The Brawl in Hockeytown

In a comment on her last post, Diana said that the stereotype of hockey players as brawling goons still exists.

Unfortunately, this post will do nothing to dispel that notion.

The greatest game of hockey I’ve ever watched took place fifteen years ago today, March 26, 1997.

I remember that night. My fourteen-year-old self was giddy with anticipation, adrenaline, and perhaps a touch of malice, glued to my television screen. The Colorado Avalanche were in town to play the Detroit Red Wings.

A little backstory is in order here.

The year before, the Detroit Red Wings had demolished the competition and made history, setting the NHL record for most wins ever in the regular season at 62 wins and finishing with the second-highest regular-season point total in NHL history at 131 points. They were the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup, which they hadn’t done so since 1955, at 41 years the longest drought in the NHL at the time. The whole of metro-Detroit was swept up in Red Wings fever, and I was caught up in the fervor.

But in hockey, the playoffs and the regular season are, as the saying goes, two different beasts.

The Colorado Avalanche stunned the Red Wings in the Western Conference, winning in six games. To add injury to insult, in that sixth game, Avalanche right winger and cheap shot artist Claude Lemieux–this guy would sharpen his stick–shoved speedy Wings center Kris Draper from behind, smashing his face into the boards, leaving him with a broken jaw and shattered cheek and orbital bones.

Lemieux was unapologetic.

The Avalanche would go on to win the Cup that June.

The following season, the Avalanche lorded over the Red Wings, winning 4-1, 4-3, and 4-2 the first three times the teams faced off. While the Red Wings were still a contender, with a team loaded with stars, they didn’t dominate the league the way they had the previous year. With the playoffs looming, questions abounded. Did the Wings have what it took to win in the playoffs? Would they be able to defeat their nemesis from the Mile High City? Or were they doomed to another year of disappointment, another year without a Cup?

At the start of the game, it seemed like more of the same, with the Avalanche notching a goal three minutes in. But there was an edge to this game that hadn’t been there in the previous meetings, a ratcheting tension, a playoff atmosphere. Halfway through the first period, two fights had already broken out. Both teams were trying to send a message.

And eighteen minutes into the game, all hell broke loose.

Swedish superstar Peter Forsberg of the Avalanche took a swipe at Red Wings center Igor Larionov. Larionov–nicknamed “The Professor” for his bookish manner, enthusiasm for chess, as well as the cerebral approach he took to the game (he’s often considered Russia’s Wayne Gretzky)–reacted in a way no one could have anticipated. He wheeled around and grabbed Forsberg, who had 3 inches and 40 pounds on him, and dragged him to the ice. As the fans roared, the other players circled in to defend their teammates. The linesmen and referee skated over in an attempt to keep the peace.

As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold, and nowhere is it colder than on the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

Darren McCarty, one of the Red Wings’ enforcers and a close friend to Kris Draper, peeled away from a lineman, tossed his gloves, and went after the villainous Lemieux, knocking him to the ice. Rather than stand up and defend himself, as befits the hockey code, Lemieux curled up on the ice, and lay there while McCarty pounded away. The crowd roared its approval.

But it wasn’t over.

Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy, arguably the greatest goalie to play the game, skated to his cowardly teammate’s defense only to be intercepted by Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan. When Roy got to his feet, he found himself face to face with diminutive Wings goalie Mike Vernon. In the ensuing fight, Vernon took down Roy, who had 8 inches and 40-some pounds on him, and left him bloodied. Off to the side, the Irish-blooded Shanahan cocked his fists and tangled with rugged Avs defenseman Adam Foote. When the refs finally broke up the melee, a humiliated Lemieux, bloodied and beaten, skated in shame off the ice into the locker room.

Win or lose, the Red Wings had drawn a line: they were not backing down without a fight.

There would be another fight in the first period, and five more in the second. The teams traded three goals in the second period, and another quick Avalanche goal a minute into the third, and the Red Wings found themselves down 5-3. This time, however, galvanized by the bloodshed and the crowd, the Wings refused to lose. Two goals by the Wings about halfway through the third period knotted the game up, 5 apiece.

Then 39 seconds into overtime, fittingly, Darren McCarty skated through the Avs zone, took a quick pass from Shanahan, and fired it past a helpless Roy. (10:09 in the video below)


Three months later, Darren McCarty would score a gem of a goal in Philadelphia, and the Red Wings would hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years.

It may be artifice to construct a narrative around a sporting event, but that game fifteen years ago had it all: heroes and villains, revenge and redemption, blood and passion. It cemented my love for the game of hockey, specifically Detroit Red Wings hockey, a love that continues today.

I recorded this game on VHS and I think it’s somewhere in my parent’s basement. I don’t know how I’ll watch it, but I sure hope they haven’t thrown it out.


2 Comments on “The Brawl in Hockeytown”

  1. Diana says:

    The Russian Five!

  2. Anything mention of Igor Larionov always makes me happy.

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