Road to Stanleytown: The story of Steve Yzerman’s toothless grin with 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 58: June 12, 1997

The backstory: For the first time in weeks, the Red Wings weren’t the biggest sports story in the Free Press. That honor went to the debut of interleague play in Major League Baseball. The Tigers were scheduled the next day to play the Montreal Expos in Olympic Stadium, their first regular-season game against a National League team since Detroit joined the American League in 1901. Brian Hunter figured to be the Tigers’ first interleague batter, and Expos left-hander Carlos Perez to throw him the Tigers’ first interleague pitch. Right-hander Omar Olivares was slated to throw the Tigers’ first interleague pitch and, unless he got shelled early, to take the first planned regular-season at-bat by a Tigers pitcher in 25 years. The Red Wings, however, were far from forgotten. The players continued to celebrate — although not in a rally at Joe Louis Arena, or in a downtown parade, or at Tiger Stadium or by appearing on the late-night network shows — and preparations were underway for a golf outing the next day, basically to wrap up a week of festivities.

More: Here’s what Miguel Cabrera has in common with … Gordie Howe (???)

The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth: Captain Steve Yzerman was one of the most photographed men in the NHL in June 1997, when the Wings ended their 42-year Stanley Cup drought. He just wished he could have changed one thing. Yzerman had lost one of his front teeth two years earlier, and it had been replaced with a crown by team dentist Chet Regula. When a toothache became gradually more unbearable during the spring of 1997, Yzerman ended up in the dentist’s chair the day after Game 1 in the second round against the Ducks. “I was feeling lousy all the time and the doctor said I had a bone infection and should have it removed,” Yzerman said at the time. Before a new one could be put in, the Wings were Stanley Cup champions. The image of Yzerman hoisting the Cup while grinning a gap-toothed smile became iconic. “Here I am looking like a hillbilly,” Yzerman said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And there wasn’t on the cover of “Quest for the Cup,” a book published by the Detroit News. An artist filled in the missing incisor. The Free Press’ commemorative book, “Stanleytown,” which just arrived in Motown, used the famous photo on the cover the way the hockey gods would have wanted it.

More: Why Avalanche are back in Stanley Cup Final and Wings aren’t even a playoff team

An untold story from the Free Press: After all that gold, center Igor Larionov revealed he preferred silver. Now 36 and on the verge of being an unrestricted free agent, Larionov gained international fame playing for the Red Army club and won Olympic gold medals and world championships with the Soviet Union. Then he drank champagne from the silver Stanley Cup. “What a feeling. Wow!” said Larionov, nicknamed The Professor for his soft-spoken manner and intellectual pursuit of knowledge in all areas. “I’ve won two Olympic gold medals and four world championships, but these are nothing. To win the Stanley Cup took two months — after the whole season. It’s a great feeling in the end, to celebrate with 25 guys and 20,000 people here watching, everyone watching on TV — and all of Europe, too. It’s unbelievable.”

Another untold story from the Free Press: How did Joe Kocur get from playing recreational hockey in places like Waterford Township in the fall to playing for the Stanley Cup in June? “Do you know how many things had to happen for me?” Kocur said the night the Wings won their eighth Cup. “Do you have any idea?” He even helped orchestrate some of it. Including a game against Chicago early in the season, when Bob Probert was running around taking shots at all the Wings. Kocur had called to ask his former Bruise Brother to do that, as a favor, thinking Detroit might decide to bulk up with a bit more muscle. It worked. Within a few weeks, Kocur and the Wings were talking contract. Then, of course, when the Wings played the Blackhawks after his signing, Kocur had to show his new bosses they made the right decision — by fighting Probert. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Kocur said. “It was something I knew I had to do.”

A perfect report card: Twenty-six Red Wings celebrated on the ice after their sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers. In his final grades, beat reporter Jason La Canfora gave each player an A+ for ending the 42-year drought because, hey, wasn’t that the mission for everyone? Here are the grades from “Stanleytown 25 Years Later,” part of a page for each of the 26 that also included stats, bio, quotes and an aftermath:


Right wing, No. 17

SEASON: 49 GP, 6-7–13, -3, 8 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 14 GP, 3-3–6, +4, 2 PIM.

REPORT CARD: He was scratched in the first round, scored goals in three straight games against Anaheim, and had been the unsung hero playing on a line with leading scorer Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov. A+


Defenseman/right wing, No. 11

SEASON: 65 GP, 3-9–12, -10, 28 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: Did not play.

REPORT CARD: He played sparingly in the regular season, endured an experiment on defense and never hit the ice in the playoffs. But he never complained. A+


Center, No. 33

SEASON: 76 GP, 8-5–13, -11, 73 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 2-4–6, +5, 12 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Scored the Wings’ first goal of the playoffs, shorthanded no less, snapping their 104-minute goal-less slump. Centered the Grind Line terrifically and was a lethal penalty killer. A+


Center, No. 91

SEASON: 74 GP, 30-33–63, +29, 30 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 8-12–20, +5, 12 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Awoke from his worst regular season to date to lead the team in playoff scoring. Was awesome starting with the fourth game of the playoffs. A+


Defenseman, No. 2

SEASON: 64 GP, 5-23–28, +26, 76 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 0-4–4, +2, 42 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Papa Bear held up wonderfully throughout the playoffs and was great alongside Vladimir Konstantinov. A+


Goalie, No. 31

SEASON: 6 GP, 2-2-1, .930 SV%, 1.63 GAA, 1 SO.

PLAYOFFS: Did not play.

REPORT CARD: Appeared in just six games, all in the regular season, but was splendid in all of them. A+


Left wing, No. 15

SEASON: 47 GP, 6-3–9, -10, 33 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 1 GP, 0-0–0, -1, 0 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Rookie offered great size and loved to hit. Hardly appeared in the playoffs but got stitches from a cut by the stick to the chin in practice. What a gamer. A+


Right wing, No. 22

SEASON: 9 GP, 1-0–1, -1, 0 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: Did not play.

REPORT CARD: The rookie was recalled from Adirondack late in the season and scored his first NHL goal in Toronto. The former Wolverine complemented the movement to get bigger and younger. A+


Right wing, No. 26

SEASON: 34 GP, 2-1–3, -7, 70 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 19 GP, 1-3–4, +5, 22 PIM.

REPORT CARD: What a find. Pulled from the beer leagues, rounded out the Grind Line, and scored a huge goal in Game 1 of the finals. Didn’t fight as much, didn’t have to. A+


Defenseman, No. 16

SEASON: 77 GP, 5-33–38, +38, 151 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 0-4–4, -1, 29 PIM.

REPORT CARD: The Vladinator dominated forwards throughout the playoffs. Delivered plenty of devastating checks and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as top defenseman for the first time in his career. A+

Road to Stanleytown: Vladimir Konstantinov on critics: ‘I play for my team, not them’ ]


Left wing, No. 13

SEASON: 75 GP, 23-22–45, +21, 46 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 8-5–13, +3, 14 PIM.

REPORT CARD: His season mirrored Sergei Fedorov’s. He underachieved in the regular season, survived the trading deadline and was vital to the Cup run, scoring clutch goals, including the Game 2 winner in triple overtime against Anaheim. A+


Right wing, No. 20

SEASON: 78 GP, 16-17–33, -14, 167 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 4-8–12, +8, 60 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Finally blended his skill and brawn in the playoffs and showed signs of being a dominating power forward, as he was in the minors. He scored overtime goals and big third-period goals and was a force along the boards. A+


Center, No. 8

SEASON: 64 GP, 12-42–54, +31, 26 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 4-8–12, +8, 8 PIM.

REPORT CARD: One of the best playmakers in the world scored big goals in the playoffs, too. A+


Defenseman, No. 5

SEASON: 79 GP, 15-42–57, +11, 30 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 2-6–8, +12, 2 PIM.

REPORT CARD: The unsung hero who deserved serious consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Take him from the Wings and they might not have advanced past the first round. A+


Left wing, No. 18

SEASON: 66 GP, 3-5–8, +3, 75 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 5-2–7, +6, 24 PIM.

REPORT CARD: The Sports Illustrated cover boy was the man in the first two games of the finals. The Grind Liner was a dominating open-ice hitter and incredibly strong on his skates. A+


Right wing, No. 25

SEASON: 68 GP, 19-30–49, +14, 126 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 3-4–7, +1, 34 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Continued his steady progress in the regular season and playoffs and seemed to benefit from playing with Brendan Shanahan and Igor Larionov. His physical play was a big factor in each round. A+


Defenseman, No. 55

SEASON: Detroit — 12 GP, 2-4–6, +2, 0 PIM. Toronto — 69 GP, 7-32–39, +1, 20 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 2-9–11, +16, 8 PIM.

REPORT CARD: The future Hall of Famer was the key acquisition. He stabilized the Wings’ defense late in the season when it was at its weakest and was one of the top three defensemen in the playoffs with Nicklas Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov. He was great on the power play and teamed with Lidstrom. A+


Goaltender, No. 30

SEASON: 47 GP, 23-13-9, .910 SV%, 2.30 GAA, 6 SO.

PLAYOFFS: 2 GP, 0-0, .905 SV%, 2.54 GAA, 0 SO.

REPORT CARD: Osgood wanted badly to play in the playoffs, but he didn’t make a start, appeared in only two games and said all the right things. A+


Defenseman, No. 4

SEASON: 75 GP, 4-7–11, +1, 129 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 5 GP, 0-1–1, -1, 5 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Seemed to be peaking in the playoffs but made a few mistakes in the early round and found himself among the Black Aces. A+


Defenseman, No. 3

SEASON: 70 GP, 4-9–13, +8, 58 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 0-0–0, +8, 55 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Gave the Wings 12-14 solid minutes on the blue line every night and jumped in opponents’ faces on numerous occasions. A+


Right wing, No. 28

SEASON: Detroit — 34 GP, 9-9–18, +2, 36 PIM. Pittsburgh — 40 GP,  9-15–24, +4, 33 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 0-4–4, -3, 24 PIM.

REPORT CARD: The Wings were attracted by his size when they acquired him in January and he was a top penalty killer, but his offense was subpar. A+


Left wing, No. 14

SEASON: Detroit — 79 GP, 46-41–87, +31, 131 PIM. Hartford — 2 GP, 1-0–1, +1, 0 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 9-8–17, +8, 43 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Scored 46 goals and was everything the Wings hoped he would be when they traded for him in October. They did the right thing and extended his contract through the millennium. An impact player for years to come. A+


Center, No. 37

SEASON: 44 GP, 3-4–7, -6, 52 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 2 GP, 0-0–0, -1, 0 PIM.

REPORT CARD: A class guy who appeared in two playoff games and led the Black Aces. A+


Goaltender, No. 29

SEASON: 33 GP, 13-11-8, .899 SV%, 2.43 GAA, 0 SO.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 16-4, .927 SV%, 1.76 GAA, 1 SO.

REPORT CARD: He was outstanding. Started every playoff game, won the Conn Smythe Trophy, stood on his head when he had to. A+


Defenseman, No. 27

SEASON: 49 GP, 2-5–7, -9, 52 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 19 GP, 0-0–0, +1, 17 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Beat out Jamie Pushor, a fellow rookie, for a spot in the lineup in the playoffs and didn’t disappoint his coaches. He was a brutal body-checker and improved his poise and defensive play as the playoffs went on. A+


Center, No. 19

SEASON: 81 GP, 22-63–85, +22, 78 PIM.

PLAYOFFS: 20 GP, 7-6–13, +3, 4 PIM.

REPORT CARD: Finally got his Cup, played exceptional two-way hockey throughout the playoffs, blocking shots and killing penalties, and was an offensive giant in the finals. A+

Off the ice: The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto already had debuted a huge photo display of the Wings’ championship and said it would have a bigger and better tribute ready to go in a few weeks. In the Free Press, Steve Schrader listed a few items that needed to be added:

• Shanny’s goatee.

• The Captain’s tooth.

• Vernie’s cigar.

• The coach’s duck call.

• Kocur’s beer-league jersey.

• Igor’s glasses.

• Vladdie’s stick.

• McCarty’s gloves.

• Sergei’s blond entourage.

Famous last words: From defenseman Bob Rouse, about to turn 33 and a 14-year veteran: “Winning it in the twilight of our careers, it’s special. I hope the young guys can appreciate it after just playing a couple of years in the league. The only thing better than one Stanley Cup is two, so once the season starts, we’ll go back after it.”

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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.”)

To access our most exclusive sports content, like the stories linked above, become a Free Press subscriber for $1

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