Going Cup Crazy in the Motor City
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page E6
The morning after the Red Wings opened the best-of-seven series with a victory over the Washington Capitals, this gray, gritty city awoke shrouded in smog. At street level, however, nearly every car, statue and pedestrian was clad in red, black and white party clothes confident their Red Wings would bring the Stanley Cup back to Hockeytown for the ninth time in the team's 72 years.
And what a grand party it could be. Last year's euphoric celebration, ending a 42-year championship drought, was cut short by the limousine crash that ended the playing career of Vladimir Konstantinov and severely injured Sergei Mnatsanakanov, the team's masseuse.
The lingering effect has been to draw Detroit's working class arms even more tightly around its revered Red Wings and to deepen the conviction here that Detroit is both destined and due for great things.
"We're all very protective of our Red Wings," said Julia Cox of nearby Harper Woods, Mich. "We feel they're all our children. When Konstantinov got hurt, it put a damper on it for all of us. It was like we were in mourning. We all stopped celebrating. And that's why we're looking forward to it so much this year."
Ice hockey has a meaning in Detroit that's hard for many Americans to understand.
Its Red Wings were among the NHL's original six teams, for starters. As neighbors of Canada, whose casinos loom just over the river, Detroiters share Canadians' profound pride in the game. Given the frigid climate, hockey is a natural outlet to keep youngsters occupied and adults entertained through the dark winter months. So it's no surprise that the area has spawned some of hockey's greatest players and toughest teams from the Red Wings on down to the minor league Vipers and the University of Michigan's NCAA champions.
"I wouldn't say Detroit's an arts town," said Lynn Petersmarck, marketing manager of Atwater Block Brewery, a popular spot among hockey fans. "We do have culture, but the number one thing is sports. And there's not a person in town who wouldn't say they're a Red Wings fan."
The Red Wings' resurgence in the 1990s, which was crowned by last season's 4-0 sweep of Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup finals, has pumped new life into Detroit. Hockey fever still runs high.
The nine-ton "Spirit of Detroit" statue has it. The huge bronze figure in front of Detroit's city-county building is draped this week in a gigantic Red Wings jersey. Nearly every car that drove past it today on Jefferson Avenue flew Red Wings flags attached to the windshield.
Red Wings mania certainly is keeping Chuck and Carri Gvozdich busy. Owners of Dearborn's Breadsmith Bakery, they came up with the idea a few days ago of baking a five-pound loaf of crusty bread in the shape of an octopus the famous symbol of Red Wings fans. They popped raisins in for eyes, dubbed it "Stanley bread," slapped a $15 price tag on it and put a sample in the bakery window. They've been flooded with special orders ever since.
"This thing actually started as a joke," said Chuck Gvozdich. "But everybody wants these things. Today our phone started ringing at 4:30. I don't think I'd spend $15 for it, but Detroit is hockey crazy."
Some city's restaurants offer pre-theater meals. At Detroit's venerable Mario's Italian Restaurant, owner Vince Passalacqua debuted a Red Wings' pregame meal during last year's run to the Stanley Cup. He lures fans with $15 sirloin steaks, plus soup, pasta and free shuttle service to the game. It's drawing 40-50 new customers each night.
The phones jangle off the hook these days at WDFN, "The Fan," sports radio station, too. The topic, naturally, is the Wings.
"When [goaltender Chris] Osgood lets in a bad goal, the phone lines are flooded: 'He stinks; he's a bum; he's great!'‚" said Mike Stone, co-host of the "Stoney and Wojo" afternoon drive show. "Right now, hockey is the number one sport in Detroit. Baseball is dead in this town. And the Lions if they ever won anything maybe."
At Mickey Redmond's Travel and Tours, Jennifer Davis was busy arranging for a third airplane to take fans to Washington for Games 3 and 4. The company, run by the former Red Wings player, is offering packages that include tickets to both games, a four-night hotel stay, transportation and a dinner with Redmond. At $889 for double occupancy and $1,106 for a single, the excursion has a waiting list of 300.
In downtown's Renaissance Center, the Stanley Cup itself drew a huge lunchtime crowd of worshippers today. The trophy rested on a table behind a black velvet rope. Floodlights accentuated its sheen. And fans buzzed around it three- and four-deep as if it were a moon rock, jostling to get the best camera angle, glimpse the names inscribed on it or simply bask in its reflected glory.
Johnny Wilson, the uncle of Capitals Coach Ron Wilson, won four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. He remembers hockey's glory days in Detroit and lived through those 42 years of disappointment.
"The city went into a state of shock for several years when the team wasn't even in contention," said Johnny Wilson, 68. Now that hockey-mania is back, he couldn't be happier.
"I think the people need something to sort of attach to besides hard work," Ron Wilson said. "The Lions have been trying to do that for years. The Tigers were there at one time. But the Red Wings, now, are really the team the fans have attached to. Hockey is their life here, and you can't say anything bad about the Red Wings."
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