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Longing for the old days

Even with most professional sports on hiatus, there’s no doubt it’s hard to be a Detroit sports fan these days.

The Tigers and Red Wings are in the midst of rebuilds. The Pistons are stuck squarely in the middle of the NBA pack and the Lions are, well, the Lions.

When and if the National Hockey League starts play again, the Red Wings won’t be in the playoffs. That’s a bummer for hockey fans like me. Spring and early summer used to be the Red Wings’ time to shine.

But not this year and not since 2016. Instead, we’re left to watch a squad in the middle of a rebuild, hear about prospects’ potential and wonder if the Wings will be lucky enough to snag the top pick in the NHL Draft.

It makes Detroit’s 25-year playoff streak seem like a lifetime ago some days. Fans like me were spoiled by four Stanley Cups in 11 years, long playoff runs and watching a who’s who of Red Wings favorites take the ice and win a lot of games.

Thanks to Fox Sports Detroit’s Detroit Red Wings Classics, I got a chance to take a trip down memory lane in early May and re-watch the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, which pitted the Wings against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Boy, do the memories come flooding back.

Watching the series, I’m instantly nine years old again. Joe Louis Arena is rocking, the fans are riding the opposing goaltender and the cheers are so loud, the building shakes at its foundations.

The Red Wings are the best team in the NHL, their playoff runs are one of the best parts of spring and their rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche is arguably one of the best in sports.

Everyone in school talks about the Wings. My friends and I trade hockey cards at recess. Just about any piece of clothing with a Wings logo on it is in style.

Hundreds of people in metro Detroit all have the same Red Wings car flag. My family’s living room is decked out in posters, pucks and other Wings memorabilia. Games are appointment TV and every year there’s a new song for Detroit’s playoff campaign; anyone remember ‘I Want Stanley’ or ‘Get Up?’

It was so much fun to be a fan in that era and my Dad and I got to experience several big playoff moments up close. I was there with Dad in the very last row of the upper bowl for Game 1 of the 1995 Finals. I was there in 1996 when Steve Yzerman scored in double overtime to beat St Louis in the conference semifinals.

I was also there the night the Wings finally brought the Stanley Cup back to Detroit.

During Game 4 of the Finals–June 7, 1997–Dad and I found ourselves inside Joe Louis Arena. How did we get there? Let’s just say we knew a guy who knew a guy. We didn’t get in until the second period, but when we did, we found ourselves sitting on the stairs of the upper bowl, somewhere to the left of center ice.

I don’t recall many details of the game the night it happened, but I remember the atmosphere. It’s still one of the most electric and loudest atmospheres I’ve ever been a part of at a sporting event and I can still see Yzerman raising the Stanley Cup over his head. Even from the upper bowl, there was no mistaking the gleaming silver.

The next year, Dad and I got to celebrate again, watching the Wings wrap up another Cup on the road on the big screen at the Joe.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheered plenty back then. But watching the games now as an adult, it’s hard not to be awed by just how good the Wings were because the 1997 finals was a showcase of all the things that made them champions:

Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov seemingly scoring from just about anywhere in the offensive zone and a deep roster of guys who could score at any time.

A stacked Wings defense, including Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, a young-ish Nick Lidstrom and the disruptive force that was Vladimir Konstantinov–taking the Flyers completely out of the series.

Mike Vernon putting on a show in net, sealing up the Conn Smythe Trophy with his Game 4 performance alone.

Darren McCarty all but wrapping up the championship with one of the most famous–and in my opinion, one of the most dazzling goals–you’ll ever see, faking out a defender and then putting a heck of a move on Philly goaltender Ron Hextall.

Bottom line, the Wings were the best team in the league and played like it. The Flyers were 12-3 before the finals, yet they looked more and more lost as the series went on.

It’s quite a contrast to the current Wings’ squad, which has plenty of roster issues to sort out, scoring troubles and no real answer at goaltender. But I’m hopeful, as are many fans, that Yzerman can return the Wings to their place among the hockey elite.

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