by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

So this is how you make history. You wait until after the midnight hour, double overtime, when the voices are gone and even the sweat glands are exhausted, then send a young Russian — whose last name is easier to pronounce than his first — charging down the ice, have him wind up and fire and . . . bingo! With a game so exhausting it took two days to play, the Detroit Red Wings finally jumped the moat and are outside the castle, banging on the door with an octopus.

Knock, knock, Stanley.

Guess who’s coming for dinner?

For 29 years, the men who pulled on Detroit sweaters were always pulling them off before the championship finals. They were golfing, boating, fixing the house, while others skated in the Big Show. On Sunday night — and Monday morning — the 1995 Wings made history by playing desperate, double-overtime hockey, dominating the ice, protecting their net, and chopping relentlessly at the last obstacle in their way — a rock-solid Chicago goaltender named Ed Belfour — until finally, finally, after 82 minutes and 46 shots, the rock crumbled and fell, and the Promised Land was revealed.

Detroit 2, Chicago 1.

Knock, knock.

“What do you think making the finals will mean?” someone had asked Kris Draper before this game.

“Well, when I was a kid, there was this guy in my neighborhood, he won a Stanley Cup with the Islanders and when he came back home, we went to his house for a party,” he said. “And there was this big cake, shaped like the cup, and everybody was congratulating him, and I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is why I want to play hockey.”‘

Knock, knock.

Wasn’t Sunday the answer to all those childhood dreams? A night Red Wings fans had waited for since their dads were teaching them how to be Red Wings fans. Overtime. Every shot sticking in the throat. Dennis Savard leading a three-on-one break that surely spelled doom, then mysteriously losing control, and Nicklas Lidstrom getting in the middle and stealing the puck away. Doug Brown, wide open, taking a perfect feed from Fedorov, whacking the puck with everything he had, and Ed Belfour — Mr. Magnificent — absorbing it like a bulletproof vest. Mike Vernon, doing the same on a point-blank shot from Joe Murphy, with nobody between them, knocking it away and in the second overtime, Murphy clanging one off the post. It was bodies flying. Oxygen disappearing.

And finally, Slava Kozlov, who hadn’t scored a point this series, pulling up and firing through Belfour’s legs, and the arena came unglued.

What a perfect fit! What a perfect finish, a Sunday night show in Detroit the way Ed Sullivan used to be a Sunday night show in America. Everyone was watching, you screamed when your neighbors screamed. And at 12:17 a.m., the whole town seemed to scream at once.

Knock, knock, Stanley.

Remember us? Unlikely stars

What a remarkable playoff run — and an incredible conference final that will never be appreciated by the game count. Wings four, Hawks one? This was so much closer, all the Wings’ wins were by one goal, three in extra periods. There were heroics in the net and heroics from the back of the chorus line, guys you’d never expect, a double-overtime winner from Vladimir Konstantinov, a tying goal from tough guy Stu Grimson, a game-winner from Kris Draper — whom the Wings acquired for $1 from Winnipeg — even a 58-foot slap shot from Lidstrom, quietest guy on the team.

And the final game, with Kozlov continuing the string of unlikely stars.

No, this is not the end — the finals will start on Saturday against either New Jersey or Philadelphia — but it is a foothold on the mountain, and a pause to take in the view. Finally, a chance for Steve Yzerman and Shawn Burr, Red Wings for more than a decade, to skate out before a national TV audience in June. Finally a chance for Mike Ilitch — who, no matter what you think of his ticket prices, has sunk more money into Detroit sports than any man in history — to at least taste life in the big show.

Finally a chance for the national media to come to downtown Detroit for some other reason besides bashing it.

This is for all the “supposed to” years, when the Wings were supposed to beat San Jose, supposed to beat Chicago, supposed to beat Toronto. When Bryan Murray was supposed to have enough talent to get there. When Jacques Demers was supposed to inspire his young group over the rainbow.

And this is for all the years when nobody expected anything, that bleak period in the ’70s when Detroit hockey was a sad joke, when “Dead Wings” was a more common — and sometimes more accurate — moniker for this team.

People outside Detroit may not understand why this town goes so crazy.

You know what?

Who cares?

Knock, knock. A lightning storm

You can pick a moment from Sunday night and wring the sweat from it. The overtime was choking — so were the final minutes of regulation — but to truly appreciate what the Wings were up against, you looked at the second period.

The Wings were a lightning storm. They peppered Belfour with shot after shot — 20 before the period was over, compared to two for the Blackhawks — and yet Belfour was a duck in a firing range, eluding every one. Fedorov had a point-blank chance on a perfect feed by Doug Brown, he fired — and Belfour caught it falling down, like a shortstop snagging a liner up the middle. Keith Primeau had one close range whack after another — all died in Belfour’s body, his pads, his stick.

Finally, either the odds or exhaustion took hold, and on Detroit’s 17th shot in a row — 17 in a row? — Yzerman, who hadn’t scored a goal since May 23, yanked the puck off the boards, curled and fired, and suddenly the crowd was roaring and Yzerman was jumping off the ice, both arms raised, as if ready to hug the air.

Which, by the way, was raining octopi.

“That was amazing,” Darren McCarty said between periods, “Steve is the heart and soul of this team.”

Think then, what making these finals means for the captain, who for all these years has been the NHL’s Best Player To Go Home Early. In the years when he, Gretzky and Lemieux were mentioned in the same sentence, it was always the other two winning, and Yzerman waiting.

Not anymore. Let them watch for a change. Here was Yzerman finally holding up a trophy — the Clarence Campbell Trophy — and shaking it. Was that nice, or what?

And how about Coffey, who has won four Stanley Cups and hungers for it another like a vampire hungers for more blood? All the times his teammates asked him what it’s like, and what could he say? “It’s bleeping great,” he would answer. On Sunday night, they got to see what just how bleeping great it was.

There’s Mark Howe, 40, who was in the womb in the last time the Wings won a Cup (1955), and Martin Lapointe, who gets to see the finals at age 21. There are Russians, like Fedorov and Fetisov and Kozlov who get to see how this thing they’ve always heard about — the Stanley Cup finals — really feels.

There’s goaltender Mike Vernon, who was the golden boy of Calgary the last time he went to the finals — 1989 — and hasn’t won a playoff round since. Can you spell redemption?

And, of course, there’s the coach, Scotty Bowman, whose behavior is often enigmatic, expect for one thing: His interest is in winning. Only winning. He has walked away with the NHL’s prime rib six times before, and now, in his 60s, he dares to try it again. Say what you will about timing, players, authority, and the other excuses previous coaches used. Bowman is the guy to get them there.

A few days before this game, Dino Cicarelli was having his morning coffee and talking about the only time he’s been to a finals, 15 years ago with Minnesota. “The guys were asking me about it the other day, and they said,
‘Aw you don’t even remember it.’ And I said (bleep) I don’t. I remember it like it was yesterday.

“It was 83 degrees outside, Sunday afternoon, we beat Calgary, and when we walked out the ramp it looked like the biggest tailgate party in the world, there was a billboard that said “Way To Go Stars,” there was music playing, people laughing and congratulating us.”

That’s the kind of crystal memory you get in moments like this. So years from now, the new boys of summer will remember this: a cool summer night that turned to early summer morning, with nearly every TV set in the city tuned to the same channel, and a final roar that shook the very girders of Joe Louis Arena, as a red-and-white rainbow began to form over the city.

Knock, knock, Stanley.

Daddy Octopus is coming. NEXT: The Stanley Cup finals begin in Detroit on Saturday night. Schedule, Page 1D THE FOE: The Wings will play the Eastern Conference champion, New Jersey or Philadelphia. New Jersey leads, 3-2. TICKETS: Season ticket holders have until today to purchase tickets for the finals. The Wings have not announced how they will sell other tickets. Prices range from $50-$100. 40-YEAR ITCH: The Wings last won the Stanley Cup in 1955.


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