Exploding Some March 26th Myths!

Today is the 19th anniversary of maybe, just maybe, the most recognized regular-season game in modern NHL franchise history.  Is there another?  Another regular season game as celebrated by a fanbase?  Especially one that has little to do with any sort of individual achievement?

We just celebrated in Toronto the 40th anniversary of Darryl Sittler’s 10 point game against the Boston Bruins on a snowy Saturday night in January 1976, but that celebration is about Sittler, isn’t it?  It’s about his iconic status as a Maple Leaf, and the fact that 10 point record has been neither eclipsed nor equaled. There are still kids playing at novice and atom levels today choosing to wear #27 on competitive and house league teams alike because of Sittler’s generational impact.  But that’s not what March 26th, 1997 is about for another Original Six team.

Given the teams just played an outdoor game in Denver, and during the Friday evening Alumni Game between the Wings and Avs, Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree.  People loved seeing the players involved – a crazy amount of recent Hockey Hall of Famers – and many commented that it was actually more physical than your typical Alumni game. I think both the relative youth of the players and the tenacity of the rivalry contributed to that sense, but just as important, all hockey fans would love a blood feud that significant to paint our Stanley Cup playoff schedules over the next several years.

The closest, I’d argue, we’ve had since to the utter contempt and dislike of Wings/Avs was the three-year playoff run between the Blackhawks and Canucks, and it had similar dramatic overtures and random acts of violence and trash-talking, culminating in the 2011 1st round matchup that might even make SNL’s Stefon to remark breathily: “this series has everything”.  President’s Trophy winning Canucks versus defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks.  A 3-0 lead for the Canucks erased quickly and decisively.  The early stages of the Luongo/Schneider tension and controversy.  Ryan Kesler’s incredible checking job limiting Jonathan Toews to virtually no offensive production all series, and finally, the incredible Alex Burrows OT winner off a slapshot of a still-bouncing puck, to as HNIC’s Jim Hughson brilliantly described it “exorcise the ghosts”.

But since then, we’ve seen nothing similar to Avalanche/Red Wings and their five playoff meetings over a seven-year span.  And every year, without fail, on March 26th, Red Wings fans remember and talk about “that game” 19 seasons ago.  What it did for the franchise, what it did for them as fans, where they were, maybe where they wish they’d been, and, to reiterate, I’m just not sure other franchises’ followers have a similar link to a non-playoff game.

But there’s been a lot of talk about the game itself, and what happened during it, and it’s lasting impact, that it’s become a bit of a legend.  We should remember a legend is something that may or may NOT be true, so allow me to blow up some myths about this game, the impact it’s had, it’s participants, etc:

Myth #1: March 26, 1997, was the first game back for Claude Lemieux against the Red Wings since the 1996 Western Conference Final when he crushed Kris Draper with the dirty hit.

This has been written in so many places, and on so many occasions, but it simply isn’t true.  Lemieux did miss almost the entire first half of the season with a couple nagging injuries, limiting him to 45 regular season games.  Colorado won in Detroit without Lemieux on November 13th, 1996 by a 4-1 scoreline, followed by a December 17th 4-3 win. 

But Lemieux was present and accounted for in the third game between the two clubs, a nationally-televised March 16th Sunday night game at Denver’s McNichols Arena.  Near the end of the second period in a game Colorado would also win 4-2, a scrum developed with lots of pushing and lots of stickwork and Lemieux, Kirk Maltby, and Kris Draper were each assigned 10-minute misconducts.  Lemieux and Draper were seen visibly jawing at each other incessantly as the teams skated off for the second intermission.  I remember watching this game live and being sure the third period had the potential for things to blow up massively, but they didn’t.  They certainly would 10 days later for the season finale between the two clubs.  This factor was why many Avalanche players, Mike Keane among them, called the Red Wings out for being “cowards” for not attempting to exact justice while in Denver, but I do think there were efforts made in that game to get Lemieux in as John Mellencamp’s lyrical line in “Authority Song” goes, “a compromising position”.  It just didn’t transpire.

Myth #2: It was a rather quiet and confrontation-less game before the Igor Larionov/Peter Forsberg entanglement that kicked off all the mayhem.

Not accurate.  On Lemieux’s first shift in the March 26th game, he was shadowed for a brief period of time by Red Wings forward Martin Lapointe, as he had been in the game ten days earlier in Denver by Joey Kocur.  Kocur had been skating in a recreational men’s league weeks earlier after not being offered an NHL contract at the start of the 96-97 season, and at the age of 32, his NHL career looked finished.  Do you remember Joey Kocur as a Vancouver Canuck?  Me neither, but he ended the 95-96 season playing seven games with the Canucks.  Lemieux didn’t engage Kocur, and you can hardly blame him, nor did he pay attention to Lapointe.

In addition, there were two other fights in the first period between Detroit’s Jamie Pushor and Colorado’s Brent Severyn at 4:45, followed by a 10:14 encounter between Kirk Maltby and Rene Corbet.  Yes, I agree – that’s an odd couple.

Myth #3: Darren McCarty received a fighting major for his “efforts” on Claude Lemieux, but didn’t get kicked out of the game and returned to score the OT winner.

No, not even!  McCarty got a DOUBLE-MINOR for his pummeling of Lemieux.  Imagine the hand-wringing and fake outrage now about this!  Will someone think of the children???  But we live in 2016 where there’s approximately 2342.78 percent more fake outrage about everything under the sun than there was then and we just shrugged our shoulders at the violence and moved along.  Remember also, this was a one-referee league back in 96-97 and maybe Paul Devorski just lost track of how many times McCarty hammered Lemieux with bare fists while the recipient of the violence was bent over on his knees protecting his face from more thunder. 

Amazingly also, neither Brendan Shanahan nor Adam Foote earned penalties during the famous scrum.  Only Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon received fighting majors (and roughing minors), but of course, neither had to serve any of the time.

Myth #4: After the McCarty attack on Lemieux, the game calmed down & was peaceful.

No again!  Actually, it’s doubtful anyone does believe that.  Fifteen seconds after the ice was cleaned up and penalties assessed, Detroit’s Vladimir Konstantinov and Colorado’s Adam Deadmarsh fought, with 1:23 left in the first period.  Perhaps disappointed, their first-period actions didn’t register in some paid time off, future 2-time Canadian Olympic teammates Brendan Shanahan and Adam Foote fought right off the opening faceoff in the 2nd period.  

More fights and more fights — Aaron Ward and Brent Severyn.  While at the same time, Mike Keane accosted Tomas Holmstrom, and they fought.  Deadmarsh and McCarty?  Yes.  Krupp and Pushor?  Again, yes. The game would finish with 68 penalty minutes for Colorado, and 64 for Detroit.  Funny enough, the two players who really got this feud rolling early in that 1996 playoff series – Slava Kozlov, and obviously, Claude Lemieux – each finished the game with no penalty minutes.

Myth #5: This was the game that cemented that Mike Vernon would be the playoff starter for the Red Wings and endeared him finally after two seasons of, at times, harsh criticism, to the fans.

The latter is probably truer than the former.  The rotation, especially come playoffs since Vernon’s arrival in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, had often been controversial.  Osgood was a mere 22 years old in the summer of 1994, coming off a bitterly disappointing first-round loss to the San Jose Sharks. Osgood wasn’t even supposed to see playoff duty, except for the fact that the traded-for Bob Essensa was dreadfully inconsistent the moment he arrived and after two dreadful starts in that Sharks series, he was benched.  That summer. the team traded defenceman Steve Chiasson to Calgary for Vernon, and Osgood became the obvious backup.  

If anything, Vernon got blamed a bit too much for the Stanley Cup Final sweep to the New Jersey Devils.  New Jersey outshot Detroit in all four games, by an average of 8.25 shots.  For all Detroit’s firepower, they pushed a mere seven goals past Martin Brodeur in the four games.  

So at the start of the 95-96 season, there were early signs of an Osgood/Vernon battle for the #1 goaltending spot.  It wasn’t even settled as the playoffs started in 1996, as in the opening round against the Winnipeg Jets, Osgood played the home games, and Vernon the road games.  The next round for the first four games, the same scenario.  Osgood at home, Vernon on the road.  Except Osgood won his two against the Blues, and Vernon lost his games.  The Wings then lost Game 5 at home, but instead of going back to Vernon in a do-or-die game in St. Louis to force a seventh game, Bowman started Osgood and he delivered, making 18 saves in a 4-2 win.  Game 7 — you already remember it for Steve Yzerman’s OT winner, but Chris Osgood did go save-for-save with Jon Casey in shutout fashion. Shots ended 40-29 in favor of Detroit after 81+ minutes.

But Osgood’s run of great play wouldn’t continue going into the 1996 Western Conference Finals.  A couple sloppy goals in a sloppy Sunday matinee Game 1 put the Red Wings behind early in the series, and they played a collectively worse Game 2. But there was no going back to Vernon, and Bowman didn’t.

Thus, when 1997 came around, and the March 26th game, it still seemed a wide-open competition for who’d be the playoff starter, and if anything, many experts expected a repeat of 1996’s early rounds, with both goaltenders getting playoff starts.  It never materialized and Vernon started all twenty playoff games, with Osgood mopping up in relief in two games which were blowouts, including Colorado’s Game 5 home win in the Western Conference Finals, before Detroit would eliminate the Avs two nights later at Joe Louis Arena. 

I think getting into the mind of Scotty Bowman is a dangerous thing to do, even retrospectively to the tune of nineteen years.  That said, I truly don’t believe March 26th and it’s actions and reactions forced Bowman’s hand to let Vernon carry the full load in the playoffs, but it did create new love and admiration amongst the paying fans, that is hard to deny.  If Roy skates out to help Lemieux, and Vernon stays in his crease or comes out too late and plays the “lemme’ at him, lemme’ at him” game, like smaller dogs do once they get the requisite 50 feet or so away from bigger dogs on the street, maybe it’s a very bad look that there isn’t any recovery from, but that’s pure speculation.  

Vernon’s 1.76 GAA and .927 save percentage in the playoffs made him an easy choice for the Conn Smythe, and if he doesn’t win, Sergei Fedorov is a no-brainer with 20 points in 20 games, and the incredible checking and penalty killing he provided. 

So there you have it, a trip down Memory Lane for Red Wings fans, who always enjoy this anniversary.  Is the game less famous/infamous without a Stanley Cup triumph nine weeks later?  Of course.  But it never could be “just another game”.  This is the first time in this column I’ve mentioned the result, which I’ve always believed was utterly immaterial, a 6-5 Red Wings win, with Darren McCarty scoring the OT winner. I’ve never believed the Red Wings got over a mental hump in beating the Avalanche that night, but I do believe it galvanized them as a team like maybe they hadn’t been prior.  Brendan Shanahan and Mike Vernon (in their first and third seasons, respectively) certainly earned full-on love from that moment on, and weren’t considered hired guns. 

The rivalry and those playoff series were very special to me.  I attended 21 of the 30 playoff games between the two clubs from 1996 to 2002, and got to see a lot of a very special city in Denver, Colorado during those trips for WDFN in Detroit.  I was still studying journalism in the spring of 1996, so I have an excuse for not being part of that particular series.  The teams would only meet once more in the playoffs after 2002, a rather easy second-round sweep in 2008 on the way to Stanley Cup triumph in Mike Babcock’s third season as head coach.  Naturally, since the move to the Eastern Conference, the only way we see a Wings/Avalanche series again is a Stanley Cup Final.  It’d be a hard series to turn away from were it to ever occur.