Published March 31, 2017
It began with a 25 year-old captain.
The underdog Red Wings were up on the heavily favored St. Louis Blues, 3-1, in a first round best-of-seven playoff series. It was the spring of 1991.
Stevie Yzerman was back in the playoffs, this time as a seasoned young veteran. His previous foray into spring hockey came as a young 21 year-old, rookie captain. The Red Wings shocked the hockey world with back-to-back conference finals appearances in 1987 and 1988.
A bitter first round loss occurred in 1989. The next year, the Red Wings missed the playoffs entirely.
But here were Yzerman and the Red Wings, on the verge of a remarkable upset of the Brett Hull-led Blues in 1991.
They say the fourth win of a playoff series is the hardest to get, especially for the team not favored.
It was true in 1991. So, so true.
The Blues got off the mat and won three straight from Detroit to advance. Yzerman was just 25 but had already experienced six playoff failures. His quest for a championship was still looked at as a foolish one.
That’s when The Streak began.
Little did anyone know back in 1991 that the Red Wings would be annual participants in the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament for the next 24 seasons. Certainly even Yzerman himself wouldn’t have dreamed of it.
What follows are random thoughts that come to mind to this hockey oldtimer, yours truly, culled from the memory banks.
My memories, though, go much further back than 1991. I’ve followed the Red Wings since 1970, but to give you a rundown of the slapstick hockey in Detroit for much of the 1970s and 1980s would be another column entirely.
So we’ll stick to the years between 1991-2016, seeing as how the Red Wings have officially been eliminated from playoff competition this spring.
The Red Wings finished 29 points behind the Blues in the regular season. Their first round series was supposed to be short and sweet for the Blues.
But then the Red Wings jumped out to that 3-1 lead and fans in Detroit got giddy.
Alas, the fourth win never came.
The Blues showed the Wings who was boss, winning the final three games by an aggregate score of 12-3.
Bryan Murray, hired the prior summer as coach/GM, carried with him to Detroit the stigma of his Washington Capitals teams under performing in the playoffs.
It happened again.
Murray was behind the bench again. It was the first round again.
The Red Wings made a daring deal in mid-season, acquiring future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey from the Kings.
Murray’s team managed 103 points and so had the home ice advantage over Toronto, who finished with 99 points.
But after winning the first two games in Detroit, the Wings saw the Leafs rattle off three straight wins, including in overtime in Game 5 in Detroit.
But the Red Wings demolished the Leafs, 7-3 in Toronto in Game 6.
Then, in overtime in Game 7, Nikolai Borschevsky happened.
Borschevsky was standing alone in front of Red Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae, and deflected home a shot by Bob Rouse from the blue line.
The Captain was at a loss.
“I really don’t know what to say right now,” Yzerman said softly, his voice shaken, to reporters in a silent Red Wings dressing room.
It was about to get much, much worse the following year.
Murray, stripped of his coaching duties, was still the Red Wings GM. And in an attempt to upgrade the team in goal, Murray called the Winnipeg Jets and swapped goalie for goalie—Cheveldae for MSU alum Bob Essensa.
It was a colossal failure.
Essensa was awful for the Red Wings in the playoffs, despite a first round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks.
Essensa was so bad that coach Scotty Bowman went with 21 year-old rookie Chris Osgood for Game 7 of a series that the Red Wings were supposed to breeze through.
Osgood, late in a tied Game 7, made an iconic mistake, leaving his cage to try to clear the puck along the boards. Moments later, Jamie Baker fired the disc into the open net before Osgood could make it back in time.
If 1993 was bitter, 1994 was gut-wrenching, especially for the kid goalie Osgood, who spoke to reporters through tears afterward.
The Essensa trade was Bryan Murray’s desperate gamble that backfired. And it cost Murray his job.
The left wing lock. The wink from the bench.
Those images are poison to Red Wings fans.
The New Jersey Devils came into existence in 1982, having been transplanted from Denver, where they were known as the Colorado Rockies. And for many years, the Devils were a league joke.
“They’re a Mickey Mouse organization,” Wayne Gretzky once said of the Devils.
But by 1995, the Devils had emerged as a league stalwart, and they met the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals—the first finals appearance by Detroit in 30 years.
The series lasted just four games. But it was the longest, most excruciating sweep in Red Wings fans’ history.
The Devils played that annoying, exasperating left wing lock, and stifled the Red Wings’ vaunted offense for much of the series.
New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens plastered Detroit’s Slava Kozlov in Game 2 in Detroit, knocking Kozlov silly. The hit was devastating, yet clean.
Moments later, Stevens was caught by the TV cameras on the Devils bench, smirking and winking at the Wings bench. The message was clear: “Keep your head up, or you’re next.”
Sixty-two wins. Thirteen losses. Seven ties.
The Red Wings set a new NHL record for league supremacy. They broke that of Bowman’s 1977 Canadiens team.
But in the playoffs, life was much harder for Detroit.
They went just 10-9. It took them 82 games to lose 13 in the regular season, and just 19 to lose nine in the playoffs.
The season ended in Game 6 of the conference finals in Denver. Claude Lemieux had destroyed Kris Draper into the boards earlier in the game, rearranging Draper’s face. The assault earned Lemieux an ejection.
But there was Lemieux on the ice afterward, celebrating with his Avalanche teammates.
Dino Ciccarelli minced no words in the Red Wings locker room after the series was over.
“I can’t believe I shook that bleep’s hand,” Dino said with disdain.
A new rivalry, maybe the best in NHL history, was born.
Joey Kocur whispered into Brendan Shanahan’s ear.
“This is great, but the next one is even better,” Kocur told Shanny.
The brawling Kocur was playing in a beer league in December of 1996 when the Red Wings called him. In 1994, Kocur won a Cup with the New York Rangers.
Kocur got into shape and joined the Wings in January. As usual, Joey brought his fists and his tremendous strength to the party. I never saw Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Ever.
Shanahan scored the empty net goal that clinched the Western Conference finals over the hated Avalanche.
In the celebration on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, Kocur, with that ’94 Cup under his belt, whispered his words of wisdom to Shanahan about how a conference trophy compares to the Stanley Cup.
Four games later, the Wings ended their 42-year Cup drought.
The former Red Wings defenseman was wheeled onto the ice in Washington in his chair. A cigar was thrust into his hand.
About a year after the horrific limousine crash that ended the career and dramatically changed the life of Vladdy Konstantinov, no. 16 joined his teammates in their revelry. The Stanley Cup, won yet again, was placed onto his lap by captain Yzerman.
The Red Wings roster was a treasure trove of elite NHL talent. Hall of Famers left and right. Guys like Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille signed on in the summer of 2001 with the expressed intent of winning the Stanley Cup. GM Ken Holland traded for superstar goalie Dominik Hasek before the season.
And of course, there was Yzerman and Shanahan and Lidstrom and the legendary Bowman behind the bench.
So what do the Red Wings do?
They lose the first two games of their first round series to the stinking Vancouver Canucks in Detroit.
In Game 3 in Vancouver, Lidstrom fired a shot from center ice. And it went in.
The series turned, like a worm.
The Wings survived the Canucks in six games, then went on to a Game 6 in the conference finals in Denver, trailing the Avalanche, 3-2.
The game was famous for goalie Patrick Roy’s Statue of Liberty move, which turned into a goal for Shanahan, which helped lift the Wings to a victory.
Game 7 in Detroit was a blowout for the Red Wings, and a couple weeks later, another Cup was won after five games against the Carolina Hurricanes.
An early playoff disaster was averted, big time.
Curtis Joseph hungered for a Cup.
The brilliant goalie was nearing the end of a storied career when he inked a big contract with the Red Wings not long after Detroit’s 2002 Cup victory. Hasek had retired, leaving a huge void between the pipes.
But in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, the Red Wings simply couldn’t muster any offense against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who were coached by a guy named Mike Babcock.
The Red Wings found themselves down 3-0 in the series, and Game 4 in Anaheim went into overtime.
The Ducks won it, and Joseph collapsed to his knees in the crease, in disbelief. It wasn’t supposed to be like this when he signed with the Red Wings. A first round exit? A sweep? To the Ducks?
The Red Wings weren’t the only quacks against the Ducks, who advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Cup Finals before losing to New Jersey.
I closed my laptop and stuck it back into its pouch. Dozens of fellow journalists stood up with me in the press box at Joe Louis Arena, prepared to venture to ice level to watch the Red Wings be presented with the Stanley Cup. I was covering the Finals games in Detroit for Bleacher Report.
The Red Wings led the finals series against Pittsburgh, 3-1, and led Game 5, 3-2, with less than a minute to play.
There were 34.3 seconds left on the clock when the Penguins’ Max Talbot jammed home a rebound past Chris Osgood, tying the game.
The Stanley Cup was put back into its case. The slew of writers and I sat back down and pulled our laptops back out, preparing for overtime.
How about three overtimes?
Veteran Petr Sykora ended the game and sent the series back to Pittsburgh.
It was a tired but determined group of Red Wings in the locker room after the game. I asked my share of “What happened?” questions then drove home, well past 1 a.m, wondering if I’d just witnessed the beginning of an epic collapse.
No fear—the Red Wings won the Cup in Pittsburgh less than 48 hours later.
But I didn’t get to see it happen in person.
It’s a year after the disappointment of Game 5 in Detroit. The Wings and the Penguins are again meeting in the Cup Finals. Again I’m covering the games in Detroit, this time as an independent journalist.
And again I have a chance to see the Red Wings win the Cup on home ice.
And again it doesn’t happen.
The series is tied, 3-3 and the Red Wings and the Penguins are in a fierce battle on the ice. In the press box, the tension is palpable as well. Writers aren’t sure what angles to pursue.
Max Talbot, again, plays the role of villain in Detroit.
Talbot scores twice, and it’s enough to carry the Pens to a 2-1 win. The game ends with a flurry in front of Fleury—Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who is a brick wall while the Red Wings frantically fire the puck at the net in the final seconds.
But I do get to see the Stanley Cup paraded around the ice, even if it was by the wrong team.
I get sprayed with some champagne on the ice, and shove my voice recorder into the faces of Fleury, coach Dan Bielsma and owner Mario Lemieux. My friend Greg Shamus, a sports photographer working for the Penguins, does his thing nearby. Grizzled veteran forward Billy Guerin tells me that he’s just played his last game and will retire. A scoop.
Later, the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) sits on a card table in the Penguins dressing room. Its winner, Evgeny Malkin, sits a few feet away by himself, sipping some juice. It’s an oddly quiet, surreal, simple scene.
I sit down next to Malkin and we chat casually. The playoffs MVP with his trophy, and me. Only in hockey.
Again I drive home late at night, wondering “what if?” but still honored to have been personal witness to one of sport’s most hallowed traditions—the skating around the ice of the Stanley Cup by the winners.
I’m not including anything from these years because they were mostly anti-climactic and devoid of drama, save for 2013, when the Red Wings jumped out to a 3-1 conference semi-finals lead over the Chicago Blackhawks before capitulating, losing Game 7 in Chicago in overtime.
Most of 2010-2016 was spent making the playoffs for playoffs sake. Usually the Red Wings were drummed out in the first round.
The 25-year playoff streak started with a 25 year-old captain. It ends with Joe Louis Arena itself, which shutters its doors soon.
Before and between the four Cups won between 1997 and 2008, there was drama, heartbreak, emotional roller coasters and pulsating moments on the ice. The Red Wings won a ton of playoff series, but also lost a lot of them as well, many times as favorites.
There were some long summers but also ones filled with celebration until the next training camp.
In 2010, Shanahan told me about life as a hockey player during the playoffs.
“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”
Throughout the streak, there were Hall of Famers on the ice and behind the bench. The parade of hockey stars that passed through Detroit is mind boggling.
It was a grand time.