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 50: June 4, 1997
The backstory: As Stanley Cup Finals shifted from Philadelphia to Detroit, the teams did what they did best: The Flyers announced another goaltender change. The Red Wings tried not to make waves. Tacked up on a bulletin board in the Wings’ locker room at Joe Louis Arena was a picture of a world championship ring, diamonds sparkling, with these words: “If it ain’t on your mind, it will never be on your finger.” With a day between Games 2 and 3, and Detroit with a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, the Free Press felt compelled to drive home a history lesson: Since 1939, when the finals went to seven games, only three of the 40 teams to fall behind 2-0 overcame that deficit. But twice it happened against the Wings — by the Montreal Canadiens in 1966 and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942. Plus, the Flyers captain Eric Lindros declared after practice in Philly before flying to Motown: “We’re confident about this. We’ve played well on the road all year. We’re going to play well (in Game 3).”
Habs and Have Nots: When the Wings reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1966, the Canadiens were the defending champions and heavily favored. Montreal finished atop the regular-season standings 20 games above .500; Detroit was the last playoff qualifier and only four games above .500. But the Wings won Games 1 and 2 at the Montreal Forum, 3-2 and 5-2. But … the Canadiens won the next four games — 4-2, 2-1, 5-1 and 3-2 (in overtime).
“I was working in the Montreal organization at the time of the 1966 comeback,” Scotty Bowman recalled. “Henri Richard turned the series around. It broke Bill Gadsby’s heart. He played 20 years, made the Hall of Fame and never won a Stanley Cup ring. That was his last year.” Richard ended the series with a controversial goal in Game 6 at Olympia Stadium. Bowman, however, said the 1997 Wings were not haunted by the 42 years of failures — with one exception. “We are not trying to banish those ghosts,” he said. “We wanted to beat Colorado in the worst way because they had embarrassed a team which won 62 games last year, but that’s the only ghosts we have. And we have already accomplished that.”
Route ’66: When Bill L. Roose of the Free Press caught up with several members of the 1966 Wings, they still cringed while reliving the Montreal series. But they had high hopes that the 1997 Wings quickly would polish off the Flyers. “Why did you have to bring this up after lunch?” Gary Bergman said. “I get indigestion when I think about that series and the way it ended.” Could Detroit squander a 2-0 advantage yet again? “Any team can come back, and Philly didn’t get there by accident,” said Bergman, a Wings defenseman for 11 seasons who resided in West Bloomfield. “But the Wings are on a mission, and they’re businesslike. They’ll do their celebrating and jawing when it’s over. And for those of us who played here for quite a while, we’ll share in the pride.”
Center Norm Ullman said: “If we could win two in their building, we were sure we could win the thing. But the playoffs are so strange sometimes.” Bergman contended then and now that Richard carried the puck over the goal line with his elbow for the series-clincher at 2:20 into overtime. Bergman took aim at Richard as he flew across the blue line, both players went down and they slid into goalie Roger Crozier. Richard ended up in the net, on his stomach, with the puck under his elbow. “I had taken down Richard, and I had his stick pinned and he slipped it past Crozier just inside the post,” Bergman said. “I was right in the middle of that tainted goal.” In his second season as the radio announcer, Bruce Martyn remembered how confident the Wings were after Game 2. “Andy Bathgate was telling me as we left the Forum after the second game that the team was going to throw me in the shower when they won the Cup,” Martyn said. “There was some celebrating after they took two from Montreal. I think this group is smarter.”
Gadsby, who played defense despite a broken toe and who lived in Southfield, disagreed that the Wings counted their rings before they were earned. “We sure weren’t overconfident coming home on the train from Montreal,” he said. “We didn’t think it was a lock for damn sure. But it doesn’t look like they’ll come up short this time. If they go up, 3-0, it’s lights out, and they’ll have Philly by the horns.” However … the Maple Leafs didn’t just rally from a 2-0 deficit in the 1942 finals against the Wings, they actually rallied from a 3-0 deficit.
STANLEYTOWN DAY 49: Red Wings unfazed by Flyers’ adjustments, take Game 2
Between the pipes: A day after the Flyers’ 4-2 loss in Game 2, coach Terry Murray threw Garth Snow under the bus again in his fifth goaltender switch of the playoffs. How Drew Sharp and Helene St. James covered the news for the Free Press:
The two-ring circus that has become Philadelphia’s goaltending situation now borders on farce. The Murray-go-round has circled back to Ron Hextall.
Flyers coach Terry Murray has opted for Hextall in Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena, benching Game 2 starter Garth Snow for “an inability to make the necessary stops to keep us competitive.”
Apparently, Murray has a short memory. He benched Hextall after Game 1 for the exact same reason. But he said that Hextall would start the rest of the series.
“I don’t like to play musical chairs with the goalies,” Murry said, drawing a few snickers from the media. “But I played a hunch with Snowy and it didn’t work. We’re going into a building where I think we’ll need a lot of experience, and Hexy could give us a big lift.”
That’s an awfully big assumption considering neither Hextall nor Snow has been solid this series or throughout the playoffs.
Snow drew Murray’s ire by not only permitting goals on long shots by Brendan Shanahan and Kirk Maltby, but also by their timing.
Shanahan’s 55-foot shot was the second Snow faced, just 1:37 into the game. The goal was deflating for the fired-up Flyers. And after Philadelphia tied the game at 2 to end the first period, Maltby’s 45-foot shot eluded Snow just 2:39 into the second period. Another crushing blow.
“Nothing that happens here surprises me,” Hextall said. “I’m excited about getting the opportunity. It’s another chance and I’ve got to play well. But I’m not looking any further than just one game.”
A wise philosophy considering Flyers goalies no longer have a margin for error, when one mistake is justification for being yanked. Murray cited Steve Yzerman’s blue-line slap shot against Hextall in Game 1 in his decision to play Snow.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Hextall said, “and say that we’re not shaken by being down 0-2 after two home games. But that could change in a hurry. This isn’t a move out of desperation. You guys are making more of this than the rest of us. It’s no big deal. We’ve been kind of a tandem all season.”
If the rules allowed, Murray might put Snow and Hextall in goal.
Worth noting: Already with a depleted and ineffective defensive corps, the Flyers seemed likely to play Game 3 without Paul Coffey because of a concussion. Coffey, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, had suffered through two miserable games — on the ice for six of the Wings’ eight goals and in the penalty box for a seventh. Then he took a Darren McCarty shoulder to the jaw. … The Flyers lost defenseman Petr Svoboda after Game 1 with a fractured foot. That put Karl Dykhuis in the lineup. If Coffey couldn’t go, Michel Petit could be the next D-man up. … The Wings continued to stay in a downtown hotel the night before games. They are 7-1 at home. … The Flyers are 6-1 on the road in the playoffs.
They said it: From Yzerman: “Special teams is an area we’d like to improve on. Face-offs we’d like to improve upon. All parts of the game really. I don’t think you can ever play flawless, but we definitely have to improve because I think they’re just going to get stronger.” From Murray: “It isn’t an accurate assessment to say that Paul (Coffey) has been the biggest disappointment. Our overall team defense has been the disappointment. It’s not fair to single out Paul. We’re having difficulty consistently getting out of our zone so that we can feed our offense.” From grinder Joe Kocur: “All championship teams have to have somebody unexpected step up every night. That’s how teams win in the playoffs. One or two people can’t carry you. Everyone came up big when they had to. That’s why we’re in this position.” From Lindros, who had no goals, two assists and a minus-4 rating in the finals: “It’s not the end of the world.”
Press clippings: From Timothy Dwyer, Philadelphia Inquirer: “Speed is killing the Flyers. The Red Wings have it, and the Flyers don’t. And that is why they have no chance of beating the Red Wings. The Flyers shook off their jitters and played better, but they could not overcome the quickness gap. They may win a game in Detroit, but they can’t come back and win the series. They just can’t catch up to them.”
From Ray Parrillo, Philadelphia Inquirer: “Fourteen years after he became the fourth pick in the draft and was burdened with resurrecting a doddering franchise; 11 years after he had a C stitched onto his sweater and was named the youngest captain of the Red Wings at 21; and after more than 500 goals, nearly 800 assists and several trade rumors, Steve Yzerman is finally so close to hoisting the Stanley Cup he can almost see the reflection of his face in the silver chalice. And it can be easily argued that perhaps no player in the NHL is more deserving than the classy Detroit center.”
From Joe Lapointe, New York Times: “Everyone, including general manager Bob Clarke, knew the Flyers had a goalie problem at the beginning of the season. But only Clarke had the power to do something about it. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t trade for someone to replace the undependable and erratic pair of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow.”
Off the ice: First it was Kirk Maltby’s turn, now it was Vladimir Konstantinov’s turn to test the Sports Illustrated jinx. After Maltby appeared on the cover — shown keeping the puck away from Avalanche captain Joe Sakic — he scored goals in Games 1 and 2 of the finals. Konstantinov didn’t make the cover — that honor went to Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls — but he was the subject of a four-page spread titled “The Red Shark.”
Writer David Fleming cast a wide net talking with teammates and opponents about Vlad the Impaler. “When I played against him in St. Louis,” Brendan Shanahan told SI, “I thought he was a borderline dirty player. Now that I play with him, I know he’s a borderline dirty player.” Opponents were even harsher, although Konstantinov said he reveled in such talk. What did bother him was the team’s nickname for him, George. Why? The Wings thought he resembled Curious George from children’s books. “This name, CAR-rhee-ush George,” he said, “I don’t know if I like so much.”
Famous last words: From Sergei Fedorov, the Wings’ leading scorer with 16 points: “Sweep? I don’t know this word. I mean, I learned that two years ago. But I fully plan to respect the other team.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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