You watched them take the ice and looked at the back of their sweaters, and it didn't take long for it to hit you. This wasn't merely the premier team in the NHL in the 2001-02 season; this was a cavalcade of hockey icons, guys with big names and bigger resumes, an assemblage of future Hockey Hall of Famers -- a veritable fantasy team.
Video: 2001-02 Red Wings take unique route to Cup glory
Yzerman. Lidstrom. Hasek.
Hull. Fedorov. Shanahan.
Robitaille. Larionov. Chelios.
On one roster?
Are you serious?
[2001-02 Detroit Red Wings roster]
And there was one more Hall of Famer -- Scotty Bowman -- behind the bench, to say nothing of a promising rookie center, Pavel Datsyuk, just beginning a career that would include four Lady Byng trophies and three Frank Selke trophies as the League's top defensive forward.
Has there ever been such an embarrassment of hockey riches, with expectations to match?
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Just ask Luc Robitaille, who is 12th in NHL history with 668 goals but only third among the 2001-02 Red Wings, behind Brett Hull (741, fourth) and Steve Yzerman (692, ninth).
"We've known since the beginning that if we lose in the seventh game in the third overtime, it was a bad year," Robitaille said that season.
"Everyone expected us to win the Cup," defenseman Steve Duchesne said. "Simple as that."
Robitaille was one-third of general manager Ken Holland's audacious offseason renovation project, one arguably unmatched in NHL history. Spurred by the stunning conclusion of the 2000-01 season, when the 49-win Red Wings crashed out of the playoffs by losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Holland signed two all-world goal scorers, Hull and Robitaille, and traded for an all-world goaltender, Dominik Hasek.
"It's like Patrick Roy or even Ken Dryden when I had him," Bowman said of Hasek in an interview with ESPN. "He can psych out the other team. They know he's going to come up big in certain situations. Bringing in Dominik was bringing in an MVP, not just a goalie. If you went through the League at the end of  and said, 'Pick one player you'd want on your team,' he'd get an awful lot of votes."
As insanely talented as those Red Wings were, they were also insanely old by hockey standards, with 10 players who would be were 35 years or older by season's end. Nobody was terribly surprised when the Red Wings won 20 of their first 25 games, nor when they finished the season 51-17-10-4, by far the League's best record. Igor Larionov, the 41-year-old center, marveled at how Bowman put all his famous pieces together, including center Sergei Fedorov and defenseman Chris Chelios.
"Scotty knows how to find the key with one player and make him accommodate the key of another," Larionov told ESPN. "He experiments all season with that, so he knows what he has for the playoffs. It's like chess."
Even masters get checkmated sometimes, though, and it very nearly happened to Bowman and the Red Wings early in the 2002 playoffs. Detroit lost the first two games of the conference quarterfinals to the Vancouver Canucks at home and was tied 1-1 in the final minute of the second period in Game 3, when Nicklas Lidstrom took a slap shot from center ice that somehow slipped under the glove of Canucks goaltender Dan Cloutier.
The Red Wings won that game 3-1 and took the series in six games before ousting the St. Louis Blues in five games and prevailing in their seemingly annual grudge match with the Colorado Avalanche in a seven-game conference final. That taut series included three overtime games before a 7-0 finale that nobody saw coming, with the Red Wings scoring four first-period goals against Roy and never relenting.
The Red Wings completed their run by defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in five games in the Stanley Cup Final.
Video: 2002 Cup Final, Gm 5: Bowman's 9th Cup passes Blake
"We really had balanced scoring," Yzerman said on the day he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, along with Robitaille and Hull. "I think at the end of the day that was the difference playing Colorado in the semis, then ultimately against Carolina. Despite winning in five, they were relatively close games. We were able to generate, get more production from all four of our lines."
This was vintage humility from Yzerman, the captain and high-character conscience of three Cup-winning teams, a player who led the Red Wings with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in the 2002 playoffs despite playing on one good leg and whose selflessness embodied their essence.
"It begins and ends with Steve," Hull said. "People like him don't come along very often. The way he carries himself, in this town, there's almost an onus on the rest of us to be like him."
Lidstrom won the Conn Smythe Award as the playoff MVP, along with the second of his seven Norris trophies as the premier defenseman in the NHL. Forward Brendan Shanahan led a supremely balanced attack with 75 points (37 goals, 38 assists). Hasek dominated when it mattered most, and Yzerman, who turned 37 that spring, provided the inspiration, as Bowman sent wave after wave of aging icons over the boards and watched them lift the Cup when it was all finished.
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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.