Back in the 1990s, the Detroit Red Wings were a powerhouse. Excellent drafting, smart trades and shrewd free agent signings kept this team at or near the top of the league for two and a half decades. 4 Stanley Cup wins. 6 Stanley Cup Finals appearances. They were the envy of the league. Admired and hated. The infamous 1989 draft yielded Russian gems Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov. Slava Kozlov would arrive later. Nicklas Lidstrom was also part of that infamous '89 draft. Pavel Bure could've also been a Red Wing if management had done their homework. But that's another story. The team was built around team icon, Steve Yzerman.
The Red Wings began their 25 consecutive season playoff streak in 1991. They were very young, very talented and very motivated to assume their place amongst the NHL's elite. Many great regular seasons and playoff disappointments followed. Losing to the Blues in '91, Blackhawks in '92, the Leafs in '93, the Sharks in '94, the Devils in '95 and the Avs in '96, the Red Wings developed a well earned reputation of being playoff chokers. Their Russian players took the brunt of the criticism which fed into the outdated and false narrative that "you could never win a Stanley Cup with Russian players."
Something had to change. Long time Red Wings GM, Jimmy Devellano couldn't just blow up the roster and start over. He knew this Red Wings team was too talented to do what a large part of the fanbase wanted him to do. Red Wings fans would call into radio shows and want the Red Wings to trade Sergei Fedorov for Jeremy Roenick. Scotty Bowman created "The Russian 5" and they changed the way the game was played. It worked great during the regular season but wasn't as effective during the playoffs when Hudson Bay rules hockey was introduced. Basically wrestling on ice. Lots of interference and sucking as much skill out of the game as humanly possible.
So after the 1996 playoffs, the Red Wings were left wondering, what else can we do? Why can't we win the Stanley Cup? What are we missing? Steve Yzerman had played for Team Canada at the inaugural World Cup of hockey in September of 1996. It was basically a rebrand of the original Canada Cup which had been last played in 1991. Team Canada would go on to lose this '96 World Cup largely because of Team USA goalie Mike Richter standing on his head. But Steve Yzerman noticed his Canadian teammate, Brendan Shanahan. He brought an element to the game the Red Wings sorely needed. A unique blend of high end skill, toughness and leadership.
Shanahan had entered the NHL as a young 18 year old kid after being drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the first round. He was part of the infamous 1987 World Junior championship brawl which would later be dubbed the "Punch up in Piestany." Future Red Wings teammates Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov were also on the ice when the lights were turned off that night. Shanahan could do it all really. He could score, pass, hit, fight and brought a physical edge. He was big and strong enough to intimidate opponents which in turn bought him space on the ice.
When Shanny was signed as a restricted Free agent by the St. Louis Blues, Scott Stevens was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation. Shanny would later be traded to the Hartford Whalers for a young Chris Pronger. The Hartford Whalers were not a very good team and there were rumours of Shanny wanting to be traded. Lots of teams wanted him and Steve Yzerman saw an opportunity. He pleaded with Red Wings management that "they had to get this guy. He's exactly what this Red Wings team needs." So Scotty Bowman threw his hat into the ring and the Red Wings were officially in the "Shanny Sweepstakes."
The price of acquiring Shanny wouldn't be cheap. A big goal scoring winger in his prime? One who hits, fights and is tougher than boot leather? Pony up, boys. Bowman ended up offering a young Keith Primeau, future hall of fame defenseman Paul Coffey and the Red Wings first round pick for Shanny and a throw in journeyman defenseman Brian Glynn. It was a huge price to pay. A hockey trade in every sense. Primeau had been drafted by the Red Wings ahead of Jaromir Jagr. But since Igor Larionov had been acquired the season before, Primeau had been playing alot on the wing. He wasn't happy about that. Yzerman and Fedorov were also centers.
Paul Coffey had won the Norris trophy in 1995. So he was still an excellent defenseman (cough winger cough rover). So Bowman finally pulled the trigger on October 9, 1996 and acquired Shanny. Red Wings fans had heard the news and were ecstatic. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch flew him in immediately and he played that night. He was made assistant captain and he even got in a fight. Shanny was immediately a fan favourite. The Red Wings would go on to struggle somewhat the rest of the regular season. They won 38 games which was a far cry from their 62 win campaign the year before. But they knew they were being judged by what they would do in the playoffs.
March 26, 1997 will forever live in Red Wings lore because this is the night when the Red Wings finally became a TEAM in my opinion. They exacted revenge for the gutless, dirty hit Claude Lemieux laid on Kris Draper the year before. Shanny was a part of it. After Igor Larionov started the whole thing by tussling with Peter Forsberg and Darren McCarty began punching a turtling Claude Lemieux, AVS goalie Patrick Roy was all set to hit McCarty from behind. That's when Shanahan nailed Roy with a flying tackle which would make Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor proud. Roy would end up being bloodied by little Mike Vernon a few minutes later.
The Red Wings went on to win that game and win the Stanley Cup. They eliminated the AVS in 6 games in the Western Conference Final. The Red Wings had a swagger about them. They could now beat you on the ice but also beat you in the alley. Brendan Shanahan had alot to do with that. Shanny went on to win 3 Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. He was an important part of all 3 of those Cup winning teams. He was a leader on a team full of leaders. He did clash with head coach Scotty Bowman. Scotty believed he had to keep Shanny "mad" to get the most out of him or else he'd float and be a perimeter player.
I don't know if that's true or not. Who am I to question the great Scotty Bowman? But Shanny wanted to win so he took alot. He sacrificed for his team. He stuck up for his teammates. He scored big goals in big games and rose to the occasion. While he didn't endure the excruciating Red Wings playoff eliminations like players such as Yzerman, Fedorov, Konstantinov and Lidstrom did, he helped put them over the top. While the Red Wings did end up acquiring future hall of fame defenseman Larry Murphy later on at the trade deadline in 1997, Brendan Shanahan was the final piece of the Red Wings Stanley Cup puzzle.
I don't believe the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in '97 without Shanny. He brought that much needed element of toughness the Red Wings sorely lacked the seasons before. I miss hearing "The Irish Jig" being played after each time he scored at the old Joe Louis Arena. It was a very special time in Red Wings history. For the team, the fans and for Brendan Shanahan. I don't think he'd trade it for anything and neither would Red Wings fans. Here's to Shanny. #14 for the Detroit Red Wings. Thank you for helping the Red Wings get over the Stanley Cup hump in 1997. Your Red Wings legacy lives in hockey infamy.