24 years ago, Steve Yzerman unleashed a slap shot that sent St. Louis Blues fans into a spring depression.
May 16, 1996. Game 7. Double Overtime. A shot that Jon Casey still wants back. A shot that every goaltender who played a single minute of playoff hockey will tell you needs to be a routine save. A seemingly harmless slap shot that Yzerman just decided to fire at the net right inside the blue line. A shot that went into the net and signified the destruction of not just the season, but a surreal period of Blues hockey as well.
I’ll put it this way. The 1995-96 Blues team should have won the Stanley Cup. Don’t argue with me. They had Brett Hull, Gretzky (who even at 35 was still a marvel on the ice), Al MacInnis, and Grant Fuhr. They had several future Hall of Famers, many of whom had won the Cup with Gretzky in Edmonton. The Blues were old but stacked heading into the playoffs, which they made by just two points. They had it all, but it was slowly undone. Fuhr went down in that infamous collision in front of the net during the series before the Wings showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Casey wasn’t enough stop the Red Wings, who also had a guy named Sergei Fedorov.
And they had Yzerman, who was the noble Captain that Detroit still adores to this day. Yzerman and Fedorov were like the much cooler version of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, even if they played for a St. Louis rival. You respected them and hated them at the same time. Back then, Detroit hung out in the Blues conference and that created many legendary battles. But this one is a toxic brand of bittersweet.
The Blues had outlasted the Maple Leafs without Fuhr (who had played in 76 consecutive games that season) to finish because they had enough offensive firepower to extinguish that weakness, and they nearly pulled off another magic trick in getting past Detroit. While Casey gave up a terrible goal to Yzerman, he had just stoned Fedorov right in front of the net on the play before the Yzerman winner. The second overtime had just begun and the Red Wings were smelling blood in the blue waters. Watching it over, it’s easy to understand it was only a matter of time before the Blues would be cancelled.
But in a great VICE article, which vividly brought back the horrors of that moment and series, it could have been the Blues celebrating and moving on. The play originated in the Detroit end, where a broken pass hopped over Gretzky’s stick, with the puck finding Yzerman. If Gretzky corrals that broken pass, he would have gotten a near clean break at the Red Wings net. Maybe the Blues would have won. Maybe not.
Instead, Yzerman took that pass up the wing, just past mid-ice, and unleashed that “why not” shot that blew right over Casey’s shoulder and into the net. I can still remember the most painful part of that video is Gretzky doing that zombie skate right after the broken pass and immediately after the goal. That was the last night he’d wear the Blues threads. The final sip of the coffee going down the drain.
The reason the shot hurts so much revolves around the events that followed it as much as the immediate injection of pain. Gretzky bolted for New York, many other veterans left, Keenan’s shrewd moves would see the Blues start the following season in disarray and lead to the head coach’s departure before 1997 even began. Brett Hull would soon leave as well. Sure, Joel Quenneville came into the picture, but imagine if more of the roster had stayed to play for him and not Keenan. Who knows?
Talking about this includes two less bottles of bourbon due to the fact that last summer, the Blues raised the Stanley Cup for the first time. Without that, this Yzerman memory would burn a bigger hole in the emotional food bank of the heart. There’d be a longer wince upon watching that replay embedded above. Things would be thrown around the room. Now, it simply serves as a reminder that a roster can be built perfectly yet still collapse. No matter how hard a General Manager tries, you can’t buy a championship in free agency. It takes time and patience ... or over 50 years.
Thankfully, the wait is now over. The Cup doesn’t technically belong to the Blues anymore, but they are reigning champions and have enjoyed a longer honeymoon with that title due to the pause in the 2019-20 season.
But crying does happen in sports and Game 7 double-overtime losses are known to trigger several glass cases of emotion. For Blues fans, there was a good rage and cry the night Steve Yzerman turned off the lights in St. Louis and ended the brief Hull-Gretzky marriage. St. Louis wasn’t going to pay Gretzky the money he wanted and he didn’t want to play for Keenan (fun fact: few players actually did). Heck, they wouldn’t even pay Hull an extra few million or give him a no-trade clause two years later. And they traded Chris Pronger, who was a rookie during that Red Wings failure. And ... okay, time to breathe.
1996 wasn’t a complete waste for St. Louis sports fans (hello, Tony La Russa), but it will always be a heartbreaking memory for Blues fans.