It took a little-known Swiss goaltender named Joren Van Pottleberghe to bring together the two principal characters of one of the most infamous incidents the game has ever seen.
It was shortly after the draft and the Detroit Red Wings had just selected Van Pottleberghe in the fourth round. Kris Draper, an executive with the Red Wings, was in the lobby in his hotel in South Florida and he was approached by Claude Lemieux, the agent for Van Pottleberghe. The two had a rather awkward conversation about Lemieux’s client for a couple of minutes and Lemieux went on his way.
“I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Draper said, “and he wasn’t going to bring it up. It was basically him as an agent and me as a Red Wings executive talking hockey.”
And that was it. That was the one and only time Draper and Lemieux have spoken since Lemieux drove Draper face-first into the boards in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. In the 6,968 days in between those meetings, Lemieux never apologized to Draper for his actions. And Draper never contemplated what he’d say if Lemieux ever did. While Lemieux was going on to win the first Stanley Cup for the Colorado Avalanche, Draper was recovering from the surgery and facial injuries he suffered. But Draper was back for the next season and, as we all now know, the Red Wings got their revenge on the Avs in the playoffs the next spring. And from then on, Draper was too busy winning Stanley Cups to worry about resentment or hard feelings.
“From the hit through 2002, I was part of three Stanley Cup championship teams,” Draper said. “I was fine. I was all good. I went on and played almost 1,000 more games after that.”
It’s against that backdrop that Draper goes into tonight’s outdoor alumni game between the Red Wings and Avalanche at Coors Field in Denver. Twenty years ago, the rivalry between the Red Wings and Avalanche did not need any more prodding. Both were emerging powerhouses in the Western Conference stacked with Future Hall of Fame players. If you wanted to play a speed, finesse game, both of them could do that. If you wanted to get down and dirty, they both possessed the personnel for that as well. It created one of the most intense rivalries the game has ever seen and the Lemieux hit on Draper added another chapter to it.
For all the times these two have clashed, they’ve never actually stepped outside. And they will do that tonight. Alumni games, generally speaking, are about as dull as dishwater. But this one might actually be worth watching, not because anyone expects the two sides to recreate the nastiness that marked their rivalry two decades ago, but because the players on both teams are so competitive that there will be no let-up in effort. The hate they had for one another has grown into respect, but there is an underlying sense that neither side wants to go quietly into the night. Between 1996 and 2002, the Red Wings won three Cups and the Avalanche two, with the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils being the only interlopers.
Perhaps this is the game that establishes final bragging rights. Avs GM Joe Sakic and coach Patrick Roy have been working out together for the past couple of weeks and a crowd of 40,000 is expected to be on hand for the game. “On the ice, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Draper said. “I just want to play, I just want to win and I just want to score.”
Each team will have five Hall of Famers with the Avs boasting Sakic, Roy, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg and Ray Bourque and the Red Wings featuring Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Murphy and Steve Yzerman. True to the gritty nature of the rivalry, Chris Simon will play for the Avs, while Joe Kocur and Darren McCarty will skate for the Red Wings. Draper expects he’ll see some time with his Grind Line linemates McCarty and Kirk Maltby, but said the coaches plan to juggle the lines throughout the game.
The game comes exactly seven years and one day after the two last met on the ice, when Lemieux was finishing his career with the San Jose Sharks. If Draper finds himself sharing the ice surface with Lemieux, there will be no attempt at retribution. That ship sailed a long time ago and it’s not really in Draper’s nature to hold a grudge. “Why would I?” he said. “That’s not the kind of person I am. I just want to play hockey.”