It's hard to imagine now, but in 1996, it had been more than 40 years since the Detroit Red Wings had lifted the Stanley Cup. For a franchise that owns the trademark to "Hockeytown," and to the fans who support them, such a dearth was unacceptable. Entire generations of Michiganians would not have had any memories of Gordie Howe or Alex Delvecchio, the stars of the last Detroit team to win one.
So when Steve Yzerman, consummate NHL captain—he wore the C in Detroit from 1986-87 until the day he retired in 2005-06 and is referred to by locals simply as "The Captain"—scored his historic, double overtime, series clinching goal on May 16, 1996 against divisional rival St. Louis, Wings fans rejoiced. This could finally be the year. It would not be the year, but Yzerman's goal inspired hope—and the Wings time would come soon enough.
There's no denying the drama of the moment. Series that go to a Game 7 don't often end in overtime, and when they do the game-winner is often consecrated by the more evangelical (and sentimental) hockey fans among us. What are we to do, though, when the series-clinching goal comes on an unscreened, 60-foot slap shot that no NHL caliber goalie should ever get beat on? A lot of people from Detroit are going to have a lot of opinions (mostly angry, hateful opinions) about this, but Steve Yzerman's iconic goal against St. Louis on May, 16 1996 is the most overhyped goal ever scored in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
St. Louis was woefully outclassed in goal during the series. Without five-time Stanley Cup winning netminder Grant Fuhr, who suffered a season ending knee injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the previous series—remember when the Leafs were in the Western Conference?—the Blues were faced with the bad fortune of being forced to start Jon Casey, a goalie who only played in nine regular season games during the 1995-96 campaign and whose career numbers included a 3.22 goals against average and an .888 save percentage.
Those are not the kind of numbers that inspire hope, and Casey was not the kind of goalie you wanted between the pipes for the most important game in franchise history since the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. (That series ended in heartbreak for the Blues, too, on another iconic overtime goal scored by some guy named Orr.) Though St. Louis managed to beat the Leafs and push Detroit to the brink of elimination in spite of Casey's ineptitude, this clear disadvantage in goal—and this was inevitable—crept up at precisely the wrong time. A bad goalie gives up a bad goal in a huge situation, and just like that, Yzerman's 60-foot prayer is enshrined in the canon of Great NHL Goals.
Listen, I get it: It was about the immensity of the moment. It was about Stevie Y stepping up and being the ultimate captain and putting the team on his back or whatever version of the same old, maudlin narrative sports broadcasters and advertising execs love pushing. It was about a once storied franchise which hadn't earned any silverware in four decades. But when you watch the clip over and over and over again, obsessively, as I have for the past several weeks, the goal itself becomes unremarkable. It's the two minutes preceding Yzerman's blast (and Casey's lazy blocker thrust) that are worth watching.
The clip opens with a close up of a pissed off Sergei Fedorov screaming "Fuck!" (or the Russian equivalent of "Fuck!") while Devo's "Whip It" plays over Joe Louis Arena's PA system. Savor that. Fedorov was sad because exactly one minute before transforming into a rusty old sieve, Casey made what must have been the best save of his career, stoning the Russian sniper on a clean bid from just outside the goal crease. Fedorov's scoring chance was made possible when Yzerman shook a pursuant Wayne Gretzky, and then broke Murray Baron's ankles with a clever little fake slap shot. Yzerman's shrewd deception created confusion among St. Louis defenders—as Baron regained his footing, he skated directly into Al MacInnis, creating space for Yzerman to maneuver on the outside, but more crucially to open a lane to the net for Fedorov. Sure, Yzerman eventually notched the series-clinching goal, but his fake slapper/creation of space/dish to an open Fedorov in the slot was a far more impressive display of skill.
More impressive (Bewildering? Astonishing?) than Yzerman's offensive zone wizardry or Casey's once in a lifetime save is that the last minute of the decisive game 7 represents what were perhaps the two worst shifts of Gretzky's professional career. "Wayne Gretzky kind of lost Steve Yzerman for a moment," reports Bill Clement, whose asinine banter on EA's NHL video game franchise was the soundtrack to countless hours of many wasted youths.
As Stevie Y darts along the ice, Gretzky disappears from the frame, offering not much more than a passive wave of the stick as defense to his opponent's charge. Gretzky goes into a glide, and only begins to skate again once he realizes Fedorov is about to get a clean look at the bumbling Casey. The Great One's sluggish back check is anything but great, and if not for Casey's solitary moment of brilliance, the series would have ended right there. But St. Louis lived to fight another minute, and Gretzky lived to make yet another pivotal mistake.
It's worth noting that Gretzky was 35 at the time and had already played in more than 1,200 professional games—the combination of tired old legs and double overtime, especially when deep into the playoffs, is hardly ideal. Despite his age and the amount of minutes he'd played, Gretzky was still an elite player. After being dealt by the Kings to the Blues for three guys you've never heard of and two draft picks who never panned out, Gretzky went on to score 21 points in 18 regular season games and another 16 points in 13 postseason games. 35 year-old Gretzky was still the Great One. You know how that goes, though. Mistakes seem to count more when they're made by players who aren't accustomed to making many.
The NHL playoffs are famous for their ferocious pace and physical play, and the minute that elapsed between the Casey save and the Casey gaffe held to that standard. Igor Kravchuk and Steve Leach and Craig MacTavish—his curly locks unrestrained by a bucket—forecheck like hell for the Blues, while the speedy Igor Larionov and Slava Kozlov create a pair of chances for the Wings. After some solid pressure from Detroit, St. Louis manages to clear their zone and dump the puck deep to get a change. Thirteen seconds later, their season would be over.
The sequence that lead to the goal was unexceptional if you ignore the fact that it included three of the best players in the history of the sport: Yzerman, Gretzky, and Wings defenseman Slava Fetisov. (The game itself featured 14 future hall of famers—each team had seven on its roster.) There was no needle-threading pass, no slick, mullet-fluttering deke, no bone crushing open ice hit. Fetisov gathers the puck behind the net and plays it to his partner, the sure-handed Konstantinov. Looking for a quick break, Konstantinov attempts to fire a pass to a teammate streaking up the left boards. Only instead of getting good wood on the pass, Konstantinov heels it...directly towards Wayne Gretzky.
While trying to corral Konstantinov's errant pass, Gretzky—who possessed as good a set of mitts as the game ever saw—inexplicably also heels it. The puck squirts past the great one to Yzerman who...well, you know what happens from there.
Getting bounced from the playoffs by a divisional rival hurts, but the worst part isn't that Yzerman capitalized on Gretzky's mistake—a fan base can live with the concrete sting that accompanies defeat. The worst part is that had Gretzky been able to snare Konstantinov's bum pass, he'd have had an unmolested path toward the Detroit goal. Both Konstantinov and Fetisov were drifting away from the center of the sheet, which opened up a large swath of empty ice in the middle of Detroit's defensive zone. Gretzky was skating against the flow of the play, toward that patch of empty ice. If he intercepts cleanly, he's in cleanly.
Game 7, double overtime, Wayne Gretzky on a breakaway. It's every hockey fan's dream. Who knows if he would have scored (let's be honest, he would have scored), but it's precisely that doubt that stings more than any defeat possibly could. Defeat is material, solid; doubt is intangible. Thanks to an uncharacteristic turnover and a goal you wouldn't see a seventh grader concede, St. Louis Blues fans have been living with some version of "What if?" for the past 20 years.
Now they lead the Sharks 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals. Will this be the year it relents?