Road to Stanleytown: Detroit Red Wings route Avs in Game 4 as fights, benches erupt

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In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

The Free Press has commemorated that historic quest with a new book: “Stanleytown: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 37: May 22, 1997

The backstory: For two days, the Avalanche talked tough. Goalie Patrick Roy displayed the most bravado, taunting the Red Wings and all but guaranteeing a Game 4 victory. Coach Marc Crawford promised his team would forecheck better, go to the net better and get in the Wings’ faces better. Claude Lemieux, with only two points in the series, admitted he needed to up his game with its special brand of mayhem. The Wings, meanwhile, said relatively little. They respected the Avalanche’s skill and resolve. Their focus wasn’t words but a victory at Joe Louis Arena for a three-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference finals. A long night followed that included a half-dozen Detroit goals, a series of third-period melees, Crawford trying to storm the Wings’ bench, a long delay because of a hinge and “Happy Trails” playing over the stereo in an empty Wings locker room. What the night did not include was the Wings’ celebrating what surely was one of their biggest victories in years.

Two linesman try to stay between Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, center, and the Red Wings coaching staff as Crawford tries to climb over the partition between the two benches during the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.
Two linesman try to stay between Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, center, and the Red Wings coaching staff as Crawford tries to climb over the partition between the two benches during the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.

Sound of silence: Despite a 6-0 victory and a 3-1 series lead, there was nary a laugh nor a grin as the Wings spoke stoically with the media after a savage third period in which the Avalanche mucked it up despite a five-goal deficit and Crawford acted like a wild man. “I’ve got nothing to say,” said Darren McCarty, always a human quote machine. “You guys watched the game. Report what you saw.”

Here’s what Jason La Canfora reported in the Free Press: “What the Wings did was humiliate the Avs on all fronts. They got two-goal games from playmaker Igor Larionov and grinder Kirk Maltby, who had three in the regular season. Goalie Mike Vernon, without saying a word, outshined and silenced Colorado’s Patrick Roy with his 19-save shutout — his first of the playoffs. This wasn’t a win to be savored; it was a necessary war, a means to an end. … The Wings’ silence seemed more effective than the endless complaints from the Colorado players and coaches and their weak attempts to intimidate the Wings late in the game. … The Avs moan. The Wings score. The Avs whine. The Wings win. Detroit has six straight home victories and is on a 9-1 streak. Colorado has lost three straight games for the first time since December 1995. This was Detroit’s game from beginning to end. The Avs were bombarded by 14 Wings shots and mustered two weak attempts in the first period. Again, they fell behind before two minutes had elapsed.”

THE DAY BEFORE: Patrick Roy yapping, Vladimir Konstantinov laughing ahead of Game 4

How they scored: The discipline the Avalanche promised to display instead led to five straight Detroit power plays in the first period. After only 69 seconds, defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre went off for roughing Doug Brown after he nearly scored. With his power play only 2-for-16 in the series, coach Scotty Bowman tried a new unit: Larionov, Slava Kozlov and Martin Lapointe up front and Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom at the points. When Larionov shot across the goal, Avs defenseman Alexei Gusarov reached back with his stick and poked the puck between Roy’s pads at 1:52. Larionov scored again less than 5½ minutes later on a high backhander with Roy out of position trying for a loose puck. The Avs had not recorded a shot. Crawford used his timeout. Instead of shots and goals, the Avs picked up three penalties: Peter Forsberg for elbowing Vladimir Konstantinov, too many men on the ice and Lemieux for high-sticking McCarty. For erupting after the Lemieux call, Roy received a 10-minute misconduct from referee Paul Devorski. “We played stupid,” Roy said. “But I’m going to stick with the boys.” The Avs actually threatened to make a game of it early in the second period, but Vernon stood his ground and later the Wings scored three times in less than seven minutes. For his eighth goal in 10 games, Kozlov darted from the penalty box and beat Roy on a breakaway. On a power play, Fedorov’s one-timer from the point whizzed past Roy’s glove, dinged off the post and landed in the net. In the final minute, Maltby intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and scored unassisted. Roy did not return for the third period. Maltby scored again against understudy Craig Billington. In the final tally, Kozlov and Fedorov also recorded assists and Lapointe recorded three. In giant type, the Free Press headline read “Roy? Ha!”

The bad blood, Part I: With Roy on the bench and the Avs down five goals to start the final period, Colorado tried to send a brutal message. Keith Gave wrote in the Free Press: “The Avs spent the period running around chopping down Wings with their sticks.” Sandis Ozolinsh got Steve Yzerman. Eric Messier got Fedorov. And Mike Keane nailed Larionov with a two-hander to the back of his calf that ended his night. Gave continued: “And Crawford had the gall (or perhaps stupidity?) to acknowledge in his postgame news conference that it was all part of his game plan.” “It was deliberate on our part to show that we didn’t like what was happening in the game,” Crawford said. “It’s not the prettiest part of the game by any stretch of the imagination.”

Red Wings defenseman Aaron Ward and the Avalanche's Sylvain Lefebvre go at it during the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.
Red Wings defenseman Aaron Ward and the Avalanche's Sylvain Lefebvre go at it during the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.

The bad blood, Part II: In the third period, the teams combined for 204 penalty minutes. (Fight Night at The Joe on March 26 led to a mere 148 total minutes.) Among the infractions were eight fighting majors, 12 misconducts, four roughing penalties, two game misconducts, two instigating penalties and one goalie interference, while the puck was in the neutral zone (thanks to Colorado’s Rene Corbet knocking down Vernon in his crease). The bloodiest battle featured Brendan Shanahan against Corbet. Shanahan bled from friendly fire (an errant Lapointe stick). Corbet, holding a towel to the back of his head, needed two teammates to get him to the bench. At 10:35, not long after Mike Ricci chopped Kozlov and Adam Foote high-sticked him along the boards, everyone but the goalies paired off with various levels of physicality. Konstantinov vs. Foote. Slava Fetisov vs. Adam Deadmarsh. Fedorov and Lemieux wrestled each other as the two linesmen held them. Devorski, the referee during Fight Night at The Joe, handed out 48 minutes of penalties to a quartet — 19 for Foote, 12 for Deadmarsh, 12 for Fetisov and five for Konstantinov.

[ Ref from Wings-Avs brawl reveals why Darren McCarty stayed in game: 'Paybacks are a bitch' ]

The bad blood, Part III: With 6:34 left, Lemieux grabbed Kozlov’s jersey and took a few liberties with his stick. Despite a 25-pound disadvantage, Kozlov refused to back down. Lemieux, in typical fashion, refused to drop his gloves. Or his stick. In stepped rookie defenseman Aaron Ward, sporting two black eyes from a practice injury, who ended up in a brutal but pretty even battle with Lefebvre. The ensuing skirmishes led to 64 penalty minutes — 15 for Lefebvre, 15 for Ward, 14 for Joe Kocur and 10 for Bob Rouse. Plus, a misconduct ended another unproductive game for Lemieux, who had four shots and a minus-two rating. As the penalties were being announced by Budd Lynch, Keane started jawing from the bench at Tomas Sandstrom on the ice. Suddenly, Keane was poked in the chest with the blunt end of a stick. It came from McCarty on the Wings’ bench. Keane and McCarty received misconducts. Keane yelled at fans as he left via the tunnel.

The bad blood, Part IV: With 2:18 left, Lapointe smacked Corbet in the legs, knocking him to the ice in retaliation for his unprovoked takedown of Vernon. Another melee ensued — which was but a prelude to the most shocking confrontation of the night. Lapointe ended up squaring off with Eric Lacroix while Shanahan tangled with Corbet in the game’s bloodiest battle. Eventually, Devorski administered his final 64 minutes of penalties — 19 for Lapointe, 15 for Shanahan, 15 for Corbet and 15 for Lacroix.

Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan fights it out with the Avalanche's Rene Corbet late in the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.
Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan fights it out with the Avalanche's Rene Corbet late in the third period of the Wings' 6-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, May 22, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena.

The bad blood, Part V: With Shanahan on top of Corbet, Devorski stood above them as his linemen escorted Lapointe and Lacroix to their respective penalty boxes. Neither Shanahan nor Corbet appeared to be doing anything when the linesmen rejoined Devorski. Then, a linesman frantically signaled to the Colorado bench. Slowly, and carefully, it appeared, Shanahan got off of Corbet, who looked dazed and confused with a puddle of blood under him, apparently from striking the back of his head when wrestled to the ice by Shanahan. As Shanahan skated off the ice and down the tunnel, the fans unleased wild cheers. A trainer treated Corbet with a towel to control the bleeding, and then captain Joe Sakic and Gusarov started skating Corbet to their bench. Before they could reach it, Crawford climbed the glass to a photographer’s well that separated the teams. He screamed at Bowman, who was standing next to Yzerman. “He said they got one of our players,” Bowman said, referring to Keane’s slash on Larionov. “He was pretty emotional. I told him, ‘It’s a game, it’s over, there’s about two minutes left.’ His eyes were coming out of his head. So he was pretty excited.” Assistant coaches started yapping, especially Colorado’s Mike Foligno. Crawford became more animated and yelled louder. A linesman hopped the boards to get between the teams. The Avs’ Stephane Yelle, in his first game back from knee surgery, restrained Crawford. The other linesman tried to separate the parties along the boards on the ice. Bowman also told Crawford: “I knew your father before you did, and I don’t think he’d be too proud of what you’re doing right now.” Devorski joined his linesmen. Bowman tugged on Maltby’s jersey and instructed other players to back away on the ice and on the bench. Although not appearing agitated, Yzerman never left the edge of the bench and always appeared to be saying something and trying to defuse the situation. Associate coach Barry Smith held a hand on Yzerman’s right arm and jersey, just in case the spirit moved him to enter the fray. When things finally settled down, Yzerman took a seat at the end of the bench. On the CBC broadcast, as the officials sorted out all the penalties, provocateur Don Cherry came on to say that Detroit was too powerful for the Avalanche and that he felt sorry for Colorado and Crawford. “I’ve had to coach like Crawford,” Cherry said. “I probably would have done the same thing. … He’s a competitor.” As Devorski did his job, Crawford and Bowman engaged in another, yet more subdued, back-and-forth at the end of their benches. A linesman stayed between them. Smith tapped Bowman on the back and he ventured back to his usual perch on the bench. After the game, Crawford said: “You say some things and they say some things. Things got out of hand. … Nobody is proud of it.”

Off the ice: The game was delayed for 13 minutes, 45 seconds midway through the second period when Colorado complained about what the Wings’ public relations staff called an “allegedly broken hinge” on a door to the bench. La Canfora wrote: “The delay led to the most heavily watched public skating session ever as players tried to keep loose. The leisurely pace suited the Avalanche’s pedestrian effort.”

Famous last words: How Mitch Albom started his column: “Now finish it. Oh, I know the more popular song this morning is the sweet chorus of Thursday night’s spectacular down at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings so dominated the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche you’d have thought Patrick Roy was closing his eyes every time Detroit shot. It was fun. It was loud. It was the perfect date, the jackpot, the night when your team looks better than any team in the world. One-sided?  The score was 6-0. Efficient? The Wings didn’t even use Canadians to score until the fifth goal. But the local lads are not done storming the castle, folks, not until they win one more, and when they wake up this morning in the Rocky Mountain air, their first thought should not be yesterday or tomorrow. Finish it. Trust me. Great teams don’t get hypnotized by their success — even as much success as the Wings had in Game 4, and there was enough for a dozen Zig Ziglar seminars. No, great teams kill the snake when they have it by the throat. And, man, does it look like the Wings have the Avs by the throat. The Colorado players have lost their edge. The coach may have lost his mind. (Last I saw Marc Crawford, he was yelling at Steve Yzerman, perhaps the first person to do that since Steve’s mom.)”

Relive the glory: The Free Press has crafted a 208-page, full-color, hardcover collector’s book with fresh insights and dynamic storytelling about the 1996-97 Wings. It’s called “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story on How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” It’s only $29.95 and it’s available at RedWings.PictorialBook.com. (It’ll make a great Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via myersgene@comcast.net.

The front page of the sports section on May 23, 1997, the day after the Red Wings beat the Avalanche, 6-0, in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals at Joe Louis Arena.
The front page of the sports section on May 23, 1997, the day after the Red Wings beat the Avalanche, 6-0, in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals at Joe Louis Arena.

More to read: Another new Wings book arrived in April from Keith Gave, a longtime hockey writer for the Free Press in the 1980s and 1990s: “Vlad The Impaler: More Epic Tales from Detroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest.” It is available through Amazon and other booksellers and a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Vladimir Konstantinov Special Needs Trust. (Plenty of Gave’s prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

Even more to read: Red Wings beat reporter Helene St. James, who helped cover the 1997 Stanley Cup run, recently wrote “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Detroit Red Wings.” Featuring numerous tales about the key figures from 1997, “The Big 50” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. (Plenty of St. James’ prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings 1997 flashback: Game 4 route of Avs in ugly one