zubrus, a skilled rookie only 18 years old, went to fourth-line checker John Druce. Hawerchuk joined lineup additions Pat Falloon and rookie Colin Forbis, whose NHL resume consisted of three regular-season games. They replaced big bangers Daniel Lacroix and Dan Kordic, who suffered a broken thumb. Not that the fourth line was expected to see the ice very often; Murray earlier vowed to lean more on the Legion of Doom line  — Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, who were irked with their Game 1 ice time.

On the blue line: Murray’s hands were tied with his shaky corps of defensemen, who were slow afoot and error prone in Game 1. He said the next day he didn’t know whether veteran Kjell Samuelsson should stay in the lineup after a brutal giveaway that led to Joe Kocur’s breakaway goal and struggling in only his second game since January neck surgery. But Petr Svoboda suffered a fractured bone in his right foot in the opener. So, Samuelson had to stay in the lineup and Karl Dykhuis, who had played in every playoff game until the finals, was the next man up. The pairings: Paul Coffey-Dykhuis, rookie Janne Niinimaa-Samuelsson and Eric Desjardins-Chris Therien.

Panic in Philly? Gave’s analysis of Murry’s moves was brutal. But he did include a disclaimer: “We would be remiss to point out that virtually every move Murray — in his Stanley Cup Finals debut — has made in these playoffs has worked, including his goaltender shuffle.” Among Gave’s comments: No. 1 — “Their coach is scratching two of his biggest bangers, bringing in a rookie with three games NHL experience to ignite the forechecking attack and a small finesse player to kick-start the highest-scoring offense in the league. A former NHL All-Star is getting demoted to the fourth line. A journeyman checker is promoted to a scoring line. And some moron with a notebook has the gall to suggest that the Flyers might be just a bit panicky heading into Game 2?” No. 2 — “Instead of physically punishing the Wings into submission — Philadelphia’s best chance to win this series — Murray is making a slew of changes to upgrade his speed and skill level that still lag far behind Detroit’s. These are moves by a desperate man with a desperate team that had such a cakewalk to the finals it expected to have Wings for dessert.”

DAY 47: Wings had Flyers looking, sounding like Avs after Game 1

DAY 46: How Red Wings beat up stunned Flyers in Game 1 of Cup Finals

No. 3 — “Murray was overmatched in a battle of wits with Scotty Bowman in Game 1. He was so concerned about getting the line matchups he wanted that he had Lindros on the bench for long stretches of the first two periods and didn’t get him into the flow until the third period, when the Flyers were trying to play catch-up.” No. 4 — “Lindros privately fumed about his ice time, and he and John LeClair suggested the Flyers are better on the road, where they have a 6-1 record, because they play a simpler game, unencumbered by their coach’s preoccupation with matchups.”

No. 5 — “Well, there’s no time like Snowtime. But how difficult a challenge can this be? After all, the Wings already have survived an Avalanche in these playoffs. By comparison, these Flyers are a bunch of flakes.” No. 6 — “The Red Wings have found contentment in knowing that if they stick to their game plan they can’t be beaten in this series. It’s a profound reversal of roles from their last appearance in the finals two years ago against New Jersey. Like these Flyers, the 1995 Wings were on such a roll they didn’t think anything could stop them.”

Not glowing reviews: The Wings were thrilled that Game 2 would be televised by ESPN and not Fox. Why? Because Fox games used special pucks so that they would glow for viewers. “You means those (expletive) India rubber pucks?” Darren McCarty said. Players said the Fox puck couldn’t be frozen because of the electronics involved, affecting its balance and how it slid on the ice. “That’s a bad puck,” Igor Larionov said. “It’s unbelievable. … We’ve got no feel. You can’t make a pass. You can’t handle the puck. I think it’s heavier.” Of course, the ice wasn’t very good, either, at the CoreStates Center because the NHL shared the area with the circus. “You can play on bad ice,” Larionov said, “but the most important thing is the puck. … That’s what I don’t like about Fox games.”

Off the ice: A week after Philadelphia with great fanfare placed a 20-foot-long Flyers jersey on William Penn, a landmark statue atop its City Hall, Detroit’s answer, a giant Wings jersey on the Spirit of Detroit, fell victim to city bureaucracy. The jersey appeared on the landmark statue under mysterious circumstances right before the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. Word spread that Saturday. Also Saturday, not far away, after a directive from county executive Ed McNamara, Wayne County workers put a pair of regular Wings jerseys on the twin chariot riders atop the courthouse on Randolph. By Sunday, fans were flocking downtown to pose in front of the Spirit of Detroit. No one would reveal who put the jersey on the statue located in front of the City-County Building. Come Monday, the jersey was gone — and Detroit fumed. Bill McGraw, the Free Press’ beat reporter during much of the Dead Wings era, told the tale of the missing jersey and the happy ending:

The biggest Red Wing in creation got its jersey back Monday.

The familiar red sweater with the Winged Wheel was missing from the muscular shoulders of the Spirit of Detroit statue at Woodward and Jefferson as downtown commuters reported for work Monday morning. Employees of East Side Team Sport, a Warren shop specializing in team apparel, had draped the statue Saturday to cheer on the Wings.

The jersey was hard to miss. It is size 360. By contrast, real Red Wing Darren McCarty wears a size 56.

The jersey’s disappearance sparked hundreds of calls by outraged hockey fans to government offices in the adjacent City-County Building. Many of the fans thought city officials had ordered the sweater removed as inappropriate apparel for the sculpture.

“That’s not our position at all,” said mayoral spokesman Anthony Neely. “We’re excited about it and think it’s great for the spirit of the city.”

The culprit? A force not unknown inside city hall: bureaucracy.

Because building officials had not authorized the statue’s new adornment, a maintenance crew took it down early Monday.

By midday, William Polakowski, general manager of the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority that owns the statue, gave the jersey his blessing.

Polakowski spokeswoman Carol McNair said jangling phones kept employees from working.

“They asked us, ‘Don’t you have any team spirit?’”

East Side Team Sports employees returned Monday evening to rehang the jersey, which measures 15 feet wide and 14 feet long in the chest.

“I wish we were making one as big as this for someone on the ice,” said store manager Robert Groat.

The 89-year-old artist who created the statue, internationally renowned sculptor Marshall Fredericks of Birmingham, worried about the sculpture’s safety:

“I think it’s a cute idea, but only if it’s done very, very carefully.”

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Famous last words: As expected, the Wings downplayed the Flyers’ goaltender switch. “No matter who the goalie is,” Brendan Shanahan said, “we still have to shoot the puck.” Captain Steve Yzerman smiled when asked whether he kept a book on the playing styles of goaltenders. “Yeah,” he said, “if he goes down you shoot high, and if he stands up you shoot low. It’s not that scientific.”

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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