December 29, 2016
For one night, at least, all is right as Red
Wings honor 1997 Stanley Cup champs
By KEITH GAVE
DETROIT – Amid all the dark clouds this Red Wings season – the losses, the injuries to important players, the sudden disappearance of all hope and optimism – a silver lining.
Rather, 34½ pounds of silver in a trophy standing 35 inches tall engraved with the names of all the champions. The Stanley Cup made a holiday visit Tuesday night to Joe Louis Arena, and with it the men who ended a 42-year championship drought in Detroit. The got the band back together, too, that band of brothers who 20 years ago in June brought so much joy to the city and the region.
All but a few of them were there, introduced in a ceremony before the Detroit-Buffalo game the Wings managed to lose, 4-3, despite badly outplaying the Sabres.
Understandably, the biggest cheers of the night – and perhaps all season – came before the puck was dropped, when captain Steve Yzerman walked out onto the red carpet. He was joined by Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov and many more, including Vladimir Konstantinov in a wheelchair pushed by his daughter, Anastasia.
Overhead on the big scoreboard, fans watched video highlights from that magical season. Coach Scotty Bowman, who also drew an enormous applause, spoke for his group, calling it “a team for the ages.”
Bowman, who at 83 looks better and healthier than he did a couple of decades ago – his surgically repaired knees no longer cause him a noticeable limp – spoke glowingly and lovingly about his team, from the ownership to the trainers.
But he saved his most thoughtful remarks for Red Wings fans and all they were forced to endure during that long, long time between 1955 and 1997. Aside from a couple of trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, 30 years apart in 1965 and 1995, fans had little to cheer. The franchise hit its nadir in a 20-year period that began shortly after that 1965 Finals appearance.
The 1995 Finals debacle was an especially hard pill to swallow for fans – and the team – Bowman acknowledged. His heavily favored Wings were swept by New Jersey. The following year, excitement reached a fever pitch again heading into the playoffs when Detroit dominated the opposition, setting a record that stands to this day with 62 victories. But the Wings were beaten in the Western Conference Finals by Colorado, which ignited one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports for the next 5-6 years or so.
In 1997, buoyed by that March 26 brawl with the Avalanche that galvanized the team and its confidence, the Wings again advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, though they were the underdog to a big, strong Philadelphia team that was widely expected to manhandle Detroit much like the New Jersey Devils two years earlier.
The Wings had a different outcome in mind, though, and led by a physically dominating performance by Konstantinov and a team laden with Hall of Famers at the top of their games, it was Detroit administering the hurt and disappointment in a four-game Red Wings’ sweep.
“We knew you were patient,” Bowman told Detroit fans, “but we didn’t know you were that patient. To finally win in 1997 and then go on to win more Cups in the following years, it was a special feeling.
“And I want to say thank you so much to the ownership of this team, Marian and Mike Ilitch. The owners wanted to win so badly. . . And from the ownership right down to the trainers and the equipment staff, no stone was left unturned for this team to win that cup in 1997.”
That process began 15 years earlier, when the Ilitches bought the franchise in 1982, hired Jim Devellano as their general manager. And there began the tedious process of building a team through the NHL Entry Draft. But it didn’t end there. While Devellano was selecting players like Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert and Joe Kocur in his first draft for Detroit in 1983, and bolstering a fast-improving roster with guys like Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom and Konstantinov in 1989, he was also repeatedly accused of tampering by other NHL clubs by signing their veterans.
Meanwhile, Ilitch was giving carte blanche to his then son-in-law, Jim Lites, an attorney and the team’s executive vice president, to orchestrate defections of players from behind the Iron Curtain. It began in the summer of 1985 when Lites and assistant GM Nick Polano managed to help Petr Klima from his team in what was then Czechoslovakia. And it continued when the Wings boldly began drafting young Soviet players like Fedorov, Konstantinov and Kozlov, all destined to become members of one of the cornerstone units of the franchise, the Russian Five, who helped win back to back Stanley Cups in 1997-98.
So expect a curtain call from many of those same players next year, when the Wings honor that 1998 Stanley Cup championship team.
“Thank you very much for coming,” Bowman said with a wave. “It was an honor to coach this team.”
When Tuesday night’s ceremony ended, the 1997 Stanley Cup banner was lowered to ice level. Darren McCarty lugged the big trophy over and the players gathered around it for one more priceless photo. As they walked that red carpet off the ice, one of the last to leave was Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was ended in that limo crash just a week after he helped his team win the championship.
In Konstantinov’s lap, the Stanley Cup rested. And if there was a dry eye in the house, I could not tell you. My eyes were blurry.