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100 Greatest Players

2001-02 Red Wings stand tall at NHL100

Detroit Stanley Cup champion team has nine players on list

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- At times Friday, it was hard to tell whether this was the unveiling of the 100 Greatest NHL Players  presented by Molson Canadian or a reunion of the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Dominik Hasek walked down the hall together at Microsoft Theater as they once did at Joe Louis Arena. Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Brendan Shanahan lined up together to go on stage at the "The NHL100 presented by GEICO" as they once did to go on the ice. Chris Chelios talked about how happy he was to see Hasek and one of his favorite teammates of all time: Sergei Fedorov.

"You're trying to keep in touch," Chelios said, "but we're all over the globe."

Video: Chris Chelios on learning from Habs greats

Nine of them were together here. Nine.

Chelios. Fedorov. Hasek. Hull. Lidstrom. Robitaille. Shanahan. Pavel Datsyuk. Steve Yzerman.

Nine percent of the 100 on one team.

No other team in NHL history had as many, not even the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s, though they had as many as eight.

"I think it's incredible," Hull said with a smile, "but it's not surprising because I got to play with them and they were incredible."

Video: The NHL100: Greatest 1990s Wings revealed

What's even more incredible is the 2001-02 Red Wings also included Igor Larionov, a Hockey Hall of Famer. Had he spent his entire career in the NHL instead of coming over from the Soviet Union at age 28, he could have been on this list.

And they were coached by Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in hockey history, who already had more wins than anyone else and was a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame at the time.

You can argue whether this was the greatest NHL team or even whether this was the greatest Detroit team. The 1951-52 Red Wings -- who had Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk, six of the 100 -- led the regular-season standings by 22 points and went 8-0 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But at minimum this was one of the greatest teams of all time and a unique collection of talent, something never seen before and likely will never be seen again, now that the NHL has a salary cap. The 2001-02 Red Wings finished with 15 points more than anyone else, even though they were so far ahead down the stretch, Bowman rested players and they won one of their last 10 games. They won the Stanley Cup.

"It's a good thing we won," Yzerman said, setting up a line in his trademark biting wit. "Otherwise we would have been the most underachieving team of all time."

Video: Steve Yzerman was Detroit's captain for 19 seasons

Remember the circumstances: The Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998, lost in the second round of the playoffs in 1999 and 2000, and lost in the first round in 2001. They looked like they were in decline. A Detroit Free Press headline asked, "PAST THEIR PRIME?"

Then general manager Ken Holland traded for Hasek and signed Robitaille as a free agent. Holland declared that was it for high-profile additions because of his budget. But Hull wanted to play in Detroit, owner Mike Ilitch wanted him to play in Detroit, and the players wanted him to play in Detroit. So the Red Wings signed him as a free agent too, blowing out their budget even though Chelios, Lidstrom, Shanahan and Yzerman deferred salary to help make it happen.

With so many players in the winters of their careers, many already had Hall of Fame credentials. Entering the season, they had combined for 25 first or second postseason all-star teams, won 27 major individual postseason awards, made 60 All-Star Game appearances and scored 90 hat tricks. They had four of the top 10 active goal-scorers. They were thought to have nine potential Hall of Famers, plus Bowman.

"Even then during the time we were talking about, 'This is a great team,' " Lidstrom said.

What no one knew was Datsyuk, a 23-year-old rookie from Russia who had been selected in the sixth round (No. 171) of the 1998 NHL Draft, would become one of the best players ever as well.

"There was a great deal of pressure, I think, in being the favorite from Day One and having so many people root against you," Shanahan said. "It's never easy. But I think when you get a group like that, the hallmark for me was unselfishness and just a commitment to the team.

"A lot of people were skeptical about whether we could get along and share the ice and come off the ice after your 60 seconds on the power play and not complain if you weren't getting 21, 22 minutes. And it just didn't happen all year."

The Red Wings won 22 of their first 27 games. They hit milestone after milestone: Shanahan's 500th goal and 1,000th point; Robitaille's 600th goal and 611th goal, passing Bobby Hull for the most by a left wing in the NHL; Yzerman's 1,000th assist. At one point, at least briefly, they had three 600-goal scorers on one line: Hull, Robitaille and Yzerman.

They sent five players to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles in 2002 -- Fedorov, Hasek, Lidstrom and Shanahan as starters, Chelios as a reserve -- and Fedorov won the hardest-shot competition. Datsyuk played in the YoungStars game. They sent 11 players to the Salt Lake City Olympics, where they also had a prospect playing for Sweden named Henrik Zetterberg. Shanahan and Yzerman won gold for Canada, defeating Chelios, Hull and the United States.

Resting down the stretch almost derailed them. They lost their first two games of the Western Conference First Round to the Vancouver Canucks at home. But then Lidstrom scored from center ice in Game 3, and they turned it around.

"I remember that slap shot," Lidstrom said. "Hully was streaking down the right side, so I was shooting low glove side [hoping for a rebound], and the puck went in."

They defeated the Canucks in six; the St. Louis Blues in five; the archrival Colorado Avalanche in seven, overcoming a 3-2 deficit in an epic series; and the Carolina Hurricanes in five in a Final that included a triple-overtime thriller. Larionov, the oldest player on the ice at 41, scored the winner.

"We all were very lucky, very fortunate to be able to watch that team for a year," Holland said. "When faced with the challenge and adversity in the playoffs, they delivered."

They lived up to the hype.

"What the Ilitches put together and Kenny Holland, it was an all-star team within itself," Chelios said. "It was an unreal year. To finish it off the way we did, it was a perfect year."

To have nine among the 100 makes it even more unreal.

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