THE GREATEST RIVALRY in hockey history left quite a mark on the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. Twenty-five years after the Wings and Avs were locked in a fantastic, relentless and breathtakingly violent winner-take-all battle for NHL supremacy, Avs enforcer Claude Lemieux still likes to point out the prodigious bump on his skull left by Darren McCarty’s knee. There’s a similar keepsake on Adam Foote’s forehead, another one bisecting Patrick Roy’s right eyebrow and even a slight indentation remains on Kris Draper’s cheek. To this day the scars the two rivals inflicted upon each other serve as a kind of road map to the epic stretch between 1996 and 2002 that resulted in three Stanley Cups for the Wings and two for the Avalanche. “Red Wings – Avalanche was just pure old-school, deep-seated hatred between two teams and two cities,” says McCarty, the mercurial forward who became one of the rivalry’s iconic figures. “That’s what made this whole thing so beautiful: the hate, and what was at stake.”
Indeed, during that glorious seven-season run, the Wings and Avs met four times a year during the regular season and five more times during the post-season while managing to bring out the best — and the worst — in each other in ways only the Red Sox and Yankees and Celtics and Lakers had ever done before. “I’m a University of Michigan fan and somebody said, Who do you hate more, Ohio State or the Colorado Avalanche?” says former Red Wings trainer John Wharton. “I was like, you’re not serious, right? I can’t stand Ohio State but nobody on their team ever tried to kill one of my teammates.”
The epicenter of the rivalry was March 26, 1997, a game held inside Detroit’s old Joe Louis Arena that has become known in hockey lore as Fight Night at the Joe. The high-stakes revenge game, featuring nine future Hall of Famers, had been simmering for nearly a year, ramped up by bus brawls, sucker punches, horrific injuries, heart-breaking losses, bomb-sniffing dogs and non-stop psychological warfare between the two fan bases. And when the puck finally dropped, the scale of the violence and chaos — 18 fighting majors, 148 total penalty minutes, the ice soaked with blood, some of it from the goaltenders — was unlike anything the NHL had ever seen, before or since. Especially in today’s game where significant changes have made the NHL safer, more entertaining and, at times, unrecognizably genteel to the players from Detroit and Colorado behind the legendary Fight Night at the Joe.
Now, in conjunction with E60’s presentation of “Unrivaled,” we present the story of that epic night, through the voices of the key players, coaches, officials, and witnesses on and around the ice 25 years ago inside the Joe, the peak moment of the greatest of rivalries, one that left an indelible mark on the participants and the game.
May 23, 1996. Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena. Game 3 of the Conference Finals. After winning a record 62 games during the regular season, the high-flying Detroit Red Wings are heavy favorites to win the Cup and end their four-decade championship drought. “And it was an easy 62,” says McCarty, “probably could have been 70.” In the Conference Finals, though, the Wings run full force into the far more physical Avs who bully their way to a shocking 2-0 lead in the series. In the first period of Game 3 Adam Foote moves in on Slava Kozlov from behind to close down a play in the corner. The Detroit winger slips the hit and slams Foote’s face into the glass, opening a huge gash on his forehead. Foote returns to the game and scores a goal, but Kozlov is not penalized for the hit, enraging the Avs and especially their enforcer, Claude Lemieux.
Adam Foote, Avs defenseman
So many times all people talk about is the Kris Draper hit as the start of everything and I’m always going, uh, wait a minute here. [The rivalry] started with the Kozlov hit. It just did. All we talk about is the Draper thing but only because Draper talked about it more.
Marc Crawford, Avs coach
I wasn’t concerned Adam was hurt, I was concerned he was so mad. I do remember him bleeding profusely but that didn’t bother him at all. What bothered him was wanting to get even.
Brian Burke, NHL Director of Hockey Operations, 1993-1998
I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m using the terminology we used at the time with the Players Association: a shaving cut, if it was 10 stitches or less. It’s very different now, of course. But back in the day, you shrug, go get your stitches and get back out there.
Mike Ricci, Avs center
It was a nasty cut. Blood everywhere. Obviously, we wanted to kill Kozlov. We thought it was the dirtiest thing in the world. Things picked up after that. We were out for blood after that. We didn’t goon them. They gooned us, really, and we just had to respond.
Claude Lemieux, Avs forward
They pulled him out on a stretcher and I go over to Footie and I said, “Footie, I’m gonna get him.” And so late in the game I purposefully sucker punched Kozlov. After the game, I figured I’d be suspended, I’m walking out of the arena with my wife and her dad and our son, Brendan, who was just a few months old at the time. I’m walking right by the Red Wings team bus and the doors open and Scotty Bowman sticks his head out of the bus and starts chirping me. It was like “Nice sucker punch … I hope you get suspended …” only with lots of expletives mixed in.
Darren McCarty, Wings forward
Scotty said f— a lot.
So I handed Brendan over to my father-in-law and I proceed to the Wings bus and I put one foot through the door and I said “You got a problem?” and, oh man, you should have seen that bus.
It was like the bus exploded, like it lifted off the ground, we were all in the back and it was just like What the f—?!!! and we all just flew toward the front of the bus.
I knew the tough guys all sat at the back. The skill guys are always at the front near the coaches and the tough guys are in the back drinking beer. So I knew I probably had a few moments before they could get to me. I was running a little hot and I thought, “This coach is not just gonna chirp me (in front of my family) and I’m not gonna do something about it.”
The next day, we have the hearing with the league. I go in early. I’m walking in and there’s this teeny hallway in the arena, probably five feet wide. There’s nobody else in this hallway and Scotty Bowman is coming the other way. It’s just the two of us. I looked at him and say, “You got anything else to say now?” He was quiet.
Bowman is the only person in the entire sports world not weighing in on the escalating Wings-Avs feud at this point. Once ranked by TSN as the second-most hated player in NHL history (behind Sean Avery) Lemieux is fined $1,000 and suspended for Game 4 of the 1996 Conference Finals. He plays tentatively in Game 5. And with the Avs headed back to Denver up 3-2, with a chance to eliminate the best regular-season team in NHL history, Crawford tells Lemieux to stop playing like a ballerina. Colorado has a 1-0 lead with 5:53 left in the first period when Kris Draper collects the puck in front of the Avs bench. Beloved in Detroit for his blue-collar approach, Draper, who the Wings acquired on waivers for $1, is the heart and soul of the team’s infamous “Grind Line,” alongside McCarty. On and off the ice Draper and McCarty are like brothers. After dumping the puck against the Avs, Draper continues to move backward along the boards. Just as he turns toward the Red Wings bench, Lemieux barrels into him from behind at full speed. With no time or space to react, Draper’s face is driven directly into the dasher on top of the boards. The dry-twig snapping sound of Draper’s cheek shattering and caving in against the boards haunts everyone who witnessed the hit to this day.
Kris Draper, Wings center
I knew I was hit from behind. I had no idea the extent of what my injuries were. I was down on my hands and knees and tried to get up but my legs wouldn’t move the way I wanted them to. The one thing that really stands out after all this time was the look on our trainer John Wharton’s face when he saw my face.
John Wharton, Wings trainer, 1990-2002
I actually felt it. It literally shook the boards. For people who can’t understand what Draper’s injury was like, I would ask you to just go put your cheekbone and your upper teeth up against a hard 90-degree angle surface, be it a granite countertop or a wooden desk, or a steel appliance. Then imagine somebody curb stomps you from behind. He literally had a four-inch dent from his cheek down to the top of his front teeth. He had the imprint of the boards, a 90-degree divot, across his face.
I was over the boards really quickly, because, I knew this was potentially a very tragic injury. Kris is asking “Who the f— was that?” And I told him, “Kris, this is not good. We’ve got to backboard you.” And before I could even finish, he says, “Like f— you are.” And he skates away. That’s hockey players. I was pretty confident that the spinal cord was intact, but I didn’t want to take any chances. But I also knew that shock was going to set in imminently. Two steps into the Red Wings medical room I could feel Kris’s weight. He was passing out.
The way I played the game, if there was somebody in front of you, you finished the hit. But on that play, I’m coming over and I’m going on a line change. Kris has got the puck and he’s close to the boards at the time and he’s looking at me, and I decide, instead of going here, I’m going this way and I’m going to finish my hit. As soon as it happened, the sound you heard, I just knew it was not good.
Peter Forsberg, Avs center
Claude played really hard. He cross-checked, and [he did] some dirty stuff, but I played with him for a long time and I don’t really see him trying to break anybody’s face, but that’s what happened.
Everyone knew the hit was cheap.
It’s only when you slow it down that you see how intentional and vicious it was.
Patrick Roy, Avs goaltender
I guess it’s a hit that Claude wishes he never made. Draper put himself in a vulnerable position and Claude finished his check.
Draper was turned toward the boards. The puck was no longer in play. So to hit a guy there who was defenseless, that’s premeditated, and that’s a cheap shot.
He had an orbital blow-in fracture, a zygomatic arch fracture, which is the prominent bone to the cheek, he had two paranasal sinus fractures, a broken nose, deviated septum, a chip fracture of the mandible, which is the jaw, he had a temporal mandibular joint sprain, that’s extremely painful, and he multiple internal, external sutures, and a couple of broken teeth.
Detroit’s dream season is over. The Wings limp to a 4-1 loss and are eliminated from the playoffs before any of the players know the full extent of Draper’s injuries. When they find out, Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli seethes to the press, “I can’t believe I shook [Lemieux’s] freakin’ hand right after the game. That pisses me right off.” Asked about the injury, Lemieux finishes a beer, crumples the can, tosses it away and says he is tired of talking about the whiny Red Wings. With Draper unconscious in the Red Wings training room, an irate Detroit owner Mike Ilitch demands photos of Draper’s injury for the league hearing and a possible criminal prosecution against Lemieux. Draper is cleared to fly home with the team on Red Bird One, where the pilots are kept on constant alert in case Draper requires an emergency landing. Lemieux is suspended for two Stanley Cup Finals games, an unprecedented punishment for the time, but the Avs hardly need him, sweeping the Panthers to win the franchise’s first title since relocating to Denver in 1995. Back in Detroit, all an outraged Hockeytown can do is stew for the next nine months as Draper undergoes surgery to insert a titanium plate in his cheek and a grueling six-week rehab and liquid diet. The Red Wings wait for an apology from Lemieux that never comes.
It was so frustrating. The gravity of losing and the season ending after winning 62 in the regular season and wondering, “Are we ever gonna win a Cup?” and then looking at Drape’s face and going, “They did this to us.” And it’s so frustrating because you can’t do anything. And the attitude that Claude had, that’s what really f—ing set me off, he was like Drago in Rocky IV – “If he dies, he dies.” We realized to win a cup the first thing we had to do was get through them. They got a swagger. There have been other big brawls in hockey but this was different. It was about what was at stake, which was everything. And that’s why this all got so amplified. The feelings became so personal.
Pat Karns, Avs trainer
This rivalry was the epitome of hate thy neighbor. We hated those guys. We hated them to the core. We hated everything about the city. Why were we so hateful? Because they’re p—ks. The rivalry was already at a 10. That hit on Draper brought it up to a 15.
We play the game hard and things happen. And for me, I always left it at the rink. I never let it get outside. Those for me, those were really important boundaries. Now, when it happened with Kris, I also understood that there was so much anger built up with fans in Detroit from not winning in the 1990s.
He said something like “until the hit, no one knew who Kris Draper was.” It was almost like he was proud of what he did and the extent of the injuries that I had. And I think that obviously ended up elevating what happened and that’s when you knew the rivalry had begun.
The justice system in the NHL at that time was, OK, you cross the line, you gotta pay your tab. It’s still that way to this day. (The league office) can’t be the only line of defense for players. The referee is the first line of defense. The league is the second line of defense. The players themselves are the third line of defense. This has always been a part of the NHL. And so the league was watching carefully. But this was one of those things where a tab had to be paid.
When I picked up Drapes from the hospital, the doctor gave me a pair of pliers because his jaw was wired shut in four places and they were to cut open his mouth if he started to get sick or choke. We didn’t need them. It did take him four hours to eat a plate of Gnocchi, though. But there was only one thing ever said between any of us about Lemieux and it was when we got in the car at the hospital, I turned to Kris and I said one thing.
He said: “I got this. I got you.”
I was going to try to beat Lemieux within an inch of his life.
Colorado and Detroit are scheduled to face each other four times during the 1996-97 regular season. Lemieux is out of the lineup for the first two games with an abdominal injury, however, and the third game is in Denver, where the Avs seem to purposefully limit the time Lemieux and McCarty spend on the ice together. Colorado wins all three games, which ramps up the tension to a fever pitch for the final matchup: March 26, 1997 at Joe Louis Arena.
Gamesmanship abounds on both sides. Detroit accuses Colorado of shortening their bench in Denver. In Detroit, the Avs never eat anything that isn’t prepared by their own chefs and always seem to have issues at the Joe, be it a lack of hot water, noxious paint in the locker room or pre-game meals that don’t show up. But March 26, 1997 is an entirely new level of intensity.
Up until this point, Colorado has flat-out owned Detroit, a team known for being pretty but not gritty. Realizing that his talented Red Wings roster still needs to gel and add a physical edge to their game, Detroit’s brilliant Bowman, who would win nine Stanley Cups as a coach, seizes on Lemieux’s hit on Draper, and his lack of remorse, as a rallying cry. His team, and all of Motown, eat it up. Before the game, under the headline “A Time For Revenge” The Detroit News prints a “wanted” poster of Lemieux with a prison number under his photo and compares Lemieux to a carjacker: “You don’t know when he’s going to strike, but you can bet it will be from behind.”
I used to run a lot in those days. I can remember running in Detroit and people actually in their cars yelling at me. Like, people actually yelling and screaming and all profanity and everything and I was going, “OK, I better reconsider when I’m running in these parts of Detroit.” Around Joe Louis, especially where you came in, Red Wings fans were congregating a lot. And it used to be pretty intense around there.
They would paint the dressing room [at the Joe]. The showers didn’t work. There was no hot water. There was tape missing. The door was locked.
Once, we’re all getting changed [at the Joe] while the bomb squad and the dogs are in there sniffing around our room and we’re joking around about it. In Detroit, when you walked in you got dirty looks from the security guys, the Zamboni guy, everybody.
It got really bad. We were getting a lot of death threats. And I was taking that seriously. I was not worried about so much what could happen on the ice. I was much more worried about what could happen off the ice. I thought it was blown out of proportion, and my first game back in Detroit in 1997, I’m told I’m not going to have a roommate, in Detroit my roommate is going to be a police officer posted outside my hotel room. Then we got a memo from the league before the game that no one is to warm up without a helmet. Everybody’s got to wear a helmet. It was a wake up call for all of us. But especially for myself, being a husband and a father. I didn’t want to get shot.
It was the sounds that I’ll never forget. You could hear the fans from our dressing room. By the time warm-ups started, there was close to 20,000 fans already in the building. But inside our locker room was an eerie silence. There wasn’t much being said. You just knew this was going to be a night.
They’re coming after Claude, and everybody knew it. That night it was a solemn room. Everybody was focused. Everybody knew what they had to do. Getting ready for that game I made sure that I had all of my blood clotting materials available. It’s called Surgicel. I made sure that I had 10 of those. Normally I would just have two pairs of surgical gloves in my fanny pack. That night I had 10. Everything was exponentially ready for trauma.
Brendan Shanahan, Wings forward
When athletes really start to figure it out, if they’re lucky enough to figure it out, you start to learn that you’re not afraid of being scared and you start to turn that fear into a weapon. There were two things weighing on us. One was we hadn’t beaten them yet. The other was Lemieux. And nothing had been done yet.
Paul Devorski, head referee on March 26, 1997, in Detroit
You could tell. It was like a big volcano erupting. It was just a matter of time. It was in the papers, on the news, everybody was talking about it. Nothing had erupted yet. Everybody in hockey world was waiting for it to finally erupt. There was a buzz in the air. That arena was humming and everybody was on their toes and ready to go. And deep down probably Claude Lemieux knew it was going to happen.
Coming up to that game, Claude was a nervous wreck.
I had so much on my mind about all the other stuff off the ice, I just wasn’t ready for what was coming. And it came hard.
It was a bloodbath.
Three hundred and one days after Lemieux’s hit on Draper, the puck drops inside the Joe. A little less than five minutes after that, the fighting begins inside the Joe.
In what Crawford describes as “the undercard” at 4:45 in the first period, Colorado’s Brent Severyn battles Detroit’s Jamie Pushor. A few minutes later, the Wings’ Kirk Maltby drops the Avs’ Rene Corbet. The teams are on the verge of making it to the first intermission nearly unscathed when a pair of future Hall of Famers, Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov, inexplicably square off. (In all, five of the 12 players on the ice for the ensuing donnybrook would become Hall of Famers.) Known as The Professor, Larionov has accrued a grand total of 26 penalty minutes in all of 1997. But when Forsberg knocks him onto his backside away from the play and in front of the Red Wings bench, then punches him in the head as he tries to regain his footing, something just snaps — in the mild-mannered Larionov, and then, in everyone else. Until this writing, though, no one knows that a secret connection between Lemieux and the Wings’ alternate captain, Brendan Shanahan, truly triggers the historic melee.
I saw Forsberg and Igor and I did a loop to see what was happening, but my initial thought was: “Those two?” It’s like cute puppies on Christmas morning. What are they gonna do? Pull each other’s hair and slap each other? Igor was the second biggest pacifist in the world after Gandhi.
Everyone’s looking at each other going, ‘What are these two little guys doing?’ It was actually kinda funny. McCarty was the closest to me and he’s the first one who’s gonna act up, so I just grabbed him.
But sometimes it’s not the biggest or strongest or the fastest, sometimes, it’s the wisest and that’s why Igor was like our Yoda in that moment. He. Had. Enough. And the minute he did that I knew: This was it. But Foote had me good. He had me in a double arm bar, and it was tight enough that I was really struggling to get out of it. So if you really break all this down, Shanny is the key. In that moment, Shanny had to choose: bust me loose or go after Claude himself.
My deep dark secret was that I had played with Claude Lemieux and we were friends. I actually really liked Claude Lemieux a lot, but not on the ice. When I arrived in Detroit (via trade in 1997), I knew the history with Kris Draper and Claude Lemieux, and now these are my new brothers and that’s the way it is.
I played with Shanny in New Jersey and I absolutely loved that kid. I thought, if I have another child, I would name him Brendan. And when we had a son in 1995, I named him after Brendan Shanahan.
I remember feeling a little bit strange, and then there was a moment in a game against Claude. I had gotten into it with somebody and Claude skated by and he looked at me and he said, “Ah, you’re a loser. You haven’t won anything.” I was yelling at him and I remember thinking, like, he’s completely released me of any feelings of regret or apprehension of what I’m willing to do to win.
It’s not our first rodeo for guys that do this in hockey, especially in the ’90s. So you look around and Lemieux’s on the ice and McCarty’s on the ice. Darren was sort of tied up with Adam Foote, so I came over and grabbed Adam Foote and Darren got loose. And he was on Lemieux, fast.
I’m not the first guy or the last guy to try and take his head off or want to cause him bodily harm on the ice. But for whatever reason Claude was just kinda out of it that night. For me, it was total premeditation. For me, it was all about trying to remove his head from his body. But Claude was skating back to the bench like doo-da-doo-da-doo, like Dopey the Dope Goat or something.
I was clearly avoiding anything. I look horrible. I was avoiding any contact probably because I certainly didn’t want this to happen. But it’s happening.
Near center ice, with the help of Shanahan, McCarty is able to spin out of Foote’s grip and in one motion pounce on an a strangely resigned Lemieux. A natural lefty forced to lead with his right, McCarty overcompensates his windup, and the extra rotational torque combined with the weight of his hockey glove is devastating. The punch lands squarely on the right temple of Lemieux, who crumbles like a dynamited building down to the ice where one of the most feared players in NHL history does the unthinkable: Lemieux “turtles” for protection. It doesn’t work.
He hit me with his glove on. All I remember is I’m down and I’m getting hit. Anyone that’s been hit or has played the game, you know when you’re in trouble. I knew I was in trouble. So you hang on tight. You take your beating. And it will be what it will be. From that point on I don’t know where I’m at and I’m just hanging on. I’m conscious but when you get in that position, there’s no fight to be had. You’re done.
When I pulled that fist back, I had the power of the whole city of Detroit and the power of a million Red Wings fans in that fist. I didn’t even feel it. When you hit somebody perfectly on the button like that it feels like butter. I hit him, he goes down, then I get his helmet off and I pick him up off the ice and I f—ing wailed on him with a left uppercut or two, and that’s the punch that cut him. I got really good connection on that one. Oh, it felt so good.
Bob Wojnowski, Detroit News columnist
When Lemieux was felled the noise in that arena was something I’ve never heard. When a team wins a championship, it’s a joyous celebration. This was blood-curdling. It was raw, roaring revenge. It was bloodthirsty.
Adrian Dater, former Denver Post reporter
It’s like the bully getting beaten up, finally, by the kid who had been bullied. Everybody was rooting for the underdog Wings.
With the crowd on its feet and referees tied up elsewhere, McCarty continues to tee off on a defenseless Lemieux, who is already bleeding profusely. With an unobstructed view from the Avs’ net, goaltender Patrick Roy holds back as long as he can before launching himself on a beeline to rescue a prostrate Lemieux. This split-second decision leads to a spectacular, Matrix-like, midair collision between Roy and Shanahan, a devastating injury, and then, the greatest goaltender fight of all time between Roy and Mike Vernon; a remarkable brawl that features at least a dozen haymakers.
It was stupid by me, I guess I have no business there. No one likes to see a teammate get creamed on the ice and get pounded like that. I’m sure Claude would like to do things differently than he did, but when you see him be punched like this and no one does nothing, maybe it is a normal reaction.
As any good teammate would, I would have done the same thing.
Patrick comes out of the crease, skating as hard as he could to center ice, and I’m going like, please don’t please, please, please don’t — and everything just blew up. The gloves were flying everywhere.
I look up and Patrick Roy was already about 15 feet out of the crease and in full stride coming right at McCarty and Lemieux. I knew Roy was going after McCarty to jump in and interrupt him. So I broke loose of Foote and I just started charging at Patty.
I don’t know what made Roy do this or what made me do this, but in a split second, I almost felt like he was pretending he didn’t see me coming, but I knew he saw me. And at the last second, I don’t know why we jumped, I just saw something in his body where I’m like, he’s about to jump and he sort of jumped. And I jumped at the same time and we collided in midair.
It was stupid by me. Shanny is a heavyweight. I guess I had no business there, that’s how I see it.
Patrick messed up his rotator cuff. He jacked up his shoulder during that collision. It never really went away that season. It definitely took the wind out of his sails, and he was never again a hundred percent.
Mike Vernon, Red Wings goaltender
I saw Patrick leave his net and if he leaves, that’s my guy. So I go to myself, “Patrick, don’t be doing that” because now I have to get out of my net. Shanny and Roy are both airborne and going up and colliding. I’m like, this is crazy. I’ve never seen that before, two guys leap out of the air and go flying at each other. I go out there and for some reason I had Adam Foote’s left arm. He kind of looks at me and shakes his head. The next thing I know Patrick Roy jumps me and then him and I just square up at center ice and start throwing punches.
Shanahan throwing that roadblock into Roy, that was unbelievable. Then all of a sudden I see Vernon come out and I go, well, OK, I guess the goalies are gonna go at it, too.
I turn around and, I should’ve really been watching Adam, but I had a big smile on my face because I just thought it was so funny to see Mike Vernon, who is like one of the happiest non-confrontational goalies to ever play the game, throwing punches with Patrick Roy. For a moment I did become a spectator and sort of enjoyed the show.
I’m tied up with Shanny, and we weren’t even mad at each other. We were just watching and going holy s—! And oh my god! We weren’t paired up to fight, honestly, we were so much more interested in watching the goaltenders fight. And the ref comes over and he’s trying to calm everything down and he’s screaming at us, ‘Don’t fight right now! If you two go right now, you’re both getting kicked out!’ He hit my goaltender, so we have to go, it’s gonna happen, but we just kinda agreed to fight at the beginning of the second period so we wouldn’t get kicked out.
I just remember my brother saying to me, ‘If you’re ever in a fight, just don’t stop throwing punches. I’m a natural righty. I just tried to keep throwing punches and I threw a left and it landed. It was lucky. It was desperation. I just tried to throw punches. That’s all I tried to do. I landed a couple. Patrick landed a couple, but he kinda hit the top of my head. I mean, he’s 6-2 and I’m 5-7, so I almost had to jump up to hit him. I guess if you strike blood you’re the winner of the fight. But I don’t think Patrick would say that.
That was the best fight of them all right there. There’s nothing like guys that don’t get in fights all of a sudden wanting to fight. They’re just throwing everything.
It didn’t go very well. Vernon is not a tall guy, but he’s a strong guy. So he got a punch in on my eyebrow and it was bleeding and I couldn’t see anything. I realized for the first time how exhausting it is to fight. I couldn’t breathe after that one.
I wasn’t having a good game. So it actually felt good to go help, to contribute and be part of it.
While Roy and Vernon wind down, McCarty drags Lemieux’s limp body to where Kris Draper is standing on the Wings’ bench, like a big-game hunter showing off his kill. Blood pouring from Lemieux’s temple turns a 3-foot section of ice crimson. His eyes are open but Lemieux is out cold and leaning heavily on a referee. Lemieux recovers and comes back to assist on the Avs’ final goal but up until recently he has no recollection of returning to the game.
It was almost like a symphony. I mean, you got one thing going on and another thing going on, and then this and then that and it’s like, man, what a crescendo! Is this really happening? It was unreal. Anybody who’s watched it, they’ve never seen anything like that in hockey or really in any other sport. Nobody expected that, but we all loved it. Every single second of it.
There’s a moment where Roy, Foote, Vernon and I are all sort of like rolling around the ice and Darren has Lemieux up against the boards. Darren has his back to Devorski, so he doesn’t realize who’s watching him or who’s not watching him. There’s a split second where Devorski looks over his shoulder to see what’s going on with us and at the moment, Darren knees Lemieux right in the head.
I didn’t see the dirty shot. Someone said he tried to knee him. If you see that, that’s definitely a match penalty.
There’s still a welt on the side of Claude’s head from my knee, I felt it.
After the big fight the place is still going crazy. All the media is crammed into the press box typing away and I feel a bump on my shoulder and kind of a shove as the person went past and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ I turned and looked and it was Avs GM Pierre Lacroix. Just to make sure I knew it wasn’t an accident he turned back at me and said, “Get out of my way you f—ing p—k.”
The rink at the Joe looks like the set of a zombie apocalypse movie: bloody, dazed and battered bodies in torn and ragged clothing wandering around aimlessly. While one ref desperately tries to scrape the blood off the ice with his skates, the players retrieve their gear and Roy, Forsberg and Lemieux retreat to have their wounds dressed. Lemieux is stitched up by a member of the Red Wings’ medical staff whose hands tremble during the entire procedure. Meanwhile, Devorski begins to tally up the penalties. Overwhelmed by a level of utter chaos and uber violence that would be unrecognizable in today’s game — the YouTube footage from the Joe still carries a “viewer discretion” warning — Devorski unwittingly adds to the anarchy by giving McCarty only a double minor. The Avs get a four-minute power play, but, somehow, McCarty is allowed to stay in the game, as are Roy and Vernon. The Wings’ goaltender is so certain he’s kicked out he’s slumped in his locker stall recovering when a team official races in to tell Vernon to put his gear back on and get in net.
I kept thinking in my head, Lemieux had it coming. Did he deserve it? Yeah, he probably did. I still remember seeing Kris Draper’s head all smacked up [in 1996] and he just looked terrible, and I think that’s what this was all about. It was payback time, and it happened that night. Marc Crawford and my linesmen were a little upset that I didn’t throw McCarty out. So I went over and explained to Crawford that, yes, McCarty should definitely have been thrown out. For some reason, I didn’t give him the instigator and I should have. To this day, I really screwed up on that game. But in my heart I just said, you know what? Payback is a bitch.
We all packed into the coaches room to watch a replay of the fight. We laughed at the fact that I didn’t get kicked out, and we laughed at the fact that I only got four minutes. One of the most unbelievable things about that whole era of hockey was what we were able to get away with on the ice. It was cool because Scotty Bowman let us sort of enjoy that for like 10 minutes, and then we had to get back to the real task at hand, to win the game.
When Darren saw the replay of all the things that were going on behind him, he was shocked. He had no idea, he was just laser focused on Lemieux.
I was bleeding pretty bad. I’m getting stitched up and one of our teammates walked in — it might have been Footie — and there was a bunch of curse words and then he said, “Everyone in here is gonna fight! We’re all gonna fight until we die!”
The Avs certainly try to make good on that pledge. The second period features five new fights, 78 penalty minutes, two game misconduct penalties and more memorable mayhem. Every inch of ice is contested. Every check is finished. Elbows fly. Sticks fly. More fists, teeth and blood fly. The crowd is deafening and relentless. And every whistle seems to feature a nasty scrum that threatens to implode into a bench-clearing clash. At this point, with 18 fighting majors handed out, the violence is almost cartoonish. Roy’s injury is bad enough that he starts trying on teammates’ shoulder braces between periods. (He says now that he “should have left the game.”) Covered in blood splatter, the back of Tomas Holmstrom’s Detroit jersey looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Colorado’s Brent Severyn brawls with Aaron Ward for several minutes behind the net while completely bare-chested after his jersey and pads are ripped off — all while fans wave “SCREW LEMIEUX” signs and “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (To Have a Good Time)” blasts from the Joe Louis speakers. But the most shocking development of all is that by early in the third period, Detroit still trails Colorado 5-3. The Wings have avenged Draper — and then some — but it will all be for naught if they lose for the fifth straight time to the Avs.
That was the catalyst to why this all happened — we had to win the game and we had to win that game because up until that point they had owned us.
If the Wings don’t win that game, it sends a message: “Yeah, you beat up Lemieux and a few other guys, but you still lost. You just can’t beat those guys in big games.” Instead, it definitely flipped the rivalry.
The game was frustrating. We responded and they responded. There were more fights. We won some, they won some. But what was frustrating was once again, they were beating us. Halfway through the third period, they had gone up by two goals. One of our coaches sort of said something on the bench like, “Well, if we’re not gonna win we better really send a message.” As much as we had been sending messages all night, the collective response on the bench from all of us players was: We’re gonna win, and this game is not over.
In the third period, a relentless onslaught by the desperate Wings pushes the shots on net to 47-19 in Detroit’s favor. Eventually, Roy shows signs of being human. Halfway through the period, the Wings score twice in 24 seconds, tying the game on a wrap-around goal that Shanahan bounces off the back of Roy’s left skate. Overtime. In the first minute of OT, a back-checking Shanahan forces a turnover by Lemieux in the neutral zone. Larionov picks up the puck along the boards and weaves through three defenders to gain the Avs’ zone. Instead of continuing across to open ice, though, the Professor brilliantly drives toward the net. This not only sets a pick for McCarty, allowing him to shoot deep and cross to the left of the net, it gives Shanahan time to curl back up and jump up into the right side of the play.
McCarty, who grew up dreaming of being a Red Wing in Leamington, Ontario, about 40 miles from Joe Louis Arena, recognizes the play right away from thousands of hours of running the classic three-man weave drill as a kid. This time, though, McCarty and Shanahan wind up in opposite spots, which is less than ideal. Shanahan reaches the top of the face-off circle and bangs his stick. Larionov pushes him the puck, forcing Roy to come way out of net to overplay Shanahan’s shot. The air seems to leave the Joe as the crowd falls completely silent.
I can’t believe I passed it. I don’t meet too many pucks I don’t want to shoot, but Darren opened up and he was just so wide open. I wasn’t thinking it was Darren McCarty. I wasn’t thinking about the fight. He was open, I slid it to him, it went in and there was just this amazing relief that we beat Colorado, finally.
I slayed the dragon. We met up after the goal behind the net and everybody in the world who was a Red Wings fan, we all got the same body shock of energy and electricity at the same time. You could feel the earth shift. There was a shift in our confidence, a shift in our team, in the building, in the fans and in the city of Detroit. Not only did we beat them, we also beat the crap out of them. There’s a belief you need, I don’t care who you are or what team you are, you need that moment when you finally truly believe you can do it. That was the moment.
I remember putting prayer hands up to the heavens, thanking God. Then, hugging Drapes. It was just that proverbial exhale moment. We did it. We’re going to be alright.
March 26, 1997, that was the day a champion was born.
That game galvanized the Red Wings.
Total humiliation for the Avalanche. It changed everything. The Avalanche were never the same. The Avs lost their psychological edge over Detroit after that night, no question about it.
The fact that McCarty wasn’t kicked out and was in there to score the winning goal, that tells me that even the NHL, from a distance, allowed justice to happen and condoned it.
I just looked up to the gods and I said, “This is not my night.” Of all the guys to score the winning goal, it’s the guy who should have been thrown out of the game, he scores the winning goal. It’s just like putting salt on that wound. I didn’t sleep well that night. After the game I’m at the airport and I get a call from Brian Burke, who was our big boss back then. And he says, “Jesus Christ, Paul, do you think you could have called a couple more penalties?!” I said, “Yeah, Burkie, I certainly could have.”
That was a defining moment for us as a team. And that no doubt helped me personally, confidence-wise and everything, to move forward and know my teammates were behind me. We fought for one another.
They made a big statement. They addressed everything they needed to address. And they won the game. It gave them momentum. It was their time.
We were rolling, and Scotty Bowman needed his team to gel. This is all from him and his mind. He needed this. He made this all happen. He provoked it. We gelled and we won a Cup. He needed his team to do the same. So, it’s crazy but in a way we both needed each other, we both lifted each other. Detroit owes thanks to Claude just like we owe thanks to Kozlov. That’s the point of this story and this rivalry that people have missed for so long. We needed each other.
The teams meet again just a few months later in the 1997 conference finals, where Bowman and Crawford nearly come to blows on the bench. Catapulted by Fight Night at the Joe, the Red Wings eliminate the Avs in six games before sweeping Philadelphia to win Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 42 years. In the handshake line following the 1997 conference finals, Draper skates right past Lemieux. The two do finally shake hands at the 2014 NHL draft, but there has never been an apology. In a 1998 rematch, McCarty and Lemieux fight to a draw. That same season, on April Fools’ Day, Roy fights Wings goaltender Chris Osgood during yet another melee that features 218 penalty minutes.
These days, the two captains from Fight Night, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, are the general managers for their respective franchises. Sakic keeps a picture on his wall of the alumni game played between the Wings and the Avs at the NHL Stadium Series Alumni Game in 2016. Led by Roy, the Avs won 5-2, but, says Shanahan, “If it was a tie game or a one-goal game, as embarrassing as it sounds, it could have gotten out of hand.” While the on-ice rivalry has waned considerably in recent years, especially with the Red Wings’ struggles, a surprising amount of vitriol remains between most of the original combatants.
In Nagano for the Olympics, I get on the elevator at the family hotel and the door opens up and there’s a Russian player there decked out in his Olympic stuff. It was Kozlov. And it was like, we both saw a ghost. His eyes and my eyes both went kinda squirrely. I turned and I’m looking at the buttons and I’m going, “No, you can’t do that, you gotta leave it on the ice.” But there was a part of me, for a split second, that just wanted to kick his ass right there.
I’ve always really liked Patrick Roy. At the Olympics I was sitting with Steve Yzerman and he sat down at our table and we were having lunch and he says, “My shoulder hasn’t been right since we had that collision.” And I said, “Oh, I’m really sorry.” He got up to go get a refill and Steve leans over to me and goes, “You’re not sorry.” And I said, “No, I’m not sorry. At least not now. Maybe when we’re retired.”
It’s sports and in sports there’s a winner and there’s a loser and you’ll do whatever you have to do to be on the winner side. So I’m not saying it’s just a game. It’s not just a game.
I don’t know Lemieux. I will never know him. I don’t care to know him. And to quote my good friend Darren McCarty: Karma’s a bitch.
I’ve said many times it wasn’t something that was targeted. It happened quickly. If I could have taken it back, I would have taken it back as soon as it happened. The rivalry, the incident and everything else, it was definitely a dark moment (for me), a dark cloud that lasted a long time. To a point where I had thoughts of hanging it up and not competing anymore. It happened for a while and I fought through it because I truly loved the game. This incident and what took place was probably one of the dark clouds on what I consider a very successful career.
This year, on March 26, 25 years to the day of Fight Night at the Joe, McCarty and Lemieux meet again at a local bar in Michigan to rewatch the legendary game. And for perhaps the first time in the storied history of the Wings-Avs rivalry, the matchup between old foes went off without a single drop of blood being spilled. This time, when the gray-haired McCarty raises his hands toward Lemieux’s skull, it’s only for nostalgic purposes: to locate the lump left there by McCarty’s knee on that infamous 1997 night in Detroit.
I don’t like Claude Lemieux the player. But I love the man.
The players didn’t like each other. The coaches didn’t like each other. The trainers didn’t like each other. And that was great. It felt good. There’s nothing like it today and there was nothing like it before it happened. And we want it back.
Mickey Redmond, Red Wings color commentator
When they show Fight Night on our big board down at Little Caesars Arena now, I don’t watch the fights, I watch the young, current NHL hockey players — a lot of them, 18, 19, 20-years-old — going, ‘Are you serious!? This really happened!? They’re not making this up?!’ That was old time hockey at its best.
It’s a different game today. We just let them rock, we let them rock back then.
Steve Yzerman, Red Wings center
If we can improve our team and get to the level where Colorado is at now, this rivalry will show its history very quickly.
They spilled my blood, we spilled theirs. We fought for championships. Those opponents I remember are the ones that helped us achieve our dreams, and I’m sure on the flip side we did that for them as well. We really didn’t like each other, but looking back I’m grateful to those guys.
The Avs brought out the best in us. We had to take it to another level or we weren’t winning a Cup, and they forced us to be better. We brought out the best in each other. But we also brought out a little bit of the worst in each other as well.
ESPN producers John N. Minton III and Mike Farrell, the directors of “Unrivaled,” contributed to this story.
Speaker photos courtesy Allsport, AP, Clarke Historical Library, The Detroit News, Getty, Icon SMI, Pat Karns