Steve Yzerman hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time 25 years ago on this date, and the Detroit Red Wings drained the demons of past playoff disappointments, ending a 42-year championship drought.
The Red Wings defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 at Joe Louis Arena to complete the Cup Final sweep. It has been a quarter century, but memories of that night and the two-month run leading up to it remain fresh for those who experienced it.
“I remember the last shift, clock ticking down, puck going in the corner and Vladdy kind of falling on it to keep it in the corner and the final buzzer going off and the celebration, everyone jumping on the ice,” Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings vice president of hockey operations, said last week.
“I remember everyone jumping on Vernie in the net and the whole Joe went nuts, (confetti) falling from the ceiling, everyone coming on the ice, even family members. Just the incredible feeling of finally being able to get over the hump and win the Stanley Cup.”
The Red Wings won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1995, only to get swept in the Final by New Jersey. They won an NHL-record 62 games in 1995-96, only to lose to Colorado in the Western Conference finals.
The 1996-97 team didn’t even win its division, finishing fifth overall. But it brought the city its first Cup since 1955.
“It felt like the lid blew off 40-plus years of frustration,” said Larry Murphy, a defenseman on that team and current analyst for Bally Sports Detroit. “I remember the moment it was finally over, just a huge, incredible sense of accomplishment and pure pandemonium. In the dressing room after the game there were so many people in there the mirrors in the bathroom were totally fogged. I don’t think I got out of my equipment until about four hours after the game. It was just pure celebration for hours.”
It continued at a private party at Big Daddy’s in West Bloomfield.
“I didn’t get home until the sun was up,” Murphy said. “At that point, finally the exhaustion set in.”
The 1996-97 Red Wings had an ideal mix of elite talent (Yzerman, Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Vladimir Konstantinov) and grit (Grind Liners Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby). Goaltender Mike Vernon, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, arrived two years before in a trade. Seven players would go on to the Hockey Hall of Fame (Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fedorov, Shanahan, Murphy, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov).
Owner Mike Ilitch hired Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, in 1993 to get the team on the top, and he delivered in his fourth season.
“When Scotty came, we really bought into playing solid team defense, playing well in our own zone and jumping on opportunities in the offensive zone,” Lidstrom said. “We had the skill to score goals, but we beared down and played solid defensively when it really mattered.”
Said Murphy: “The team evolved during the latter part of the season and into the playoffs. I wouldn’t say we felt invincible, but we felt there was a destiny, and everything was falling into place for us.”
After eliminating the Blues, Mighty Ducks and Avalanche, the Flyers were supposed to be their toughest challenge. They finished with nine more points and boasted the big Legion of Doom line, with 1995 Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros centering John LeClair and Mikael Renberg.
The Red Wings won the opener 3-2 in Philadelphia and were never really threatened in the series.
“I think we caught them by surprise,” Murphy said. “The Legion of Doom was basically going to run right over us. That wasn’t the case. We played a strong road game. It didn’t surprise us at all. Our depth showed in Game 1. We had a much deeper team than the Flyers. We were at our best at that point.
“We felt like we could have played them 10 games and we would have beat them every time. After the Colorado victory, there was no stopping us.”
Matchups played a huge role, Lidstrom said.
“Going into the Final, a lot of people thought we were going to match up Vladdy against Lindros and it’s going to be a real tough battle, with Vladdy being the great player he was he could hit guys and play physical hockey,” Lidstrom said. “Scotty decided to go with me and Larry Murphy instead, not physical guys but players who could move the puck. Our strategy was to go back in our own zone quick and make a good first outlet pass to not spend a lot of time in our zone, especially against their line, being big, strong guys that can cycle the puck and really make it hard on you defensively.
“I thought Murph and I did a great job of going back, moving the puck, getting it out of our zone quick and not spending a lot of time down there. I thought that frustrated them in a way, too. They expected players to play physical against them. They could use their physical presence to their advantage. Murph and I didn’t play that style, we were more defending with our sticks.”
The Red Wings went on to win the Cup again in 1998, 2002 and 2008.
“It’s something that until you do it, you really have no idea how special that feels,” Murphy, who previously won two Cups in Pittsburgh, said. “I always feel bad for guys that played the game and never got that opportunity because you’re definitely missing out on something.”
Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano was the team’s general manager when the core of Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom and Konstantinov were drafted in the ‘80s. When he was hired as GM in 1982, Devellano vowed the team would win a Cup in eight years.
“For me, it was relief because we finally completed what I set out to do 15 years earlier,” Devellano said. “I can’t speak for Mike and Marian, but I bet it was a relief for them, too. Fifteen years … it shows you how hard it is. It was overdue, but we got it done. The good news is it happened a few more times.”
The Red Wings are planning to honor the 1997 Cup-winning team during a reunion early next season.
Where are they now?
What members of the 1996-97 Stanley Cup champion Red Wings are doing now:
Doug Brown: Founder and managing partner of Trinity Global Partners, a financial and technology management consulting firm.
Kris Draper: Red Wings director of amateur scouting.
Sergei Fedorov: Coach of CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Tomas Holmstrom: Divides time between his native Sweden and metro Detroit. Helps coach son’s youth team.
Joe Kocur: President of the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association and runs the Joe Kocur Foundation for Children.
Slava Kozlov: Recently an assistant coach for Spartak Moscow of the KHL.
Mike Knuble: Assistant coach for Grand Rapids Griffins.
Martin Lapointe: Montreal Canadiens director of player personnel.
Igor Larionov: Head coach of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the KHL.
Kirk Maltby: Red Wings pro scout.
Darren McCarty: Serves as sort of an ambassador for Red Wings, making appearances and playing in alumni games.
Tomas Sandstrom: Works as a firefighter in Sweden.
Brendan Shanahan: Toronto Maple Leafs president.
Tim Taylor: St. Louis Blues director of player development and pro scout.
Steve Yzerman: Red Wings general manager.
Mathieu Dandenault: Recently was an analyst for French Canadian TVA Sports.
Anders Eriksson: Co-founder of Florida Kings Hockey Club, non-profit dedicated to developing hockey players.
Slava Fetisov: Member of Russia’s parliament.
Vladimir Konstantinov: Living in metro Detroit, requiring 24-hour care due to injuries sustained in 1997 limousine accident.
Nicklas Lidstrom: Red Wings vice president of hockey operations.
Larry Murphy: Bally Sports Detroit studio analyst for Red Wings.
Jamie Pushor: Tampa Bay Lightning assistant general manager and director of player personnel.
Bob Rouse: No word on what he’s up to after coaching the Chilliwack Bruins of the British Columbia Hockey League before the team folded.
Aaron Ward: Works for sports media technology company SMT.
Kevin Hodson: Works as a financial advisor in Ontario.
Chris Osgood: Bally Sports Detroit studio analyst for Red Wings.
Mike Vernon: Works in real estate development in British Columbia.
Head coach Scotty Bowman: Chicago Blackhawks senior advisor for hockey operations.
Associate coach Dave Lewis: Was head coach of Belarus national team until dismissal in 2018.
Associate coach Barry Smith: Was head coach of Djurgardens of Swedish Hockey League until dismissal in 2021.