Connoisseurs, take note. Detroit Red Wings fans' 44-year-old
playoff tradition of throwing octopuses on the ice is a
senseless waste of a mighty fine appetizer, not to mention
disgusting, puerile, smelly and passe. So we suggest a more
piquant symbol of Detroit's Stanley Cup communion--the Jimmy
Skinner, 79, who coached the last Red Wings NHL championship
team, in 1955, now lives across the Detroit River in Windsor,
Ont. He had lunch a few weeks ago with current Wings coach
Scotty Bowman and presented Bowman with a few jars of homemade
Jimmy Skinner's Special Banana Peppers. Skinner makes them Hot!
Hot! Hot! and Mild! Mild! Mild! and these marinated peppers have
become a good-luck charm as well as lunch for the Detroit
coaches, who eat them with the bread Bowman often bakes and
brings to the rink. Pepper power.
Now for the main course: The Red Wings will win the 1996 Stanley
Cup. As Detroit broke to a 2-1 lead over the Winnipeg Jets last
week in first-round Western Conference action, what appeared
merely probable had graduated to virtually inevitable. That sort
of talk irks Bowman. On the eve of the playoffs he told
reporters, "There's nothing so uncertain as a sure thing. Good
night." He said that at two o'clock in the afternoon.
But after being cuffed in four straight by the New Jersey Devils
in the Stanley Cup finals last June, the Red Wings are ready.
Indeed, if defeat has more educational value than victory, then
Detroit earned its Ph.D. in that loss to New Jersey. Losing a
championship final doesn't necessarily provide the lessons
needed to win future titles--"If that were true, how many Super
Bowls would the Bills and Broncos have won?" says Red Wings
defenseman Paul Coffey--but it often works that way. The Edmonton
Oilers used their four-game loss to the New York Islanders in
the 1983 finals as a springboard to five Cups in the next seven
years. New Jersey endured a Game 7 double-overtime loss to the
New York Rangers in the '94 semifinals before winning in '95.
"It's happened in our town," Detroit right wing Darren McCarty
says. "The Pistons lost to the Lakers in the '88 finals before
winning twice. That experience won't make up for talent, but it
helps in the mental preparation, how you deal with everything.
This team has stayed pretty much the same. We've had a year to
As the Red Wings rolled to a league-record 62 wins during the
1995-96 regular season, they seemed less excited than their
city's fish wholesalers. "The way I look at it is, these great
players went out on a great golf course and shot the lowest
round ever," Detroit associate coach Dave Lewis says. "I think
our guys remember the passion, the emotion, the tears, the
release of energy in the Devils' eyes as the series ended last
year. I think they took a lot from that."
The regular season also showed that the Red Wings are the
deepest, most versatile team in the NHL. When Bowman traded for
center Igor Larionov last October, the Detroit players scratched
their heads. "The feeling in the room was Igor hadn't done much
[for the San Jose Sharks] against us in the playoffs last year,"
forward Tim Taylor says. "Besides, what did we need with another
Not another center. This center. The multiskilled Larionov has
served as playmaker and backbone of Detroit's Russian Five, a
unit that includes forwards Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov and
defensemen Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. Larionov's
presence also has given added flexibility to Bowman, who can
shuffle things faster than a three-card monte sharp. Bowman
shifted Fedorov, a center, to right wing on the Russian Five.
Sometimes he anoints Keith Primeau as an honorary Russian right
wing when he wants Fedorov centering another line. Late in the
second period of Game 1 against the Jets, Bowman used
Primeau--who hadn't played left wing since midseason--on the left
side with center Steve Yzerman and McCarty. The trio kept
Winnipeg, which was leading 1-0, trapped in its own end for more
than a minute and earned the Detroit threesome a standing
ovation from the restive crowd at Joe Louis Arena.
The Red Wings went on to win 4-1, blowing away the Jets with
three goals in 141 seconds in the third period. That deluge
began when Kris Draper scored on a goalmouth scramble. The
Detroit lineup is replete with unsung heroes like Draper--Taylor,
center Greg Johnson and penalty-killing specialist Doug Brown
are all fourth-liners who do more than take up space. In the Red
Wings' two wins at home against the Jets--Detroit followed its
Game 1 victory with a 4-0 triumph last Friday, before slipping
4-1 on Sunday in Winnipeg--the goal scorers were three role
players (Brown, Draper and Johnson), two Russians (Fetisov and
Larionov) and Coffey. The depth makes the Red Wings tougher to
shut down than one-line teams, like the St. Louis Blues. It also
makes them less vulnerable to injuries than a team dependent on
one player, as the Rangers are on Mark Messier.
"Detroit has a lot of guys who can do a lot of things, but it
also appears they have a lack of egos," Winnipeg general manager
John Paddock says. "They've seemed to put those other
things--contracts, ice time--aside and concentrated on winning.
That's why they won 62 during the season."
One manifestation of that concentration is the Red Wings'
defense. Detroit allowed the fewest goals in the regular season,
and it had the best penalty-killing percentage (88.3%) since the
Philadelphia Flyers in 1973-74. The Wings have taken three
world-class defensemen--Coffey, Niklas Lidstrom and Konstantinov,
who deserves Norris Trophy consideration--and spread them among
three pairs. The average age of the Detroit defensemen is a
creaky 32, but Bowman uses seven of them and keeps them all
fresh. And the Wings appear less susceptible to outside speed
than they did last season.
Detroit's defense starts in the offensive zone. At the beginning
of last season Bowman and associate coach Barry Smith installed
a conservative forechecking system that keeps the left wing near
the blue line; players have now had another season to practice
it and distance themselves from the ineffectual D played by the
old shoot-'em-up Wings. In Game 1 against Winnipeg, Detroit
limited the Jets to 14 shots, including just three in the final
period. In Game 2 the Wings held Winnipeg to 16 shots, none in a
17-minute span in the second and third periods. "This team
hadn't been built around defense until Scotty got here," Yzerman
says. "Now we're trying to generate scoring chances off our
That defense is backed up by Chris Osgood, who has emerged as a
top-notch goaltender. Last season, Detroit's goaltending rose
and fell with Mike Vernon, who crashed against New Jersey.
Bowman refused to turn to Osgood, then 22, even when the Wings
were trailing 3-0 in that series, because he felt Osgood was too
inexperienced. Now Osgood appears ready, though even with his
playoff goatee, he still looks like a refugee from the side of a
Gerber's jar. After a season in which he tied for first in the
NHL in goals-against average (2.17) and led the league with 39
wins, he is No. 1 in Detroit. Or so it seems. Osgood started the
two home games last week, but the Wings switched to the
33-year-old Vernon for Game 3 because they thought he might be
more at ease with the rabid Winnipeg crowd. So much for the
virtues of old age.
Osgood and Vernon are fast friends and have smothered any
incipient controversy. Osgood started Game 1 nervously, banking
what was supposed to be a fake clearing pass off a Jet and
almost into his own net, but he settled down and reacted to the
puck well. "Osgood's handling the puck better this year," Bowman
says, "and he's getting a good book on the shooters. He's not
all reflex anymore. He knows now that this guy might like to go
high or this guy might like to shoot in traffic."
The Red Wings final advantage is that Bowman is the best game
coach alive. Example: With Detroit trailing 1-0 in the third
period of Game 1 against Winnipeg, Bowman, the NHL's winningest
coach (1,129 total career victories), showed his flair for the
unexpected. Eighteen seconds remained in a Red Wings power play
and a face-off was about to take place in the Winnipeg zone, but
Bowman sent out his checking line and defensive defensemen Mike
Ramsey and Bob Rouse. "It was a little surprising," Ramsey said
after the game, "but sometimes you want to throw a different
look out there. You knew if the puck came to us on the point,
all we were going to do was hammer it at the net." Nineteen
seconds later Draper scored on a rebound of Ramsey's shot to tie
the game. "Maybe it was a little hunch," Ramsey says. "That's
what makes Scotty who he is."
Bowman isn't easy to read. His ruminations on hockey can't even
be described as stream of consciousness, because you can at
least paddle down a stream; Bowman's mind portages a lot. He
walks around the Wings video room in his slippers. He can be
abrupt. But as impersonal as Bowman may be in his dealings with
players, no coach ever has been as sensitive to what might work
at any given moment on the ice. With a team as flexible as these
Wings, Bowman's advantage becomes commanding.
"He did an interview on Fox during the All-Star Game that was an
eye-opener for me," Taylor says. "I only know him as coach of
the Red Wings. But there he was, talking about personal stuff.
For the first time I was looking at him on a human level. He is
just so intimidating, not because of how he acts but because of
what he's accomplished. I think the refs and linesmen feel that,
too. Maybe we've got a break once in a while because we have
Scotty back there."
The Red Wings aren't perfect. The forwards, other than Primeau
and McCarty, are mostly bite-sized, which was a drawback against
the big, strong Devils last year. Detroit also has no messianic
leader to rally around if it should stumble. However, these Red
Wings know how to get things done, know what buttons to push.
Three weeks ago, in fact, Fetisov pushed the buttons on a locker
room phone and immediately got through to Boris Yeltsin's chief
aide in Moscow.
"Yeltsin has our number," Fetisov says.
Mr. President, as is the custom here, you are welcome to dial it
right after the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.