Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
Detroit might be a suffering city in a lot of ways, particularly with regards to the auto industry. But in 1997 it was on top of the world. It wasn’t a bailout that got them there, but a run of championships by teams that had been waiting a long time. The Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup since 1955. The Michigan Wolverines football team took home their first national title since 1947-48. And there were solid supporting actors working behind the stars. The Lions made the NFL playoffs, and the Pistons did the same in the NBA. TheSportsNotebook looks back on how this magnificent year unfolded.
The Red Wings were a frustrated organization. They’d played the best hockey in the Western Conference for three straight years. For their troubles, they’d been upset in the first round by San Jose in 1994, lost the Cup Finals to New Jersey in ’95 and the best team in 1996 and had been ousted by Colorado in a conference finals showdown that left bad blood brewing into the following season.
Detroit was coached by legendary Scotty Bowman, and the top scorer was Brendan Shanahan, with 46 goals and 41 assists. While Shanahan had the production, the best reputation belonged to center Sergei Federov , whose 30 goals/33 assists were a little low, but his ability to take over a game was undisputed. Steve Yzerman was one of the top passer s in the game with 63 assists, Igor Larionov was a productive passer and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was at the beginning of a career that remains active today. The issue was whether Detroit had championship-quality goaltending. While Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood were effective, they didn’t dominate the way Colorado’s Patrick Roy or New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur—the goalies who’d beaten the Wings and won the last two Cups—could.
After a slow start, losing four of six, Detroit responded with a 5-0-2 stretch and another three-game win streak moved them to 19-11-6 shortly after Christmas. The final game in this stretch was a magnificent display by Federov who scored five goals, the last in overtime, to beat the Washington Capitals 5-4. Towards the end of February, another three-game win streak nudged them to 31-19-12. The Red Wings were playing solid, consistent hockey, but they were a step behind Colorado and Dallas in the Western Conference and this didn’t have the feel of a Cup winner.
By the end of February it was the Pistons who looked like the championship contender in the Motor City. They were no longer the Bad Boys who won three Eastern Conference titles from 1988-90 and the NBA crown the last two of these years, but they still had Grant Hill averaging 21 points/9 rebounds/7 assists per game. Veteran Joe Dumars, a mainstay of the championship teams and the future architect of another title team in 2004 when he was GM, was still an effective two-guard. Lindsey Hunter rounded out a solid backcourt. Otis Thorpe and Terry Mills could each score reasonably well as the inside players, but Mills—a part of the 1989 Michigan team that won the NCAA title—wasn’t a great rebounder, and Detroit lacked depth. Head coach Doug Collins had a chore in trying to compete with the Jordan-era Bulls, along with Eastern powers New York and Miami.
The Pistons got off to a blazing start, winning 10 of 11 and losing only to the Bulls and Detroit was 20-4 on December 20. The issue with matching up with the league’s elite was already showing though, and a three-game losing streak included losses at Chicago and New York. The Pistons bounced right back, won six of seven and their record reached 40-13 by the end of February. Whatever the problems, the record was one of a legitimate contender
SETTING THE TONE
On March 26, Detroit faced Colorado. It wasn’t the first time the teams had faced since last year’s playoff brawl and the previous games passed without incident. This time the bad blood the Red Wings felt over Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux’s hit on Kris Draper that fractured the latter’s jaw and left him out for much of the 1997 season boiled over. A full-scale brawl ensured, and the Red Wings ultimately won a 6-5 game in overtime. If you’re looking for a turning point prior to the playoffs, when a good team became a championship one, this would be it. Perhaps that’s reading too much into things, but Detroit had clearly sent a message to the defending champs and the team that would be the conference’s #1 seed. The Red Wings were slotted at #3 and set to play the St. Louis Blues.
The lack of depth Collins was dealing with on the basketball court really came to the fore in the latter part of the NBA season. The Pistons lost five of seven at the end of March, a stretch again including road games with the Bulls and Pistons. They were still 49-22 and in position to get a good playoff seed, but they lost six of their last nine and slipped to #5 in the Eastern Conference, meaning they would not have homecourt advantage in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
THE PLAYOFFS BEGIN
On April 16, St. Louis came to Joe Louis Arena to start the NHL playoffs and for Detroit fans it had to feel like a recurring nightmare. Brett Hull was one of the game’s top offensive players and the Blues were coached by Mike Keenan, who’d led the New York Rangers to glory in 1994 and they started the series off with a 2-0 win. Was this going to be another year where Detroit lost to a team with a hot goalie?
Fortunately, Grant Fuhr wasn’t in Roy or Brodeur’s class, and while offense was hard to come by, Detroit battled their way to 2-1 and 3-2 wins the next two games. Hull stepped up in Game 4 at St. Louis with three assists, while Geoff Courtnall scored twice in a 4-0 Blues win that knotted the series.
Friday April 25 was a big day for Detroit sports fans. The Wings would be at home in the pivotal Game 5, while the Pistons were opening their series in Atlanta. A complete team effort characterized the hockey team, as five different players scored and the Red Wings won 5-2. Hoops wasn’t as good. While Hill scored 20 points, no one could stop Atlanta center Dikembe Mutombo, who scored 26 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and led the Hawks to an 89-75 win. Both hockey and basketball were on tap again Sunday. To the relief of the Motor City the Pistons came back, with 25 points from Hill leading the way to a decisive win. If that game brought relief, Game 6 of the NHL series brought joy. While Hull picked up a goal, the Detroit defense clamped down and a 3-1 win sent them into the second round.
It looked the Pistons might do the same when they came back home and knocked off the Hawks 99-91 behind a hot shooting night from the floor. But the good shooting obscured the fact they were destroyed on the boards and Atlanta used that same advantage to even up the series in Game 4, sending the series back south for the decisive game of what was then a best-of-five series. The ending was all too fitting for Detroit. They played well and were in position to win, up by eight points after three quarters. But they were too thin on the bench and not tough enough up front and Atlanta’s rebounding advantages wore Detroit down in the fourth quarter. It was a nice season for the Pistons and the fans saw some good players, led by Hill. There just weren’t enough of them.
Hockey had everyone’s attention in Motown and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were the opponent (for the record, the official name at this time was “The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, but I’m just going to call then Anaheim in this article). Detroit had gotten a break when Dallas was beaten by Edmonton and it gave the Wings home-ice advantage for this series.
Anaheim had a pair of quality scorers in Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, but the Red Wing defense and goaltending did a number on both in the opener, getting a 2-1 win in overtime. More overtime awaited in Game 2 and again Detroit got the win, 3-2. When the series reverted west, the offensive players came out, with Federov getting a goal and two assists while Vychaslev Kozlov scored twice and the Wings took complete command of the series with a 5-3 win. Vernon stood tall in goal for Game 4, saving 35 of the 37 shots. But the game was won at the other end of the ice, where the Red Wings positively assaulted Anaheim goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov with 73 shots. Amazingly, Shtalenkov kept his team in the game and saved 70 of them. But it wasn’t enough to prevent Detroit from getting the 3-2 win that clinched the series. Showdown time was ahead and it was time for the rematch the NHL world wanted to see—at least the fans, if not the officials—and that was Detroit-Colorado in the Western Conference Finals.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP PUSH
Revenge is a great motivator, but dominant goaltending trumps anything else in sports. Once again, Detroit fans had reasons to think their recurring nightmare wouldn’t end, as their team went to the Rocky Mountains and came home a 2-1 loser after Roy saved 34 shots. But Game 2 saw a reversal of fortune. The defense shut down Colorado, allowing just 17 shots, while Federov and Yzerman each had a goal and an assist. The 4-2 Red Wings win evened the series as the teams went to the Rustbelt.
The duo of Federov and Kozlov delivered Game 3, as the former fed the latter for both goals and Detroit won 2-1. At the time it was just as notable that this was the game where tempers boiled over and full-scale brawling again went down. Detroit handled it better than Colorado, not only winning Game 3, but unleashing a devastating attack on Roy in Game 4. Larinov and unknown Kirk Maltby each scored two goals and the Wings rolled to a 6-0 win. Once the series was back in Denver for Game 5, Colorado quickly turned the tables, getting two goals apiece from Lemieux and Joe Sakic in a 6-0 win of their own.
It was Memorial Day in Detroit as the teams arrived at Joe Louis Arena for Game 6, and there was certainly reason for the home fans to be nervous. After the rout of Game 4 there was no way they could even think about a Game 7 on the road. While Detroit was getting solid goaltending play, Roy’s influence still loomed over this series. One way to overcome a goalie advantage is just to completely outplay your opponent between the goals. Once again, the Red Wings’ defenseman were in shutdown mode and the Avalanche could generate only 16 shots. Detroit attacked Roy 41 times. Raw numbers swung it, and a 3-1 win was sweet vindication for Bowman and the Wings as they headed for the Finals.
Beating Colorado was cathartic, but this group had still reached the Finals before. Only hoisting the Cup could lift the burden the city of Detroit felt. The opponent was the Philadelphia Flyers. The #3 seed in the East, the Flyers had only finished one point behind top seed New Jersey and was only seeded #2 because they were a non-division winner (each conference was split into two divisions at this time). Philadelphia had home-ice advantage and they had two signature players in Eric Lindros and Jon LeClair. Lindros was the more hyped star, while LeClair just filled the net with pucks, scoring 50 goals. What Philadelphia did not have was elite goaltending. Ron Hextall wasn’t bad, but there was no reason to think he would overmatch Vernon.
On the final day of May, Detroit got the Finals off to a good start with a 4-2 win, and then really ratcheted up the excitement level when they took Game 2 by the same score behind two goals from Shanahan. The series went back to Motown and Federov took over Game 3, scoring twice, dishing two assists and leading the way to a 6-1 rout. The elusive Cup was in their grasp and in front of a raucous crowd on a Saturday night, the Wings got a 2-1 win that brought it home. One of hockey’s best franchises was on top again. They would win a second straight championship the following year, again coming out of the 3-spot in the West and again sweeping the Finals (this time against Washington). They won the title in 2002 and 2008 and at this writing in early 2012, they’re a legitimate contender to do it again. Detroit’s a great hockey town and the 1997 Stanley Cup finally got the monkey off their back.
TIME FOR FOOTBALL
The expectations of a championship run weren’t there when fall came around. While the arrival of Michigan football and the Detroit Lions was welcome medicine after a summer of mostly mediocre baseball from the Tigers. But Michigan was only ranked 13th in preseason polls, and they hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl—or any other major bowl since 1992. The Lions, after a nice three-year run of playoff appearances from 1993-95 had finished out of the money in 1996 and were well behind the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the old NFC Central (the current NFC North plus Tampa).
Michigan gave fans quick reasons to believe something special might be in the works. They opened the season against 8th-ranked Colorado. The defense, led by cornerback Charles Woodson, intercepted four passes. Quarterback Brian Griese hooked up future All-American tight end Jerame Tuman five times for 126 yards. The Wolverines took a 10-0 lead in the first half and then opened the game up in the third quarter, on their way to a 27-3 win that vaulted them into the Top 10. They followed it up with an easy rout of Baylor and then a home victory over a mediocre Notre Dame squad that was in the first year of the long post-Lou Holtz drop to mediocrity. While Michigan trailed this game 14-7 at half, they again used a strong third quarter to turn it around and win 21-14. The last weekend of September concluded with Michigan 3-0 and ranked sixth in the nation.
The final weekend of September was similarly productive for the city’s NFL team. After splitting their first four games, the Packers came to the old Pontiac Silverdome, and the Lions picked off three Brett Favre passes en route to a 26-15 win. With the state’s most prominent college team now in the hunt nationally and the NFL team above .500 and having beaten the defending champs, maybe football season would have some juice after all.
MICHIGAN GAINS STEAM
Bobby Ross’ Lions would go through a stretch that would see them fall to 4-6 and lose any early season optimism, but Michigan kept moving forward. After coasting past Indiana and Northwestern they faced consecutive games against ranked opponents in Iowa and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes came to Ann Arbor and were ready to play. After a scoreless first quarter—the Wolverines would be notoriously poor at getting their offense going at the start of games—Iowa’s Tavian Banks took off on a 53-yard touchdown run. Then UM quarterback Brian Griese was intercepted, the ball returned to the 1-yard line and another touchdown ensued. While Michigan got a touchdown of their own, Iowa then scored on special teams, with a punt return for a touchdown to make the halftime score 21-7.
Griese brought the team back and tied the game at 21-21 when the special teams coverage again went awry. After the tying touchdown, a long kickoff return set up a go-ahead field goal for Iowa in the fourth quarter. Griese again brought his team back and found Tuman on a short touchdown pass with 2:55 left. Iowa came back and reached the Michigan 15-yard line, trailing by four points. Michigan’s Sam Sword came up with the interception that preserved the win and the undefeated season.
One week later it was a road test at Michigan State, and the Wolverines trailed 7-3 in the second quarter. Woodson was dominating on the defensive side and his versatility as a receiver on offense was starting to get him some dark-horse mention as a Heisman contender. Given the traditional bias against defensive players, it was tough to take the talk seriously at this time, but there was no question of Woodson’s ability to transform a game. He intercepted two passes in this game, including a one-hander on the sideline where he came down inbounds. Michigan’s offense drove 95 yards for a touchdown, they nudged out to a 13-7 lead and then put it away with ten points in the final quarter.
After a 24-3 win over Minnesota on November 1, Michigan’s tough part of the schedule now awaited. Penn State was also undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. Ohio State was having another big year and nestled in between them was a trip to play a Wisconsin team who wasn’t necessarily better than Michigan State or Iowa, but they were good enough to win at home with Michigan in a sandwich schedule spot.
What Lloyd Carr had going for him in his third year as head coach was a defense that was considered the best in the nation. Woodson was a playmaker extraordinaire, and players like defensive lineman Glen Steele, and linebackers James Hall and Dhari Jones went along with Sword to comprise a fearsome unit. Griese played a no-mistakes style that fit into this style perfectly, and as he would get opportunity to demonstrate, the quarterback could still step it up when he needed to.
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL CRUNCH
The months of November and early December would see the Lions continue to try the patience of their poor fans. After dropping to 4-6, they responded with consecutive home wins over Minnesota, Indianapolis and Chicago, before a loss at playoff-contending Miami put their backs against the wall again. Detroit answered the bell and won at Minnesota 14-13, where the defense held Viking quarterback Randall Cunningham to 77 passing yards and Lion counterpart Scott Mitchell threw for 255 yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Herman Moore that pulled out a 14-13 win. Detroit’s star running back Barry Sanders was having an MVP-caliber season and the offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowl center Kevin Glover. Along with Mitchell and Moore, the offense had the weaponry to score. Defensively the talent wasn’t as great, but the front four had two good talents in end Robert Porcher and tackle Luther Elliss. It didn’t seem like this team should have go to the final week of the regular season to fight for a playoff berth, but that’s what they were faced with.
Meanwhile, Michigan began the big month of November by stunning the nation at Penn State. That the now-#4 Wolverines were able to win this game was not a shock. They were seen as the better team thanks to defensive dominance, and had the game not been in Happy Valley, a rout wouldn’t have caught everyone off-guard. But on November 8 this team known for its slow starts, came out and hit on all cylinders. The first drive of the game produced a field goal. Then Griese threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-0. In the second quarter, Griese hooked up with Woodson for one touchdown and Tuman for another. It was 24-0 at halftime and it ended 34-8. The impressive quality of the win, along with the fact that top-ranked Nebraska needed a miracle to escape at Missouri, moved the Wolverines into the top spot in the polls with Florida State at #2.
One Saturday later I was in the hospital with my aunt when we heard there was no hope of her making a comeback from breast cancer. On TV in the Milwaukee-area hospital was the Wisconsin-Michigan game, so for obvious reasons this is a game I remember where I was for (well, I actually remember where I was for almost any game, be it serious or trivial). Michigan again started fast offensively with an 80-yard drive to start the game. Griese threw a touchdown pass to Tai Streets, although the extra point was missed. For a brief stretch in the third quarter it looked like that missing point might matter, when Wisconsin’s Mike Samuel led an 80-yard drive of his own to bring the Badgers within 16-10. But Michigan scored ten points in the fourth quarter, pulled ahead by sixteen points, and ended up with a 26-16 win.
The traditional season-ending game with Ohio State was all that stood between Michigan and perfection. The Buckeyes were 9-1 and ranked #4 themselves. The Buckeyes could play their way into the national title picture with a win in Ann Arbor and at minimum, could steal the Rose Bowl bid. But Woodson made his pitch to the Heisman voters with a brilliant performance. He caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Griese. He returned a punt 78 yards for another score. He stopped an Ohio State drive with an interception inside the 10-yard line. Michigan got out to a 20-0 lead (more extra point problems) and hung on 20-14 when Steele sacked Buckeye quarterback Joe Germaine twice on Ohio State’s last chance. Michigan was going to the Rose Bowl ranked #1 and set to claim that long-sought national championship, a prize that had been a long time coming in Michigan football history.
BRINGING HOME THE HARDWARE
December was a time to collect some hardware. Woodson picked up the Heisman Trophy, beating out Tennessee’s Peyton Manning to win the award. Woodson is the last defensive player to win the honor and his special teams’ and offensive prowess demonstrated just how much a defensive player has to do outside his regular position to win the award. A couple weeks later the Lions earned their playoff spot, beating a New York Jets’ team that was also in a must-win spot. After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter, the Lions chipped their way back into the game and then won it 13-10 on a touchdown run by Sanders in the fourth quarter. The extraordinary running back would share MVP honors with Favre.
It was time for the playoffs and the Lions were the appetizer. The opponent was Tampa Bay, who’d live up to their up-and-comer reputation under head coach Tony Dungy. The Buccaneers did it with defense and that D was out in force on the final Sunday in December. Sanders was held to 65 yards, Tampa Bay led 20-0 in the third quarter and coasted in to a 20-10 win. It was a disappointing end, but at least Detroit had gotten in the dance. The game everyone was really waiting for was four days later in Pasadena.
Washington State was the team who stood in Michigan’s way of a national championship. While the name Ryan Leaf is a joke among football fans today, a synonym for a bad high draft pick, there was a reason the quarterback was highly regarded out of college. He was at the helm of the #2 offense in the country, creating a perfect clash with the country’s best defense. In the early part of the game, each side landed its blows. Leaf threw a first-quarter touchdown pass, but Woodson got an interception on the next possession and Griese followed by throwing a 53-yard scoring pass to Streets. The Rose Bowl was tied 7-7 at half.
The Rose Bowl has been the site of bad memories for Michigan fans, and it looked like this year might become the worst. Leaf engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter—the best defense in the nation let someone go the length of the field. But today the special teams problems belonged to someone else and the Cougars missed the extra point, keeping the game 13-7. When Griese again hit Streets from 50-plus yards, that missed PAT was the difference in the game.
Michigan drove it to the 23-yard line in the fourth quarter and Griese threw his third touchdown pass of the game, hitting Tuman and stretching the lead to 21-13. With a little more than seven minutes left, Washington State got a field goal. Griese, whose father Bob was in the broadcast booth for ABC, alongside Washington State alum Keith Jackson, came up with the play of his life, scrambling for a first down on 3rd-and-11. “And the last time Brian Griese ran that fast, his daddy was chasing him with a stick,” Jackson exclaimed. Three more times Michigan converted third downs of six yards or more. By the time they punted it away, there was no time for Washington State to do anything else. Jackson spoke for all reasonable fans, when he told his broadcast partner that it was okay to let the emotions flow on the air. And even those of us who aren’t Michigan fans knew their fans had earned the right to let their own emotions flow. The national championship had been a long time coming.
The title may have been a long time coming, but Nebraska was still undefeated and would play Tennessee in the Orange Bowl the following night. Cornhusker head coach Tom Osborne gave his team a political boost by announcing his retirement. Could there be a sympathy vote for Nebraska? Nebraska beat the Vols badly and was able to claim the coaches’ poll, while Michigan won the writers’ poll. It was a fair ending, and in no way diminished what Michigan had accomplished.
And nothing could diminish what sports fans in the Detroit area got to experience. A Stanley Cup and a national championship in college football as the headline acts. Solid playoff runs in the NBA & NFL. Motown ruled the sports world in 1997.