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Eye for an Eye: Revisiting the 1997 Red Wings, Avalanche Brawl

It was fitting that the infamous 1997 Avalanche/Red Wings brawl happened at ‘The Joe.’ The Red Wings would finally get their man and Darren McCarty would at long last exact his revenge.
Mccarty Lemieux

By Joe Lapointe

Gray and drab on the north bank of the Detroit River, there loomed a now-demolished hulk called Joe Louis Arena, right across the deep, dark water from Windsor, Ont. Nearby stood two other massive tributes to Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’ from Detroit’s Black Bottom, a nearby neighborhood torn down long ago. Louis held the world heavyweight boxing championship before, during and after the Second World War.

Another memorial to Louis was his 30-foot statue in boxing trunks, with gloved fists. It towered in the lobby of what was once called Cobo Hall, right next door to ‘The Joe.’ And just down the street from both lurked an 8,000-pound sculpture of Louis’ fist, bare-knuckled and clenched outside city hall.

Inside The Joe, on March 26, 1997, the visiting Colorado Avalanche and the hometown Detroit Red Wings served knuckle sandwiches, early and often, in a bloody reckoning of a vicious feud. It was this night of fighting, according to local lore, that launched the Red Wings into a championship era.

The Wings’ primary target that night was Claude Lemieux, a right winger for the Avalanche, who had maimed the face of Detroit’s Kris Draper with a blindside check into the boards in Denver during a bitter Western Conference final in the spring of 1996, almost a year earlier. Now came the payback.

Amid a multi-player brawl, Darren McCarty of the Red Wings attacked Lemieux with punches that left Lemieux dazed and dizzy. He hit him as hard and as often as Joe Louis smacked Max Schmeling back in 1938 at the original Yankee Stadium. Blood flowed from Lemieux’s face and onto his shirt and onto the white ice and sideboards as 19,983 enemy fans stood, jumped, clapped, howled, shook their clenched fists and roared with delight.

Instead of ejection, McCarty earned only two minor penalties for roughing. Much later – after yet another McCarty fight and many involving others – he scored the winning goal in overtime for a 6-5 Detroit victory.

That spring, the Wings soared to their first of back-to-back Stanley Cups, and their first of four championships in 11 seasons. After the game, McCarty, trembling with adrenaline, explained his fistic fury against Lemieux as a mission from God.

“Retribution,” he said. “Back in the Bible, go to the Old Testament: an eye for an eye.”

When McCarty invoked “God’s will,” an alert public-relations official announced that it was time for McCarty to take his shower.

Down the hallway, in the Avalanche room, Mike Keane differed.

“Everyone is gutless on that team,” he said. “This doesn’t prove they are men. I think they are phony.”

Three months later, McCarty and the fin de siecle Red Wings defeated the defending champion Avalanche in a slightly crazed rematch of the Western Conference final. Detroit then swept the Philadelphia Flyers for its first Stanley Cup in more than 40 years.

That generation of Wings also won the Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2008. McCarty played on all four teams. In Detroit’s long hockey history, that era of success is bettered only by the four Cups the Wings won in six seasons from 1950 through 1955, back when the team played at Olympia Stadium and the NHL included only six clubs.

The beating of Lemieux that night was extra-legal justice, like a ritualistic mob punishment in a partly civilized frontier town. Or, as McCarty explained, this sort of revenge – with fists punching skulls – demonstrated hockey’s eternal need for vigilante justice.

“You’ve got to keep fighting in the game,” McCarty said.

McCarty’s gory beating of Lemieux is a core chapter of hockey history in Detroit, played there professionally for almost 100 years. And March 26, 2022, marked precisely a quarter-century since of this pivotal moment took place.

The bad blood bubbled up from the Draper incident in the 1996 playoffs the previous year, when Detroit had the best record in the regular season but lost to Colorado in six games in the West final. Just that season, the Avs had moved to Denver from Quebec City, where they used to be the Nordiques, hatched in the 1970s in the renegade World Hockey Association. The Red Wings were NHL blue bloods, an Original Six franchise founded in the Motor City in the Roaring Twenties.

This was Colorado’s second try at the NHL, so the two teams had no geographical or historical rivalry. That didn’t matter.

“From the first drop of the puck in Game 1, guys were taking runs,” Draper later recalled for The Players’ Tribune. “Slashing, grabbing, sucker punching, you name it. We did stuff, they did stuff.”

In Game 3, Lemieux sucker punched Slava Kozlov of Detroit in the back of the head because Kozlov’s earlier shove from behind had gashed the face of Colorado’s Adam Foote. After the 6-4 Detroit victory, as Lemieux walked with his family through the parking lot outside Denver’s McNichols Arena, they passed by the Wings’ team bus. Suddenly, coach Scotty Bowman stepped into the open doorway and spoke harshly to Lemieux, who discussed it the next morning.

“I’m walking out with my child, my wife and my nephew and my family,” Lemieux said. “Bowman just started yelling out of the bus, which is a weird thing. The door was still open, and he took a step down and said, ‘Nice sucker punch, you blankety-blank. I hope you get suspended.’ ”

After Bowman demanded an NHL review, the league suspended Lemieux for Game 4. Bowman, a master of psychological warfare, was a shrewd, veteran coach with a record of success. Colorado’s Marc Crawford was younger and had not yet won much. Hearing of Bowman’s demands, Crawford analyzed the mind of his senior rival. “He’s a great thinker,” Crawford said. “But he thinks so much that he even gets the plate in his head to cause interference in our headsets during the games.”

At that point, even those in the know said, “Huh?” Crawford’s reference was to when Bowman got hit in the head by a rival’s stick as a teenaged junior. For decades, journalists had reported this as fact: Scotty Bowman has a metal plate in his head, put there by doctors after his career-ending injury. Those words may as well have been engraved on the Stanley Cup.

It seemed to be a telling detail that helped explain something – who knows what? – about a brilliant but sometimes baffling man. Crawford’s taunts soon reached Bowman during an impromptu news conference in the lobby of the arena. His response brought an even greater “Huh?” because Bowman then told a swirling swarm of reporters, repeatedly, “I don’t have a plate in my head.”

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The media members were perplexed, as if someone had interfered with their brainwaves. Why had Bowman never said this before? Why had he never bothered to correct the record? Bowman kept answering the same questions the same way. Surrounded on all sides by a pack of puck pundits, Bowman began to revolve slowly in a 360-degree circle. The reporters wheeled with him as a group as if Bowman were the sun and the journalists were his orbiting planets. Or, to mix cliches, Bowman actually was literally spinning the reporters while lobbying them in the lobby.

The two teams split the next two games to give Colorado a 3-2 edge in the series. Then came the horrid flashpoint in Game 6, on May 29 at McNichols Arena, in a 4-1 Avs victory that clinched Colorado’s eventually victorious berth in the Stanley Cup final against the Florida Panthers.

At 14:07 of the first period, Lemieux charged Detroit’s Draper from behind, ramming his face into the top of the sideboards near the team benches. The impact cracked Draper’s face like the shell of a hard-boiled egg. Lemieux got a five-minute major and a game misconduct.

After the game, near the dressing rooms, Detroit trainer John Wharton walked from the first-aid clinic alongside Draper, who looked like the victim of a car crash. Wharton detailed the damage done.

“He has a fractured jaw and possible orbital fracture and a broken nose,” he said. “He took 30-some stitches. The teeth will have to be replaced because they are out of position. He also suffered a concussion.”

Draper said he learned the name of his assailant while on the medical table.

“When I found out, I wasn’t surprised,” Draper said. He implied that Lemieux routinely protected himself while intentionally harming others. “He runs around with a visor down to his chin,” Draper said, “and a body full of armor.”

He said two Colorado players – he wouldn’t name them – told him after the game that Lemieux’s attack was “a classless act.”

“That’s coming from his own teammates,” Draper said.

One of Draper’s teammates – goaltender Chris Osgood – said another suspension of Lemieux would not suffice and that the Red Wings would deal with him the next season. When someone suggested that this sounded like a threat, Osgood called it just a prediction.

“It’s not a threat,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to happen. We’re sick and tired of it. It’s happened too many times. He could have broken Draper’s neck. It’s sickening.”

McCarty later told Detroit radio station 97.1 The Ticket that he often thought about Lemieux during that off-season. He said he envisioned Lemieux’s face on golf balls he hit off the tee. Not only Draper’s friend and mate on the ‘Grind Line,’ McCarty also was the best man at Draper’s wedding.

After surgery, with Draper’s jaw wired shut, McCarty carried pliers, he said, in case Draper choked on food and needed first aid. Constantly, McCarty envisioned revenge against Lemieux.

“I was driving myself crazy,” McCarty told the radio station. “I said, ‘God, whatever happens, can I be the messenger whatever your plan is?’ ”

During the following regular season, Detroit and Colorado had played three games prior to March 26. The Avalanche won all three. Due to injuries, Lemieux missed the first two, one of them featuring the removal of two Colorado players on stretchers. Lemieux played in the third match, in Denver on March 16, but no fireworks took place.

However, some of the Wings’ widespread fan base was there that night, and many hoisted signs that depicted Lemieux’s name on tombstones. The Avs would visit Detroit in 10 days. Newspapers in Detroit and Denver fired up the feud.

In the Denver Post, columnist Mark Kiszla wrote, “Detroit so hates Lemieux it can taste the bile. But the Red Wings can’t hurt him, can’t intimidate him, can’t touch him.” Addressing “the motormouths of the Motor City,” he added, “It’s a rivalry only in Detroit’s spiteful dreams.”

In the Detroit News, a headline heralded “A Time for Revenge” and put Lemieux’s face on a wanted poster. Columnist Bob Wojnowski wrote of Lemieux’s “phony sneer that supposedly makes him intimidating.” “He’s intimidating like a carjacker is intimidating,” Wojnowski wrote. “You don’t know when he’ll strike, but you can bet it will be from behind followed by sudden flight.”

Colorado players downplayed the grudge. “The Lemieux-Draper thing is over now,” Keane said. “They had their chance to settle the score last game.” But goalie Patrick Roy offered a more realistic prediction. “It will be a very interesting game,” he said. “We expect a tough game.”

When the Avalanche reached Detroit, Lemieux was getting death threats, he said. A security guard protected the door to his hotel room, but Lemieux had no bodyguard at Joe Louis Arena during a mood of escalating violence.

First, Colorado’s Brent Severyn and Detroit’s Jamie Pushor fought at 4:45 of the first period. Next, Rene Corbet of the Avs and Kirk Maltby of the Wings scrapped at 10:14.

“It was a saucy little game,” McCarty later told the Woodward Sports Network. “You can see something’s boiling up to happen.”

One hint of what was to come for Lemieux was a slash from Vladimir Konstantinov and later a check into the boards from Brendan Shanahan. Neither Detroit player was penalized by referee Paul Devorski.

The major gang brawl erupted at 18:22 with an unlikely pair: Detroit’s Igor Larionov of Russia against Colorado’s Peter Forsberg of Sweden. In the NHL’s mentality of that era, Europeans were not expected to fight, especially stars like these two. But tensions and expectations were such on this night that their behavior seemed organic to the mood. In that neither dropped their gloves for bare-knuckle punching, referee Devorski gave them not five-minute majors for fighting but only two-minute minors for roughing because they merely tumbled over each other while wrestling.

“Rolling around like puppies on Christmas morning,” McCarty later said with a smile.

Meanwhile, McCarty and Lemieux milled around an eight-player scrum while everyone chose what hockey people call “dance partners.” When McCarty spied Lemieux, he lunged toward him and, with a shot from his gloved right hand, bashed him upside the head. McCarty later said he looked Lemieux in the eye before unloading and explained the difference between this and a sucker punch.

“That’s the cold-cock,” McCarty said. “That’s not a sucker punch.”

As Lemieux fell to the ice, McCarty ripped the helmet from Lemieux’s head. The Wings had often complained that Lemieux’s large, hard, plastic face shield amounted to part of his “armor.” Years later, Lemieux would say he didn’t see McCarty coming and that the punch in the temple left him dizzy.

Having now shed his gloves, McCarty began to pummel the prone Lemieux about the head and face, drawing blood. McCarty dragged Lemieux over to the boards in front of the Detroit bench and continued punching him.

“I’m just, boom!” McCarty said. “Smashed Lemieux’s head against the wall…I smashed his face.”

With Lemieux down, McCarty then used his legs. “Yes, I did try to knee him,” McCarty said.

He succeeded. “He kneed me where I lost my helmet,” Lemieux said. “He got away with that.” Lemieux said this left a permanent knot on the back of his head.

In that Lemieux appeared to take up a defensive crouch, many fans later accused him of “turtling,” a term used when a player refuses to fight and, instead, protects himself in the manner of a turtle retreating into a shell. Lemieux later denied this, saying only that he was too dazed to fight back.

McCarty offered an anatomical analysis more human if not humane.

“I’m trying to take my fist and put it through his skull and rip his heart out,” he said. “He got what he deserved.”

Although vicious, bloody, preordained and historic, this battle was not even the wildest punchout of this waterfront brawl. That came when goalie Roy saw Lemieux in trouble against McCarty and raced down the ice to his rescue. This triggered a chain reaction. Shanahan cut off Roy and crashed into him with a leaping body block. The choreography was like that of a tag-team bout in pro wrestling.

By then, Mike Vernon had dashed into the swarm from the other direction. Roy got up, found his netminding counterpart, and squared off with Vernon, goalie vs. goalie being correct hockey etiquette in 6-on-6 brawls, sort of like a square dance where everyone knows the do-si-do.

The two goalies stood toe-to-toe at center ice and landed multiple punches in a lengthy slugfest. Fans leapt from their seats and screamed. Players stood from their benches and banged their sticks on the boards. The spectacle even delighted some journalists in the press box as they pounded away on their computer keyboards. And it left Roy with blood streaming down his face, more even than Lemieux.

At the time, fighting in hockey was commonplace, though reduced in scale and scope from the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ era of the 1970s when the Philadelphia Flyers dominated and intimidated the NHL with intentional brawls and twice won the Cup. They were to hockey what Hell’s Angels were to highways.

For some hockey promoters, fans and journalists, hockey fights were a guilty pleasure. Others felt no guilt whatsoever. Before the internet, fans traded video cassettes of hockey fights by mail, an underground, bootleg circuit.

In some instances (probably most) fights were a quasi-legal sideshow sanctioned as entertainment and soon forgotten. But in certain circumstances, calculated or spontaneous fighting could inspire a team, settle a grudge, intimidate an enemy and even spark (symbolically, at least) an era of success. This was one of those times.

In the previous decade, while climbing from the cellar regions of the NHL, the Wings had improved with the help of Bob Probert and Joe Kocur, ‘The Bruise Brothers,’ two of the most vicious punchers the sport has ever seen. McCarty grew up near Detroit, in Leamington, Ont. He’d spoken before of taking the tunnel bus across the border and under the Detroit River to watch Probert and Kocur punch out foes at The Joe. McCarty said his enforcer role made him a vindicator not only for his team but for a vast community.

“The whole Red Wings nation, man, woman, child, granny, whoever, wanted a piece of this guy,” McCarty said on The Ticket. “I was the messenger.”

McCarty paid only a small price for delivering his message to Lemieux. In a twisted bit of hockey jurisprudence, referee Devorski let McCarty off with only two minor penalties for roughing. According to this “it takes two to tango” logic, McCarty wasn’t “fighting” because his victim did not fight back (and was not penalized).

The only majors for fighting went to the two goaltenders, who also got two-minute minors for leaving their respective creases. Hockey, you see, has boundaries. Thou shalt not leave thy crease!

Back then, the NHL used only one referee. Perhaps a partner could have added to McCarty’s rap sheet a two-minute minor for instigating, a five-minute major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct. Colorado coach Crawford later said the referee apologized to him at the first intermission for not calling a more severe penalty against McCarty. “He said he blew the call,” Crawford said. “Small consolation.”

Despite missing the most blatant offense, Devorski nevertheless called 18 fighting majors as the night raged on. Later in the game, McCarty earned at least a draw against the wonderfully named Adam Deadmarsh.

Then came McCarty’s moment of glory, his career-defining memory and perhaps the highlight of his life. In the first minute of overtime, on a flowing rush of skating and passing with Larionov and Shanahan, McCarty beat Roy to give Detroit the 6-5 victory.

Selected as first star and detained for a post-game tribute, McCarty waited in the hallway for his curtain call and wiped tears from his eyes. After taking a bow, he sat in the dressing room and quoted the Bible.

Two months later, in the 1997 post-season, the Wings and Avs performed an encore to March 26, a burlesque sequel. This show roared right out of Slap Shot, Paul Newman’s Hollywood hockey film farce from the 1970s that spoofed the Broad Street Bullies era.

For the second consecutive year, the Wings and Avs met in the Western Conference final. After three games, Detroit had two victories, and the furies once again invaded Joe Louis Arena during a 6-0 Detroit win in Game 4. Again, the referee was Devorski.

Late in the third period – after multiple fights, slashes, elbows, cross-checks and high sticks – Bowman and Crawford exchanged opinions from the near ends of their nearby benches. Crawford stood up on his bench, therefore towering above his older rival and screaming down at him while Bowman fixed him with a blank stare. As Crawford raged away, his players and assistants held him back but never covered his mouth.

According to the book Blood Feud, by Adrian Dater, Bowman told Crawford, “I knew your father before you did.” After which, Crawford let forth a deluge of colorful metaphors unfit for print before unleashing a threat: “Yeah, yeah. And he thinks you’re a f---ing a--hole, too…You f---in’ old c---…F-- you, you f---in’ a--hole, you’re a f---in’ loser!…I’ll f---in’ kill you! I will! I’ll get you…Your time has come! I’m going to get you!”

It appeared at this point that Bowman’s psychological ploys had gotten the best of his rival. Although the Avalanche won Game 5 in Denver, the Wings clinched the series in Game 6 back in Detroit and went on to sweep the Flyers in the final for their first Stanley Cup since 1955.

The following season, in Colorado’s first visit to The Joe, Lemieux challenged McCarty to a fight as they lined up for the opening faceoff. It was a matter of honor, he said. Even some Colorado fans still thought Lemieux turtled in his March 26 beating. Years later, Lemieux would say the rematch was planned because he was tired of hearing about it. (No hockey team would ever be named the Turtles. Kraken? Yes. But not Turtles.)

“I know that it had such a negative impact on the team and people criticizing me,” Lemieux said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to fight.’ ”

Video shows a brisk and serious battle, evenly contested, with both combatants trading words before trading punches.

Lemieux’s pro career, which began in 1983, ended in 2009. He maintained a close friendship with Wayne Gretzky and became the president of Graf Canada, a Switzerland-based sports equipment company that makes hockey skates. Lemieux’s son Brendan is now a left winger with the Los Angeles Kings. Brendan was the infant in his mother’s arms when Bowman verbally confronted his father in the parking lot outside the old rink in Denver in 1996. Late in 2021, the NHL suspended young Lemieux for five games for biting the hand of Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk during a fight.

McCarty’s career, which began in 1992, also ended in 2009, a year after he had won his fourth Cup with the Red Wings. He formed a rock band, Grinder, went through two divorces and bankruptcy, and underwent four rehabilitations for substance abuse.

In 2015, McCarty partnered with a marijuana company, Picanna, to manufacture a line of products under the name Darren McCarty Brand. Cannabis is legal in Michigan. Early in 2022, the company announced McCarty’s “gummies” with brands that included Power Play and Lights Out.

In Detroit, McCarty is still regarded as a local hockey oracle. At present, McCarty’s growling voice can be heard on a series of radio commercials for a Detroit-area pain clinic. In one script, he taunts Lemieux as a “Turtlin’ b----.” And in a current television commercial for a Detroit-area law firm, McCarty brandishes his four Stanley Cup rings as if they were brass knuckles.

McCarty and Lemieux never became close friends, but they have appeared together at trading-card shows and have been interviewed together on TV. If fans brought photographs of their famous clash, both men would sign them. When they appeared at the same event in suburban Detroit in 2017, Lemieux signed the pictures of his mugging with captions like “A bad day at the office,” “I lost the fight” and “I was just praying.” Such promotion, he told the Detroit Free Press, is “all for the good of the game.”

Seven years before that, in Canada in 2010, they met for a formal recollection – if not reconciliation – of their feud on TSN’s Off the Record. One might say they broke the ice.

“This is the first time that you guys have really talked about it at all,” said host

Michael Landsberg. “Can I get you to shake hands?”

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said.

McCarty, to Lemieux’s left, nodded and offered his hand first.

With tight smiles, they extended muscular arms over the big leather arms of their chairs. With Lemieux’s hand on top and McCarty’s underneath, their 10 fingers clasped into one, big, friendly fist.  

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