Today, nearly twenty years to the date, the doors to Joe Louis Arena will close for good on a season that, under normal circumstances, would try to be forgotten. But because it’s the final season at the Joe, there is a lot to be celebrated. And a lot to be remembered.
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing just that as we counted down the top 5 Red Wings moments in Joe Louis Arena history. These covered some monumental moments that took place at the Joe that really made an impact on fans and signaled a turning point for the franchise.
At number 5, we looked at Gordie Howe’s return during the 1980 All-Star Game. Even at 51 years old, Mr. Hockey was making All-Star Game appearances and the Detroit crowd showed their gratitude for his years of service to the Red Wings with a loud and long standing ovation. At number 4, we covered Fight Night at the Joe, an event that turned heads all across the hockey world as the 1997 Red Wings made a definitive statement that they were indeed “tough enough”. Number 3 looked at arguably the greatest NHL roster that was ever assembled in the 2002 Stanley Cup winning team. Nine hall of famers laced up the skates for the Wings that year and brought home a Cup for Scotty Bowman in his last year of coaching. And, finally, number 2 delved into Steve Yzerman’s historic Double Overtime goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1996 that shot the Wings to the Western Conference Finals and ignited the spark that is Hockeytown.
While these are all great moments in the history of Joe Louis Arena, none of them hold a candle to June 7, 1997. It was the culmination of 42 years of pain, desperation, and burning desire. When Steve Yzerman lifted the Stanley Cup over his head late in the night on June 7, 1997, it brought back hope to Hockeytown and it is our number one Red Wings moment at Joe Louis Arena.
Before ‘97, the last time a player in a Red Wings jersey hoisted the Stanley Cup over their head was April 14, 1955. Ted Lindsay captained the Wings to their fourth Cup in six years. It was Detroit’s last dynasty. Gordie Howe, Marty Pavelich, Alex Delvecchio, Bill Dineen, Marcel Pronovost, Red Kelly, and Terry Sawchuk formed a powerhouse that just dominated through the ‘50s.
The following season, the Wings would go to the Cup finals again, but ultimately lose to the Montreal Canadiens. It was much easier to stay competitive when there were only six teams in the league, and the Wings made four more Stanley Cup Finals appearances before league expansion in 1967. That’s when things got really dire. In the sixteen years after the ‘67 expansion, the Red Wings made the playoffs a grand total of four times in nineteen years, culminating with a franchise worst 1985-86 season where the team put up forty points for an abysmal .250 win percentage.
The thing about hitting rock bottom, though, is that there’s only direction to go from there. The Wings stormed back the following season, putting up 78 points and finishing second place in the Norris Division. They would make the playoffs three of the next four years before missing in 1990 and beginning the infamous streak in ‘91. This is when things really started to turn around for the franchise. The Wings won the President’s Trophy four times between 1992 and 1996, but just couldn’t get the job done. In 1995, they were swept by the New Jersey Devils in their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1966. In 1996, they were beat up by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, kicking off a rivalry that would last through to the new millenium.
It’s hard to believe now, but at the time, the Red Wings were billed as a team that would never be able to finish the season as Champions. So much doubt was cast on the leadership ability of Steve Yzerman that he was almost traded prior to the start of the ‘97 season (I told you this would be hard to believe). The team was also taking criticism for not being tough enough to win, especially considering they’d have to go through the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche.
But the Wings were up to the challenge and proved it on March 26, 1997, when an all out brawl erupted on the ice between the bitter rivals. Fight Night at the Joe was more than just revenge for Claude Lemieux’s dirty hit on Kris Draper, it was the Red Wings screaming to the hockey world: “Don’t you dare say we’re too soft!”. They won that game 5-4 in overtime (McCarty scored the game winner) and players on that team have openly spoken about how that was the game that brought them together as a team. After that, they knew that they could accomplish anything.
The Wings didn’t even finish first place that year. They seeded third in the Western Conference. The Colorado Avalanche won the President’s Trophy and the Wings knew that if they wanted to hoist the Stanley Cup that year, they would have to, at some point, go through the Avalanche.
But first, the St. Louis Blues were waiting for them and delivered an eye-opening 2-0 game one defeat. Caught off guard, Yzerman held a closed-door players-only meeting after the game to inspire his teammates. Whatever he told them worked as the team stormed back and took the next two games by a score of 2-1 and 3-2 respectively. In game four, the Blues would once again shut them out with a 4-0 victory, but that was all the Red Wings would take from them. They won the next two games solidly by a score of 5-2 and 3-1. Round one was over and the Wings were one step closer to the ultimate goal.
But now the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were standing in their way. On paper, this seems like an easy series for the Red Wings as they swept the Mighty Ducks, but three of the four games went to overtime. In game one, Martin Lapointe ended it in the first overtime period. In game two, it was Vyacheslav Kozlov scoring the game winner in the third overtime period. In game four, Brendan Shanahan sealed the deal in the second overtime period, sending the Red Wings to the Western Conference Finals. So there may have only been four games played, but a total of eighteen periods were played in this series.
Waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals was the team they always knew they’d have to take down. Frankly, it would have felt off if the Avalanche were knocked out in an earlier round. This was the final test that the Red Wings faced. They couldn’t really be champions without taking down their rivals.
The Wings dropped game one by a score of 2-1. It wasn’t the best start. And it continued that way in game two, as they fell behind 2-0 in the first period. But they stormed back, scoring once in the second and three times in the third period to take the game by a final score of 4-2. Game three heroics were provided by Kozlov as he scored twice to lead the Wings to a 2-1 victory. In game four, Igor Larionov and Kirk Maltby each scored twice as the Wings decimated the Avalanche in a 6-0 victory at Joe Louis Arena, giving them a 3-1 series lead. Embarrassed by this whipping, the Avalanche responded in game five with a 6-0 victory of their own. With the momentum in the hands of the Avalanche coming back to Joe Louis for game 6, the Red Wings sealed a definitive 3-1 game 6 victory, leaving the Avalanche behind and propelling them to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would have to face a heavily favourited Philadelphia Flyers team.
Nobody expected this series to go down the way that it did. Eric Lindros formed the Legion of Doom line with John LeClaire and Mikael Renberg. Each of the three were over 6’2” and 230 lbs. They were known for their offensive prowess, but also for their physical domination on the ice.
The Flyers were the top seed, so the series would start in Philadelphia. Detroit took game one and game two by a score of 4-2. Embarrassed by the whipping they took at home, the Flyers hoped to do the same to the Wings in their building. But the Joe is not an easy building for opposing teams to play in. Detroit dominated game three and won 6-1. With the smell of a championship a mere sixty minutes away, face painted fans swarmed into the Joe, replica Stanley Cups and brooms in hand. It took nearly twenty minutes before the first goal was scored, a slapper by Nick Lidstrom from the point. The score remained 1-0 for what felt like an eternity. Finally, thirteen minutes into the second period, Darren McCarty scored one of the most famous goals in Red Wings history.
McCarty’s highlight-reel goal put the Wings up 2-0. If I’m being honest, I didn’t think Darren McCarty had that in him, but boy am I ever glad he did. Very late in the third period, Eric Lindros snuck a puck behind Mike Vernon to make it 2-1. But they wouldn’t be able to score another and, for the first time in 42 years, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
Yzerman jumping into the arms of Mike Vernon as the buzzer goes off. Shanahan launching his stick into the air. The coach’s hug on the bench. The victory was breathtaking. It firmly cemented Detroit as Hockeytown and the Joe as it’s temple. For the first time in the arena’s history, the Stanley Cup was skated around it’s ice and all of Detroit rejoiced in its presence. For me, this is where Detroit’s winning culture started. This Stanley Cup propelled these players to greatness. On June 7, 1997, hockey was more than just a game and those players were more than just players – they were heroes, forever immortalized in the rough, dented surface of the most revered trophy in all of sports. They united a city, inspiring young and old, in some old barn on the riverfront.
That’s why this is our number one moment at the Joe. It’s when the winning started.
On a warm summer night on June 7, 1997.