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 pass�. So we suggest a more piquant symbol of Detroit's Stanley Cup communion—the Jimmy Skinner pepper.
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 grow together."
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 center?"
Not another center. This center. The multi-skilled 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 mid-season—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.