Road to Stanleytown: Parade of 1 million help 1997 Detroit Red Wings celebrate 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 56: June 10, 2022

The backstory: About 12 hours after captain Steve Yzerman ended his emotional 14-minute soliloquy and was carried off the Joe Louis Arena stage on the shoulders of his teammates, the Stanley Cup, naturally — held aloft at this rally for season-ticket holders — the Red Wings reassembled in downtown Detroit for the mother of all victory parades, where anyone could attend, no ticket required, red-and-white dress preferred.

And nearly everyone did attend — roughly one-tenth of Michigan’s population. Plus, Channels 2, 4, 7 and 50 and PASS cable provided start-to-finish coverage, from the Fox Theatre, south on Woodward Avenue, ending with a rally at Hart Plaza. The parade and rally, held in 80-degree cloudless sunshine, led Yzerman to declare: “It was the icing on the cake, and I’ll never forget it.”

The previous night, he concluded his stirring speech by saying, “Let’s make this the greatest summer of our lives. Let’s have fun.” The next day’s events led Keith Gave to write in the Free Press: “And so we are.”

Million Fan March: Detroit police pegged the throng in downtown at 1 million fans, thousands and thousands of whom lined the streets hours before the scheduled 11:30 a.m. start. “What an incredible lovefest this was,” Gave wrote. “A million smiling faces of every color, almost all of them wearing red and white and one of the most recognized emblems in sports, the Winged Wheel.” The Free Press covered the festivities with a hockey team-sized crew of columnists, reporters and photographers. Here’s how Steve Schrader and Bill McGraw tied it all together in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later:”

After all these years, they finally got to play outdoors.

The Red Wings, Detroit’s boys of winter, left a small miracle on their way into summer Tuesday, one that ranks right up there with the championship they won Saturday night. Having already moved this city emotionally, they actually moved it physically, playing Pied Piper to a million — yes, a million — cheering fans, leading them down Woodward into a sea of humanity at Hart Plaza. …

By gathering a million people in peaceful celebration near the Detroit River, the Wings may have inadvertently done more for the city than many of their owner’s expensive investments. People all over Michigan saw a safe and happy gathering. People all over the world saw that Detroit can celebrate not one night, not two nights, but three days and nights — with a million people in a single place — without incident, without fire, without ugliness. …

If the rest of the nation is only interested in painting this town with one brush, we’ll simply use another. And paint it red.

Take me to the river.

— Mitch Albom, writing in the Detroit Free Press

A gridlock of jubilant humanity gripped Detroit’s downtown streets. People painted their bodies red, wore miniature Stanley Cups and broke into cheers. Rock music blared from normally quiet storefronts.

The Stanley Cup afterglow shone for a third day as Detroit staged a spectacular victory parade down Woodward Avenue for its Red Wings.

Police estimated up to one million people swarmed the streets to salute the Wings — roughly a tenth of Michigan’s population. That dwarfed the estimates for the Bad Boys Pistons (125,000 in 1989, 200,000 in 1990) and the Tigers (500,000 in 1935, 600,000 in 1984). It rivaled the estimates of a 1931 parade of World War I veterans of the American Legion, a 1929 parade for President Herbert Hoover and the largest of the annual Thanksgiving parades (considered only 750,000 by some experts) and annual fireworks displays (if you count the American and Canadian sides of the Detroit River).

The front page of the Free Press blazed this headline: “Thanks a million.” The Sports front went with “Hookytown.”

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Fans wore red and white, chanted and held signs offering everything from congratulations to proposals of marriage on a gorgeous 80-degree afternoon. They jammed into every square inch along the mile-long route from the Fox Theatre to Hart Plaza, pushing out along side streets far from the passage of players. They climbed trees, light poles, ladders and statues to get a better view.

Captain Steve Yzerman said the turnout stunned the players, who already had received 36 hours of nonstop praise from fans, media and city officials.

“We expected a lot of people here; we didn’t expect this,” Yzerman told the masses during a rally at Hart Plaza, standing on a podium with the rest of the team. “I thought nothing would top Saturday night, but coming down Woodward was the best of all.”

And unlike previous celebrations in Detroit and other places for a couple of decades, the Wings’ fans did their city proud. Police reported no major incidents and a lone fighting arrest — a lack of violence that started with the postgame party.

“The whole world is watching, and everyone has shown incredible class,” Yzerman said. “And you should be proud of yourselves.”

Fans began lining Woodward before 6 a.m. Center Kris Draper was returning home with the Stanley Cup at 6:30 when he stopped for photos at the Spirit of Detroit statue and saw people arriving for the parade.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

By 9 a.m. — 2½ hours before the parade — the crowd was a dozen deep on both sides of the street.

“This is a fabulous day,” associate coach Dave Lewis said. “This is a day that grandparents brought their kids who brought their children — that’s what this day was all about. I don’t think there was another square foot where somebody else could have been. This day was a celebration.”

When the parade began, the crowd along Woodward near Michigan Avenue stood on the sidewalks. Within minutes, though, fans swarmed across the east lanes and onto the median. The four open lanes on southbound Woodward quickly became three. Then it was two, and finally just one lane was open.

Fans rushed the three dozen red or white Mustangs that carried the players, coaches, staff and alumni with spouses, children and friends, stealing a hand slap from their favorite players.

Organized by the Detroit-based Parade Company, which produced the Thanksgiving Day parades, the event was much more elaborate than those staged for the 1984 Tigers and 1989 and 1990 Pistons. It featured floats, marching bands, Zamboni ice-surfacing machines, a giant purple octopus and a Detroit Fire Department boat shooting graceful plumes of water high into the river. The Fred Hill Briefcase Drill Team, dressed in its customary dark suits and striped ties, traded its usual prop for short-handled brooms to symbolize the Wings’ sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Goalie Mike Vernon, the playoff MVP, held daughter Amelia. Vernon’s wife, Jane, lofted a sign that read: “Thank you, Hockeytown.”

Center Sergei Fedorov raised eyebrows by riding with a rising Russian tennis star, Anna Kournikova, who at 16 was 11 years his junior. (During the summer, although denying they were a couple, he followed her around the tennis circuit. Years later, he claimed they were married briefly in the early 2000s, which her representatives said never happened.)

Yzerman, riding with his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Isabella, videotaped the spectacle when he wasn’t holding the Cup aloft.

As The Captain approached Hart Plaza, donning shades and hoisting the Cup, the crowds converged on his Mustang in a swirling mass of people, flags, brooms and signs. Police pushed through the wall of fans as the mighty Mustang inched toward the plaza. Yzerman’s car marked the end of the parade for thousands of fans who fell in behind. A float, two bands and several cars — including one carrying owners Mike and Marian Ilitch — were cut off, but they eventually reached Hart Plaza.

After the rally ended around 2 p.m., the Wings headed to The Joe for a meal with family and friends, to pose for a team picture, to clean out their lockers — and to wax a bit nostalgic.

“I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life,” defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “It was overwhelming. I hope I can experience it again. But it’s a little bit sad. It’s almost like a graduation in a way. …

“It feels like you’re leaving something here because you don’t want it to end, but it’s been a great feeling. We don’t know what is coming next; we just have to enjoy it and have a great summer.”

Some players began to realize that a special moment had passed.

“It’s a little sad,” left wing Brendan Shanahan said. “That’s the last time we’ll get to see the fans. … You kind of didn’t want it to end. I know what I’ve experienced and what I’ve felt, the flood of emotions that have come over me the last couple of days, and I’d like to hear what the other players have gone through as well before we all go our separate ways for the summer.”

Ah, but the memories they would take with them.

“It’s like Joey Kocur said, no matter what we do, where we go, where we live, we’ll always have something that will bond us together,” grinder Darren McCarty said. “This is something, and you can’t take it away.”   

They said it: From Shanahan: “I don’t know if we’ll have the energy to continue this all summer, but we’ll try.” From associate coach Barry Smith: “When they were taking the team picture, I didn’t look around to see who wouldn’t be back. I was just happy everyone was there.”

From Yzerman: “This is the home of the Stanley Cup. We’ll keep it here. We’ll enjoy it. We’ve waited a long time for this.” From Mayor Dennis Archer: “People remember ’84, when the World Series was overshadowed by the silly stuff that went on. Now people take a look at the Stanley Cup celebration and how the city responded, and they’ll think, ‘Maybe I ought to open a business here.’ This has helped the image of the city.” From Roberta McCarty, Darren’s mother, who wore a Wings jersey with his name on the back but no number: “It was the shirt he got drafted in. I don’t think it’s been out of the closet since.” From Ilitch daughter Denise Ilitch-Lites on Yzerman: “I knew we drafted the right guy as soon as I saw him because he was wearing this bright red tie.”

STANLEYTOWN DAY 55: Yzerman, Bowman send special thanks to Red Wings fans

DAY 54: After 42 years, it’s finally time to party with the Stanley Cup!

DAY 53: Red Wings finish the job, sweep Flyers to win 1997 Stanley cup

From Bowman: “We had no injuries all the way through. One player, Joey Kocur, missed one game. That’s amazing when you think about all the hockey Lidstrom, (Vladimir) Konstantinov and (Larry) Murphy played at their ages and never missed a shift. That’s when you say you’re dodging some bullets, too. When that happens, yeah, you win.” From Aaron Ward, stopped by police trying to reach the stage in Hart Plaza: “I showed them my ID, but that didn’t help me out any. Finally, somebody convinced them I play for the Wings.” From Kirk Maltby: “I almost got my arm ripped off a couple times. People just grabbed you.”

From senior vice president Jimmy Devellano: “Everybody’s trying to enjoy this for a few days, but the realities will start to hit home next week when it becomes a business again. I’m going to have to put sentimentality aside and start dealing with a payroll and a budget and trying to make it work and trying to retain the team. … When you win a Stanley Cup, you’d like to keep your changes to a minimum, and we will attempt to do that.” From Schrader in his Free Press Octometer: “We only had a couple of complaints about Tuesday’s party. 1) What were all those politicians doing in the parade? 2) Hart Plaza just wasn’t big enough. Then again, we can’t think of anyplace big enough to hold everybody who wanted to be there.” Also from Bowman, after praising parade organizers: “But they had 42 years to plan it.”

Days of yore: Wings alumni were included in the day’s festivities. Johnny Wilson, who won four Cups with the team in the 1950s, reflected on the olden days of the Original Six and the modern NHL: “Back then, we didn’t get a parade. You just won the Cup, it was presented out on the ice, then you went to the dressing room and there was a little party, and that was it. Players didn’t get to keep the Cup back then — you didn’t see it again till the next time you won it. It was a nice gesture on the part of the Ilitches to have the alumni be a part of this. We contributed to the success of the Red Wings. We helped them build the organization years ago.”

One bit of news: With his coaching contract up, Bowman said he would decided in a week to 10 days whether he wanted to continue behind the bench. No matter what, Bowman said, he would remain with the Wings in some capacity. “I came here four years ago,” he said, “and that was one of the discussions I had with Mike Ilitch. I didn’t know how long I’d coach. I wanted to end up my career as a Red Wing. I made my decision four years ago, and nothing has changed.”

Off the ice: Sportswriter Helene St. James asked a burning question: “So what does a Stanley Cup champion do the day after winning the Cup?” She uncovered the answer: “He answers the phone. Again and again and again.” Lidstrom revealed: “People called me all day Sunday and Monday. I didn’t really get a chance to call anyone. The phone never stopped ringing.” Murphy, his defense partner, said: “It’s been ringing off the hook. All my friends have called.” Konstantinov knew the feeling all too well: “People call me all day long. Friends from Russia, friends from everywhere. I don’t sleep yet.” Lewis, who oversaw the defense as an associate coach, was bombarded like the players: “I got home about 3:30 or so Sunday morning. The phone started ringing about a quarter to eight, and it just never stopped. I heard from people I haven’t heard from in years. A lot of hockey friends called. They sure didn’t let me get much sleep.”

Famous last words: How Mitch Albom ended his column about the victory parade:

After the parade and rally, the players gathered at Joe Louis Arena for the official championship team photo. And for the last time, they donned their uniforms and skates and stood proudly on the ice, in an empty arena, and posed for posterity. There were bloodshot eyes and some tired shoulders, but the facial hair was mostly gone and the boys looked like boys.

“I think it’s all the smiling,” forward Doug Brown said. “We wake up smiling and we go to bed smiling.”

That’s pretty much how the city has felt since Saturday, isn’t it? The sun has never dropped from the daytime sky, and the moon seems extra bright. If there has been a happier, more unified, better-weathered three-day stretch in recent Detroit history, I can’t think of it.

Now, a moment for perspective. None of the Wings has saved any lives here. And it is true, every day, in hospitals, schools, and fire and police departments, there are more true acts of heroism than anything that involves putting a puck in a net.

But pro sports don’t exist to provide water, build roads or protect citizens. They exist because deep down, people want to be drawn together by something, they want to feel unified and territorial, they want to witness excellence and take pride in that excellence because they live here.

The Wings are ours because we live here. And if they can’t cure urban ills, they can show us that the energy of a city united is a magnificent thing to behold. If we could do what we did Tuesday for a parade, just imagine what we could do if we harnessed that energy for other purposes.

That is the final gift of this hockey club. As the sun began to set Tuesday, Yzerman, who has been celebrated like a god these last few days, finished a late interview and said good-bye. He went to go back in the locker room, turned the door handle and found it locked. All his teammates had left.

“I knew this would happen,” he said.

He banged a few times, and a woman who works in catering shouted from behind the door.

“Who is it?”

“Leslie, it’s Steve. Can you open the door, please?”

“OK.”

And thanks to catering, the most celebrated man in the city was given entrance to his workplace.

Isn’t that perfect? What a run. What a season. There will be good days and good years ahead, we hope, but it will be hard to top this happy stretch of 1997, when the boys of winter became the joys of spring, and Detroit just couldn’t stop smiling.

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!)

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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Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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