Twenty years ago today the hockey world changed.
At least that’s how it appeared to me watching on my couch as a 9 year old obsessed with the Red Wings.
I loved the Red Wings from the time I first started watching hockey, but they’d never been able to take what seemed to be that final step to greatness. They’d made it to the finals in ‘95 but got swept by a New Jersey Devils team coached by Jacques Lemaire who did his best to literally stifle all of the creativity and entertainment in the sport. In ‘96 I thought they stood a good chance but were beat roundly by Colorado in the Western Conference Final. I remember that series though. That series was the first time I felt actual, palpable hatred for another hockey team. It made my issues with Leafs fans growing up in Windsor feel like nothing. In Kris Draper’s fantastic piece for The Players’ Tribune about the Fight Night at the Joe he mentions that both teams were crossing the line throughout the ‘96 series. I’m sure this is the more accurate description of events, but to my 9 year old eyes the Avalanche were the dirtiest hockey team I’d ever seen. I don’t think there was anyone in Hockeytown and Wings Nation as a whole who wouldn’t have wanted someone to destroy Claude Lemieux after that hit on Draper. I still blame them for Stevie Y’s knee issues.
That hatred festered. There were a few games against Colorado in 1997 where the tension was visible but nothing really came of it. Then the Avs came to The Joe in March. The whole thing started with the least likely aggressor, “The Professor” Igor Larionov. He wasn’t too pleased with a late punch from Peter Forsberg and grabbed him to square off. That probably would have been the end of it if not for Darren McCarty. McCarty saw his chance to get back at Lemieux for his hit on Draper and he took it. It’s probably the only cheap shot I will ever defend. McCarty had broken free of the linesman who was holding him, and went right at Lemieux. He punched him in the face with his glove and somehow managed to get his helmet off as Lemieux tried to protect his head. After getting a few shots in, and surrounded by chaos on the ice, McCarty dragged Lemieux over to the Wings bench and pinned him up against the boards, appearing to knee him in the head before finally being restrained by linesmen. McCarty kneeling over a turtling Claude Lemieux at centre ice remains one of the most indelible images of Red Wings hockey.
By this time everyone in The Joe (and at least in my case, at home) was on their feet. When Patrick Roy skated out to intervene and was met mid-air by a flying Brendan Shanahan I knew it was going to be something beyond what I had ever seen. In what seemed like a blink Shanahan, Roy, Adam Foote, and Mike Vernon were all in a bunch at centre ice. As they started to separate Roy realized that Foote was still dealing with Shanny and had Vernon hanging off his back. Roy moved over to get Vernon off of Foote and the two goalies ended up in one of the most serious goalie fights I’ve ever seen. Both landed solid punches multiple times before it was finally broken up.
I can still picture the whole thing without having to look it up. The image of Roy with his face covered in blood holding a towel at the bench. Mike Vernon with his jersey hanging by it’s strap. McCarty screaming from the penalty box with seemingly the entire team joining him. Scotty Bowman and Marc Crawford almost getting in a fight themselves at the bench.
It still gives me chills to this day. I’m honestly not a big proponent of fighting in hockey. I hate the staged fights, the fights for the sake of fighting, the ill-conceived notion that two men hitting each other in the face for no actual reason will change the momentum of the game. This game, though, and this brawl in particular was different. It was the Red Wings, who had long been derided for being “too soft” standing up to the biggest, baddest team in the league and holding their own. It was revenge on Claude Lemieux for what I maintain was the dirtiest hit I’ve ever seen. Somehow, even though it was only a regular season game, this game took on a greater significance. By beating the Avs in a game that was rough and dirty and normally would have favoured the Avalanche, something seemed to click for the Wings. It was the Red Wings overcoming a long-standing obstacle. It was the Red Wings taking that final step to greatness.
They went on to win the game with the kind of gritty overtime goal that would define the team. Of course the goal was scored by McCarty. In a fitting bookend, the goal that won the Stanley Cup for the Red Wings later that year would also be scored by McCarty. They ended up being a team that was defined by their skilled stars, but driven by their Grind Line. It’s almost cliche now to say it, but this is the team that defined that cliche.
I don’t know that March 26, 1997 could happen in today’s NHL. I think that’s probably a good thing. The game has evolved. You don’t see the kind of blood boiling hatred that Detroit and Colorado felt anymore. Modern rivalries are defined by hard-fought highly skilled hockey games. That’s how it should be.
But boy, do I love telling people new to hockey about the day the Red Wings climbed to greatness 20 years ago.