by | Jun 17, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WASHINGTON — The first one they won for the city. This one they won for their hearts. A hockey saga that began last summer in yelps of joy, and was interrupted six days later by tears of sadness, has worked itself back around to joy once more, with Red Wings players in a happy mob around the net, another Stanley Cup in tow. But this one was different. It was hard-fought, it was tiring, it was long and sometimes painful. But it was always meant to be. We can see that now. What happened here Tuesday night was less about victory than it was about belief.

And so, when the hockey ended, even as the pundits were banging out notes about a Detroit dynasty, even as fans back home were screaming themselves hoarse, the Wings were doing what they had dreamed of doing all year long. Finally, with tears in their eyes, they handed the Stanley Cup to their fallen colleague, Vladimir Konstantinov, and that tells you all you need to know about this team. They weren’t playing for themselves. They were playing for a higher cause — and it took them to the highest heights.

“TWO! TWO! TWO!” yelled the Wings, as they posed for their first photo as 1998 champions gathered around Konstantinov in his wheelchair, the cup in his lap, a victory cigar in his fingers, an unbelievable smile on his face.

“Everything we did all year, we did for this guy,” Igor Larionov said. “We never stopped believing.”

Believe and you can fly. Isn’t that the theme of songs and stories about bravery and heroes? So here was Konstantinov, crippled in a limousine crash with team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov six days after last year’s cup, making the trip to Washington, perhaps because he knew, in his heart, that this would be the moment. He sat all game long in Section 116 in the MCI Center, over a homemade sign that read, “Do You Believe?”

Do you believe? Konstantinov watched the first period, as Sergei Fedorov, his Russian friend, spun and drew defenders, then dished to Doug Brown, who whacked a puck past Washington’s Olaf Kolzig. 1-0.

He watched the second period as Larionov, his Russian friend, dished to Martin Lapointe, who whacked a puck past Kolzig. 2-0.

He watched as Larry Murphy fired another puck past Kolzig. And as Brown put in his second of the night. He watched as Chris Osgood turned back nearly every devil’s stone the Capitals fired in his direction. He watched as his former teammates dug all game long, in the corners, against the boards, in the deepest part of their hearts, to end this odyssey the way they wanted.

And finally, when the horn sounded and the scoreboard read Detroit 4, Washington 1, he watched as, one by one, they skated over to him, hugged him, told him to use this to get better, maybe the most noble use this cup will ever see.

Believe? How could you not? The 16th victory of the postseason, played in front of No. 16? Be honest. Holding back the Wings on Tuesday night would have been like holding back a thundering herd, a winter wind, the ocean tide. Couldn’t be done.

The first was for the city, the second for the heart.

“You know today is June 16,” said Steve Yzerman, who was a unanimous choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy as best player in the playoffs, “and I remember a year ago we were sitting in a room at Beaumont Hospital and doctors were telling us maybe Vladdie will live, maybe he’ll die. And here were are one year later and he’s at the arena with us, getting the Stanley Cup. I think it’s been …it’s the most emotional moment I’ll ever be involved in.”

Twice, nice.

Destiny’s team

What an amazing run. Before a “visitors” crowd that was splashed in red jerseys, before more than 19,000 watching on the big screen back in Joe Louis Arena, before all the rest of the hockey world, the Wings proved that last year was not a fluke, it was merely a start. Back-to-back cups. Back-to-back sweeps. First time in 15 years that any team has pulled that off.

Would you call that destiny?

What else would you call it? How else do you explain that a Washington team that hadn’t allowed a power-play goal in its last 30 attempts gave up three to Detroit Tuesday night? How do you explain that, in this finals series, the Wings never took more than six shots to score the first goal? In fairness to the Caps, it really didn’t matter who was on the ice Tuesday night. The Wings were ending the season. Excuse their hurry.

But understand it. Last year they were fighting 42 years’ worth of Detroit hockey demons. This year they were fighting demons of their own.

And series after series, they cut those demons down. No first-round upsets, by the likes of Phoenix. No surprise attacks by the “hottest team going,” the St. Louis Blues. No outhustle, outmuscle by the highly touted Dallas Stars. And no looking past the upstart Washington Capitals.

It says something that the Wings beat such different teams with the same game: It says they weren’t going to lose, no matter whom you put in front of them. It says that they were living for this moment: Third period, the Wings with a lead in the Stanley Cup finals, and they looked up at the big screen and there was Konstantinov rising to his feet.

“When we saw that, the whole bench became unglued,” Brendan Shanahan said. “We were screaming and yelling. Scotty Bowman tried to calm us down because we still had a period of hockey to play. But there was no way. No way we were going to lose then. I looked down the bench and there wasn’t a dry eye on the team.”

One for the city. Two for the heart.

A team of winners

Good things are for sharing. So beyond Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, who was Cup No. 2 for? Where do you begin?

It was for Steve Yzerman, the captain, who last year was the symbol of a long-suffering franchise and this year was simply the symbol of excellence. His Conn Smythe was a slam dunk. He led the playoffs in points, he led the Wings in effort, and he led the league in effusive quotes from his teammates.
“The way he goes down to block pucks . . .” they’d marvel. “The way he digs in a corner …The way he never complains . . .” In today’s terminology, Yzerman is “the man.” And sports would be a lot more bearable if “the man” on every team were an Yzerman clone.

“Most fans didn’t know this was the first really big trophy you’ve ever won,” someone said to a champagne-soaked Yzerman. “Is it better when the awards come later in your career?”

“Well, I think I’d appreciate it anytime,” he answered. “But it really means a lot to have the Yzerman name on the Conn Smythe. I mean, just for my dad to know the Yzerman name is there …”

He paused, choking up.

Cup Two’s for you.

And it was for Chris Osgood, who all year was like a college student in line at graduation. Around him were people pondering his fate, deciding how good he could be, offering him advice. But only Osgood, ever quiet, knew what he could accomplish. Fans thought he somehow would have to be Michael Jordan for this team to win. But the Wings didn’t need a Jordan. They need steady. They need unflappable. They need bursts of greatness. Osgood was all that in taking his place alongside Mike Vernon as a Stanley Cup goalie. And here’s something Osgood will do that Vernon could never match: Celebrate his 26th birthday this fall.

“I can’t describe all the emotions I’m feeling right now,” said a shaky Osgood after the Game 4 victory. “I always believed I was a good goalie.”

Now you have company.

Cup Two’s for you.

It was for celebrated players such as Brendan Shanahan, who fought a bad back the entire post-season — “it didn’t hurt when I lifted the cup,” he joked — and Darren McCarty, who was his normal tireless self on the ice. And it was also for the grinders, such as Kirk Maltby, Doug Brown, Kris Draper, Joey Kocur and the much-underappreciated Martin Lapointe. These are supposedly guys who get bloody noses, lose teeth and wear ice packs. Only this spring, they had winning goals as well. Who can forget the sight of Draper firing the winning shot in the overtime comeback of Game 2, or Brown and Lapointe putting the icing on Tuesday night?

Cup Two’s for you, too.

It was for the Swedes, Nicklas Lidstrom, whose excellence we all knew about, and Tomas Holmstrom, who stunned even his coaches. Let’s face it. Holmstrom was an end-of-the-bench man just a blink ago. Now, the only shame in the season ending is it cuts off his amazing ascent. The way he was going, he might have been MVP by next week.

And the cup was of course for the Russian contingent, the quiet Slava Kozlov, the cerebral Igor Larionov, and everybody’s favorite multimillionaire, Sergei Fedorov, who almost slid away over money this year, but last week was caught saying, “In my heart, I now know, I was always a Red Wing.” Considering his astounding ability, and his big-time goals in these playoffs, I’d say that statement makes everyone happy.

It was for the “old men” on defense, Bob Rouse, Larry Murphy and Jamie Macoun. Amazingly, the latter two were late pickups off the discard pile, Murphy last year, Macoun this year. If this is how Scotty Bowman picks up discounts, he can have my Christmas list anytime.

Speaking of Bowman, this cup was most definitely for him. The quixotic coach tied his hero, Toe Blake, with his eighth NHL championship. But for all his shouting, his crazy rules and his perplexing conversation, Bowman was touchingly human when he had to be this year, never more than in his brief locker-room speech last Saturday commemorating the one-year anniversary of the limo crash. The Wings fell silent when he said those words. And when they took the ice, the series was pretty much over.

And finally, this cup, this season, was for Slava Fetisov, “Papa Bear,” the grizzled 40-year-old veteran who might have retired had he not had one more dragon to slay, the one of memory. Remember that while the Wings all felt for Vladdie and Sergei, only Fetisov really knew what they went through. He was there, too, in the limo that awful night. Some believe that only the cushion of their bodies kept Fetisov from a crippling injury. All season, Fetisov suffered with the weight of “Why me?” — and, even worse, “Why not me?” Can you imagine questioning your own survival? Fetisov couldn’t sleep Monday night. Nerves. Memories. He looked over more than once at his dear friend sitting in the stands. Maybe now his sleep will be a bit more peaceful. Maybe this is why he survived unscathed: because someone has to be the bridge to hope.

“Vladdie’s spirit was in our room all year round,” Fetisov said, kneeling next to Konstantinov in his wheelchair. “I hope this win gives Vladdie more, faster recovery.”

Which is the big lesson in this whole thing, isn’t it? What happened Tuesday doesn’t wash away the memory of what happened a year ago, it simply makes it a little easier to handle. Seeing Konstantinov with that trophy shows us that life goes on, that you do smile again, that the world is made up of highs and lows, and that the balance of life is that one or the other is always out there, waiting.

On Tuesday, it was glory wrapped in victory wrapped in the tear-stained faces of a team that can skate like the wind, and a former teammate who cannot. One was for the city. Two was for the heart.

And, you know, “three” has a nice ring to it …

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. Mitch will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” for Father’s Day, 7:30-8:30 tonight, Barnes & Noble, Maple and Telegraph, and 5-6 p.m. Saturday, Barnes & Noble, Northville.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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