How Detroit Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup run really began 25 years ago today

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Twenty-five years ago almost to the day — as the calendar was about to flip to June in 1996 — the Detroit Red Wings sustained their most-crushing playoff elimination after their greatest regular season. The Free Press’ new book — “Stanleytown: 25 Years Later” — starts at this lowest of lows and tells the behind-the-scenes stories of the Stanley Cup’s return to Detroit a season later, after 42 agonizing years. An excerpt from the book:

Another season was over. Another dream dead and buried, this time by an Avalanche. The 1995-96 Red Wings, arguably the greatest team in regular-season history, proved once again they were just that: a great regular-season team.

Not a great playoff team. Not a champion.

It ended May 29, 1996, at Denver’s McNichols Arena with a 4-1 loss to Colorado in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. It ended with a three-goal outburst by the Avalanche in the second period that sent the Wings into summer, sent defenseman Mike Ramsey into retirement without a Stanley Cup and sent fans reeling.

Red Wings forward Kris Draper, center, is helped off the ice by trainer John Wharton, left, teammate Keith Primeau after Draper was hit into the boards from behind by Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on May 29, 1996, in Denver.
Red Wings forward Kris Draper, center, is helped off the ice by trainer John Wharton, left, teammate Keith Primeau after Draper was hit into the boards from behind by Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on May 29, 1996, in Denver.

[ Get your copy of "Stanleytown: 25 Years Later" here! ]

“The expectations of our team, and our own expectations, was to get back to the Stanley Cup finals and win, and we didn’t do that,” captain Steve Yzerman said. “We didn’t live up to expectations. We didn’t play as well as the Detroit Red Wings are expected to play, as well as we expected to play.”

The expectations were even greater this time — to end a 41-year Stanley Cup drought — because of the Wings’ regular season, when they won 62 games, breaking the NHL record of 60 set by Scotty Bowman’s 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens (who also won the Cup).

The Wings ran away from the field with their second straight Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season champions, going 62-13-17 for 131 points, 27 better than the runner-up Avalanche, who won the Pacific Division. To Detroit’s fans — who sang “I Want Stanley” and threw scores of octopi — another playoff failure was simply unthinkable.

“Obviously, there’s a big difference between playoff hockey and regular-season hockey,” Yzerman said. “We said it, and we meant it when we said it, winning 62 games during the regular season means nothing. It’s not an indicator of what’s going to happen in the playoffs. Come playoff time, we didn’t respond.”

Asked why the Wings faltered, Bowman said: “They had a player like Joe Sakic. We were banged up a lot and we weren’t 100%. But we lost to a good team. They were neck-and-neck with us for two years.”

The Wings also were hurt by the long road they took to reach the conference finals, including a seven-game series with St. Louis in the semifinals. They didn’t have enough gas left for the bigger, more physical Avs, who received big efforts from stars Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy.

“We … were stretched by St. Louis in the previous series,” Bowman said, “and we never had time to catch our breath.”

MORE FROM COACH: Why Scotty Bowman has full confidence in the Wings' future, Yzerman as GM

This time, the insult of another playoff elimination was made even more bitter by an injury in the first period of the deciding game.

Colorado’s Claude Lemieux hit center Kris Draper from behind and slammed him into the boards. Draper suffered a broken jaw, cheekbone and nose, a concussion and several displaced teeth; he needed 30 stitches in his mouth and also was cut around his nose and right eye.

Lemieux was assessed a five-minute penalty and ejected, but he returned for the postgame handshakes.

“I can’t believe I shook his bleeping hand,” right wing Dino Ciccarelli said. “I hadn’t seen Kris’ face. It’s BS. Kris was one of our best players, and Lemieux blindsided him. The poor kid was right by the door, he had his back to him, he didn’t have a chance. He was at his mercy. Lemieux could have broken his neck. Hey, they beat us, they had the better team — but that’s just BS.

“I probably would have speared him in the face.”

Goalie Chris Osgood, Draper’s best friend and roommate, vowed the Wings would even the score.

“When he comes back to play the Red Wings next year, we’ll be waiting for him,” Osgood said. “It’s not a threat.”

Even though Draper’s face and heart were broken, he walked out of McNichols Arena with a smile and a promise.

“It’s not a good way to go out,” he said, wiping blood from his mouth with a white towel. “I’ll see him again. I’ll be back, no doubt.”

When Ramsey, a hero from the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and a veteran of 1,068 NHL games, walked off the ice for what he thought was the last time in his career, he had tears in his eyes.

“This is our passion,” right wing Darren McCarty said. “We got our heart torn out.”

The Avalanche, in its first season after moving from Quebec City, swept the Florida Panthers for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Lemieux was on the ice to hoist it, receiving only a two-game suspension for cheap-shotting Draper.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup run began 25 years ago today