It was the kind ofgaudy excess that New York does best. Opening night of the NHL's 1994-95 seasonrolled around last Friday, 15 weeks late because of the lockout, and nowherewas it celebrated as it was at Madison Square Garden. Amid lasers andartificial fog, the Stanley Cup was lowered from the rafters. Finally,climactically, the NEW YORK RANGERS 1993-94 STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS banner wasraised.
The belated Gardenparty did double duty as a rite of succession: It served official notice thatthe Rangers, who went 54 years between Cups, have not only ascended to thechampionship throne they coveted for so long, but they have also passed theircrown as the NHL's Kings of Futility to another Original Six team. Even as thegonfalon was hoisted in New York, the lights were being dimmed in Detroit's JoeLouis Arena, where 19,875 forgiving fans cheered a video that exalted the proudtradition of the Red Wings. Of course the most inspiring footage was in blackand white, and many of the featured heroes were deceased. None of the club'sseven Stanley Cups has been won since 1955, so the Red Wings' 40-year dry spellnow reigns supreme. Say hello to the New Rangers.
It was fittingthat the first Red Wing to take the ice during player introductions Fridaynight was the club's new goalie, Mike Vernon, whose slightness of stature wasmercilessly illuminated by four spotlights. Vernon, at 5'8" the shortestmember of the team, is the Red Wing who must come up biggest in this sawed-offseason if Detroit is to end its Stanley Cup drought.
After spending his11-year NHL career with the Calgary Flames, the 31-year-old Vernon was solid inhis Motown debut, stopping 20 of 21 shots in the Red Wings' 4-1 win over theChicago Blackhawks. It bothered Detroit coach Scotty Bowman not a bit that onlya handful of those saves were anything special—this, in fact, seemed to ticklethe baby-faced, 61-year-old autocrat. Dutifully, obediently, the Red Wings hadstuck closely to the new defensive system Bowman and his staff had installed inthe off-season. Bowman was less excited by the scintillating midseason formdisplayed by defenseman Paul Coffey and center Steve Yzerman than he was by thefact that his team, which includes five new faces, had not given up a singleoutnumbered rush.
Once the slew ofreporters had cleared out of his office after the game and Bowman couldcommence an attack on the sausage pizza on his desk, he evinced, between bites,an optimism that for him bordered on giddiness. "I thought the new guys fitin perfectly." he said. "I felt more comfortable in this game than Idid in any game last year."
Bowman's firstseason in Detroit began turbulently—he butted heads frequently with thengeneral manager Bryan Murray—and ended in shocking fashion, with a 3-2 homeloss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of their quarterfinal playoff series lastApril. Even a rosterful of All-Stars, including Coffey, Yzerman and Hart Trophywinner Sergei Fedorov, was not enough to prevent the league's preeminentpostseason gagmeisters from making their third first-round playoff exit in fouryears.
The most memorablevignette from Detroit's '93-94 season was provided by rookie goaltender ChrisOsgood, who sat sobbing in his stall after the Shark debacle. "If I couldjust find a way so that this thing doesn't ruin me," he said. "I'mstill young. I wasn't supposed to be here this season."
The 22-year-oldhad indeed been thrown into the fire, due in part to a bad decision by Murray.In Murray's quest for a goaltender who could carry the Wings to the Cup, he hadguessed wrong, trading for Bob Essensa of the Winnipeg Jets last March, amiscalculation that would cost Murray his job. Essensa was a soredisappointment in the regular season, and after allowing two brutal goals inGame 1 against the Sharks, Bowman yanked him and went with Osgood the rest ofthe way.
As the rookie weptlast April, Yzerman, the captain, stood grimly by the water fountain. Thereseemed to be a trace of masochism in his voice when he said, "We failedagain, and we need to accept the consequences."
Those consequencesarrived five weeks later, on June 4, when team owner and pizza shogun MikeIlitch fired Murray. Then, on June 24, Ilitch made Bowman director of playerpersonnel. Having consolidated power. Bowman wasted little time exercising it.Five days later he traded defenseman Steve Chiasson for Vernon, who is backedup this season by Osgood. The makeover had begun.
In a spasm ofearly-August free-agent signings. Bowman brought in a pair of stay-at-homedefensemen, 30-year-old Bob Rouse and 34-year-old Mike Ramsey, and 34-year-oldleft wing Mike Krushelnyski. Then in the waiver draft on Jan. 18 Bowman added30-year-old penalty-killing specialist Doug Brown from the PittsburghPenguins.
Detroit's newskaters have played in a combined 3,018 NHL games and have scored just 433goals. Obviously, coaches haven't kept them around for their soft hands. Theseguys have lasted in the league by doing certain things well, the kinds ofthings at which the star-laden, star-crossed Wings have not excelled. "Youneed glamour players, scorers, but you need those kinds of guys too," saysBowman, who has won more games than any other' coach in NHL history to go alongwith his six Stanley Cups, five of them with the Montreal Canadiens and onewith the Penguins. "They're character guys. They're unsung."
Those players fitinto the new scheme for the Red Wing defense that began to take shape lastsummer. In July, Detroit assistant coach Barry Smith jetted to Sweden, thenFinland, visiting hockey clubs and talking to coaches. He filled a notebook andreturned to Detroit with the outline of a new defensive system. "It'snothing too complicated," says Yzerman. When Detroit has the puck in theoffensive zone, "one of the wings stays high and kind of posts up at theblue line," says Yzerman. Simply put, the system requires of the Red Wingswhat they lacked last season: a defensive conscience. While their 356 goals ledthe NHL, a lot of those came, according to Bowman, "because we werecheating"—cutting corners in the defensive end.
The atmosphere inthe dressing room is also a dramatic improvement over last season, whenconflict and intrigue hung in the air. If players didn't get satisfaction fromBowman, they would take their gripes to the more personable Murray, who oftenhung around the trainer's room down the hall from Bowman's office, crackingjokes with the players.
"It wasn't ahealthy situation," says Detroit forward Sean Burr. "But this isScotty's team now. He's got the players he wants, he's got a bounce in hisstep. He's smiling more."
Not that you woulddescribe Bowman as gregarious. He will never be one of thosemy-door's-always-open coaches. Bowman rules through fear. In fact, not longafter Murray was canned, rumors circulated of a "hit list" of 10 or soveteran players Bowman had deemed expendable. "Oh, yeah," says Yzerman,who allegedly topped the list, "there was a lot of talk about that in thedressing room."
Whether or not thelist ever existed—Bowman says it didn't—is irrelevant. The mere discussion ofit served to remind older players and those harboring rebellious thoughtsexactly who holds the hammer. As Yzerman says, "With Scotty, you adapt oryou're gone."
Which is not tosay that Bowman's myriad eccentricities are not a source of amusement to hisplayers. During warm-ups before an exhibition game in September in Chicago'snew United Center, there was much nudging and guffawing among the Red Wings:Bowman was on the ice in his street shoes, pacing off the distance between theblue lines, "like a guy taking a sobriety test," says Burr. Far be itfor Bowman to trust the Blackhawks to properly measure the dimensions of theirown rink. Realizing, upon completing his task, that his players were staring,the coach declared, "It's regulation."
It will be atleast a minor source of irritation to the hands-on, micromanaging Bowman thatthe player most vital to Detroit's chances this season is the one he can coachthe least. Vernon, who won 248 games and the '89 Stanley Cup in Calgary, hasthe same problem that all short goalies have: He shows shooters a lot of net, aflaw his former team took advantage of in a 4-1 victory in Detroit on Sunday.He usually compensates for his lack of size with feline quickness and byplaying angles superbly. Indeed, as a rookie in 1986 he stoned the defendingCup champion Edmonton Oilers, then at the height of their dynasty, in theplayoffs as he led the Flames to the Cup finals.
As Vernon sees it,his new teammates should heed the lesson Calgary taught the Oilers in '86."You can win shoot-outs all season, and then, in the playoffs, goals aretougher to come by. I don't care how much firepower you have, stuff happens. Towin, you've gotta play both ends."
It's early, andall the Red Wings are singing Scotty Bowman's tune. Now, if they can just holdthat tune until July, we may have, for the second straight season, a new Kingof Futility.