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Greatest NHL Teams

1997-98 Red Wings voted No. 6 Greatest NHL Team

Swept Capitals in Stanley Cup Final, repeated as champions

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

There had been so many tears in the months leading to this moment, shed for personal tragedy and professional defeat.

But on June 16, 1998, in Washington, the only emotion among the Detroit Red Wings was that of overflowing joy, so much of it tied to the smiling man who had been pushed out onto the MCI Center ice in his wheelchair, an unlit cigar between his lips. 

 

Video: 1997-98 Red Wings sweep Caps to repeat as Cup champs

 

The Red Wings would take the traditional tours of the rink with the Stanley Cup, having swept the Washington Capitals in four games to win their second consecutive championship. 

But before the victory laps began, captain Steve Yzerman placed the trophy in the lap of Vladimir Konstantinov, the defenseman who had been critically injured in a limousine crash six nights after Detroit's 1997 Stanley Cup victory. 

 

[1997-98 Detroit Red Wings roster]

 

The accident injured Konstantinov, fellow Russian and Detroit defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov, and Red Wings masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. Though Fetisov returned to play in 1997-98, the grave injuries to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were a cloud but also a ray of inspiration to the Red Wings throughout the season in their defense of the Stanley Cup.

Indeed, Detroit dedicated the season to them; the Red Wings wore jersey patches bearing the initials "VK" and "SM" and the word "Believe" in English and Russian. 

 

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The Red Wings opened the season consumed by thoughts of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov. Under coach Scotty Bowman, Detroit, with seven future Hockey Hall of Famers, finished second in the Central Division. Yzerman led them in scoring with 69 points (24 goals, 45 assists). 

The playoffs were a grind, Detroit was pushed to six games in each of the first three rounds by the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars before their unlikely sweep of Washington in the Stanley Cup Final. It was the eighth of Bowman's nine championships as a coach, tying him with former Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake for most in NHL history; Bowman claimed the record with his ninth title, won with the Red Wings in 2002. 

The 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins, under Bowman, were the last team to successfully defend a Stanley Cup title, and the Red Wings hadn't won back-to-back championships since 1954-55. No team has repeated since Detroit in 1998. 

"This team was totally focused on its mission," Bowman said.

The previous season, the storied coach had hustled back to the Red Wings dressing room to return to the ice wearing skates for a victory lap with the Cup. This time, Bowman was an exhausted spectator who was delighted to watch Yzerman, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, present the trophy to Konstantinov, who was beaming in his No. 16 jersey. 

"Everyone knows what tonight was for -- to get the Cup and share it with Vladimir," Bowman said. "We knew he was at the game. When they showed him (standing up) on the big screen, the reaction went right through the bench." 

Yzerman had planned to take the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and immediately give it to goaltender Chris Osgood. But then Shanahan told his captain that Konstantinov would be on the ice. 

"A year ago, we were told Vlady might not live and tonight he carried the Stanley Cup," Yzerman said. "I think that's pretty special." 

Watching the celebration from behind the Capitals bench was Washington coach Ron Wilson, numbed by defeat. But nerves, like those surely of every observer, tingling as Yzerman handed Konstantinov hockey's most prestigious trophy. 

"That was outstanding," Wilson said. "It's obviously a very tight-knit group and when they have someone like (Konstantinov) to rally around, I mean, what the heck can we say? No speech you can give, no story you can tell can compare to what that team has gone through this year. That was a very emotional, professional thing that they did. You'd only see that in hockey." 

For Bowman, who had coached five championship teams with the Canadiens, another in Pittsburgh and now a second in Detroit, putting the Red Wings' 1997-98 title in historical perspective was a challenge. 

"I could tell you a lot of lies, but how good is this team?" he said. "I just know we found a lot of ways to win."

 

[MORE TO EXPLORE: All-Time Stanley Cup Winners | NHL 100 | READ: Greatest NHL Teams | WATCH: Greatest NHL Teams]

 


The Greatest NHL Teams were voted by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration. Stanley Cup championship teams from 1918-2016 were eligible, and the top 10 were announced during the 2017 Final.

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