For Red Wings, this finally could be the year Defense, determination may be keys to the Cup

The picture hangs on the wall as a stark reminder of past greatness, recent failures and great expectations. It never collects dust because if you watch closely, someone is always rubbing it for luck. But it has been there the past two seasons -- and luck has not followed the Detroit Red Wings yet.

Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Marcel Pronovost. They are easy to pick out in the photo. They are part of hockey history, true greats of the game. They also helped the Red Wings win seven consecutive regular-season titles and four Stanley Cups in six seasons.


The men in the 1954-55 team photo that hangs proudly in the Red Wings locker room represent happier days in Detroit -- a time when facing the red and white sweater with the wing on the chest struck fear into all in the National Hockey League.

"Some of my teammates think I played with those guys," says defenseman Paul Coffey, 34, who is in his 16th season. "I keep telling them I wasn't even born yet."


Though this isn't the same as the 53 years lost in the championship wilderness the New York Rangers finally overcame two years ago, Red Wings fans have had every right to think their team would win the Cup one of the past three seasons -- but it didn't. And with that extends the league's longest drought without hoisting the Stanley Cup in celebration at 41 years.

"The only difference between this team and the Edmonton and Pittsburgh championship teams I've played on is that this team hasn't won it all yet," says Coffey, three times a Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers and once with the Penguins. "The talent level here is equal to most of those teams."

The Red Wings were the league's top offensive team in 1992-93, but they bowed out to the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. One year later, they were again the scariest offensive team in the NHL, but they were first-round bait for the San Jose Sharks. Coach Scotty Bowman stressed defense over individual goals from the beginning of training camp last season. It paid off: The Red Wings allowed the second-fewest goals in the league. They lost two of 14 games while rolling over the Dallas Stars, Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks en route to their first visit to the finals since 1965. But they were frustrated once again when the New Jersey Devils swept them.

Twenty-one of the players who were on that Detroit team are back -- and they've broken more records along the way, including most victories (62) -- breaking the record set in 1976-77 when the Canadiens were 60-8-12 for 132 points.

"I wouldn't begin to get into comparisons with that team," says Bowman, who also coached that Montreal team. "I'll tell you one thing though: This team is better defensively than that team."

There is another thing that differentiates the two teams: That Canadiens team won its second of four consecutive Stanley Cups -- this Red Wings team is looking for its first.

Team and individual records fell this seasons, but statistics are for losers.

"You remember championships," Coffey says. "You don't remember the teams that won 'X' amount of games or finished with 'X' amount of points. . . . Look at the Buffalo Bills. They were a great team. They went to the Super Bowl four consecutive years. But the only thing people remember is they lost.


"It's the nature of the beast. It's just the way sports is."

Steve Yzerman looks you straight in the eye and says he tries not to think about the moment when he might be standing on the ice raising the Stanley Cup above his head as captain of the Red Wings. But he smiles and adds he dreams about it often.

He has spent 13 season with the Wings, the past 10 as captain. He has been part of the good -- and the bad. He remembers watching teams win the Cup on television. He has been so close he could touch the Cup, but he says that can wait until he earns the right that every Canadian boy dreams of. And Steve Yzerman has dreamed.

"I remember watching the Stanley Cup when I was 4," he says. "I loved the Bruins. I pretended to be Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny McKenzie. My brothers liked Montreal, so whenever we played road hockey or in the basement, it was Boston and Montreal.

"The last few years, I've seen the Cup on display at different league functions, but I've got no desire to get near it until we win it, and I get the chance to lift it in victory."

Most figure this is the Red Wings' year. They defeated every team in the league, not like last season when they didn't face Eastern Conference teams en route to the finals and found out how big and tough defensively the Devils were. This season, the Red Wings were aware that the Western Conference was being compared to the National Football League's American Football Conference, which has not won a Super Bowl since 1984.


"AFC, huh?" center Keith Primeau says. "That's a joke. It's not a fair comparison at all. We match up very well with any of the good Eastern teams. It's a crock."

The Red Wings obviously reacted to that comparison -- to the point where they are 19-7 against Eastern Conference teams.

"Obviously, the Red Wings have the makings of a championship year," says Wayne Gretzky, the leader of teams that won four Stanley Cup championships. "They have the greatest coach of all-time, in my opinion. They have all the ingredients and the experience of getting to the finals last year."

Pub Date: 4/21/96