June 12, 2017
When the Red Wings finally
brought home Stanley Cup
By KEITH GAVE
Twenty years ago this week. . .
Inside the raucous Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room the air was palpable, a curious concoction of mist from cheap champagne and a cloudy haze from several bootleg Cubans. The added scent of many freshly uncapped beers helped camouflage the ubiquitous odor of the sweat of several exhausted men celebrating like the champions they had become just moments before.
They were joined by scores of family members, friends, reporters and an eclectic assortment of celebrity hangers-on who always seem to find their way into once-in-a-lifetime events like these. Among them was Jeff Daniels, the Academy Award-nominee, and Wings season-ticket holder from Chelsea. And Alto Reed, the sax player in Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band who occasionally performed the national anthem before games.
Piercing voices and riotous laughter ruptured 42 years of pent-up frustration. Finally, the Stanley Cup had found its way back to Detroit. Here was a moment to savor – for everyone in this room and the tens of thousands still hanging around on the streets surrounding Joe Louis Arena on a sultry late-spring evening.
Many of them had just witnessed the conclusion of a four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers. Most fans had left the building but refused to go home. Much more left their homes after watching this unforgettable moment in Detroit sports history on TV, wanting to be part of the excitement. They drove to the northern banks of the Detroit River to join in a spontaneous celebration that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
Championship celebrations throughout professional sports were pretty much the same – at least until they started to be choreographed for TV, with players donning goggles to avoid the sting from the inevitable champagne showers. So it was on that pre-goggles night of June 7, 1997, when I inched my way into the crowded Red Wings’ locker room.
The first player I encountered was Vladimir Konstantinov, who for some reason was going the other way toward the exit. He had taken his Wings jersey and skates off, along with his shoulder and elbow pads, but otherwise was dressed as he had been a few minutes earlier with his teammates, waltzing the Stanley Cup around the ice. His left hand gripped a bottle of bubbly along with an unlit cigar dangling precariously between his fingers. His right hand met mine through the crowd as soon as we made eye contact.
Here was a man as friendly and affable away from the ice as he was contemptible on it, now smiling wearily. At 28, he was in the prime of his career and one of the best defensemen in the world. And he played much, much bigger than his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame.
But the ferocity with which he played took a toll, and I understood at that moment why, even since his days as a teenager in junior hockey, teammates called him “Dyadya” – Grandpa. Even then, he was 18 going on 40. After a brutal two-month stretch of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, he appeared as though he might be pushing 60 the way he moved.
“Congratulations, Vladdie. Molodyets,” I told him, using the Russian word loosely translated to mean “attaboy.”
Here was a man so colorful he needed more than one nickname. The Vladinator, fans loved to call him. But to his opponents who’d encountered the blade of his stick along the boards, he was Vlad the Impaler. To most of those who played with him, though, he was simply Vladdie, the guy who always had their backs.
“It was very hard,” he said in barely a whisper, “so hard.” He pulled me toward him in a one-armed embrace, soaking me with a mix of suds and sweat from the blue undershirt he wore still tucked into his hockey pants. “We win the Cup! We win! But it was so hard. Hardest thing ever.”
As he spoke, he raised the bottle of champagne and poured the remnants over my head, and we laughed.
Very slowly, I made my way around the room, shaking hands, asking a few questions, trying to take notes I’d never be able to read because the ink on the paper became illegible as it continued to rain champagne and beer.
There was Steve Yzerman, the team captain, shaking hands, surrounded by reporters and patiently answering non-stop questions after his long-awaited waltz around the rink with the Cup over his head. Never again would his leadership be questioned. Nearby were Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov, two aging former Soviet Red Army stars who had just won the only prize that had eluded them in their redoubtable careers. Alongside Larionov was Slava Kozlov, who grew up a few blocks from Larionov in their hometown of Voskresensk – nearly 5,000 miles to the east of Joe Louis Arena.
At various corners of the room, there were Joey Kocur, Darren McCarty, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, four-thirds of the Grind Line that meant so much to this team of superstars. And Nicklas Lidstrom, who would become known as “The Perfect Human” the way he conducted himself on and off the ice. I stopped to congratulate them all, finally making my way to a corner where the best hockey player in the world was surrounded by friends and family.
“Congratulations,” I said, extending my hand toward. Sergei Fedorov, the first of what would become Detroit’s Russian Five, one of the most renowned units in the history of the game, and one that would forever change how it was played in the National Hockey League. He was beaming as our hands clenched.
Five stories above ice level, in the owners’ lavish suite at Joe Louis Arena where Mike and Marian Ilitch had witnessed too many years of second-rate hockey, the air was heavy with a sticky mist.
Standing in the doorway, I watched as champagne flowed freely on June 7, 1997. The quality of the bubbly, however, was a few octaves above what the athletes were spraying around in their overcrowded locker room after the Red Wings ended a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.
Here, the vintage was 1982, the year the Ilitches bought the Detroit Red Wings for $8 million from Bruce Norris. The founders of the Little Caesars Pizza chain had set aside cases of it for this singular moment, and now they were sharing it with family, friends and business partners.
Clouds of smoke from expensive cigars mingled in the mist with unbridled laughter as the Ilitches made their way through the crowd like joyful parents of the bride at a fairy-tale wedding reception. The story that was unfolding in this luxury suite was the one of several that I would share with readers in the next edition of the Detroit Free Press, and I was surprised that I was the only reporter to come knocking.
The Ilitches were cautious around the media, rarely granting an audience, and usually only after an interview was arranged well in advance through layers of their handlers. But when they conceded to such meetings, Mike and Marian were delightful, engaging and thoroughly interesting people – honest, well-spoken – and often brutally, refreshingly blunt. It was easy to like this family. Even easier to respect them.
Denise, the eldest of the seven Ilitch children, greeted me at the doorway of the suite. An attorney who would rise to the president in the family’s vast business empire before her brother, Chris, took over, she often foresaw the opportunities in certain events that the rest of the family could not.
She promised me she’d get me some time with her father. After talking briefly, we were joined by her (then) husband, Jim Lites, the former Wings executive vice president who had left the organization a year earlier to become president of the Western Conference rival Dallas Stars.
After a few minutes spent reminiscing about how all the bad times of the previous 15 years suddenly seemed so worth it, Denise went to fetch her parents while Jim spoke affectionately and respectfully about how happy he was for his in-laws and what this Stanley Cup championship meant to them.
“They’ve worked so hard to bring this town a winner,” Lites said. “Mr. Ilitch spent what he had to, spent what it took when the other owners around the league brutalized him for it. He changed the league, the way he did things. He deserves this. And so does this town.”
Suddenly, Mike Ilitch was approaching, his arms open, smiling like I’d never seen him smile before. A former minor-league shortstop for his hometown Detroit Tigers – a franchise he purchased in 1992 – Ilitch was neither tall nor short, but vigorous in the way that you know his Marine Corps uniform from 45 years earlier would still fit him. He wore a mop of curly hair always cut and styled in a way that reminded his wife, Marian, of a Roman emperor. So when they opened their first pizza shop and needed a name, it seemed only natural to her that they call it Little Caesars – without the apostrophe.
As Ilitch approached, I held out my hand, but he grabbed me and embraced me instead. A big bear hug that surprised me. I tried to laugh and found that I was nearly breathless.
Two nights after the Red Wings completed that sweep of Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup, they held a celebration party at the Joe for about 16,000 season-ticket-holders.
It was then that Konstantinov whipped out his dark glasses, slipped them on and told the crowd in his best Terminator impression: “I’ll be back.” The crowd roared its approval.
A few minutes later, when it was Larionov’s turn to speak, a spontaneous chant erupted: “One more year! One more year.”
Detroit’s hockey fans are some of the most knowledgeable in the world, and they knew how important that 3x-year-old center was, whether he was quarterbacking the Russian Five or flanked on a line between Brendan Shanahan and Martin Lapointe.
His head bowed in what was clearly an emotional moment, Larionov finally pointed over his shoulder in the direction of coach Scotty Bowman, general manager Ken Holland and senior vice president Jim Devellano. You need to talk to them, Larionov told the crowd.
Igor Larionov spent five more seasons with the Wings, but on that night he fell hopelessly in love with Detroit, the city he still calls home today.
The next day, the Wings spent the day with a million or so of their closest friends who lined Woodward Avenue for a Stanley Cup parade. Players rode in red convertible Mustangs.
The captain, Steve Yzerman, rode the whole way from the Fox Theater to Hart Plaza standing up, the Stanley Cup held over his head.
Sergei Fedorov sat alongside a rising young tennis star, Anna Kournikova, who had turned 16 the day Detroit won that trophy.
In an extraordinary outpouring of love for a franchise and a city that had endured so much pain in the decades prior, signs and placards along the boulevard professed great affection for this team and its players. One even said, “I’m going to name my son Viacheslav!”
Our summer of joy lasted just three more days. On Friday, just six days after the Detroit Red Wings ended that interminable drought, a limousine driven by a man without a valid driver’s license left the roadway and crashed into a tree on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham.
Its passengers: three Russian teammates, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov and massage therapist Sergei Manatsanakov. A celebration suddenly became a vigil.
The vigil ended in heartbreak. Manatsanakov would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Konstantinov would never play hockey again. But damned if the Vladinator didn’t keep his promise. He defied every medical prognosis offered in the months he lay in a coma, fighting for his life.
He came back.