Amped-up Red Wings alumni ready for trip
down memory lane against hated Avalanche...
BY Keith Gave
The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche face-off Saturday in an outdoor game at Coors Field on what is expected to be a warm Denver afternoon. Two playoff-seed bottom-feeders meeting with two points on the line. Big deal. The bigger deal will unfold the night before on the weekend’s undercard event, when alumni of a certain generation from both clubs meet to celebrate one of the National Hockey League’s fiercest rivalries.
Twenty years ago, the Red Wings and Avalanche were the two best teams in the league. Both boasted rosters of several future Hall of Famers. Their games featured brilliant, intense and exhilarating hockey in a duel that turned ugly on May 29, 1996, when the gutless Avalanche winger Claude Lemieux skated up behind a defenseless Kris Draper and cross-checked him into the boards as he was returning to the Detroit bench after a shift.
Draper fell face first, the boards crushing his cheekbone, breaking his jaw and mangling one of the brightest smiles in sports. Moments later, the series ended, Colorado delivering the crucial knockout blow to a Detroit team that had set a record with 62 regular season wins and 131 points. It also produced one of the most memorable and repeated quotes: Detroit’s Dino Ciccarelli saying to anyone who would listen – and often just mumbling it to himself: “I can’t believe I shook his (bleeping) hand.”
Two decades later, Claude Lemieux remains perhaps the most hated of all villains to Detroit hockey fans. And, in a town blessed with stars like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov, ultimate grinder Darren McCarty may be the most beloved of all Detroit Red Wings for the retribution he sought and won 10 months later on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. Many fans remember this game more vividly than some of the four Stanley Cup-clinching victories that followed in the ensuing 11 years.
But these teams didn’t need fighting to deliver high-octane entertainment to a league starving for it in those sleepy neutral-zone trap (think New Jersey Devils) days. They played like the Stanley Cup was on the line every time they played – and essentially, it was. For a six-year stretch, the road to the Stanley Cup went through Detroit or Denver.
And now many of those same participants meet again. Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Adam Foot, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon and, of course, Lemieux – all those players Detroit fans just loved to hate – for the Avs. McCarty, Draper, Ciccarelli, Martin Lapointe, Brendan Shanahan, Nick Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman for the Wings. Even Igor Larionov is going to suit up again.
Alumni games, typically, typical are farcical side shows that, if anything, tend to remind us how human even our greatest heroes are. When they’re done playing, they often fall out of shape, gain weight and look pretty much like the rest of us in a weekend beer league. But this game will be different. Players are taking this one seriously. Draper, who is organizing the Red Wings, has been relentless in gathering up as many players as he can for organized skated at least three times a week.
Twenty years later, this is still serious business to these guys.
“I never play in these games,” Larionov said. “But this will still be good hockey.”
Igor Larionov, always the quietest, most elegant skater on the ice. Who might have guessed that it would be he who ignited the most memorable melee on Joe Louis Arena ice?
“There was only one referee then,” Larionov recalled in a conversation the other day. “So much stuff happened behind the play that nobody saw. It was like there were no rules. You could do anything.”
Nevertheless, the lone referee in that game, Paul Devorski, should have seen Forsberg trailing Larionov and whacking him with his stick repeatedly. Larionov was carrying the puck. He felt the first of Forsberg’s love-taps to the back of his legs. The second shot went to Larionov’s back. The third time, a whack on his head. Finally, Igor Larionov had had enough.
Here was the moment fans in Detroit had been expecting all season long. Three times the Wings and Avalanche had met. Three times, the Wings had lost. Three times, they had skated off without showing the slightest inclination of exacting the revenge everyone in the league expected of the Red Wings. Doubt was beginning to creep in, not only among fans, but even within the Detroit dressing room. So in the fourth and final game on March 26, 1997, the Wings had to
prove – especially to themselves – that if they were to ever win the Stanley Cup they had to find a way to get past that formidable Colorado blockade.
The Avs had rolled past Florida in four straight games to win the Cup the previous spring, and it looked like they were in the mood to win it again the way they dominated opponents – including Detroit – all season long.
Now here was Larionov – who had fought not a single time in his redoubtable Hall of Fame career – forgetting about the puck, turning, reaching back and delivering the only punch he’s ever thrown at the thoroughly gifted and completely maniacal Forsberg.
The two tumbled to the ice.
And then all hell broke loose.
Any Detroit Red Wings fan of a certain age can tell you chapter and verse what happened next. McCarty singling out Lemieux, who immediately went to his knees and turtled beneath his helmet. Shanahan throwing haymakers at anyone in an Avalanche jersey. Roy sprinting out from his crease, inviting Mike Vernon to join him. The shorter Vernon obliging Roy by bloodying his face.
It was ruthless. It was brutal. It was bloody and beautiful. Nine fights in all, most of them ending with a Detroit player standing over his opponent and fans on their feet cheering deliriously. But the most important part of the night – and the Wings who played in that game acknowledge it, to a man – was how they were able to fight back from 3-1 and 5-3 deficits to win the game.
Darren (Freaking) McCarty – who else? – scored the game-winner in overtime. The Wings had finally beaten Colorado, and they would do it four more times in a six-game series in the Western Conference Finals en route to their first Stanley Cup title in 42 years.
Some things to think about, and perhaps put a smile on your face, when you tune in to Friday’s game that celebrates one of the most virulent, talked-about rivalries in sporting history.
Face-off between the Red Wings and Avalanche alumni is at 5 p.m. at Coors Field, and you can hear it all right here on Y101, your place for sports talk in Northern Michigan.