The night the Dead Wings era ended

In four years as coach of the Detroit Red Wings, Jacques Demers won two Jack Adams trophies for best coach in the NHL.

The deafening roars of Joe Louis Arena drowned the voice of Bob Cole, the legendary voice of Hockey Night In Canada. Game 7 was coming to a close, Wings fans were chanting the final seconds.

“TEN, NINE, EIGHT …”

The 1987 Norris Division Finals were within their grasp. A few days earlier, they trailed Toronto three games to one. But through the theatrics of goalie Glen Hanlon and the wizardry of Steve Yzerman, they were on the verge of capping a furious comeback.

“SEVEN, SIX, FIVE …”

Remember the “Dead Wings” moniker? The days of giving away free cars to draw attendance? The days when the visiting team’s goal celebrations echoed through an empty arena? Heck, just one year prior, the Wings were the worst team in the NHL, a 17-57-6 record of futility.

“FOUR, THREE …”

Twenty-two years passed since the Wings reached the conference finals and raised a banner to the rafters. The last one read 1965-66 League Champions. Here on May 3, 1987, it was time to start stitching another: 1986-87 Norris Division Playoff Champions.

“TWO, ONE …”

Pandemonium.

The Wings eliminated the arch-rival Maple Leafs 3-0 in Game 7 to reach the conference finals – a euphoric scene capped by coach Jacques Demers shaking his fist to a roaring crowd that reached unthinkable decibel levels as the Dead Wings Era died, and Hockeytown returned.

“They called us the Dead Wings – we’re no longer the Dead Wings,” said Demers, a first-year coach in Detroit who was lured from St. Louis after being disrespected by Blues owner Harry Ornest. “You know who I’m happy for tonight? For Mr. Ilitch and Mrs. Ilitch. They suffered a lot, the hockey organization. I’m the new guy in town and the players deserve a lot of credit. Those are the people I’m very, very happy for. They paid a big price.”

But Demers deserved a bulk of the credit for his move that changed the series. When the Wings lost both games at home and fell into a 2-0 series hole, he benched Greg Stefan in favor of Hanlon, who won four of the next five games and pushed the Wings into the conference finals for the first time since the Original Six era.

In Games 5 through 7, Hanlon stopped 84 of 86 shots and earned two shutouts. His Game 5 blanking was the first time a Wings goalie earned a playoff shutout since Roger Crozier’s 7-0 whitewash of Chicago on April 10, 1966.

In Game 7, Hanlon wrote an even better historic footnote: He became the first Wings goalie since Terry Sawchuk in 1952 to notch two playoff shutouts in the same series. (Sawchuk’s occurred in Games 3 and 4 in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.)

“The key to the series was Glen Hanlon,” Demers said. “He was fantastic. If you get good goaltending, you have a chance to win, and that’s what got us there.”

On the broader scale, it was Demers who got them there.

The Wings could’ve crumbled in the playoffs after losing nine of their last 14 games in the regular season, a skid that dropped them into second place and derailed the hopes of finishing atop the standings for the first time since 1965. Demers, however, righted the ship and lead a first-round sweep against Chicago, the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 1978.

Adversity once again stared Demers in the face against the Maple Leafs, who took a 3-1 series lead on the heels of Wendel Clark’s three-point night in Game 4. But that’s when Demers’ coaching genius and blue-collar approach took over: He matched Joey Kocur against his cousin, Clark. It was a chess-like move that neutralized the Leafs power forward in the final three games.

“To get away from me, he was going to have to stick me, or get me in the box,” Kocur said.

The Wings led 1-0 in the second period of Game 7. Then a young captain named Steve Yzerman buried a breakaway past Toronto goalie Ken Wregget, and Darren Veitch scored again 71 seconds later to seal the victory.

When the celebration unfolded and the handshake line subsided, Demers was still on the ice, the last guy to leave. He tossed a puck into the crowd, shook his fist, then flashed an ear-to-ear smile and clapped among 19,729 roaring beasts.

He embraced a special moment: Hockeytown was revitalized.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Adam Oates, who scored the game’s first goal. “After last year’s season, no one could have ever expected this.

“It just shows what a great job Jacques done, and Jimmy (Devellano), turning the team around.”

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.