Road to Stanleytown: After 42 years, it’s finally time to party with the Stanley Cup!

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 54: June 8, 1997

The backstory: The Red Wings’ 42-year Stanley Cup drought ended at 10:50 on a Saturday night. Steve Yzerman touched the Cup for the first time 10 minutes later. And then the party really started. The players celebrated in the locker room until Yzerman crammed the Cup into the back of his Porsche at 3:15 a.m. Sunday. The team’s afterglow came at a restaurant in West Bloomfield. The Ilitches celebrated in their suite at Joe Louis Arena. Fans celebrated in bars and homes across the state. Thousands more packed downtown Detroit from Jefferson Avenue to Greektown. Sandwiched in the that crowd was Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara. “It was bedlam,” he said, “but it was wonderful.” Another 20,000 fans poured into the streets of downtown Royal Oak. For the day after, there were untold stories that needed to be told — and plenty of planning for the next round of civic celebrations.

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Spirit of Detroit: Besides being wildly happy with the Wings’ eighth Stanley Cup, the massive crowds were remarkably peaceful. The Free Press reported on what it termed an “enthusiastic — and law-abiding — celebration”: “Indeed, it was comparatively calm when stacked up against the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory and the Pistons’ basketball crowns. The world gasped at a burning police car and downtown murder after the World Series. Scattered vandalism and related accidental deaths followed the Pistons’ titles in 1989 and ’90. But on Saturday, the scenes were of happy celebrations and street-partying, with a mere handful of arrests.” Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon said there 17 disorderly conduct arrests and three more for other minor offenses. “Considering the size of the crowd,” McKinnon said, “it was minuscule.” Festivities were to resume Monday, when the Wings planned a team celebration for season-ticket holders at Joe Louis Arena, to be televised around the state. On Tuesday, the championship parade would start at the Fox Theatre and head down Woodward to Hart Plaza, also to be televised around the state.

Stanleytown: Longtime Free Press reporter/editor/columnist Bill McGraw grew up a hockey fanatic in Detroit before embarking on a career that earned him a place in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. For four long, dreadful years, he covered the tail end of the Dead Wings era, when Terrible Ted made a bad situation even worse, fans booed Bruce Norris so hard that he eventually sold the franchise, a pizza baron scooped it up for a song, improved an arena called a warehouse by the waterfront and drafted a young centerman from the Ottawa suburbs. On the first Saturday in June 1997, working as city desk reporter, McGraw’s assignment was to follow Stanley wherever the Wings took the gleaming cup. His report:

With dancing eyes and a widening smile, Tomas Sandstrom walked up to the Stanley Cup not long before dawn Sunday. He lifted it, caressed it, thrust it over his head and carried it around the Red Wings’ frenetic victory party in a West Bloomfield restaurant.

Grown men reached up just to touch the famous trophy as Sandstrom passed. Some kissed the Cup passionately. Others were content to stare, shake a fist and shout, “Yeah!”

Stanley’s first night with the Detroit champs was a giddy love-in that started when team captain Steve Yzerman carried the Cup to his silver Porsche outside Joe Louis Arena and roared up the Lodge to Big Daddy’s Parthenon on Orchard Lake for the official team blowout.

Serenaded by high-octane dance music, fed by a sumptuous Greek-style smorgasbord and refreshed by an open bar, about 400 players, coaches, broadcasters, friends, family and a few hangers-on partied until the birds were chirping.

“This is just unbelievable,” Yzerman said as he surveyed the scene.

“I love you, Big Daddy,” said a sentimental-looking Slava Kozlov as he hugged Rick Rogow, who owned the restaurant with Tommy Peristeris.

Sergei Fedorov looked dashing in a European-style outfit. An unshowered Kris Draper wore his shin pads, socks, pants and sweat-soaked undershirt. Scotty Bowman, who had just won his seventh Stanley Cup as a coach, sported a T-shirt that demanded: “Show me the Cup.”

Bowman, widely considered as cold as he was brilliant, was animated as he chatted with players and other guests and was one of the last to leave.

Joe Kocur, who has built a reputation as one of the NHL’s toughest customers and has scarred fists to prove it, held hands with his mother as he escorted her to a car.

Sandstrom, after he had given up the Cup, put teammate Martin Lapointe in a playful headlock. Lapointe responded by elbowing Sandstrom in the stomach.

By historic standards, the night was tame. Other NHL champs have dragged the Cup to stripper bars or kicked it in rivers or let their dogs drink from it. And those things and more could yet happen, as each player, according to custom, gets to take the Cup home for at least a day or two. Yzerman took it to his Grosse Pointe home Sunday morning.

Even with all the star power on hand, the chief attraction, of course, was the 104-year-old piece of silverware that is just under three feet tall and weighs 37 pounds.

Yzerman, who stopped with the Cup at owner Mike Ilitch’s party inside The Joe before leaving, was the last player to arrive at Big Daddy’s, a Red Wings hangout where many players eat pregame meals.

About 25 fans, mostly young adults, applauded as Yzerman and his wife, Lisa, drove up at 3:30 a.m. with Stanley in the backseat.

“Can I just touch the Cup?” Rogow asked.

“Sure, go ahead,” said Yzerman, who waited patiently while many of the fans shook his hand and ran their fingers over the names of the 1,914 members of past winners engraved on the trophy’s bowl and five rings.

Matt Mansour, 30, of Royal Oak was one of those fans.

“It gave me the shivers.”

For “Stanleytown 25 Years Later,” McGraw wrote about his love for hockey, his time covering the Dead Wings and his first night with Stanley. He concluded this piece with this paragraph:

“The birds were chirping and the sun was rising over Hockeytown when the party ended. Driving home, ‘We Are the Champions’ played on the radio. ‘It’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise,’ Freddie Mercury sang. But with the joy and excitement the Red Wings finally had brought to Detroit fans, it seemed worth the wait. All 42 years.”

They said it: From forward Mike Knuble, a Black Ace: “I’m just glad to shave off my chin. I’ve been over this same spot five times and can’t get it off.” From Larry Murphy: “In Toronto, the media really did a number on me. I’m forever indebted to Scotty Bowman and Jimmy Devellano.” From center Tim Taylor, leader of the Black Aces: “When I picked up the Stanley Cup, my life passed before my eyes.” From associate coach Dave Lewis: “The critics are quiet now. They’ve shut up. The Steve Yzerman critics, the Russian critics, the Red Wings critics. They can’t say anything, because we won. I’m going to wear this ring proudly. I don’t know if there are enough words in the dictionary to describe this feeling.” From backup goalie Chris Osgood: “The best year of my career. I don’t care if I play two games, six games or however many games I play, just as long as I’m standing here with a championship shirt on and holding the Cup.” From Mary Lynn Draper, mother for Grind Line center Kris: “I know for Kristopher, this is it. But my cup came when they beat Colorado. That was so nice to see.”

The Big Picture: After the Wings completed their sweep of the Flyers, Mitch Albom wrote that the Stanley Cup was filled with healing waters for players, fans and city. His column:

The crowd was thinning and the noise was dying down. The champagne showers had turned his hair into a sticky nest. Steve Yzerman glanced over the messy remains of the Red Wings’ locker room, then told a story.

He had been in Las Vegas a few years back. He was sitting at a craps table. Two guys from Windsor recognized him and made the typical fuss. Hey, it’s Yzerman from the Red Wings! Then they looked at the gambling action, looked at The Captain, and one of them whispered, “We better get away from here. There’s no luck at this table.”

Yzerman “wanted to slug ’em,” he recalled.

He didn’t, of course. He suffered silently, which is how we do it around here, and the sting of that insult and all the others like it bore deep inside his stomach, churned around like a sleepless wasp, year after year — until Saturday night. Until that moment when the final horn sounded and Yzerman threw his stick into the crowd and his curses to the wind and he lifted off toward the open arms of goalie Mike Vernon as a thundering roar shook Joe Louis Arena and you know what? The heck with those guys from Windsor — the whole world wanted to be around Steve Yzerman now.

A wounded deer leaps the highest, that’s what they say. And if the Red Wings’ soaring championship had one common theme it was this: Heal the wounds, mend the tear, end the suffering and leap into salvation.

This was not a championship in a city, it was a championship for a city, a city that had waited 42 years for hockey recognition and still was waiting, thank you, for the non-hockey kind. I started getting phone calls from radio stations around the country, and they wanted to know whether we burned anything down, if we turned over any police cars, why this was such a big deal. This was the answer I wanted to give them: “Shut up and get lost. You don’t get it and you never will.”

But Detroiters did. From the players to the coaches to the season-ticket holders to the kids who stood on street corners all weekend, waving signs

that read, “Honk if you love the Wings!”

This was a story of retribution. Nearly everyone brought some sort of long

wait, personal scar or sad history into these Stanley Cup Finals. And, as if filled with healing waters, the Cup made them all better.


There was, of course, Yzerman, the 32-year-old captain, who has been working down by the Detroit River since Ronald Reagan’s first term. He finally admitted in an emotional moment Sunday morning that the whispers all these years have stung him, even if he never showed it.

“They always say, ‘ He’s a good player but he didn’t win it,’” Yzerman said. “And now they can’t say that anymore. No matter what, they can’t say it, you know? …

“These past five years, there were summers where I didn’t even want to go outside, I didn’t want to be recognized, I put on my hat, my sunglasses, I walked around in a shell. You’re embarrassed. I’ve felt that way before.”

He flicked a champagne drop off his nose. No more embarrassment.

Healed by the Cup.

And how about the two Russian players Yzerman handed that magic trophy off to as the crowd stomped and cheered to “We Are the Champions” Saturday night? Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov? Did you see them skating side by side, a 36-year-old and a 39-year-old, carrying the Cup together, one-handed, the way old women in Europe carry a suitcase? Between these two, they have skated more miles than most starting lineups in the NHL. And yet they always had to hear how Russian players don’t want the Cup enough.

“I think we stop that rumor forever now,” Larionov said, spilling champagne on whoever passed him in the Wings’ locker room. Appreciate it? Both he and Fetisov paid enormous prices to come to North America and make a run at this crown. Fetisov, a major in the Russian army, was kicked off his team and put behind a desk for speaking up for the right to play in this country. And Larionov had to quit the NHL for a year because the half of his paycheck that was being taken by Mother Russia — supposedly to fund youth sports programs — was instead going toward cell phones for Soviet bureaucrats. Furious, he did the only thing he could do; he cut off their money supply by cutting off his own.

You think he hasn’t paid a price to win this Cup.

Or how about the guy to whom the Russians handed off? The Mother of All Facial Hair Growers — Brendan Shanahan? He began the year in Hartford, wondering whether his career was destined to end in oblivion. And there he was Saturday night, kissing the Cup like a long-lost friend.

“Does it match your dream of what it would be like?” I asked Shanahan hours later, as he dashed behind a curtain for another photo with the trophy.

“Match it? It exceeds it!” he gushed. “I want to do it again!”

Healed by the Cup.

There was a sacrifice behind every set of hands that held that chalice on that skate around the Joe Louis ice. There was Vernon, ready to sell his house a few months ago because he knew he was about to be traded, and now here he was, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the most valuable player in the playoffs.

There was Sergei Fedorov who swallowed his late-season demotion to defenseman and dug inside himself, discovering his own way back to the star he was supposed to be.

There was Joe Kocur, who was out of hockey altogether, his knuckles a bruised mess. Heck, he was playing in the recreational leagues less than six months ago. “The lowest moment,” he admitted, “was when a guy came on the radio and said the rumor isn’t true, Detroit wasn’t going to sign me. I heard that and thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’”

But here he was, holding a cigar. It’s never over, as long as you dream.

Healed by the Cup.

There was Kirk Maltby, who once thought his career would be spent in the basement with Edmonton, and Darren McCarty, who fought through personal problems to become part of the gritty core of this team. When he scored the winning goal in Saturday’s 2-1 victory — on a dipsy-doodle move that was so unlike him, it had to be heaven-sent — the Wings on the bench jumped so high I thought someone juiced 1,000 volts through their rear ends.

And how about McCarty’s best buddy, Kris Draper? Last year at this time, his face was swollen and his jaw wired shut and he was drinking soup and milkshakes, because Claude Lemieux cheapshotted him in the final game of the Western Conference finals. More than any single moment, that blow created a purpose for this year’s team.

And more than any single moment, McCarty’s vengeful beating of Lemieux on March 26 convinced this team that no opponent could contain its spirit.

Now here was Draper, one year after the incident, cigar in teeth, jaw intact, nothing on his chin but the bushy red goatee.

“I don’t even remember last June anymore,” he boasted.

Healed by the Cup.


The list of soothed scars goes from one end of the roster to the other. But this championship brought salvation for men without numbers, too. There was Scotty Bowman, who heard the critics whisper that he had lost his coaching touch, that 63 was too old to get it done in the NHL anymore. But when he put on skates and did a little lap with the Cup, his players burst into laughter, and a warmth that never existed between him and his soldiers was suddenly born.

“You know,” he said, surveying his team, “when Mr. Ilitch hired me, I told him two years. It’s been four.”

Will he make it five?

“Ask me in two weeks,” he said, but he was smiling, and you wonder whether this Cup can’t make you younger as well.

And, of course, there was Mike Ilitch himself, who has sunk several fortunes into his hometown’s sports and has watched with clenched fists and a pounding heartbeat year after year, as his teams fell short. He never interfered with players. He never tried to push his businessman’s ego into it, believing he could do it better himself — a la George Steinbrenner. And finally, finally, his patience and his dollars were rewarded. “This is the No. 1 thrill,” he said, “when Stevie gave me that Cup, and I held it up …”

It looked as if he was going to cry.

If he wasn’t crying already.

Healed by the Cup.


Now, maybe outsiders read this and think, “What sentimental drivel.” Well, that’s why they’re outsiders. They don’t understand what hockey means to this town — more important, what pride and camaraderie and unity of spirit mean to this town. We don’t get enough. Sometimes economics and urban problems don’t let us.

And so, when we get something like a hockey champion — after 42 years of waiting — and when we get a night of peaceful celebration, when we get a night when Black and White see no differences between them, only the similarity that one of our own has hit the jackpot — when we get a night like that, we want to squeeze every last star out of its sky. We want the healing power that feeling good can bring.

And if you can’t understand that, then go on back to whatever miserable, cynical rock you live under and have a nice day.

“We’ve had some disappointments and we’ve broken people’s hearts,” Yzerman said, “but everybody kept coming back. They kept coming back, every year, and cheering louder.”

You know what you call that? Fandom. And you know what fandom is really a buzzword for?


Strike up the band. No more whispers at the craps table, no more watching Gretzky or Messier with envy. No more Claude Lemieux, no more Patrick Roy, no more ghosts of San Jose, Toronto, St. Louis or anybody else. It’s Detroit, now. Detroit.

There’s a giant 25-foot chalice on the Wayne County Building, there’s a parade in the works, and there’s a snapshot in my mind, your mind, and the mind of the man, woman or child sitting next to you as you read this.

It’s the snapshot of Steve Yzerman and his long-awaited smile, hoisting that trophy high into goose-bump land. It pulls us together, that snapshot, and better yet, it always will. They shoot, we soar.

Silver threads and golden needles could not mend more than this Cup.

Suite party: As the beat reporter on the Wings for more than a decade, Keith Gave covered the lowest of lows — 17-57-6 for 40 points in 1985-86 — and the end of the 42-year Stanley Cup drought — in his last year at the Free Press. He spent part of June 7 in the owner’s box at The Joe. His report:

Moet, vintage 1982. How apropos.

Mike Ilitch bought it when he bought his hockey team. On June 7, 1997, they finally popped the corks to toast a Stanley Cup champion that the Ilitch family hoped would be another giant step in galvanizing a city on a comeback — much like his Red Wings.

“I feel fantastic,” Ilitch said, stepping away from the spray of champagne in his luxury box, three floors above a similar celebration in the Wings’ dressing room. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. Sometimes I wondered if we’d see it through to the end. But one of my strengths is perseverance, and we hung in there.”

Even when you shell out $8 million for an NHL franchise, you don’t get a manual telling you how to run it. The Ilitches did it the hard way, through trial and error.

Finally — mercifully, some might say — their efforts were rewarded when

the Wings completed a sweep of Philadelphia. Immediately after the final horn, the Ilitch family — seven children and many grandchildren — gathered along the Detroit bench. Each player skated over to shake hands with the patriarch. He grabbed each one, embracing them with affection.

“My dad was so excited, he kissed every player on both cheeks, European style,” said daughter Denise Ilitch-Lites. “He’s so proud of the players.”

And her parents, she said, should feel vindicated after years of agonizing with their team. “They’re competitors and they’re winners and they proved it,” she said. “It was long and hard, but they did it.”

Their smiles proved it, Mike Ilitch Jr. said. “When I looked at their faces when they were standing there on the bench, it was amazing,” he said. “I’ve never seen that look before. Both had tears in their eyes.’’

The crowning moment came a few minutes before 11 p.m., when two guys in suits, walking slowly as if in a wedding ceremony, escorted the Stanley Cup to center ice. As commissioner Gary Bettman congratulated the Wings and was about to hand the Cup to captain Steve Yzerman, Mike Ilitch stood at the bench and pounded his fists on the boards.

And while his teammates gathered at center ice, Yzerman lifted the Cup over his head and began a slow waltz around the ice. His victory lap ended at the bench, where he presented the most famous trophy in sports to Mike and Marian Ilitch.

“It’s just great,” Mike Ilitch said. “We put it together with the United Nations — Canadians and Russians, Swedes and an American. Hopefully, it’s helping prove to our city that it doesn’t matter who you are. If we all work together, great things can happen.”

Mike and Marian Ilitch wanted this championship for a city starting to feel good about itself for the first time in perhaps decades, and maybe celebrating it could keep this town on its roll.

“I’m very passionate about the Red Wings and our city,” Marian Ilitch

said. “When we bought the team 15 years ago, I forgot what it was like to be downtown. I realized how much I missed it. I missed the character this city has.”

Her husband never forgot. “I look out into the stands from my box and I see all those people throughout the arena and I say, ‘These are all my children now,’” he said. “I’m getting at that age, you know? I was born in Detroit and raised here. I came from zero. This community helped make me. It’s nice to give something back.”

When Ilitch purchased the Wings from Bruce Norris, a once-proud franchise had hit rock bottom. It was ridden with debt, and its roster was depleted after years of mismanagement. Since then, the Ilitches purchased and restored the Fox Theatre, the centerpiece of a thriving entertainment district, bought the Tigers, and were about to start construction on a baseball stadium that eventually would stand next to a new football stadium.

“I’m proud,” Mike Ilitch said. “We can say our conscience is clear. We’ve always tried to do what is right, what we believed in. We had integrity and we wanted to do these things for our city. Our city is on the launching pad right now. We can really take off. And I feel a part of it, like I’m having a little something to do with it.”

In the days and hours leading up to the clincher, Mike and Marian Ilitch wanted nothing to do with planning a victory celebration.

“They were so nervous with all the anticipation,” Ilitch-Lites

said. “And it made them nervous that everybody wanted to plan things like the party, the team picture, the parade. Mom kept saying, ‘I’m so uncomfortable with this.’ She didn’t want to assume anything.”

Marian Ilitch said: “And the kids kept saying, ‘Mom, if we win we’re not prepared.’ I just said, ‘So what?’”

Anyway, what’s to prepare? The champagne had been on ice for 15 years.

The only thing missing was Stanley.

Denise and Mike Jr. stood behind the bar in the Ilitch suite, uncorked a magnum of Moet, 1982, and began spraying the crowd.

“I’m just so happy for my parents,” Ilitch-Lites said. “They’ve put their heart and soul into this team.”

Final stats (Flyers): In their opening three series, the Wings pretty much dominated on the stats sheet. That wasn’t the case in the Stanley Cup Finals against Philadelphia except in the most important statistic: goal differential. The Wings outscored the Flyers, 16-6. Not only that, the Flyers scored only once during five-on-five hockey. The other goals came on the power play (four times) and with their goalie pulled (Eric Lindros in the last minute of the series). Special teams were a wash. On the power play, the Wings were 4-for-18 (22.2%), the Flyers were 4-for-19 (21.1%). On the penalty kill, the Wings were 15-for-19 (78.9%), the Flyers were 14-for-18 (77.8%). Detroit barely outshot Philadelphia, 115-108. Fedorov led all scorers with six points (three goals, including two game-winners, and three assists). Next with four points were Shanahan, Yzerman and Philly’s Rod Brind’Amour — each with three goals and one assist. Only Murphy reached double digits with a plus-10 rating. Next were Lidstrom (plus-6) and McCarty (plus-4). No Flyer was a plus player. Vernon posted a 1.50 goals-against average with a .944 save percentage. The Flyers’ ineffective tandem of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow surrendered 4.06 goals a game and stopped shots at a .861 percentage. The penalty leaders were Fetisov (10 minutes) and Lindros (eight minutes).

Final stats (all spring): Fedorov led the Wings with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 20 games. He tied Lidstrom for second with 79 shots, three behind Shanahan. Next in points: Shanahan (9-8–17), Kozlov (8-5–13), Yzerman (6-7–13), Larionov (4-8–12), Lapointe (4-8–12) and Murphy (2-9–11). Plus-minus leaders: Murphy (plus-16), Lidstrom (plus-12), Bob Rouse (plus-8), Lapointe (plus-8), Larionov (plus-8) and Shanahan (plus-8). Penalty minute leaders: Lapointe (60 minutes), Rouse (55), Shanahan (43), Fetisov (42), McCarty (34) and Vladimir Konstantinov (29). Vernon went 16-4 with a 1.76 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.

Off the ice: Shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday, a helicopter eased a 2,500-pound, 25-foot steel replica of the Stanley Cup onto a ledge of the Wayne County Building. Then a giant red banner with “We did it!” and the Winged Wheel was draped beneath the giant trophy. They were the brainchild of Mike Duggan, Wayne County’s deputy executive.

Famous last words: From Fedorov — “Damn, that thing is heavy. But did you see me skate with it? I got the Cup and I skate like nothing before.” He sprinted with it, pumping it into the air and raising his right knee, as he did when celebrating a goal.

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!)

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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