The 1997 Detroit Red Wings and Echoes of Peter Forsberg

I had a unique vantage point years ago from which I observed maybe the greatest post-season Red Wings playoff series of modern times.

Nope, it wasn’t one of their memorable Stanley Cup finals, but a Western Conference clincher. Powered by the galling 42-year drought from the 1955 Cup to the team‘s ultimate deliverance, and driven by the almost sickening loss to Colorado in 1996 after the Claude Lemieux–Kris Draper outrage, the 1996-’97 vengeance series against the Avalanche — which sent the Red Wings on to the Cup showdown with Philadelphia — was a set that matched or exceeded any Stanley Cup finals series for real satisfaction.

As a freelance writer and producer for local TV stations, I had done work for WKBD-TV Channel 50 and Red Wings director Toby Cunningham that year, producing special features at various points during the season. And when the playoffs rolled ‘round, Toby asked if I’d be interested in working the playoffs as an assistant to him and as an in-game highlights producer for color analyst Mickey Redmond.

My duties would have me linked by an audio headset in the Channel 50 broadcast truck just outside the Joe Louis Arena with The Mick, who was watching the games in the press box. We had a battery of monitors and camera links in the truck, and Redmond would indicate to me — in his wonderfully colorful style — which plays he wanted saved for video replay when we went on-air ‘live’ after every game to recap that night’s effort. Cunningham directed the entire effort, calling the shots with his many cameramen positioned around the JLA during the first two victorious playoff series.

The excitement was palpable, every night. And the tension built as the showdown with Colorado approached. My background had been in newspapering, and the immediacy and tension of the ‘live’ hockey telecasts was fabulously exciting. As was hanging around the JLA before and after the games, being a fly on the wall around hockey celebrities and broadcasters of all types.

You can imagine the buzz — squinting at Don Cherry’s sportcoat in the hallway, finding myself next to league commissioner Gary Bettman (I passed him the salt) at a pre-game meal, seeing the current players coming and going before and after the games. I recall walking towards the Red Wings dressing room one late afternoon behind Nicklas Lidstrom, and being amazed at how thin, even slight, he looked out of uniform.

I’ve seen Lidstrom listed at 190 pounds or more of playing weight, but if he hit the scales in the spring of ‘97 at anything more than 170 I’d be shocked.

My first exposure to hockey broadcasting and the Detroit–Colorado rivalry came to mind recently, triggered by the comeback of former Avalanche superstar Peter Forsberg to the current playing ranks. The 37-year old center debuted with the Avalanche Friday night, February 11 at Columbus, drawing a lot of attention around the hockey world.

As an impassioned Red Wings fan, I have of course disliked Forsberg for many years, going back to his key on-ice role in ruining the springtime of 1996 via Colorado’s thrashing of our team in that painful series. He was a local public enemy again in 1997, as one of the really annoying instigators of the March 26th brawl that changed, fortunately, Red Wings hockey fortunes in our times.

But it was an unguarded moment off the ice in which Forsberg now springs to mind. The tension that had built between Detroit and Colorado back then was no showbiz pose. There was blood and pride riding on those series, and I would imagine that the ‘97 showdown — following the celebrated March free-for-all when Darren McCarty evened the testosteronic score with that nitwit Lemieux — was the grittiest of all the Red Wings–Avalanche shootouts of the era.

Forsberg, probably Colorado’s strongest and most effective player back then, was fighting a thigh injury throughout the final weeks of the ‘97 campaign. In fact, his pain was so severe that he missed three of his team’s Stanley Cup playoff games that spring. The most painful scratch for him — apparently both physically and emotionally — came on May 26 in the deciding sixth game here in Detroit, which our vengeful Red Wings took by a 3-1 score to eliminate the hated Avalanche in six games.

The early evening of that final game, following a day when Forsberg’s availability was the stuff of avid investigation and ongoing conjecture, the story broke a few hours before the opening puck drop that he would not, after all, be taking the ice against our guys.

Toby Cunningham and I got the news before the rest of the hockey-crazed sports world. Walking down a corridor of the JLA towards the dressing rooms — and the pre-game meal for that night — we beheld three men moving awkwardly towards us from the opposite direction. There were two men, trainers I would guess, from the Avalanche team, supporting a guy in the middle — they were holding him up, straining to help him walk — as they moved along.

It was Forsberg. Whatever they had done to his leg to try to prepare it, and him, for that evening’s key contest had obviously not been successful. And he was sobbing like a child, hiding his head in the shoulder of one of his attendants, as they shuffled him past us, trying to shield him from our view. I felt like we were intruding even glancing at him.

It jarred me to see an athlete, to see anyone, in such pain … in such physical and, I suspect, gripping emotional turmoil. His night, and his season … his team’s season … were over. I have long suspected that avid fans suffer athletic setbacks more than players; a subject fit for another writing. But I cannot imagine a sting of pain and defeat worse than Peter Forsberg’s that night.