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 1997 Playoff Review

  In Hockey, Detroit Is the Capital City
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page C02

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Welcome to the Stanley Cup finals, where no Capitals team has ever gone before. Want to know what it's like to be in the Stanley Cup? Like it or not, it's best to ask the Red Wings — the opposition — for they have been there not once, not twice, but three times in the last four years.

Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena, the Capitals begin their bid to win their first Stanley Cup in their 24th year of existence. And the Red Wings, who still own last season's Cup, are looking for their ninth.

For those Washingtonians who think it's a bit greedy for Detroit fans to hunger for a second straight Cup while this city has waited 24 long years merely to get to the finals, it must be explained that Detroit is hockey's team of the 1990s, and, for this group of players, one Cup does not satisfy.

A mere bridge — or tunnel, your choice — away from Canada, Detroit is one of the "original six" teams in the National Hockey League, and considers itself such a hotbed of hockey that team owners copyrighted the name "Hockeytown U.S.A." to use in all the team's promotional material. Detroit hockey is steeped in tradition — from the now well-known habit of throwing octopi onto the ice, to the coveted bricks from the old Olympia Stadium that many Detroiters have buried in their backyard gardens.

The city of Washington — home to many empty seats at MCI Center this winter — is just waking up to the marvel that is post-season hockey. Fans happily climbed out of their beds late last Thursday night to greet the players upon their triumphant return from Buffalo, where Joe Juneau's overtime goal clinched this city's first Eastern Conference championship. And on Sunday morning, at open practice at Piney Orchard, hundreds of people packed the stands and chanted "Olie, Olie, Olie!" in honor of the man, goaltender Olaf Kolzig, most responsible for Washington's spring success.

Sorry to say, though, that Red Wings fans would scoff at such paltry displays of affection — when the Wings used to hold camp in Flint, Mich., they got upward of 3,000 spectators for each practice session. The building would empty after the morning workout and fill up again in the afternoon, seats becoming so sought-after that eventually the team sold $1 tickets and gave the money to charity.

Camp has since moved a three-hour drive north of Detroit to Traverse City, Mich., home to Gordie Howe, and the residents of that small burg have done their share to continue the mania. By late last June, there were signs on the Traverse City deli, on the grocery store, on the gas station, and at the corner market. They were welcome signs. And they were hung two months in advance.

There also were signs declaring the 1997-98 season a path to another Stanley Cup, and nothing less will be acceptable in Detroit. In fact, some observers claim that the Red Wings' fan base has been somewhat blase this postseason, holding back the real mania for this particular moment — as if they assumed (as they did!) that an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals was a given this spring.

As Detroit fans can tell you, though, the Stanley Cup finals have been a bore the past three years — all decided in four-game sweeps, turning what can be a high-drama two weeks into nothing more than a romp. The last truly great Stanley Cup final came just four short years ago, when Vancouver played the New York Rangers in a series that went seven games.

Two members of the Capitals can give firsthand accounts of what it felt like to be a part of that seven-game whirlwind — and from opposite sides of the rink, no less. Capitals General Manager George McPhee was a young assistant general manager for the Canucks that year, hoping to win his Cup ring in management after watching his professional career — actually, he was a Ranger — cut short by a bad back. Esa Tikkanen played for New York, and already had four rings when he took part in that series, but he'll never forget what it was like to be in Madison Square Garden the night the Rangers clinched.

Nationwide, though, there are fears that this Stanley Cup series will be yet another clunker, so favored are the Red Wings to win — perhaps even in yet another sweep. Sports Illustrated declared the Eastern Conference finals between Washington and Buffalo the "junior varsity" series in comparison to what took place between Detroit and Dallas, and hockey writers across the country are picking the Red Wings to win the Cup in four games, five at the most.

Now, the Capitals are well used to this kind of underestimation — despite being the statistical favorites in all three of their previous playoff rounds, not many truly expected them to end up at this point. It's safe to say, though, that the Bruins, and the Senators, and even the Dominik Hasek-led Buffalo Sabres, are mere warm-up acts compared to the mighty Red Wings, who are so talented it nearly takes one's breath away.

The Red Wings are coached by Scotty Bowman, a legend of a leader, who is not averse to playing mind games to give his team the edge. As legend has it, Bowman once painted the visitor's locker room pink before the opposition rolled into town, certain that the color would leave the he-men on the other team highly discombobulated. Just last spring, the St. Louis Blues again accused him of painting the visitors' dressing room before their playoff visit — it wasn't pink this time, but it was painted close enough to the Blues' arrival that the room still reeked of paint fumes.

For all his gamesmanship, though, Bowman will be best remembered for his statistics: A former coach of St. Louis, Montreal, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, Bowman is going to his 12th Stanley Cup finals in 26 years as a coach — that's better than 40 percent — and he has won the Cup seven times previously.

Washington Coach Ron Wilson, a Stanley Cup novice, has not made any trips to Sherwin-Williams, but he's no slouch when it comes to mind games as well. A master motivator in his own locker room, Wilson poked at the Sabres all last series, until Hasek felt compelled to publicly declare that he had not turned into a head case.

If Wilson is looking for a victim to pinpoint in the Detroit series, he need go no further than the goal mouth, where stands Chris Osgood, easily the Red Wings' most volatile case. Osgood, the Detroit goalie, has had something of rocky affair with the people of the Motor City, who place enormous expectations on their goaltenders and have raised their doubting eyebrows at Osgood's tendency to let in the sloppiest of goals every once in a while.

Osgood earned a love-in from Detroit fans this past weekend, when his Game 6 shutout over Dallas allowed the Red Wings to clinch their finals berth in the beloved confines of Joe Louis Arena, and he has been a bit testy about all the question marks placed after his name. It's safe to say, though, that Detroit fans will not hesitate to boo him once again should he allow, say, a soft goal by Joe Reekie in Game 1.

By contrast, Washington's goalie, the beloved Olie, has become the heart and the hero of this city during the Capitals' Stanley Cup run. By his own description, Kolzig (who moved around from nation to nation to nation during his childhood) is the perfect symbol of the Capitals: A transient man in a city where few residents stay permanently and fewer still have deep roots.

Kolzig also happens to represent, though, the Capitals' best hopes in this series — those same national hockey writers who are whispering "out in four" tend to amend their statements with the admission, "Unless Kolzig can steal a few games." Without a doubt, goaltender is an area where Washington has the edge in this series; the Red Wings, by contrast, play such incredible defense that they commonly solve goaltending problems by refusing to let the opposition get near enough to Osgood to take any decent shots.

As for the Detroit offense, its point man is Sergei Fedorov, the Russian well-known for his goal scoring ability, mammoth playoff bonus (he received $12 million when the Wings reached the Western Conference finals) and superstar girlfriend (tennis teenager and fellow Russian Anna Kournikova). Fedorov is the focal point on a team so well stocked with Russian talent that the Stanley Cup had to journey to Moscow last summer to be properly honored.

Let's not forget, though, that the heart of the Detroit team rests with Steve Yzerman, the longest-term captain in the league. Washington has for its leader 37-year-old Dale Hunter, with his craggy face and salt-and-pepper beard and soybean farm in Ontario, a man raised in a family that already has won four Stanley Cup rings. Detroit's man is Yzerman, who is only 33 years old, but was named Wings captain at the tender age of 21. Hunter is a checker, a workhouse; Yzerman a 500-goal scorer. Both, though, bring their teams to Joe Louis tonight with the same goal: to bring home that coveted Stanley Cup.

As is tradition, the winners of the Stanley Cup get to spend the summer with the trophy — most famous in all of North American sports — and, as a result, Lord Stanley has seen his share of odd spots. The Rangers took it to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch (Mark Messier with the delivery); Mario Lemieux floated it in his backyard swimming pool. Last summer, Yzerman showered with the trophy then, freshly washed, took it for a jet ski ride on the local lake.

Hunter has yet to declare what he would do with the Cup should he be the first Capital to claim it for a visit, but another Washington veteran — Mike Eagles — apparently has his plans set. According to his two sons, who declared their intentions at a recent practice, the Eagles family shall eat cereal from the bowl at the top of the cup this summer. No word yet on whether it will be Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions, or those chocolatey Cocoa Puffs.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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