I grew up in Michigan’s Downriver area, just a quick stone’s throw from downtown Detroit. Now a member of the Armed Forces, I still proudly call the Detroit area my home.
Naturally, I have supported the Detroit Red Wings nearly my entire life. Many of my earliest of memories stem from them terribly played, bar brawl years in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were Detroit’s arch-rivals then. The Wings did not like the Chicago Black Hawks and the New York Rangers much, either, putting things mildly (See New York Times article on ‘92 brawl at Madison Square Garden for example).
For Wings fans, it seemed like every time we turned on our fuzzy TVs with aluminum foil antennas, Bob Probert, Joey Kocur, Gerard Gallant, Basil McRae and Lee Norwood were taking turns in the penalty box.
Five minutes for quarreling with Tie Domi. Game misconduct for warring with Wendel Clark, Wings’ fans thanked their lucky stars for phenom Steve Yzerman. For it was this center’s exciting play on the ice that made games more than just a boxing match.
In the meantime, Ken Holland, who had served as a Western scout for Detroit, had begun his climb up the Red Wings’ organizational ladder, as the club looked to build for the future.
In 1990, two years after Detroit lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Finals, a young Russian defected from the Soviet Union and joined the Red Wings—just as the Berlin Wall was coming down in Germany.
It was very hard for Wings’ fans to not be immediately impressed with Fedorov. First, he could flat fly on skates. Boy, could Fedorov skate. More impressively, Fedorov took just as much pride in playing defense as he did scoring goals.
And a lot of goals he scored.
Fedorov represented a changing of the guard in Detroit. With the additions of Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, the same club that once prided itself on winning fist fights, had begun to emerge as a team defined by spectacular skill and unrelenting speed.
“The Russian Five,” as this potent line was called, was a challenge for older generations of Wings’ fans to get used to. Detroit was after all the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II. The same citizens who built weapons to help oust Hitler still had ill Cold War feelings toward the Soviets.
While the vast missile defense system throughout the Detroit area had been removed two decades prior, the Russian Five brought back memories of threats of old Russian bomber and long-range missile attacks on Detroit neighborhoods.
But the younger generation, guys like myself, really did not think about politics of the day. We cared about seeing the Russian Five blend with Yzerman and Paul Coffey to help the Red Wings return to glory.
And though my friends and I had a tough time saying Russian names (especially while reenacting unbelievable plays from games while playing street hockey), we enjoyed Fedorov and Co. nonetheless.
We enjoyed the Russian Five even more during the 1994-1995 NHL season. With Scotty Bowman now at the helm, and Ken Holland serving as the interim GM, the Wings earned its first Stanley Cup appearance since 1966.
Leading the way for the Wings (besides Yzerman, Fedorov and Coffey) were Dino Ciccarelli, Keith Primeau and Ray Sheppard.
With a combination of strength, skill and speed, my friends and I were convinced the New Jersey Devils would not stand a chance in hell to beat the explosive Red Wings.
Crushed we were, of course, after the Devils swept Detroit in four games, using the neutral-zone trap as its primary weapon of war.
Our morale shattered, the Wings returned the next season to win an eye-popping 62 games. Certainly, Detroit would get over the hump this time, right?
Detroit was devastated again, this time by the Colorado Avalanche. Led by Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, this rugged club shocked Detroit four games to two in the Western Conference Finals.
For many Wings’ faithful, this was a crushing blow.
It seemed Detroit would never break the streak of 40-plus years without hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Remnants of disappointment continued into the 1996-1997 season. This was the year “Hockeytown” was boldly stamped into the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
This was also the year Red Wings’ winger Darren McCarty got revenge against Claude Lemieux for Lemieux’ abhorrent, face-obliterating cheap shot on Kris Draper the year prior.
Humbled perhaps, Detroit finished the regular season with a 38-26-18 record. This was a far cry from the 60-plus win season a year ago.
While Detroit made the playoffs, fans settled in knowing it would be an uphill struggle.
I remember a combined feeling of anxiety and excitement in Detroit as the Wings left for Philadelphia for the first two games of the finals. Wings’ fans hoped this great team could just steal just one game.
Instead, Detroit stole two.
And soon, as the Wings’ returned home anxiety gave way to exhilaration.
Morale ever climbing, Yzerman and Co. went for the jugular in Game 3, using a combo of speed, skill and the left-wing lock to destroy Philadelphia 6-1.
Detroit buzzed with an energy I had never felt before, the night Detroit took to the ice for Game 4. I could not explain it, but there was widespread confidence that this night the Wings would win its first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
It was truly overwhelming.
The roof about blew off my house when Nicklas Lidstrom ripped the net from the blue line with 33 seconds remaining in the first period to give the Wings a 1-0 lead.
This was just one of many times Lidstrom would do this during his unworldly career.
With rock music springing up from different homes around my neighborhood, Darren McCarty sparked parties when he slipped the puck between Ron Hextall’s legs late in the following period.
While Eric Lindros scored late for the Flyers to make the score 2-1, the game was not really that close. Only Hextall’s resolve kept the game from being a blowout.
With that final Joe Louis horn, which sounded like a happy trucker pulling a horn on steroids, Yzerman hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Detroit’s home faithful in a frenzy, have you ever been so excited you freeze up, not knowing what the hell to do? All you can do is stand there with your hands up high and a smile on your face, as positive energy screams through your body. This was how we felt. It was awesome. It was as if half of me wanted to cry and the other half wanted to jump out my skin.
Older generations, who had watched the Wings struggle the past 40-plus years were in tears. It was like a huge burden had been lifted from their spirits.
It was also then I learned the true power of how sports can unify a city—a city that had begun to face hard times amidst global change.
A few days later, I went to the Victory Parade in Downtown Detroit with my dad. We stood on Jefferson Avenue, which was where one of the Cold War missile locations once stood.
This was the first time I had gotten to see the Stanley Cup up front and personal. It was on display nearby where we were standing.
To see the Stanley Cup that close, silver shining for all to see, I could see why players fought so hard to hoist it.
I truly believe there is nothing in sports quite like it.
Fifteen years and three more Stanley Cup victories later, I still remember this exciting time like it were yesterday. And while my military travels do not allow me to follow the Wings as much as I would like, I will forever bleed red and white.
God Bless the Motor City. I truly do miss you. - JMM