For 42 years the city of Detroit had waited. Through nine
presidents, through tail fins and K-cars and ABS brakes, through
cold wars and cold teams, through whatever historical blank you
care to fill in. During that time Detroit had seen the Stanley
Cup pass through 12 other franchises, wondering whether the
city's nickname, Hockeytown, would ever be more than a
Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman had been there for 14 years, a
lifetime for an athlete. He had come to Detroit as a shy
18-year-old who was so polite he once apologized to the
penalty-box gatekeeper for using profanity. When Yzerman was 21,
the franchise that had missed the playoffs for 16 of the
previous 20 seasons slapped a C on his jersey. In his way,
Yzerman became the Red Wings. He lived through the era of the
Dead Things, the revival of the late 1980s, the playoff
disappointments of the '90s. Hey, that's hockey. You could see
it all if you played for Detroit long enough.
You could see everything but this. Yzerman was slowly circling
the ice at Joe Louis Arena last Saturday night after the Red
Wings had completed a sweep of the Stanley Cup finals with a 2-1
victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, pressing the chalice above
his head, smiling as brightly as the 19,983 faces in the arena.
The Stanley Cup weighs about 35 pounds and who knows how much on
the imagination of a hockey player.
"I'm glad the game is over," Yzerman said. "But I wish it had
never ended. Since I was five years old, I've watched the
Stanley Cup. I have stayed up [late], made a point of watching
it being presented in the locker room and always dreamed of the
day that maybe I would get there. It's almost like I wanted [the
game] back so I could watch the whole thing again and never
forget a minute of it."
June 15, 1997
For Yzerman this was a recurring dream, but for the man who
directed him to start his solo lap around the rink with the Cup,
it was a recurring reality. Scotty Bowman and the Wings will
decide by the June 21 draft if he will come back as the coach in
1997-98, but as his wife, Suella, said in his office on Saturday
night, it would be difficult to top this. Even the usually
inscrutable Bowman, whose contract expires at the end of this
month, hinted that he would leave after winning his seventh Cup
as a coach, musing about Toe Blake, who guided eight Stanley Cup
winners between 1956 and '68 and, maybe more important, won his
last game. If Bowman, who became the first coach to win the Cup
with three teams, wants to, he can remain in Detroit or perhaps
get a coaching or general managing job elsewhere. If he doesn't
return, he can always remember the night he took the Stanley Cup
for a spin.
While his players celebrated their victory on the ice, Bowman
ducked into the dressing room and grabbed his skates to prepare
for his turn carrying the Cup. Surely no coach had ever ditched
brogues for blades before, but Bowman was always an innovator.
In winning five Cups with the Montreal Canadiens (1973 and
'76-79), he left the glory to the players during celebrations.
On Saturday, however, a 63-year-old laced 'em up and became a
"I always wanted to be a player in the NHL and skate with the
Cup," Bowman said. "How many chances do you get? I said, 'If we
win, I'll go for it.'"
How did it feel toting the Cup around? "It's pretty heavy, but
it's pretty light, too," said Bowman.
He might have been talking of the Red Wings' burden. For those
in the cars cruising Jefferson Avenue, honking their horns well
into Sunday morning, the talk might have been of the 42-year
wait, but history goes back only three springs for many of
Detroit's current players. In 1995 they were swept in the finals
by the underdog New Jersey Devils in a mirror image of the
Flyers series. "We're always going to remember that," said
Darren McCarty, who scored the Cup-winning goal on an
outside-inside, one-on-one move so sweet that as he took a seat
for the postgame press conference, Yzerman intoned, "On my left
is Bobby Orr." "We were embarrassed," McCarty said. "Losing is
the best teacher. It's a hard lesson, but it's the best teacher
because you remember."
Now the loss to New Jersey has been all but expunged from
everyone's record, including Bowman's. "Best coach I've had,"
left wing Brendan Shanahan said. "He started coaching the Plager
brothers [in St. Louis in 1967-68], guys with crewcuts. Then he
coached through the disco craze, then into the '80s and '90s,
and he still wins. He's had to be mentally in tune with and know
how to motivate men between the ages of 18 and 38 over the last
30 years. He has a great knowledge of the game. The bottom line
is, you can trust Scotty's knowledge."
The eloquent Shanahan said he was rendered speechless when he
was handed the Cup. The Red Wings' play had much the same effect
on the Flyers, who summed up their series in one word:
It isn't much of a word, but then Philadelphia didn't play much
of a series. Defenseman Eric Desjardins uttered that
description, give or take a yie, last Friday, some 14 hours
after Detroit had waxed Philly 6-1 in Game 3 and 10 minutes
after Terry Murray, the other coach in this series, had stunned
a gathering of reporters by saying, "It is basically a choking
situation...for our team right now."
In the first three games, seven of the Red Wings' 14 goals had
come off blatant defensive errors or odd-man rushes, and the
Flyers had scored only one goal at even strength. What's more,
Philadelphia goalies Ron Hextall and Garth Snow had each allowed
a 55-plus-foot, kick-your-team-in-the-groin goal; Detroit
enforcer Joe Kocur, a beer league refugee who has the shooting
touch of a stevedore, had one more goal than Philly star Eric
Lindros; and only two Flyers, Rod Brind'Amour and John LeClair,
had even scored. All in all, Murray might have stumbled upon the
Expressions like salary cap and commercial flight are sure to
raise the hackles of a pro athlete, but none guarantees a more
visceral response than the word choke. Murray, a fair-minded
man, was hoping his remarks would be kept in their proper
context, but headline writers and leftwingers are notoriously
bad with nuance. "What do I call it--freezing up?" Murray said
later on Friday afternoon in the lobby of the team hotel. "It
happens in sports all the time. You see it in the NBA Finals
with Karl Malone of the Jazz. He's the MVP, been in the league
12 years. You see how he played [in Games 1 and 2]." Now not
only can't Murray walk into his dressing room without getting
glares, but ski vacations at Park City, Utah, are also out.
"Choke is not a nasty word," he added. "Not for me. It's real.
If there's a white elephant in the room, you have to address the
Yes, but not in public. "It's probably easier coming from the
media," Desjardins said. "But I don't think any pro athlete
likes to hear that, especially from his coach."
Indeed, Murray, whose contract also expires at the end of this
month, might as well have flung himself into the Detroit River
wearing concrete swim trunks. His was an act of professional
suicide, an unfortunate choice of words that could make it
difficult for general manager Bob Clarke to bring back his
friend and former teammate as coach in '97-98. "The word he used
was wrong," says Clarke, who before the finals had said that
Murray would be back if he wanted to, though he wouldn't discuss
the issue after Game 3. "But what he was saying was probably
right. I don't think coaching has had any negative effect on our
team. Detroit has outplayed us."
Maybe Murray should have used the word quit, because that's what
the Flyers did in Game 3. In the first period they took their
only lead of the series, frittered it away two minutes later and
then, trailing 2-1, played a five-on-three-man advantage for 80
seconds like rank amateurs. Desjardins, their best defenseman,
made an egregious error by shooting the puck into the Red Wings'
zone instead of carrying it, and Lindros tried an ill-advised,
sharply angled shot that went wide and skidded into center ice.
Murray, whose team was down by two goals after the first period,
stormed into the dressing room and, in his words, "lost it." He
screamed. He challenged. Thus inspired, Philadelphia went out
and slept through the second period, giving up goals to Sergei
Fedorov early and Shanahan late. The Flyers of the 1970s might
have started a riot, but this team sagged in the realization
that Detroit was quicker, tougher, deeper and more resourceful
than Philly had anticipated.
Lindros, who scored his only goal of the series with 14.8
seconds remaining in Game 4, is hockey's dominant player, but
when things don't go his way, he looks as if he wants to stamp
his feet and sulk. Sure, the Philadelphia goalies lived down to
modest expectations and the Flyers' defense was careless, but as
the franchise player, Lindros is expected to carry the team. "A
great player has to earn the right to be great," Murray said.
On Friday, as Murray was talking himself into trouble, Lindros,
the Philadelphia captain, was heading for safety. After an
emotional team meeting, he slipped out of the rink, leaving his
teammates to face the media firestorm over the "choking
situation." After five seasons in the NHL, the 24-year-old
Lindros still has trouble with accountability. He could have
scribbled a little happy face on the bleakness, talked about his
own play and maybe even bailed out Murray, although given
Lindros's cool relationship with the coach, that would have been
a stretch. Instead he took the easy way out.
Murray and Lindros spoke animatedly at practice the day after
Detroit's 4-2 victory in Game 1--a match decided by Yzerman's
59-foot slap shot past Hextall in the first minute of the third
period, which kneecapped a Flyers comeback. In that game Lindros
played just 23 minutes. His Legion of Doom line was on the ice
for barely more than a minute of the final 6 1/2 in the first
period as Murray seemed unduly concerned trying to match lines
with Bowman, the master of the matchups.
Bowman surprised Murray--and everybody else--when he didn't use
rugged defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov against Lindros and
LeClair. Instead of the nastiest blueliner in the NHL, Bowman
trotted out Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy, two
finesse-oriented defenders. They handle the puck better than any
other Detroit defensive pair, and that ability helped them
stifle Philadelphia's vaunted forechecking. In Lindros's 103
even-strength shifts in the four games, Lidstrom and Murphy
played together against him 62 times.
"Some other teams that played the Flyers in the playoffs tried
to hammer their big players," Red Wings associate coach Dave
Lewis said. "[Those teams attempted to] go after them with
strength and size, and be in their face. When the opportunity is
there, you can do it. But they'll wear you down before they get
worn down. So there are other things to use."
The other cornerstone of Detroit's strategy was to dog
36-year-old Paul Coffey, the defenseman whom Bowman banished
from the Red Wings at the start of the season and then smeared
before a Detroit-Philadelphia game in January. Bowman claimed
that Coffey, the highest-scoring defenseman in history, doesn't
help the power play as much as people think and that the
Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 in spite of him.
(Bowman was Pittsburgh's director of player development at the
time.) The fact is, including this season's Red Wings, four
teams have reached the finals or won the Cup within a year of
trading Coffey. Bowman softened his criticism of Coffey a bit
after Detroit's 4-2 victory over Snow in Game 2, but he never
apologized. He had little reason to. During the Wings' two wins
in Philadelphia, Coffey was on the ice for six of the eight
Detroit goals and was in the penalty box for another. While the
City of Brotherly Love was buzzing about the Flyers' game of
musical goalies--smartly dubbed a Murray-go-round--the Red Wings
considered their former teammate a pressure point. "We wanted to
hit him when he had the puck," Lewis said. "And hit him when he
McCarty knocked Coffey woozy with a clean check in the third
period of Game 2, forcing him to remain in Philadelphia for Game
3 with a concussion. Coffey, at last, was a stay-at-home
Murray returned to Hextall in Game 3--he said that starting
Snow, who had been burned by a tie-breaking 55-footer by Kirk
Maltby in Game 2, was "a hunch"--but the Wings pumped in six.
Detroit's skill, including solid goaltending by playoff MVP Mike
Vernon, who stopped 102 of 108 shots in the series and who now
stands fifth in career postseason wins with 73, seemed
formidable enough even without factoring in Philadelphia's
For Game 4 the Flyers' team bus had a siren-wailing police
escort to the Joe from the team hotel a half mile away. Maybe
Detroit's finest just wanted to be sure Hextall showed up.
Lidstrom put a 58-footer through his legs with 32.1 seconds left
in the first period--the Red Wings scored five of their 16 goals
in the series during the first two or last two minutes of a
period--and the Flyers, despite playing their one creditable
match, were finished. Just like Detroit's 42-year drought.