by | May 4, 1987 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The fans were going insane, the players were slapping each other in celebration and even coach Jacques Demers, dressed in his lucky wedding suit, walked out across the ice, raised a fist, and suddenly leaped toward the heavens. Why not? That’s where these magic words seemed to be coming from:

The Red Wings are going to the semifinals.


The Red Wings? Hockey’s little train that could? The semifinals? This was the worst team in the league last season? This was the joke, the embarrassment, the reason fans around here considered putting bags over their heads, or moving?

This is the team. And this is not the team. These players carry the logo, they carry the uniforms — they do not carry the memories, or the fate, or the weight of failure.

“How far are you now from your lowest point last year?” someone asked fourth-year center Steve Yzerman, who was drenched in champagne after the Wings’ 3-0 seventh-game win over Toronto.

“It seems like centuries apart,” he said, beaming. “I’ve never won a Stanley Cup, but if the feeling is any better than this, I can’t wait!”

Stanley Cup? Dare they talk about that? Well, why not? They have a fresh taste now, these Detroit players, a clean plate. They have a coach who keeps booking charter flights for the next step and an intensity that will not be crushed by odds. They’ve been pushed now to a Game 7 and they’ve come out winners.

This morning they have eight playoff victories.

And eight’ll get you a shot at 12.

The Red Wings are going to the semifinals. Amazing.

Have you ever heard a cheer that loud?” someone asked right wing Joe Kocur about the final-buzzer explosion from the Joe Louis crowd when the victory was finally official. “Anywhere? At a rock concert? At another game? Anywhere?”

“Never,” he said, his young eyes bulging. “It was heaven out there.”

Heaven? Well, hockey-wise, perhaps. What happened at this arena Sunday night was not merely a win, it was a refusal to lose. This was a whale of a series, a series the Wings had trailed, 3-1, a long time ago. But they threw the thing on their backs and lugged it back and forth across the Canadian border, and here, in the biggest of the big games, Game 7, they simply refused to put it down. Not for a moment.

What a night! What noise! What power! What colors! The red and white smeared the blue all over.

Here was Adam Oates, circling behind the net and spinning and shooting and getting his rebound and, score!


Here was Steve Yzerman, goal-less in this series, breaking away, drawing closer, and . . . score!


Here was Darren Veitch taking a beautiful cross-ice pass from Oates and winding up, winding up, then slapping that puck as if all the frustrations of hockey in this city were unloosed in his one mighty swipe.

Let it fly . . . in the net . . . score!


And, through it all, here was goalie Glen Hanlon, called upon as a mid-series replacement, whacking and smacking and flicking away everything that came close to his net, finishing a masterful series in which he would not allow a single goal to be scored by the Leafs in this country. Not a single goal? Two Detroit shutouts?

Say good night, Toronto.

The Red Wings are going to the semifinals.


I am so proud of these players,” Demers said afterward, a cigar in his hand, his eyes watering from both a cold and the emotion. “They had plenty of chances to quit. People would have said, ‘Hey, you swept Chicago (in the first round). That was good enough.’ But they wouldn’t accept that.”

Halfway through the evening, it became clear they would accept nothing less than total, unquestionable victory. No last- second flukes here. By the second period, this was no longer a game, it was a shooting gallery, every Red Wing gets a swipe, and history and defeatism and bad news were suddenly gone as if sucked up by the Zamboni machine.

So dominating was this finale that it almost seemed pre- determined, carved in the ice. Didn’t it? Everyone thought the patient named Toronto was merely asleep, it would awake in Game 7, but the patient was dead. Where was the Leafs’ offense? Where was their pressure?

Meanwhile, the Red Wings were loading up the emotional scales. Even the Ostrom sisters — those curly-haired little girls who have sung the national anthems throughout this series — brought their mother out with them this time. Their mother? And Demers wore his wedding suit — “only the second time I’ve ever worn it.” His wedding suit? Their mother? Come on. You can’t fight that kind of karma, can you?

No way.

The Red Wings are going to the semifinals.

All right. Some perspective. True, this was not like beating the Flyers, the Canadiens, the Oilers (Detroit’s foe in the next best-of-seven series, Gretzky and all, starting Tuesday). No doubt outsiders will look at Detroit this morning, leaping and laughing and whooping it up, and say, “Boy, are those people desperate for a party.”

But remember the failure that has been hockey around here in recent years, the red faces, the “Dead Wings” jokes, the revolving door of coaches and players. It was as if a filmy residue had dried on this franchise, so even when these Wings finished with a better regular-season record than Toronto, there was still doubt.

Forget that now. With Sunday’s final buzzer, these players have brought a cleansing rinse that leaves them fresh and new and ready to establish their own tradition in this town, Demers and Hanlon and Yzerman and Oates and Gallant and Ashton and Burr, et al. However far they go now, it is their doing, not a shadow from the past.

So they may not win a game against the great Oilers. Or they may push the Oilers to places they never dreamed of. Does it really make a difference at this moment?


“Tell us about that leap!” someone yelled at Demers. “What was going through your mind?”

“I was . . . I . . . I’m so happy,” he said, choking up. “I was . . . you know . . . “

Ah, forget the words, Jacques. Go ahead and leap, leap all the way to the freaking sky. Stay up there for a moment with the echoes of words not heard in this hockey town for too, too long. . . .

The Red Wings are going to the semifinals. Amazing.


It’s over: Jacques Demers hugs goalie Glen Hanlon.


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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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