The ’12 Days of Christmas’ was first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
The Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded the most valuable player of the NHL playoffs, is sort of unique in that most players will never have a shot at winning it because of one or both of these reasons:
- They never play in the Stanley Cup Final.
- They are not the best player on a championship-caliber team.
Another quirk of the Conn Smythe trophy is that it can be won in a singular moment during a playoff run. Nobody would ever claim to award a trophy solely because of one play, but that moment can and often will stand out among that player’s body of work in the playoffs.
The Detroit Red Wings have seen five players hoist that uniquely shaped trophy, which was first awarded in 1965. The first time came just a year later, back when the playoffs only consisted of two rounds.
1966 – Roger Crozier
One thing that the Conn Smythe Trophy has a reputation of is being a goaltender’s trophy. Factually, this is incorrect. Over the course of the award’s 55 years of existence, only 15 goalies have won the award. The first goalie to do so was Roger Crozier during the Red Wings’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1966.
This also marked the first time that the Conn Smythe was awarded to a player on the losing team; as of 2020, that has only happened five times. Crozier, who won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie player the previous season, was a beast in net for the Red Wings. During their 1966 playoff run, he posted a save-percentage (SV%) of .914 – an absurd stat given that this was back in the days of goalies wearing no helmets and skaters basically scoring at will.
That playoff run was the best of his 14-year career, split between Detroit, the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals.
1997 – Mike Vernon
Though goaltender Mike Vernon made a name for himself with the Calgary Flames, his greatest performance came during the 1997 playoffs with the Red Wings. Entering that year’s playoffs, the Red Wings were in the midst of a 42-year Stanley Cup drought – the longest in the league at the time. Despite some promising performances from Vernon’s younger backup, Chris Osgood, in years prior, legendary head coach Scotty Bowman turned to the veteran to solidify the crease. That’s exactly what he did.
Though Vernon stood at just 5-foot-9, opposing shooters had a heck of a time trying to beat him during the ’97 playoff run – his .927 SV% is evidence of that fact. Whether it was his Conn Smythe effort or his infamous fight with Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, he will forever hold a special place in the memory of the “Hockeytown” faithful – he’s the goalie that ended the drought.
1998 – Steve Yzerman
It takes a special group to win the Stanley Cup. It takes an extra kind of special to do it in back-to-back years. Luckily for the Red Wings, they not only had a special group, they also had one of the most special players and leaders in NHL history: “Stevie Y”.
Heading into the ’98 playoffs, Yzerman was no stranger to playoff heroics. After all, this goal from the 1996 playoffs is still one of the most popular highlights in all of Red Wings lore:
But Yzerman’s play during the ’98 run cemented his place among the best to ever wear the winged-wheel. He played in every situation, accumulating well over 20 minutes of playing time per game along the way. He had 24 points through 22 games, with 18 of those points coming from assists. He was easily the best player to play in that year’s playoff tournament.
After the Red Wings swept the Capitals in that year’s Final, Washington’s head coach, Ron Wilson, had this to say:
“He scored points, he kills penalties, he’s on the power play. He is obviously their most consistent player and he deserves the award.”
No arguments here.
2002 – Nicklas Lidstrom
Given the amount of Hall of Famers on the 2001-02 Red Wings, it wasn’t really a hot take to pick them to go all the way. The fun really began with determining which player would have the honor of hoisting the Conn Smythe. Naturally, on a team filled with some of the best scorers to ever play the game, it was the Red Wings’ top defenseman that received the honor.
As the 2002 playoffs began, the Red Wings were matched up with the Vancouver Canucks. Despite being the heavy favorites, it was the Canucks that jumped out to an early lead in the series, stealing Game 1 and Game 2 in front of the crowd at Joe Louis Arena. With Game 3 – and potentially the series – on the line, Lidstrom scored a goal that probably still lives on in the nightmares of Canucks goaltender Dan Cloutier.
That goal sealed a Game 3 victory for Detroit, and the Red Wings would go on a 11-4 run that took them to the Stanley Cup Final against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Through 23 games, Lidstrom had a monstrous average time on-ice (ATOI) of 31:10. Icing one of the best defenders of all-time for more than half the game allowed the Red Wings’ big guns to do what they were paid to do – with Lidstrom chipping in 16 points along the way as well. But make no mistake: there’s probably no championship parade in the summer of 2002 if “The Perfect Human” doesn’t score that goal in Game 3 of the opening round.
2008 – Henrik Zetterberg
The 2008 Red Wings continued the championship legacy of the ’97,’98 and ’02 teams despite the likes of Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Federov moving on over the course of the six years between championships. While Lidstrom remained as this team’s captain, the ’08 Red Wings were led by the efforts of the “Euro-Twins”: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
While his line-mate would bring home some hardware himself, it was Zetterberg that really elevated his game during the ’08 run. He had 27 points through 22 games, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby for the playoff lead. His plus/minus rating of +16 was tied with teammate Niklas Kronwall for the top rating in the playoffs. He did all of this while playing north of 22 minutes a night.
But despite all of this, many fans will key-in on one particular shift as the reason “Hank” won the Conn Smythe trophy that year. They call it “The Conn Smythe Shift”.
His dominance on the penalty-kill against a group that included Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang (all in or entering their primes by the way) helped the Red Wings take a 3-1 series lead. The next time the Red Wings took to the ice at Mellon Arena, they would finish the night with the Stanley Cup – and Zetterberg would have his own nifty trophy to bring back to Detroit.
Generations of Excellence
These five Conn Smythe winners span across completely different eras of Red Wings hockey. From the 1950’s, to the “Dead Wings” era, to the high-flying 1990’s squads, to the 2000’s, Red Wings fans have seen the highest highs and the lowest lows.
One day another name will join this list, and they will represent the next era of Red Wings hockey. While we have no way of knowing who they will be, we can look back on the names on this list as examples of what it will take to end their current Stanley Cup drought.
Catch Up on All 12 Days of Hockeymas:
12 Years Since Winning the Cup
11 Stanley Cups in Franchise History
10 Hall of Famers on 2002 Stanley Cup Team
9 James Norris Memorial Trophies
8 Retired Numbers
7 Art Ross & Frank J. Selke Awards
6 Presidents’ Trophies