For the first time in 25 years, the Red Wings will not be in the NHL playoffs this year. We are in the midst of a re-build (maybe?) and facing an off season in which many fans want Ken Holland to tear the team up and start again. This is not the first time fans have clamoured for this. Think back to 2001… The Red Wings were eliminated in the first round by an upstart LA Kings team (featuring one Luc Robitaille…) and the always annoying Colorado Avalanche went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Wings were hearing all about how they were too old, too washed up, to be able to compete anymore, and they would need to start from the ground up again.
This, however, was before the salary cap and Mike Ilitch opened his pocketbook and let Ken Holland loose on the free agent and trade markets. In two days the Wings picked up two legends in their positions in Dominik Hasek and then Luc Robitaille. Shortly thereafter a third was signed in Brett Hull.
With all this going on in the off season, hopes were obviously running high at the start of the 2001/2002 regular season. The Wings began the season exactly the way fans hoped they would. They dominated. They won 22 out of their first 26 games. They were on a roll, and it seemed like they couldn’t lose. They kept this momentum up for a good portion of the season, winning the President’s Trophy (as well as some Olympic hardware) along the way. They did hit a rough patch right before the playoffs, but still went in as heavy favourites to win the Cup.
The first two games were shocking. They were beat by a Vancouver team who shouldn’t have even been on the same ice. Then Steve Yzerman did what he does. He held a closed door meeting for the team after game 2. The Wings responded by winning the next four games in a row and knocking the Canucks out of the playoffs in a slightly-longer-than-expected series.
Next up were the St Louis Blues. Even though the Wings would dispatch the Blues 4 games to 1, this still ended up being a closer series than expected given the type of team that Detroit had. After knocking off the Blues, the Wings ran head on into old rivals. The Colorado Avalanche were waiting. In “Red Alert: Hockeytown 3” Brendan Shanahan gives a great quote about his view that you need to go through the best teams in order to be the best team. This would be the biggest challenge for the Wings during these playoffs.
The series against Colorado was an all time classic. Three of the games went to overtime. Patrick Roy pulled the epic Statue of Liberty move.
The series would go to Game 7. Game 7s are always terrifying as a fan. This one was even more so. This was the best hockey team I had ever seen up against a team that seemed to always play spoiler to them. To this day I would say that this game made me more nervous than any other. And then the puck dropped, and the Wings just dominated. The game was never in question. Patrick Roy was pulled. Just before the end of the game they played Sweet Caroline over the loudspeaker to prepare the crowd for the Finals matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s the only time I can think of a better end to a Wings game than Don’t Stop Believing.
The Finals would be a great series, but not as good as the one against Colorado. Carolina would surprise Detroit in Game 1’s overtime, and Game 3 would go to an excruciating 3 overtime periods before Igor Larionov would end it.
The Wings ended up winning the Cup on home ice after Shanahan scored an empty netter to put it away and Steve Yzerman tackled him in celebration before the game was over. Stevie Y handed the Cup off to Scotty Bowman (who had announced he was planning on retiring after the season,) Vladimir Konstantinov had a chance to not just hold, but lift the Cup again. Obviously winning the Cup anywhere is incredible, but for the Red Wings to do it on home ice, in front of their fans, was one of the most special moments in the storied history of Joe Louis Arena.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that this team was the best ever assembled. It is certainly the best hockey team I’ve ever seen. Almost a third of the team were Hall of Famers. Most of those were first-ballot entries. They were led by the greatest coach to ever step behind the bench. They dominated the regular season and they dominated (even through some adversity) the playoffs. They came into the season with the expectation of winning the Cup and they followed through. Even with all of the potential egos in one dressing room, they never seemed to be in conflict. Everyone bought into the idea that to win the Cup it might require them to make some individual sacrifices, and it paid off.
Now let’s just recap all of the Hall of Famers on that team while we mope around about the Wings missing this year’s playoffs:
…and a little known rookie by the name of Pavel Datsyuk