The 1995-96 season sure went out with a bang. On April 12, the day after the Boston Bruins clinched their record-breaking 29th straight playoffs berth, the Winnipeg Jets clinched their last before relocating. Their first opponent would be the Detroit Red Wings, who on the same night, set a record for number of regular-season wins. Both teams won 5-3 after scoring an empty-net goal in each game.
At Winnipeg Arena, 15,567 came out to watch the final regular-season home game of the franchise. During the summer, the Jets would officially move to Phoenix, Arizona to play as the Coyotes. Their opponents that night were the Los Angeles Kings, who scored the first goal in every period. Fortunately for the soon-to-have-a-new-home team, the Jets scored all five of the other goals. The highlight of the game was the last one. With one second to spare, Keith Tkachuk sunk an empty netter as his 50th goal of the season. He was only the third Winnipeg player to reach that plateau and would be the last for that franchise while still at Winnipeg. Tkachuk commented, “The party’s just starting.”
The 5-3 victory clinched a playoff berth for the Jets. As with everything else, it would be their last. Throughout the game, the fans made clear how unhappy they were with the team leaving. After “booing during the American national anthem,” they frequently shouted, “Phoenix sucks!”
Meanwhile, at Joe Louis Arena, 19,983 fans gave the Detroit Red Wings a standing ovation as they chanted, “Sixty-one! Sixty-one!” Before the game, Detroit held a ceremony honoring two players. Captain Steve Yzerman received a Rolex watch and a crystal milestone award for his 500 career goals. Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was awarded a crystal trophy for being voted team MVP. Unfortunately, the first 25 minutes of the game then had gone in favor of their opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, who led 3-1.
During the second period, the home team came back with a vengeance. Detroit scored twice in 33 seconds on a power play. About six minutes later, Paul Coffey scored while short-handed. It was his second goal that game, having scored on a power play in the first period. With about 45 second left on the clock, Kris Draper got an empty-netter so that Detroit won 5-3. Yzerman commented, “After Drapes scored that goal there we really had a chance to appreciate the reaction of the fans. For a minute, anyway.” His team “leapt over the wall and plowed into a happy huddle by the net.”
This victory was the 36th that season at Joe Louis Arena. That tied them with the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers for the record number of home wins in one season. Not only that, but this was Detroit’s 61st victory of the season. That meant that they had broken the record set by the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-77. Some noted that Detroit had 82 games compared to Montreal having played only 80, which meant that the Canadiens lost fewer games. Either way, Coach Scotty Bowman had broken his own record having coached both the teams during their winningest seasons. The team kept things in perspective knowing playoffs were what mattered. Right winger Darren McCarty said, “Obviously it’s exciting. It’s pretty cool. It’s never been accomplished before, and we took a lot of pride in it.”
Two nights later, on April 14, the Red Wings grabbed their 62nd victory in a 5-1 win over the Stars at Dallas. Unsurprisingly, Detroit easily nabbed the Presidents’ Trophy.
The 1995-96 postseason turned out to be all crushed hopes for Winnipeg and Detroit. Although the Red Wings defeated the Jets (and then the St. Louis Blues), they lost the Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche. Detroit went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships for 1996-97 and 1997-98, despite only winning 38 games in the former and 44 in the latter regular season.
The total 62 games remains the highest number of regular-season wins for Detroit. The only NHL team to even tie them is the Tampa Bay Lighting for this season, 2018-19. However, Detroit had more points with 131 compared to Tampa Bay’s 128.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018), kindle edition.
- “Jets clinch playoff spot in final regular-season home game,” Arizona Republic, 13 April 1996, p. C5.
- “61, The Most,” Detroit Free Press, 14 April 1996, pp. 1A, 1B, and 6B.