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SI Flashback: Stanley Cup 1997

Detroit over Philadelphia in four games
Conn Smythe winner: Mike Vernon, Detroit

The Red Wings swept to their first Stanley Cup in 42 years by outskating, outhitting and outplaying the overmatched Flyers

By Michael Farber

  1997 Commemorative Issue 1997 Commemorative Issue David E. Klutho
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 registered trademark.

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 ...


The choking incident
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 Murray .. 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, Hextall and 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 mot juste.

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 ...

"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." ...

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 ...

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.

Bowman's moment
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 boy again.

"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.

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 coach Scotty 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."

Bowman surprised Flyers coach Terry 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.

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 ... 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 ... 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," Red Wings associate coach Dave Lewis said. "And hit him when he didn't."

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 defenseman.

Murray returned to Ron Hextall in Game 3 -- he said that starting Garth 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 dumbfounding complicity.

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.

They said it ...

"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."

Issue date: June 16, 1997