The most memorable moments from Detroit's major championships since 1984
The NBA and NHL finals start next week, and if you root for one of the local teams, there’s a good chance that you may have checked out some time ago.
And if you were hoping for the Tigers to put some sunshine into your life after a harsh winter for Detroit sports, well, it’s best to just turn away.
Let’s escape from now with a look back. Below is the most memorable moment — or moments — from each Detroit major championship in the last 35 years. The 1984 Tigers kick off the list and a whole lot of Red Wings and Pistons follow.
1984 Tigers: Gibson homers off Gossage
The 1984 Tigers were wire-to-wire dominant. They opened the season 35-5 and lost just one game in the entire playoffs.
Naturally, the most memorable moment of this postseason was the one that clinched the whole dang thing. The lore behind Kirk Gibson’s three-run blast off Goose Gossage in the eighth inning of a series-clinching Game 5, putting the Tigers up 8-4 on the San Diego Padres, is the cherry on top of an iconic moment in franchise history.
With one out and runners on second and third, Gossage famously elected not to intentionally walk Gibson, who had already homered in the first off Mark Thurmond.
The rest, as they say, is history. Gibson gives a fan in the upper deck of right field the souvenir of a lifetime after putting the final stamp on one incredibly exciting summer in the Motor City.
1988-89 Pistons: The Jordan Rules
OK, so this isn’t technically a “moment.”
But nothing defines the “Bad Boys” era better than its strategy against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. En route to Detroit’s first title, the Pistons stymied the eventual six-time NBA champion with a handful of fairly simple guidelines: Make Jordan go to his left, double him and get physical at every chance possible.
The road to all three of Detroit’s finals appearances from 1988-90 went through Chicago, and, much like another Pistons moment we’ll get to later, shutting down Jordan over the course of an entire series represented something bigger than a stat sheet would suggest.
1989-90 Pistons: Microwave beats the buzzer
As a whole, the Pistons’ 4-3 series win over the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals was probably the most gripping stretch in the second leg of their repeat as world champions.
But since we’ve already covered that, let’s instead focus on the play that made Detroit back-to-back champs. After dropping Game 2 of the NBA Finals at home to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pistons won three straight in enemy territory.
Vinnie Johnson closed out the series with a mid-range jumper that fell with 0.7 seconds remaining to give the Pistons a 92-90 win, the finale of a two-year run put together by one of the most notorious lineups in basketball history.
1996-97 Red Wings: McCarty’s winner
Much like the 1984 Tigers, the most memorable moment from the Red Wings 1996-97 championship is the one that officially got the celebration started.
With a little over seven minutes remaining in the second period of Game 4, Darren McCarty caught a breakout pass, shocked everyone by putting Philadelphia defenseman Janne Niinimaa into the spin cycle with a toe drag, and then beat Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall to the far side to give the Red Wings a 2-0 lead and blow the roof off of Joe Louis Arena.
McCarty’s goal would end up being the difference in a 2-1 victory that earned the Red Wings a sweep of Philadelphia and ended a Stanley Cup drought lasting longer than four decades.
1997-98 Red Wings: Vladdy gets the Cup
The celebration of the Red Wings’ first Stanley Cup in 42 years was cut short by tragedy. Six days after the Red Wings swept the Flyers, Vladimir Konstantinov suffered paralysis and spent several weeks in a coma resulting from a limousine crash that followed a team party.
Detroit donned patches featuring the word “Believe” written in English and Russian and the initials of Konstantinov and a team staffer who also suffered injuries in the crash. The Red Wings repeated as champions in 1998 with a sweep of the Washington Capitals, a celebration that Steve Yzerman turned into an emotional experience by immediately giving the Stanley Cup to his injured Russian teammate and carting him around the ice in a wheelchair while the rest of the team followed.
2001-02 Red Wings: Chasing Patrick Roy
From 1996-2001, the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche each claimed two Stanley Cups. In the meantime, they developed one of the most vicious rivalries in hockey history.
Patrick Roy was seemingly always at or near the center of controversy, engaging in fights with two — and almost a third, if not for Dominik Hasek slipping and falling after skating across the entire rink to confront him — Red Wing goalies.
In Game 7 of what would be Roy’s last trip to a conference final, the powder keg that was Joe Louis Arena was ignited by his misfortune. The Red Wings took 4-0 lead just 12:51 into the game and Roy was chased in the second period after Detroit’s sixth goal en route to a 7-0 shellacking that would earn the Red Wings its fourth Stanley Cup Final appearance in eight years.
Detroit went on to beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, for its 10th Stanley Cup and would not see Colorado in the playoffs again until 2008, when it swept the Avalanche in the conference semifinal.
2003-04 Pistons: Prince’s block
Let’s set the scene: The Pistons are leading the Indiana Pacers, 69-67, with a little over 30 seconds left in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Detroit runs a downright dysfunctional possession where Chauncey Billups is eventually stripped and the ball is pushed ahead to Reggie Miller with nobody in sight.
Then, Tayshaun Prince encapsulated an entire era of Detroit Pistons basketball with one heroic leap. He blocks Miller at the rim before barreling into the front row, the ball lands in Richard Hamilton’s hands, and the Pistons go on to win, 72-67.
Of course, Detroit's complete shutdown of the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title will be remembered as the more impressive feat. But in terms of a singular moment, Prince’s basket-saving effort was the closeout play of a momentum-altering game, which, it’s important to note, was also the subject of Rasheed Wallace’s famous “We will win Game 2” guarantee.
2007-08 Red Wings: Franzen’s breakout
For most of Detroit’s dominant run, the Red Wings were the team to beat entering playoffs.
And 2008 was no different. Detroit finished the regular season as Presidents' Trophy winner before claiming its 11th Stanley Cup and fourth in 11 years with a victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were captained by a young Sidney Crosby.
Playoff points leader Henrik Zetterberg would win the Conn Smythe trophy for Detroit, but it was Johan Franzen, who had scored 10 and 12 goals over the two previous regular seasons, who broke out in the biggest of ways.
“The Mule,” as he affectionately became known by Red Wings fans, scored two hat tricks in a semifinals sweep over Colorado and broke a franchise record for most goals in a playoff series with nine. That began a two-year reign of playoff dominance for Franzen, who would finish the 2008 postseason with 13 goals before adding 12 more in a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals a year later.
Every so often, a moment comes along that’s so big, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t attached to a championship run. There are two playoff items left on this list that you can’t write the history of Detroit sports without, even if they didn’t result in a parade route.
1995-96 Red Wings: Yzerman’s 2OT winner
As far as iconic moments of a league’s history goes, one could make the argument for Yzerman’s double-overtime winner in Game 7 against the St. Louis Blues being the most prevalent item on this list.
It’s been used in so many NHL commercials and finds its way on so many “biggest moments” lists that it’s easy to forget: Not only would the Red Wings come up short in their quest for a Stanley Cup that year, but they wouldn’t even make it to the final, falling to eventual champion Colorado, 4-2, a round later.
But just watching the moment unfold — Wayne Gretzky turning it over in the neutral zone, Yzerman letting a rocket go from the blue line, Detroit burying its captain in the corner after his shot beats Blues netminder Jon Casey — on the internet some two decades later is an experience in itself.
2006 Tigers: Magglio's walk-off homer
In 2003, the Tigers were bad. Like, historically bad. Their 119 losses stands alone as the worst season since the New York Mets put up a dismal record of 40-120 in 1962. It was a tough pill to swallow at the time, but in hindsight, that unprecedentedly bad team was the perfect prologue to one of the greatest turnaround stories this city has ever seen.
Magglio Ordonez’s walk-off home run in Game 4 of the ALCS earned Detroit its first World Series berth since 1984. The three-run blast represented the rebirth of a franchise and is the defining moment of an exciting era in Tigers baseball that will always be underappreciated without a World Series title.
Despite the Tigers falling to the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1, in the Fall Classic, Ordonez’s homer might rank No. 1 as the biggest “Where were you?” moment on the list.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.