Why these ’97, ’98 Detroit Red Wings players — and fans — are special to Steve Yzerman

Detroit Free Press

“For our ’98 team, this is a great opportunity for me to thank these gentlemen for the commitment they made, the selflessness they played with,” Yzerman said Saturday. “I can’t tell you how much it has been this weekend to have a chance to reflect on how much fun we had in the process. We all lived and died with the wins and the losses. We had so much fun along the way — every day grinding it out and battling through injuries, the ups and downs. This is a very special group of gentlemen and I’m really, really honored to have played with them.”

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To the delight of the fans in attendance at the afternoon event at Little Caesars Arena, Yzerman singled out two players who were there, and three who weren’t. This was before Yzerman, the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP in 1998, and Vladimir Konstantinov dropped a ceremonial puck that drew chants of “Vladdie, Vladdie” from fans.

“Three of the guys who could be here I really want to single out because they played such an important part for us,” Yzerman said. “Those are the three Russian players that couldn’t be here in Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Sergei Fedorov. Tremendous teammates and incredible athletes and a part of the Russian Five, which was an incredibly unique combination, that played such a huge role in our success. We couldn’t have been happier to have them here. Hopefully we get a chance to bring those guys back on another occasion, but I know they are working in Russia, and we wish them the best.”

(Fedorov and Kozlov are coaching in the KHL; Fetisov, a member of Russia’s state duma, has been sanctioned by the U.S. government over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)

The Russian Five were instrumental in the Wings winning the Cup in 1997, and Konstantinov was a central figure for the defending champions after he suffered debilitating injuries in a limousine accident in June 1997. He and Nicklas Lidstrom were drafted by the Wings in 1989, and by 1997 had emerged as enormously important players.

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“In 1997, I think that Stanley Cup run, the hockey world found out what we all already knew: We had two of the best defensemen in the world at that time on the team,” Yzerman said. “The hockey world learned how great a player Nicklas Lidstrom was. He continued to show that throughout the remainder of his career. That year we also had Vladdie Konstantinov.

“The people who watched that team play, you know how special a player Vladdie was. What I’d like to say for the younger generation that didn’t see him: You have no idea how good a hockey player, how unique a hockey player he was. In Washington in ’98, we were up 4-2 in Game 4, and there were seven or eight minutes left. That building was full of Red Wings fans, it was an incredible atmosphere. We were told Vladdie was in the building, but we hadn’t seen him. We were sitting on the bench and there was a skirmish up in the corner of the arena. We looked up expecting there to be a fight, and there were Red Wings fans in an entire section standing up, cheering and they shone a spotlight, and Vladdie was sitting up there in the corner, and our fans were acknowledging him with a standing ovation. It’s a tremendous memory.”

Yzerman captained the Wings to three Stanley Cups between 1997-2002 and won a fourth in 2008 as a member of the front office. He was named general manager of the team in 2019, taking charge of rebuilding the franchise back to contender status.

As much as that means drafting well, and making smart moves via trades and free agency, Yzerman knows what else it takes. The atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena in the final minutes of Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final was incredible, the jubilation from the stands was deafening. In 1998 the Wings clinched the Cup on the road — and that standing ovation Yzerman described was a snapshot of how loud that building was, too.

“I point that story out because to you fans, I cannot tell you how important it is to us, how inspiring it is, to have your support,” Yzerman said. “We lived and died with it, and I know you lived and died with us, too. I really appreciate the support that you have all shown us, throughout the good times and bad times, wins and losses.

“Detroit is known as Hockeytown. But it’s not just here in the city of Detroit and suburbs, it’s the state of Michigan, and frankly, it’s all over the NHL when we go on the road. Incredible support that we are shown by our fan base. It really is impactful to our players. You are as much a part of this as every single one of us. We appreciate your support and we love the demands, we love the expectations, and all we can ask is, keep it up.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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