The Colorado Avalanche might have had more talent and the Philadelphia Flyers were bigger, but the Detroit Red Wings were a better playoff team, and that’s why they won the Stanley Cup on Saturday for the first time since 1955.
After learning from the disappointments of the last few years that they would get nowhere with one-dimensional players such as Dino Ciccarelli and Paul Coffey, they assembled a gritty, selfless group that ground the Flyers into a pile of mulch in a stunning sweep.
The Red Wings “went through some big agony the last two years, but that’s a step sometimes you have to take,” Coach Scotty Bowman said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
How they took that final step is no secret. There’s no system that rivals will rush to copy. The Red Wings worked hard, played superb team defense and got leadership from their leaders and key contributions from their foot soldiers.
Steve Yzerman was their conscience, delivering well-timed pep talks and boosting his teammates’ confidence after they had lost Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. They finished the series the next game.
Center Sergei Fedorov, liberated from playing defense, lifted his game as the pace intensified. Darren McCarty, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby were vital because they played strong defense and
created scoring chances out of nothing, banging and driving with a determination their teammates imitated. Goaltender Mike Vernon forgot he was supposed to be a loser and found inspiration in the support given him by Bowman.
Vernon was voted the most valuable player in the playoffs, but the award could have gone to Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, hard-hitting defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov or steady defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
Maybe the Flyers were destined to lose from the start--or from the trading deadline, when General Manager Bob Clarke put loyalty to Ron Hextall ahead of reason and didn’t acquire a top-notch goalie. They didn’t lose the Cup on Saturday, they lost it after Game 1 of the finals, when Coach Terry Murray singled out Hextall for blame on a soft goal instead of keeping his team together.
What little respect his players had for Murray vanished when he said they were choking after Game 3, and that could cost him his job.
Murray misjudged his players’ emotional makeup, using a word that has deep negative connotations, insulting them when he intended to inspire them.
That doesn’t excuse the disappearing act staged by Eric Lindros, who fumbled the torch of leadership passed to him by Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier. Not only did he leave Joe Louis Arena without talking to reporters after Murray’s choking comments, he wasn’t much of a force on the ice.
When asked if he believes the adage that says teams must lose before they can win, he replied, “We’re kind of pushed into that situation, aren’t we?” But it was his ineffectiveness that helped push them there.
A season that began nine months ago with Team USA’s upset of Canada in the World Cup ended with another unexpected but worthy winner. It’s reassuring that, despite abominations such as Fox’s glowing puck and the NHL’s tolerance of on-ice muggings, the game remains surprising and entertaining.
Even the Red Wings and Flyers will probably jump on the merry-go-round of coaching and executive changes.
Bowman’s reference to the retirement of his idol, Toe Blake, after winning the Cup in 1968 was a strong hint he will follow suit. At 63, he might take a less taxing front-office role or leave the organization.
“I’m going to agonize over it but I’ll have it done by the draft [June 21],” Bowman said.
Jimmy Devellano, the Red Wings’ senior vice president and co-general manager with Bowman, is expected to stay but will cede some of his power to Ken Holland, the assistant general manager.
The Flyers are in a quandary. Do they re-sign Murray as a reward for a good regular season, or do they give greater weight to his playoff choke--to borrow his word--and let him walk away?
He’s probably gone. He has only lukewarm support in the locker room and from Clarke, who was irate at how Murray handled his goaltenders and with other personnel moves even before Murray put his foot in his mouth. Clarke also was embarrassed by being swept and doesn’t buy the theory that teams must experience defeat before they can win, even though the Red Wings’ turnaround from 1995 gives it more support.
“It’s just sort of an excuse to make the pain feel better,” Clarke said. “Losing the Stanley Cup finals like this is not a very good feeling. After you’ve had a few days off, you’ve got to go back and do the same things as if you missed the playoffs, which is evaluating everybody--including me.
“Some of the responsibility has to be mine. But it’s not because of one person or one player when you get beat this bad.”
A good coach can avoid such embarrassments. Murray isn’t that coach.
MORE MUSICAL CHAIRS
The dizzying string of coaching changes continued Monday, when former Mighty Duck coach Ron Wilson was hired by the Washington Capitals to work with new General Manager George McPhee, former Capital coach Jim Schoenfeld went to Phoenix and former Blackhawk coach Darryl Sutter was hired in San Jose.
One possible explanation for all the changes is impatience among club and corporate executives, who want to see quick success and returns on investments that grow bigger every year as team payrolls increase.
“Nobody wants to allow for the cycle you’re supposed to go through,” said New York Ranger General Manager Neil Smith, whose eight-year tenure ranks among the longest.
“It’s like a Ferris wheel. You have to hit bottom before you go to the top. That’s how the league is designed. When you’re at the top, you have very low draft picks and it’s harder to sign them because they don’t think they’re going to play for your team. . . .
“Edmonton won in 1990, Pittsburgh won in ’91 and ’92 and Montreal won in ’93. Toronto made it to the semifinals in ’93 and ’94. Look at those teams now. They’ve dropped because to get to the top, they had to give up a lot, so then you slide back down.”
A MIGHTY SMART DUCK
Mighty Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira wasn’t surprised at the Red Wings’ success after seeing them eliminate the Ducks in the second round.
“I thought that team went to a different level, especially in that Game 3, when we were up, 3-1, and they beat us, 5-3,” Ferreira said. “Vernon is back at the level he was with Calgary [in its 1989 Cup victory]. And you’ve got to give Scotty all the credit in the world. He got that team playing so well.”
Ferreira denied a rumor that the Ducks considered filing tampering charges against the Capitals for contacting Wilson while he was still their employee. NHL sources say there might have been some truth to it, but the Ducks couldn’t prove it. . . . The Ducks spoke to former Chicago coach Bob Murdoch about their coaching job, but Don Hay is still the front-runner.
Remember Wilson saying the Ducks’ acquisition of Teemu Selanne made him a 30% smarter coach? Will the Capitals’ frequent injuries make him 30% dumber? . . . Suddenly, the Buffalo Sabres are questioning how good a coach Ted Nolan is. That could mean goalie Dominik Hasek gave management a him-or-me ultimatum. The two didn’t get along well and club President Larry Quinn apparently believes it’s more difficult to find a goalie of Hasek’s caliber than a good coach.
The Coyotes’ hiring of Schoenfeld makes little sense. He likes a physical, defensive game, which some Coyotes shun. He insisted on that style in Washington, even though he had enough skill players to be more creative, and he has never been great tactically. . . . Larry Pleau, who Monday was named general manager of the St. Louis Blues, is a good pick. As the Rangers’ director of player personnel and a former coach, he’s well acquainted with the NHL and the minor leagues.
Joe Kocur is becoming known as a streak-buster. He was with the New York Rangers when they won the Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought, and this spring helped the Red Wings end their 42-year winless streak. The Chicago Blackhawks, who haven’t won in 36 years, and Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven’t won in 30, might want to take note.