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 of those years, a lifetime for an athlete. He had come to Detroit as an 18-year-old so polite that he once apologized to the penalty box gatekeeper for using profanity. When he was 21, the franchise that had missed the playoffs for 16 of the previous 20 seasons slapped a C on his jersey. Over the years Yzerman became a part of the city the way Al Kaline and Joe Dumars and Barry Sanders had. He lived through the era of the Dead Things; the revival of the late 1980s; the playoff disappointments of the '90s, when it seemed as if the Red Wings might be the best team never to win a Cup; and the rumors early in '95-96 that he might be traded to the Ottawa Senators. Hey, that's hockey. If you played for Detroit long enough, you would see it all.
All but this. Yzerman was slowly circling the ice at Joe Louis Arena on a perfect June evening 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 any of the 19,983 fans in the arena. He was taking his sweet time, not only to avoid the confetti on the ice but also because he wanted to make the moment last. The Stanley Cup weighs about 35 pounds, and who knows how much it weighs 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."
On June 6, 1997, a day before the Red Wings finished off Philadelphia, Yzerman had talked only about the preparations for Game 4. Privately, however, he thought about which teammate he might pass the Cup to after he took the first run. Yzerman made an inspired choice, handing it off to Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov, two of the grandest players of this or any generation, who skated together in a moment as poignant as Yzerman's stately victory lap. The choice was special because it reminded those xenophobes in the hockey community who cling to the notion that Russian players don't care about the Stanley Cup that, yes, in fact, they do.
In this stirring, celebratory relay, Fetisov and Larionov passed the Cup to Detroit coach Scotty Bowman, a man who reveres it so much that he named one of his sons Stanley. For Yzerman, holding Lord Stanley's Cup was a recurring dream, but for Bowman it was a recurring reality. This was Bowman's seventh Stanley Cup as a coach--he is the only coach to have won it with three teams--and each has a special place in his heart. This time, however, Bowman donned his skates and took the Cup for a spin. Surely no coach had ever ditched brogues for blades before, but Bowman has always been an innovator. On June 7 a 63-year-old laced 'em up and became a boy again.
Left wing Brendan 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 with this expression: "Aye-yi-yi-yi-yi." It isn't much as expressions go, but then Philadelphia didn't play much of a series. Defenseman Eric Desjardins uttered that exclamation, give or take a yi, 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 Joey Kocur, a beer-league refugee who has the shooting touch of a stevedore, had scored one more goal than Philly star Eric Lindros; and only two Flyers, Rod Brind'Amour and John LeClair, had even put the puck in the net.
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, but the Wings responded impressively when Yzerman drifted into the slot and banged home a pass from Slava Kozlov two minutes later, and Sergei Fedorov stripped defenseman Karl Dykhuis and rattled a goal in off Hextall's glove two minutes after that. If Philadelphia were to get back into the series, it would have had to come on a five-on-three advantage it held for 80 seconds. The Flyers, however, played the advantage like 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 to center ice. The Wings didn't allow a shot on goal.
Murray and Lindros had spoken animatedly at practice the day after Detroit's 4-2 victory in Game 1. That game was decided by Yzerman's 59-foot slap shot past Hextall in the first minute of the third period, which kneecapped a Flyers comeback. Lindros played just 23 minutes in Game 1, and his Legion of Doom line was on the ice for barely a minute of the final 6:30 in the first period. It seemed as if Murray was unduly concerned with 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. Letting the nastiest blueliner in the NHL sit, 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 stifle Philadelphia's vaunted forechecking.