Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Detroit Red Wings - 1996-98
One on One Turning Point

Detroit Red Wings - 1996-98

11 JUNE 2015
Steve Yzerman led the Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998. (Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The city of Detroit had endured a four-decade drought, having last won the Stanley Cup in the dynasty years of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk in 1955. Hopes were exceptionally high in 1993-94 when Scotty Bowman was hired to helm a team that included sensational forwards Sergei Fedorov (120 points), Ray Sheppard (93 points), Steve Yzerman (82 points), Slava Kozlov (73 points) and Keith Primeau (73 points). Bob Probert was there to ride shotgun. The defence included Steve Chiasson, Paul Coffey, Mark Howe, Vladimir Konstantinov and Nicklas Lidstrom. In goal the team was backstopped by Chris Osgood and Tim Cheveldae. The team finished first in their division and fourth overall with 100 points. But they were stopped dead in their tracks by the San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the playoffs.

Russian star Igor Larionov was the first player captain Steve Yzerman handed the Stanley Cup to in 1997. (David E. Klutho/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The lock-out shortened 1994-95 season saw most of the same stars stepping up to produce, and Osgood and newly acquired Mike Vernon were solid in goal. The team finished first overall with 70 points in the 48-game season, and they pushed through to the Stanley Cup Final, but the emerging Wings were no match for the New Jersey Devils, who swept them to collect the Stanley Cup.

Brendan Shanahan celebrates with the Stanley Cup. (Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Scotty Bowman experienced an epiphany when Igor Larionov, who arrived that season in a trade with the Sharks, explained that many Soviet teams successfully employed five-man units where the forward line was matched with a defensive pair and the five performed together regularly. In 1995-96, Bowman instituted a quintet of Sergei Fedorov centring Igor Larionov on the right side and Vyacheslav Kozlov on the left wing, joined by Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov on defense. The unit came to be tagged the 'Russian Five,' and they revolutionized the game for Detroit. The five-man unit was led by the speed and skill of Serge Fedorov. Steve Yzerman, no slouch himself, stated, "Sergei is a game-breaker for us anytime he's on the ice. He's the most talented player I've ever seen." The five accounted for 117 goals and 327 points, led by Fedorov's 107 points. Meanwhile, Steve Yzerman contributed 95 points and Paul Coffey, from the blueline, 74. The team finished first overall with 131 points (62 wins, 13 losses and 7 ties), but again, were stymied in their chase for the Stanley Cup. They were eliminated by the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final.

Though badly injured in a car accident, defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov was on hand to celebrate the Red Wings 1998 Stanley Cup title. (Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
In 1996-97, Detroit added Brendan Shanahan from Hartford, surrendering Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau and a draft pick, but the trade had significant implications for the Wings. Shanahan led the team in goals (46) and points (87) that season. They also plucked defenceman Larry Murphy from the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he was booed unmercifully in his home rink. Murphy added an offensive touch from the blueline and a veteran's experience and proved to be a valuable acquisition.

Defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom helped the Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998. (Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Red Wings finished second in the Central Division with 94 points in 1996-97. While some chastised the team for not finishing first again, it appeared to be a blessing in disguise, as the push for regular season dominance seemed to zap the team of its energy in the post-season. Things were different during the spring of 1997. They rolled through the playoffs, defeating the St. Louis Blues, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Colorado Avalanche in the first three rounds and then met the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final. It took the minimum four games to claim the Stanley Cup. After 42 years without a championship, the city of Detroit could again celebrate! Fedorov,
Steve Yzerman hoists the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1998. (Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Shanahan and Yzerman were all but unstoppable, but it was Mike Vernon who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

The celebration turned tragic. During a celebration, Vladimir Konstantinov suffered a brain injury when the limousine he was in was in a terrible accident. His career came to an abrupt end.

The Red Wings dedicated the 1997-98 season to their fallen teammate. The core four - Kozlov, Larionov, Shanahan and Yzerman - led the way again, and Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy contributed significantly. Mike Vernon was replaced as the regular Wings netminder by Chris Osgood. The Wings finished second in the Central again, this time finishing with 103 points. Detroit returned to the Stanley Cup Final again, and swept the Washington Capitals for the victory. When captain Steve Yzerman was handed the Stanley Cup by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he turned and placed the Cup into the arms of wheelchair-bound Konstantinov.

It had been a long, painful wait for Detroit, but the personnel moves made by the team helped erase the painful memories of an era when the Detroit team was tagged 'the Dead Things.' It's amazing what back-to-back Stanley Cup championships can do for a franchise.

1997 Stanley Cup Championship photo.
(Doug MacLellan/Hockey Hall of Fame)
1998 Stanley Cup Championship photo.
(Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.