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The Malik Report

Imma let you finish, LA, but fifteen years ago, the Red Wings won their first Cup of the modern era

This feels like a Kanye West post, but the Detroit Free Press’s posting of a Mitch Albom article recalling the morning of Game 4 against the Philadelphia Flyers some 15 years ago for one Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman gave us all a heavy hint that, over the next couple of weeks, Detroit’s press outlets will remember what was the Wings’ first Cup in 42 years and their first of four captured over the course of 11 seasons, the pent-up excitement which let loose in a hockey town which would slowly but surely earn its self-titled moniker…

And of course, the fact that the celebration lasted for all of seven days before Detroit stopped on a dime and went into hope-and-pray mode when Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov were severely injured in a limo accident.

For now, and tonight, we’re going to ignore the lingering sting and very real grieving process so many of us Wings fans are going through thanks to Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement, and we’re even going to put aside the fact that WDIV, WXYZ and WWJ made evening news hay about the fact that Darren McCarty just wants to celebrate this 15th anniversary alone...

Because Fox Sports Detroit has posted a massive special section on their website commemorating the 97 Cup win, including highlights, a photo gallery and reminisces from several Fox Sports Detroit contributors, including Dave Hogg recalling the opportunity to take a drink out of the Stanley Cup the night the Wings won their first of the modern era, a proper introduction to a time when we didn’t have Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to share our memories, just bulletin boards and forums and a couple dozen websites as opposed to the sea of bandwidth today…

Detroit Red Wings car flags. The scaled-down, logo-sporting banners—seen rarely in recent years—seemed to hang from the side windows of at least every other car driving throughout Metro Detroit on June 7, 1997. It looked like the world’s longest funeral procession, but these red-and-white flags had the opposite meaning.

The Wings weren’t dead. Not even close. It was the other guys, the Philadelphia Flyers, who were a dead team skating.

And this city was ready to celebrate big time. It had waited more than four decades to see the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup, had endured a sweep at the hands of New Jersey in the 1995 Cup finals and an early elimination by the Colorado in the 1996 Western Conference finals.

Detroit had watched its beloved captain, Steve Yzerman, suffer through disappointment after disappointment. Everybody with a heart in this city wanted to watch Yzerman finally hoist the Cup over his head and take a victory lap with it around Joe Louis Arena.

So they flew their Red Wings car flags in anticipation, like kids hang their stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.

Santa came that night in the form of an over-sized silver chalice, and the flags continued to fly all summer long in celebration.

Art Regner recalling his heyday as a radio host for WDFN—when sports radio was literally where you got all your news that wasn’t on at 7 AM, noon, 5-and-6 or 11 or in the Free Press or News—and the Wings’ long ride to the Cup, series by series, and all-night radio show included (and he didn’t write a column as much as a book chapter)...

My program director at WDFN, Gregg Henson, told me that if the Wings won it, I could stay on the air for as long as I wanted and then throw it to syndicated programing. My response was, “Greggor, if a Detroit team wins a world championship, I will not toss to syndicated programming. As long as there’s one fan who wants to celebrate and talk about it, I’m going to stay on. That’s what radio is all about.”

Henson gave me his blessing, saying, “Hey, if you want to stay on, go ahead. The next local show is at 10 a.m. Sunday morning.”

That’s what I did. After the Wings beat the Flyers, 2-1, in Game 4 to win their first Cup in more than four decades, I pulled an all-nighter. What a great experience. I had fans calling from bars, house parties and street celebrations. They called to praise the Wings for their play and their fans for the ongoing joyous, yet peaceful celebration.

Several Red Wings players called throughout the show, too, but my favorite calls were from Marty Lapointe, who checked in four times—each time “happier” and “happier.”

During his first call, Lapointe told me how surprised he was when he first picked up the Stanley Cup because it was heavier than he thought it would be.  By the time Lapointe called back for the fourth time, I was running out of things to talk to him about. It’s sometimes difficult to talk to a person when they’re really, really “happy.”

Thinking fast, I brought up how heavy the Stanley Cup felt, and Lapointe responded, “I don’t care how bleeping heavy it is. We just won the bleeping Stanley Cup.”

According to Regner, WDFN used to play this little ditty from Dan Yessian every time a caller would hang up with, “Go Wings!”

When McCarty scored…

And the Wings ended up lifting the Cup, Steve Yzerman chose to hand the Cup to men who are grieving today in Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov (KLM line winger Vladimir Krutov passed away this morning at 52 years of age), who carried the Cup together and, as Dave Dye suggests, ensured that the Russian Five would be beloved in a hockey city that would never check a player’s birth certificate or proof of citizenship again:

“We’ve been together for 20 years,” Fetisov said of Larionov during the post-game celebration. “We’ve won so many championships. I say, ‘Igor, we have to get the Cup together.’”

Europeans often were criticized for not having the same passion as North American players to give everything it takes during a long, grueling grind to win a Stanley Cup.

But there was no doubt on a late Saturday night in 1997 that this meant so very much to Fetisov and Larionov, part of the Red Wings’ famous Russian Five.

“I tried not to think about this the last few days,” Fetisov said at the time. “When I did, my knees started to shake. I longed for this moment for a long time.”

Maybe not as long as some Red Wings fans, who hadn’t celebrated a championship in 42 years, but long enough to know that there’s no better toast than to drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

But seven days later, as FSD’s Dana Wakiji notes, after she’d interviewed Vladimir Konstantinov, who Wings fans called “the Vladinator,” but his teammates called “Grandpa”...

Later during the celebration, we finally found Vladimir Konstantinov, who was not only deliriously happy, but also looked absolutely spent. You could tell he had given everything he had out on the ice. TV crews and reporters followed the Wings as the celebration continued through the night.

After the parade and the wonderful on-ice celebration, where Konstantinov put on a pair of sunglasses and promised that he’d be back…

Then the Red Wings were feted three days later in a parade down Woodward Avenue, culminating in a rally at Hart Plaza. It was amazing to see the red convertibles carrying the Wings and their families amidst a sea of red and white clad fans who lined the streets. Reporters gathered back at Joe Louis Arena after the parade as the team returned there to have lunch and take the annual team photo with the Stanley Cup.

It took seemingly forever before they finished. We waited outside the door to the dressing room and finally Konstantinov opened the door, saw the crowd and then closed the door immediately, joking around. That was the playful side of Konstantinov’s personality that you didn’t see on the ice. Konstantinov came back out and talked about the parade and all the fans and how much fun they all were having.

We all know why the Wings won the Cup in 98, and why the whole organization was so spent afterward:

On June 13, just six days after winning the Cup, Konstantinov took part in a team golf outing and dinner. He, Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov shared a limousine that was supposed to take them home safely.

Instead, driver Richard Gnida fell asleep at the wheel. Although the men in the back recognized something was wrong and tried to pound on the window to get Gnida’s attention, it was too late. The car went across three lanes of traffic on Woodward, up a curb and struck a tree. Fetisov had chest and lung injuries but was otherwise fine. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were not so lucky. Both suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Larionov, who along with Slava Kozlov, Fedorov, Konstantinov and Fetisov made up the Russian Five, was originally supposed to be in the limo but opted not to attend when one of his daughters asked him to stay home. It was a shame that a celebration that was supposed to last the entire summer was overshadowed by the crash that ended the careers of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, who was partially paralyzed.

Konstantinov is now able to get around with a walker and help from his aide, and has even taken up art as part of his therapy. He still comes to some Wings games and was there during the playoffs this past season. It’s good to see him but it always makes you wonder what might have been had that accident never happened.

Wakiji says she cried when she heard the news. I remember being at Meijer in Canton with my best pal Mike, buying the Sports Illustrated magazine that had Kirk Maltby on the cover, and hearing the news, then rushing home to find out what had happened, hearing awful things on the radio.

I will say this much: if Vladdie had been able to continue to play, the Wings would have had a Chris Chelios in his prime, and I fully believe that we would be talking about five or six-time champions today.

But I am grateful for that first Cup, the one that meant so much to Nick, so much to the Wings, the city, the state, everyone who counts themselves as a citizen of Hockeytown, even if they didn’t join the bandwagon until there were Cups in the bank, and I hope that someday soon, the team will be flying Nick Lidstrom in from Sweden to earn a fifth ring as an ambassador or some sort of other sort of member of an organization that did fifteen years ago…

What the Kings will do tonight.

Because once your team has won the Cup, anything less is failure, and four years since your team’s last Cup, and three since they last had a Stanley Cup Final sniff, is far too long.

I drank out of it in 2008, thanks to Chris Osgood, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios, Jimmy Howard, Derek Meech and the dummy who would soon drop it, Brett Lebda, at Cheli’s Chili, and I want all of you to know what that feels and tastes like, because I’m not only allergic to alcohol, but also hate beer…

And I’ve never tasted anything sweeter than Bud Light out of a Cup I’d been sharing with two hundred people, shoving men and women in front of me, making sure that everyone got a swig in an orderly fashion, until the second-to-last time the Cup went around the bar, when Ozzie nearly drenched me in beer.

We need that in this city again, as soon as Kenny Holland, Jim Nill and the Wings’ current players can make it happen. Once, twice, three times, four, it’s never enough.

Over the next few days, Fox Sports Detroit, the Free Press, Detroit News, MLive I’m sure and other outlets will help us relive where we were when the Wings won their first Cup of the expansion era, but I can’t help but suggest that reminiscing on wins past and sitting on one’s happy laurels aren’t enough in this town.

And the worst feeling in the world is going to happen tonight, when some other team lifts a Cup you believe belongs to you, and you believe is “home” in your city and only your city once your team has laid claim to it.

So as a partisan Red Wings fan and someone born in the City of Detroit and raised in Garden City, dammit, Kenny, dammit, boys, make sure you bring it home next time this year.

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Red Winger's avatar

Amazing, amazing memories.

Posted by Red Winger from Sault Ste Marie, MI on 06/06/12 at 11:10 PM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

I remember working downtown Detroit in ‘98 at a small internet startup and hearing out of the window this fanfare; which you generally didn’t hear down there at the time.  Comerica Park was still a dust lot.  It was around late lunchtime so I said what the hey and went down to check it out.  I wandered smack dab into the parade, just as the team’s starting to go by.  Had no idea it was going on that day.  That was a fun time.

Posted by Hippy Dave from Portland by way of Detroit on 06/07/12 at 03:25 AM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.