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 60: Epilogue
The backstory: On June 7, 1997, the Red Wings completed a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Stanley Cup since 1955 — a total of 15,396 days between championships. Six days after the Cup-clincher on a once-in-a-lifetime beauty of a goal by Darren McCarty, after a gap-toothed Steve Yzerman hoisted the silver chalice, after coach Scotty Bowman skated a victory lap with the trophy and after metro Detroit celebrated wildly, yet peacefully, a limousine accident nearly killed defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, paralyzed masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov and severely injured defenseman Slava Fetisov. The tragedy cast a pall over Stanley Cup celebrations that slowly lifted as Hockey’s Holy Grail traveled the world — including its first visit to Russia and its second to Sweden — and popped up regularly in Michigan — from Clark Park in southwest Detroit to a charity softball game in Dearborn to a day of jet-skiing with The Captain on Lake St. Clair to William Beaumont Hospital to inspire the recoveries of Vladdie and Sergei in Royal Oak. Our 60-day series on the Red Wings’ run to their eighth Stanley Cup ends with how Stanley spent his summer vacation, whose names were engraved for posterity, how the Wings retooled for another Cup run and a personal remembrance from your author of these daily looks back at the two months that captivated Hockeytown like no other time.
To Russia with love: Nobody knew the backstory of the Wings’ Russian Five better than Keith Gave, a hockey writer at the Free Press from the early days of Mike Ilitch’s ownership through the 1997 Stanley Cup celebrations. A U.S. spy-turned-newsman, with as unique a resume as you ever will see, Gave traveled to the Russian in the early 1990s to document how the Wings managed to pry Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Konstantinov from the Red Army and turn them into Red Wings. He returned in 1997 when Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Kozlov took the Stanley Cup to Mother Russia for its first visit. (Konstantinov was unable to make the trip because of his injuries from the limousine accident. Fedorov spent his summer embroiled in a contract dispute and following Anna Kournikova, a 16-year-old Russian phenom, on the tennis circuit with stops at Wimbledon and the US Open.) More than two decades later, Gave wrote “The Russian Five: A story of espionage, defection, bribery and courage.” It came out in March 2018, a month before “The Russian Five” documentary premiered at the Freep Film Festival. Gave served as a writer and a producer for the project. He spent six years in the Army as a Russian linguist during the Cold War before 40-plus years working in the news industry, sports-talk radio and writing books. The following excerpt from “Stanleytown 25 Years Later” was condensed from “The Russian Five”:
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman still lingered on the ice moments after Steve Yzerman handed the Stanley Cup to Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov for a celebrated lap around Joe Louis Arena by the distinguished former Soviet stars. And after they handed it off to teammates for their special moments, Fetisov made a beeline over to the commissioner for a spur-of-the-moment appeal that he knew would not be well-received.
Which probably explained why it was delivered more as a statement than a request.
“Gary, you know I’m going to need the Cup in Moscow now,” Fetisov said.
“No way. Absolutely not!” the commissioner responded.
“Yes, this is my right after we win.”
Since 1989, a tradition had evolved regarding the Stanley Cup celebrations after the champion was crowned. Each player on the winning team could have the trophy for a day or two, depending on seniority, which produced some unprecedented goodwill throughout North America as the Cup made its rounds. Fetisov knew long before he ever won it exactly what he would do with his time.
“No, no, no!” Bettman said. “There’s too much crime in Russia now. It’s too dangerous.”
Moscow, once among the safest cities in the world, was changing. The Communist KGB had lost its iron grip and its replacement, the FSB (Federal Security Service), was still finding its way in a rapidly changing Russian society under a succession of new leaders. Petty crime was prevalent, if not rampant, and serious crime was no longer uncommon.
Adding to the country’s woes, the Russian mafia — a term used to loosely describe a collective of various organized crime elements — was growing exponentially in the absence of a strong police force. In other words, the NHL could not depend on civic law enforcement agencies to help protect the Stanley Cup.
Bettman knew all this, but Fetisov remained undeterred.
“We can talk about it later,” he said, “but I need to take this Cup to Moscow.”
As it turned out, Fetisov got his wish — and Bettman’s anxieties were confirmed.
Stanley hits Red Square
On a dreary Saturday afternoon in August, a plane landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport carrying precious cargo. Fetisov was there with teammates Igor Larionov and Slava Kozlov to receive the Stanley Cup on its arrival in Russia. It was accompanied by several NHL executives and a large staff that naturally included Phil Pritchard, curator and self-proclaimed Keeper of the Cup from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Pritchard opened a large trunk, lifted the burnished trophy out of its velvety cocoon and handed it to Fetisov, who turned and walked toward a chain-link fence. On the other side were several hundred of his countrymen who had come to celebrate this moment. They poked their fingers through the fence to touch the silver chalice and stamp their fingerprints on history. Later in the day, the Stanley Cup was given a place of honor at the Central Sport Club of the Army, CSKA headquarters of the Red Army hockey organization that produced all five players in Detroit’s Russian unit.
It was the first stop of a whirlwind tour for the most famous trophy in sports making its first visit to Russia. And Steele, then 46, was intent on making sure it stopped by his club to mingle with some passionate hockey fans.
“Do you think you could convince those guys to bring the Cup here?” Steele asked me as we were enjoying a perfectly legal Cuban cigar. “I promise it will be worth their time. I’ve got some big plans if they can make it happen.”
He said he was willing to spend $10,000 transforming his bar into a replica combining the best traits of Joe Louis Arena and Olympia Stadium, complete with banners commemorating the Stanley Cup seasons and retired numbers of former Wings greats, as well as a copy of the Cup.
I winced. I never liked asking athletes or coaches for favors beyond a few minutes for an interview, or a special sitting for a photograph to accompany a story for the Free Press.
The following morning, sunny but unusually cool and breezy for mid-August even in Moscow, Red Square was bustling. Tourists were there to visit the Kremlin behind the tall, red-brick wall, snap pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps the most recognizable church in the world, where czars once read their edicts. People also came to pay homage at the tomb of V.I. Lenin, the inspiration behind the Bolshevik Revolution and the first leader of the USSR. But many others were there because they had heard rumors that the famous hockey trophy from North America might be making an appearance.
“It’s amazing to think of the Cup in Red Square,” said Todd Carmichael, who was there with Monique Couture, both attorneys from Ottawa, Ontario, working for a firm in Moscow. They were armed with a camera, posing in the foreground while players held the Stanley Cup near Lobnoye Mesto — the Place of Skulls — where 16th-century czar Ivan the Terrible was said to behead his rivals.
“I never thought we’d see the day,” Carmichael said. “And the people of Moscow — the ones who know about it — are really pumped.”
Among them was Andrei Chursakov, a sergeant of the Kremlin guards who held an autographed photo of Fetisov, Larionov and Kozlov as they posed with the Cup. He was mesmerized by the star power in the photo and lamented the loss of most of Russia’s best players to the NHL.
“I don’t watch as much hockey as before,” Chursakov said. “All the players have left. But I watch the NHL now so I can follow these guys. I’ll put this picture up at home, and I will look at it all the time.”
The players walked from place to place around the square as Kozlov, by far the youngest of the three, lugged the Cup. Each wore his Wings jersey. Fetisov also wore some of his other cherished hardware, including several gold medals. People would stop and stare. Not at the big trophy, but at the men accompanying it.
“Oh my God, is that Fetisov?” one would whisper to another. “Yes, yes! That is Fetisov. And there’s Larionov, too!” And the crowd behind them would grow. The men who had brought so much joy to Russian hockey fans — the world championships, the Olympic gold medals and now even the Stanley Cup from North America — were right there among them in Red Square.
Fetisov saw the beauty of the moment in the eyes of the people he met there, and he knew he was right to insist to the leaders of the NHL that they consent to this tour with the Stanley Cup.
Nearly two decades later, it was the smiles he remembered most about those days with the trophy in Russia.
“I’m telling you,” Fetisov said, “from first moment when Cup arrived on the plane and we meet it on the field after an international flight, you can see the smiles on the people, on the customs people, the policemen, the people who work in airports. You see the smiles and you realize we bring so much happiness to so many people.”
And no one was more moved than Aleksandr Maximovich Fetisov, Slava’s father, who was 65 when the Cup visited Moscow.
“I am so proud of Slava because now he has all the hockey trophies there are to have,” the elder Fetisov said. “And now he’s walking through Red Square with the Stanley Cup!”
Father and son posed for pictures with the other players and a few of us from the media at Lenin’s tomb. Slava Fetisov was in high spirits when I tentatively broached the subject of taking the Cup to The Hungry Duck.
“What do you think about bringing the Cup to this wild and crazy club we’ve discovered here in Moscow, Slava?” I asked. And then I told him about the bar, its reputation and its fanatical owner.
“Yeah, sure, why not?” he said.
“Seriously?” I said, thinking of plenty of reasons why not. “What about the league? They’re going to fight you on it.”
“We will be there,” Fetisov said. “I want to see this place. … Sometime after 11 o’clock, OK?”
By early that Sunday evening, The Hungry Duck looked a lot more like Joe Louis Arena than a notorious Moscow nightclub. And it was beyond packed. “The interest in the NHL is huge here,” Steele said, “because of the Russian players over there now. The Rangers were the most popular, but now it’s Detroit. It’s all about where the Russians are playing.”
Steele had roped off a VIP area, where he joined reporters and a few of his friends as we waited for the Cup’s arrival. And waited. And waited some more. When 11 p.m. passed, I shrugged it off; players are typically late for things like this. Midnight came and went, and now I was wondering whether something had gone wrong. The crowd was getting a little restless, too, but no one was leaving.
Steele began to speculate that NHL officials had pulled the plug on this visit, and it probably wasn’t going to happen. My head wanted to agree with him, but my heart wasn’t so sure. Let’s be patient. Fetisov was nothing if not a man of his word, and if he said he’d be here with the Stanley Cup, then he would be.
Finally, well past 1 a.m., a murmur grew to a roar as Kozlov approached from a back entrance holding the most recognizable sports trophy in the world. Steele gave me a quick look and a nod, his eyes reflecting surprise, relief and unmitigated joy. The Stanley Cup was in his bar, brought to him by three stars of the team he idolized as a boy. Close behind Kozlov were Fetisov and Larionov, waving to a wildly exuberant crowd. Immediately behind them were several NHL officials, nervously scanning the room for trouble.
They were uneasy, obviously, because they had done their due diligence and knew that The Duck had a rather checkered reputation. Since Steele took over the bar on March 15, 1996, a few months after its doors opened, until the day he closed it on March 15, 1999, police had opened 256 criminal cases involving The Hungry Duck. Network television filmed inside the bar on 43 occasions, and three motion pictures shot scenes there. The Duck was raided frequently, and one night 79 patrons were arrested on suspicion of narcotics, according to Steele. All were subsequently released without charge.
But the night the Stanley Cup made its visit, Aug. 17, 1997, the massive crowd celebrated without an incident. The Free Press had supplied me with several hundred placards featuring its now iconic photo of the Russian Five in profile. It was used for promotional purposes in newsstands, and people were lined up at the VIP area getting them signed by three of those men in the picture.
Among them: those burly KGB thugs, those modern-day Cossacks hired to maintain order and protect the Cup and those who brought it. They were rendered speechless as these great former Soviet hockey stars signed the placards. The biggest, scariest-looking one of them all was sobbing like a baby.
Home sweet home
Two days later, the Stanley Cup continued its tour at the Podmoskovie Sports Palace in Voskresensk, otherwise known as Hockeytown East, hometown of Larionov and Kozlov. They grew up a few blocks from one another in a community about a 90-minute drive from Red Square. The gleaming 4,500-seat arena with stained-glass windows also served as a veritable museum honoring the history of the local professional club, Khimik Voskresensk. The citizens of Voskresensk were all there to see Russia’s hockey royalty and this magnificent trophy they called Kubok Stenli.
It was an emotional moment, for Larionov especially.
“The Russian players were a big part of the success in Detroit,” he said. “We got the trophy, and we decided this is the way. We were proud to bring the Stanley Cup to Russia and share the experience and history of the Cup with the fans who had been behind us for the past two seasons in Detroit.”
Larionov’s entire family was there. So was Kozlov’s. Their former coaches and mentors were there, too, along with several hundred young hockey players among thousands of others.
“It was a great feeling for us to share this moment with them,” Larionov said. “And it was very nice of the NHL to let us take the Cup home to Moscow.”
The Stanley Cup had made a glorious maiden tour around Russia’s capital city and suddenly, the chill between two long-standing global rivals felt a little warmer.
“We start a new life in the history of the Stanley Cup,” Fetisov said. “We cross the border into the Russian Federation, and now it’s part of the culture in Russian sport, too.”
Not back in the USSR: During the summer, each Red Wing got some personal time with the Stanley Cup, and it traveled everywhere from Sweden to the Soo. At the start of training camp at Traverse City, Helene St. James compiled the tales of Round Stanley. Here are a few of those answers:
Martin Lapointe: He took the Stanley Cup to Ville Ste-Pierre, Quebec, near Montreal, where the town had a parade for him. He took the Cup to a hospital to show it to the father of his sister’s friend. Within a week of the visit, the man died of cancer. Lapointe also took the Cup to a camp for intellectually and developmentally challenged children. He had pictures taken of his 16-month-old son, Guyot, “buck naked and sitting in the Cup.”
Brendan Shanahan: “For all the time I spent parading it around and holding it above my head in front of hundreds of people, my favorite memory was of a Saturday afternoon in Toronto, when I took it to my father’s grave,” Shanahan said. “For a Saturday afternoon, the place was totally empty. I just sat there with it. That was my favorite moment.” Shanahan’s father, Donal, died of Alzheimer’s disease several years earlier. Shanahan also displayed the Cup for hours for fans as part of an Alzheimer’s fundraiser in Dearborn, which included a softball game in which Wings players (and Zamboni driver Al S0botka) destroyed a media team (with the starting battery of Free Press beat reporter Jason La Canfora on the mound and sports editor Gene Myers behind the dish).
Steve Yzerman: “We did a lot of everything,” he said. “When you have that trophy around, you don’t sleep a whole lot. We had a couple of parties with it. We had it out on Lake St. Clair. I think my favorite part was when we took it to Ottawa to my parents’ home and invited over some of the guys I grew up playing hockey with, some of my coaches on teams I played on when I was 10 and 11 that I haven’t seen in quite a while.”
Kirk Maltby: He took it to a couple of restaurants in Cambridge, Ontario, and had it at his parents’ house for a bit. He also took it to the pediatrics center at a hospital. He then had a party for 300 people. “That night, I slept with it in my bed,” he said. “I had to clean it because it absolutely reeked. I don’t want to tell you what time in the morning it was, but I was there with a little cloth wiping it clean. The guy who takes care of it was in bed long ago, so I had to take care of it on my own. I shined it up.”
Joe Kocur: “We had some friends over, we partied all night, and when the sun came up, we went fishing,” he said. His favorite part of having the Cup was sharing it with friends in Michigan — and his beer-league buddies. “Just the chance to have all my friends who’ve lived in Detroit all these years, waiting for a Stanley Cup, to give them a chance to drink out of it, get a picture with it,” Kocur said. “The over-30 team I played with last year at this time, they were all over. We had a team picture taken with the Stanley Cup. The best picture I got was, when you win the Stanley Cup they give you a replica, it’s about 16 to 18 inches high, and my daughter was drinking out of that one and I was drinking out of the main one.”
Darren McCarty: He threw a party for the Cup and took it home to show his parents and brought it over to the arena in Leamington, Ontario, where he played while growing up. He took it out with his buddies, who played in a band, and “jammed with it.” He also had a professional photographer take pictures of his son Griffin with the Cup.
Tomas Holmstrom: He took it to his hometown of Pitea, Sweden, which is close to Lapland. He showed it to friends and family and said it helped make for one of the best summers he had ever had.
Nicklas Lidstrom: He had a public viewing of the Cup in Vasteras, Sweden, where he played hockey before coming to Detroit. Then he took the Cup to a public viewing in his hometown of Avesta, where his parents still lived, and threw a party for the Cup. He posed for pictures with the Cup with sons Kevin and Adam. He then put Adam in the Cup and took pictures.
Chris Osgood: After arriving in Medicine Hat, Osgood had a big party. He took the Cup to the rink where he played as a youngster. He took it to his parents’ house and showed it to friends. “I had it for two days and got no sleep,” he said. “It was a good time. We had fun.”
Kris Draper: “My favorite moment was the excitement of seeing my dad hold the Cup,” he said. “For all the hard work and support your parents give you, to see the excitement they have with it was great. But there was a point in the night that I had to let my dad know that I was the one who won it. He was there for me, but I was the one who won it. I had it next to me in bed, but I didn’t sleep.”
Off the ice: The Wings elected to chase a second straight Stanley Cup in 1997-98 with essentially the same roster. But there were plenty of bumps in the road and plenty of second-guessing on their decisions. They lost center Tim Taylor, the leader of the Black Aces, in the waiver draft. For grit, they added left wing Brent Gilchrist as free agent from Dallas, their top competitor in the Central Division. They planned bigger roles for Tomas Holmstrom, an awkward-skating Swedish wing who relished battling in front of the net; forward Mike Knuble, brought up late the previous season as part of the team’s commitment to get younger and bigger; and defenseman Anders Eriksson, a former first-round pick with size (6-feet-3, 225 pounds) expected to help fill the Konstantinov void.
All these moves, however, paled when compared to the Big Three, which involved the front office, the goaltending situation and the best two-way player. After ending his speech at the televised rally for season-ticket holders at The Joe with “we’ll come back next year and do it again,” Scotty Bowman made it official: He wanted to return for a fifth season. He signed a two-year contract to coach with a raise to nearly $1 million a season. But he lost his powers as director of player personnel. Those went to Ken Holland, who was promoted from assistant general manager to GM. His boss remained Jimmy Devellano, the direct link to Mike Ilitch. Bowman kept Dave Lewis and Barry Smith as his associate coaches.
In Holland’s biggest move, he traded Mike Vernon, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for his stellar play between the pipes, and a fifth-round draft pick to the San Jose Sharks for a pair of second-round picks. After a 13-victory regular season, Vernon’s contract was to expire following the playoffs. But his 16 victories en route to the Stanley Cup triggered a clause that gave him an additional season for a little more than $2 million. Vernon, seemingly embroiled in continuous contract disputes during his three seasons in Detroit, wanted more money and more years. The Wings didn’t want to provide either, and they also did not want to face losing Chris Osgood (at $1.6 million) or Kevin Hodson (at $400,000) in the waiver draft. So, for the third time in their history, the Wings did what no other NHL team had done: Trade its No. 1 goalie after he won the finals. Detroit’s past three starters to win the Cup — Vernon (1997) and Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk (1955) and Harry Lumley (1950) — were dealt before the start of the next season. Lumley was traded to Chicago to make room for Sawchuk, who won three Cups with the Wings. Sawchuk was dealt to Boston make room for Glenn Hall, a 24-year-old; and the latest torch was passed to Osgood, another 24-year-old. (Osgood was more than up to the task: He backstopped Cup-winning teams in 1998 and again a decade later and came within a victory of another Cup in 2009.)
Vernon’s contract issues were nothing compared to Sergei Fedorov’s. For more than a year, the Wings and Fedorov, a restricted free agent, remained far apart on a new contract for the former Hart Trophy winner who had notched 20 points in three straight playoff runs and played his best, and grittiest, hockey ever in 1997 despite a severe rib injury. He reportedly wanted $6 million a year; the Wings were willing to spent $4.5 million a year. So, he held out when training camp opened. He worked out with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, owned by Peter Karmanos, a Detroiter who also owned the Carolina Hurricanes and was a longtime rival of the Ilitches in junior hockey circles. Fedorov still was holding out when the Nagano Olympics rolled around in February, so he went to Japan and won a silver medal with the Russians. He told a Russian newspaper: “I made a decision in August and still haven’t changed it. They think they can break me with the help of some financial tricks, but they don’t know the kind of person I am. They don’t know who they are messing with.” Holland reiterated he had no intention of trading Fedorov for less than equal value. In stepped Karmanos. His Hurricanes signed Fedorov to an offer sheet for six years and $38 million. It included a $14 million signing bonus, a $2 million annual salary and $12 million in additional, automatic payments. Karmanos planted a poison pill to scare off the Wings: The $12 million in additional payments would be paid in $3 million installments — unless the team made the conference finals, in which case the entire $12 million was due July 1. The Wings had seven days to match the offer, try to work out a trade with Carolina or decline the offer and receive the Hurricanes’ next five first-round draft choices. Detroit cried foul, as Holland said, because the offer sheet was “structured to try to deter the Red Wings from matching.” The league agreed, but an arbitrator disagreed. Back on the clock after the Feb. 26 ruling, the Wings matched the offer right away. “It was an easy decision on the part of our ownership to make,” Holland said. “We’re a much better hockey club with Sergei.”
Famous last words: Let me introduce myself. I am Gene Myers, a former sports editor at the Free Press, and each night for the last two months I have spent an hour or two or three or four trying to capture the day’s events as the Detroit Red Wings marched through the 1997 playoffs to end their 42-year Stanley Cup drought. It was a labor of love, despite much of it spent in the wee hours.
Along the way, I once again could feel the excitement, agony and glory of that incredible spring a quarter-century ago. And I hope that these 60 installments along the way come to be viewed as the definitive day-by-day account of the 1997 playoffs, to be dusted off and reposted at freep.com to mark the 30th, 35th, 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries. By that time, I’ll be 87 years old, and 32 years from the day I retired after 32 years at the Free Press, the last 22½ as sports editor.
Today’s installment ends this two-month project. But, really, I have spent more than six months over the past year immersed in the 1996-97 Red Wings, as a writer, editor and researcher. In 2021, my spring and summer were consumed spearheading “Stanleytown 25 Years Later,” the Free Press’ 208-page, full-color collector’s book that should be a must for all serious Wings fans. The book soon will be out of print, it’s only $29.95, I don’t have a financial stake in sales and the ordering information follows below.
In the rush to finish that book, I never found the time to do two things: 1. Properly thank the folks who lent hands as large as the downtown Fist statue. 2> Tell my hockey story, as I let several writers do in the book.
Since this might be the last thing I ever write about these 1997 Wings, please indulge me as I do so now.
I kissed the Stanley Cup — and kept my eyes open.
I stood in the stands next to Joy Osgood, Chris’ mother, as Patrick Roy challenged her son to a fight. (She couldn’t bear to watch, but after her son landed a few blows, she was chanting like the rest of the arena, “Oz-zie! Oz-zie! Oz-zie!”)
I even have scored goals in recreational games in an empty Joe Louis Arena — and imagined the cheers of 20,066 fans.
My hockey story, I suppose, begins when the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams in the late 1960s. I was born in cookie pollution— that is, just a bit downwind from a giant NABISCO factory in the northeast section of Philadelphia. My hometown suddenly had the Flyers, and hockey games were shown on a grainy UHF station. In my neighborhood packed with other Baby Boomers, we started playing street hockey but plastic equipment was scarce and costly. My first stick was a wooden field hockey stick my mother used in college, which was nicknamed The Club. Wooden sticks didn’t fare well on asphalt streets, so we also used roll after roll of duct tape.
You couldn’t get tickets to see the Flyers, so my parents took their four kids — I was the oldest, born in 1960 — across the Delaware River to watch the minor-league Jersey Devils of the old Eastern Hockey League. I recall their games featured fights galore. I was about 11 years old the only time I saw the Flyers in person. Somehow, we had seats in the front row in a corner, and my sister Terry was thrilled beyond belief when she could jump up and bang the glass when players collided along the boards. My mother told her to stop it, but she was uncontrollable and said she learned to do that watching games on television.
I was devastated when, halfway through my eighth-grade year in 1973-74, my family moved to Kansas, a few miles from the border with Kansas City, Missouri. For starters, the Flyers were becoming a powerhouse known as the Broad Street Bullies. On the Great Plains, hockey telecasts were few and far between as the local affiliate would preempt the coverage provided by NBC and Peter Puck.
In May 1974, Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” in person at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, and the inspired Flyers beat Boston, 1-0, in Game 6 to become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. In May 1975, the Bullies repeated, beating the Buffalo Sabres in six games, despite an overtime loss in the famous fog game early in the series. I remember watching part of the series on Kansas City’s PBS station, which begged for pledges between periods.
At least in the fall of 1974 the NHL expanded again with its 17th and 18th teams — the Kansas City Scouts and the Washington Capitals. Led by general manager Sid Abel, a legendary Red Wings player, coach, GM and later broadcaster, the Scouts were beyond horrible. They finished 15-54-11 for 41 points — the same additional number of points they needed to make the playoffs. They were outscored, 328-184. They started 0-8-1 before their first victory. They ended with one victory in their final 19 games.
The only highlights were a thrilling 7-6 loss at KC’s new Kemper Arena to the Montreal Canadiens, and a 3-1 record against the Capitals, who were even worse. Washington managed only 21 points with a 8-67-5 record and was outscored, 446-181.
Abel’s Scouts somehow found a way to lose more games in their second season. They went 12-56-12 for 36 points — the same additional number of points they needed to make the playoffs. They were outscored, 351-190. From Dec. 30 until the season’s end, the Scouts won one game — yes, one game! — and, of course, it was against the Capitals. The Scouts finished their season on a 1-35-8 streak and then bolted for Denver to become the Colorado Rockies (and a few years later the New Jersey Devils, in time for Wayne Gretzky to call the franchise a “Mickey Mouse organization” that was “ruining the whole league”).
When the Scouts arrived in town, a rink was built that they used for practices at times. Youth teams, recreational teams, figure skating and open skating also filled the ice time. For Christmas, I asked for skates and with my Bobby Orr signature blades, I tried to learn to skate before my 15th birthday. I failed.
Hockey pretty much didn’t exist for me for my last two years of high school and my five years at the University of Kansas. But in 1982, the Detroit Free Press selected this proud Jayhawk to be an intern on the copy desk in the Sports Department. For a summer, I lived in a dorm at the University of Windsor, commuted over the Ambassador Bridge and pretty much edited every Red Wings story. That’s because even though pizza baron Mike Ilitch had purchased the franchise from old-money Bruce Norris right as I arrived, my fellow copy editors were sick and tired of the Dead Wings era.
A year later, the Free Press hired me right out of college. And I moved into my eastside Detroit flat in time for the Wings to draft a young centerman from the Ottawa suburbs whose name no one knew how to pronounce. And, once again, I edited the bulk of the Wings stories.
That fall, I made my first visit to Joe Louis Arena. I was not impressed. By the building. By the team. And by the number of fans urinating in the sinks in the men’s room between periods.
But Ilitch improved the warehouse on the waterfront and, eventually, the Winged Wheel on the ice. I was part of a season-ticket consortium. And I wondered whether the Wings ever would be capable of beating the Edmonton Oilers and winning their first Stanley Cup since 1955. But there were plenty of exciting moments as they failed, especially because of Steve Yzerman.
In 1988, right after the Calgary Winter Olympics, and nearly five years since I arrived in Detroit, I purchased a pair of cheap figure skates from Sears, signed up for a beginner class at St. Clair Shores Civic Arena and finally learned to skate — at least in one direction, with the on-again, off-again ability to stop. I played hockey for the first time on a frozen lake in Oakland County. I rented the ice in the wee hours at St. Clair Shores and we started playing weekly pickup games with minimal equipment, a sponge puck and goalies without stakes. It was a blast.
A year later I formed a Free Press team in a twice-a-week morning league in Fraser. We were out of our league, like Harvard competing in the SEC. All our players were college graduates, college dropouts or in college, and we routinely were destroyed by a team of construction workers and a team proud to be comprised of the chronically unemployed. But Team Freep improved when I recruited an ex-con and a couple of GEDers and adopted the team-building motto I still use to this day: “younger, faster, dumber.”
I was finally a hockey player. Not a great one. Not a good one. But a player. As a right wing, I could take up space on the defensive end and charge the net and knock home the occasional garbage goal on the offensive end. Years later, when we finally won a “title,” our cheap plastic trophies meant as much to me as Lord Stanley’s chalice.
Hockey fever was so rampant as the Wings improved in the 1990s that we started an annual game pitting the Free Press against the Detroit News. Note: I considered the News a worthy competitor but my Forever Enemy. One year, while I was camped in front of the goal, Bryan Gruley of the News put his stick between my legs and tried, ahem, to jostle my private parts. I spun around cursing, raised my stick as high as possible and delivered a vicious B.C. two-hander to the back of his knees. All hell then broke loose on the ice, and the benches emptied. Some of our bosses weren’t too happy; others were thrilled. Hours later at the Anchor Bar, as both teams drank to fun times, the video of the game clearly showed my dirty deed but not Gruley’s.
When I became sports editor in February 1993, it wasn’t so easy to play in the mornings so I became a hockey nomad at night. I played until 2008 when a lingering neck injury — and a doctor’s warning that I probably wouldn’t sustain serious damage if I kept playing — caused me to retire. But I returned in January 2018 at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, to run a team of free agents in a Friday night Never Ever league, the lowest of levels. In our first calendar year, we won two games — the second of which was via forfeit. But we slowly improved, finished first in a short summer league, finished first again when COVID-19 ended a season early and, up a level at long last, won the playoffs this past winter for a giant, cheap plastic trophy. April, 2022 (Oh, What a Night)! Alas, we are 1-2-3 as the spring season winds down. At least to improve this time, I didn’t need to go dumber, just younger and faster. Our team, called the Yaks, one of a series teams at different levels using the same name while playing out of The Cube, has included a concussion expert, a rocket scientist, engineers, IT specialists, nurses, researchers and one retired journalist.
Back to 1997. I controlled a ticket consortium. So, I had my pick games.
Time to dispel a myth: Sports staffers do not accept free tickets to games. By choice, I rarely spent much time in press boxes. I always figured there were three types of sportswriters there: 1) Those who would suck up to me in hopes of landing a job down the road. 2) Those who wanted to punch me because I didn’t hire them at some point. 3) My staffers who didn’t need their boss hovering over their shoulders. At one point or another, I had at least partial season tickets to the Wings, Tigers, Lions, Pistons, Michigan football and Michigan State football.
In 1997, my Wings tickets were about 10 rows up in a corner of the upper bowl. They were right next to two controlled by Osgood, which was how I met his mother the night of his 1998 slugfest with Roy.
So, naturally, I used the tickets in ’97 for the two most famous games in The Joe’s history: Fight Night at The Joe on March 26 and the Stanley Cup clincher on June 7.
I have three other indelible memories from the 1997 championship season. The Saturday night the Wings won the Cup, I arrived in the Free Press’ downtown offices around 2 p.m., six hours before face-off. Staffers were working on an instant commemorative book that needed to be finished within 12 hours of the final buzzer if the Wings won the championship. At that point, we weren’t even sure what the book’s title would be. Around midnight, it became the original “Stanleytown.”
In the afternoon, I was checking on a preprinted edition that would be sold outside Joe Louis Arena if the Wings won. We used the big headline of “OUR CUP” and giant photo of Brendan Shanahan celebrating a goal in Game 3. I helped a bit with the book. And I planned out a 20-page commemorative section that would run Monday morning if the Wings won.
The game itself was thrilling and nerve-wracking. Despite a three-games-to-none lead in the series, hey, anything can happen and had to the Wings in the past four decades. Also, for my job, all the plans were in place for the Free Press’ coverage. I didn’t want to create a new plan for Game 5. And a clinching game at home was far easier to cover by flooding the zone with staffers than a clinching game on the road. No matter what, I did not want to series to return to my hometown.
And thanks to Darren McCarty’s amazing goal, the Wings held on for a 2-1 victory. The atmosphere inside The Joe was insane. As it was once fans started heading outside. When I did, I grabbed piles of the “OUR CUP” special editions and started hawking them. Fans couldn’t buy ’em fast enough.
When I made it back to the office through the sea of humanity, it must have been closing in on 12:30 a.m. A dozen or so folks were working on the “Stanleytown” book, editing stories from The Joe for freep.com and starting on Monday’s commemorative section. I worked on all three throughout the night and into the next morning. With the book finished, I worked exclusively on Monday’s section. When that finished around 8 p.m. Sunday, I started planning coverage for the rest of the week, which besides a parade now included a rally at The Joe. I finally left at 4 a.m. Monday — 38 hours after my arrival. Crazy, eh? No excuses during the playoffs, right? Who needs sleep, anyway?
My second indelible moment came near summer’s end, when Shanahan staged a celebrity softball game in Dearborn to raise money to fight Alzheimer’s, which had taken his father several years earlier. Fans lined up for hours for their chance to visit with the Stanley Cup. And, to my chagrin, way too many of them watched the softball game.
Nobody really wanted to see a game. Folks just wanted to see their Red Wings heroes up close and watch them smack the living daylights out of the ball. A team of “media celebrities” was supposed to be the Washington Generals.
When a PR person requested that I play in the game, I declined and said nobody wanted to see me in action. The PR person agreed that was true but wanted me anyway. She also wanted Jason La Canfora, the rookie Wings beat reporter for the Free Press.
On the softball diamond, I figured how why. The PR person asked me to try to organize two dozen media members into a team. There were plenty of big egos involved. There were only I’s on this team. The PR person had one more request: The Wings wanted La Canfora to be the starting pitcher.
So, I did my best crafting a lineup and figuring out what body type looked like it could play which position. It was a waste of time: Nobody was very good.
I put myself at catcher figuring it would be easier to watch my teammates from there and it would be best place to try to help La Canfora. He was just a year out Syracuse and had joined the Free Press late in the season and had impressed everyone, including the Wings, which is why they wanted to light him up. It was a badge of honor.
La Canfora has had a spectacular 25-year career that started in Detroit. He moved to the Washington Post to cover the football team no longer called the Redskins, then the NFL Network and later CBS Sports. He hosted a radio show, too.
For a quarter-century, La Canfora has been a triple threat — with the written word, on radio and on television. He’s all those things. He wasn’t a pitcher, though.
Given time for a quick warm-up, he struggled to come within several feet of home plate. The Wings were good-naturedly razzing him. His first several pitches weren’t in the same time zone. When Wings came to the plate, I all but begged them to swing at anything close. And they did.
They bashed the ball, even Zamboni driver Al Sobotka, which thrilled the fans. Somehow the media celebs got out of the inning down only by double digits. The Wings did the same thing in the second inning. Everybody was having fun, or so it seemed.
My embarrassment came after I singled and then tried to advance to third base on another hit, a rarity for my team. Halfway between second and third my uniform pants, which were several sizes too big, started falling down. Way down. I yanked them up and kinda hopped into third safely. The PA announcer was kind to point out my wardrobe malfunction to the laughing fans. Thank goodness for compression shorts!
The following inning brought a confrontation with rookie defenseman Aaron Ward. At 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds, he towered over me. He had made a reputation in the Stanley Cup playoffs for delivering big open-ice hits. He had a bit of a cult following despite coach Scotty Bowman playing him sparingly.
For reasons I failed to understand, Ward had not swung at a pitch in his two previous at-bats. I figured he was waiting for something in his zone to drive a country mile. I politely told Ward that La Canfora was unlikely to throw a pitch anywhere near the plate, that he should cream any pitch he could reach and that the fans weren’t there to watch him walk.
Ward just glared at me — and walked again on four pitches. Whatever, I thought. And I didn’t give it another thought.
It didn’t take long for Ward score. No surprise there. How he scored shocked me. He slowed down as he neared the plate, stomped both feet on it and growled at me, “Take that, (expletive).” (I was taught at KU’s journalism school to never use this word in print. Let’s just say the first part includes an m, an o, a t, an h, an e and a r.) He wasn’t joking around. He was furious with me.
When I figured that out, I remembered saying “you’re kidding, right?” and backing away to diffuse the situation. I am certain parts of me were trembling.
When Shanahan came to bat, he asked what was up between Ward and me. I told him about his at-bat and his stomp, and Shanahan called Ward something I won’t print, apologized on behalf of the Wings and thanked me for organizing the media celebrities. I thanked him for the invite, for raising money for a charity and for sharing the Stanley Cup with the masses.
Between innings, I’m happy to report, I saw Shanahan giving the business to Ward.
After that, Myers and La Canfora retreated to the bench for the remainder of the biggest rout since the Christians versus the Lions.
My third indelible moment came not long after the softball game. The Ilitches allowed the Stanley Cup to go on visits to downtown businesses and someone, somehow had gotten the Free Press on the list. The Keeper of the Cup placed the trophy on a table in a large room, and my coworkers waited their turn to check it out up close and to snap a few photos. I waited my turn with Steve Schrader, an assistant sports editor and the author of the Octometer. Schrader wasn’t tall, but he was solidly built, an offensive lineman back in his high school days. He didn’t see the Keeper hovering nearby, so he reached down and hoisted Lord Stanley’s chalice. I snapped a photo. Then he turned to hand Hockey’s Holy Gail to me, and I held it in front of my chest.
Yes, it was heavy. Heavier than I expected. Plenty of places listed its weight at 35 to 37 pounds. John Wharton, the Wings’ trainer at the time, insisted he weighed the Cup twice and it checked in at 32 pounds. In addition, the trophy required a wingspan wider than mine.
I used all my (limited) might to lift Stanley over my head. For maybe a few seconds. I felt like I’d drop it — but not add to its lore — if I couldn’t reach the table ASAP. Fortunately for me and the Hockey Hall of Fame, someone else positioned himself to receive the Cup. The handoff occurred not long before the Keeper, probably with a sixth sense about his job, reappeared and demanded the Cup go back on the table.
In 2008, when the Wings won their 11th Stanley Cup, I ran afoul again with the Keeper. Before the Cup was put on display for employees, the Free Press publisher, a Jayhawk like me, invited a couple other Jayhawks for a private audience and photos. That’s when I kissed the Cup. And that’s when I put two books written after the 2002 Cup into Stanley’s bowl and snapped a few photos. The Keeper was livid and said the Hall of Fame did not allow the Cup to be used for promotional purposes. (Unless, of course, you are a big-time sponsor.) I swore I would never do that. And I didn’t. I just framed a photo and put it in my office. (It makes its public debut right now!)
Ain’t hockey the best sport? You betcha. That’s why I’ll be on the ice for a Yaks game at 11:55 p.m. Friday in Ann Arbor. That’s why I’ve devoted months to the 1996-97 Red Wings.
And that’s why I need to thank a village of people. It all starts with Free Press sports editor Kirkland Crawford, who began working in my Sports Department while at Detroit’s Renaissance High and who greenlighted “Stanleytown 25 Years Later” and the 60 installments about the 1997 playoffs. Then there’s deputy sports editor Ryan Ford, the best designer and headline writer in the business. And there’s my cross-country skiing buddy and fellow retiree, Owen Davis, the ace copy chief in an era in which so many don’t value editing.
I relished researching all the great writing and reporting from the Free Press in 1997, led by Keith Gave, Jason La Canfora, Helene St. James, Mitch Albom, Steve Schrader and the late Drew Sharp. The photo all-stars were Mary Schroeder and Julian H. Gonzalez — each of whom has been inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame — with plenty of support from Gabriel B. Tait and Kirthmon F. Dozier.
Also deserving of shoutouts are Marlowe Alter, Tyler J. Davis, Andrew Hammond, Adam Engel, Bill Dow and Beth Myers.
Most of all, I’m typing this while giving a standing ovation to the Free Press readers who return often — online and in print — for their Red Wings updates. And to those of you who already have purchased “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”
Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait until 2050 for the Spirit of Detroit to don a giant Winged Wheel jersey again. I desperately want to do another championship book.
Until then … Go, Yaks!
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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