Fight night at the Joe

Hockey players on opposing sides are always an inch away from hatred, which makes their game so appealing to so many. They move with speed and grace on blades that are lethal, carry sticks often used as weapons – and there is no running out of bounds as in other contact sports. They’re often quick to drop the gloves and settle accounts with their fists. And they’re just as quick to shake hands when it’s done and laugh about it over beers after the game. But that business between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche in the mid- to late-’90s? That hatred was real. And for many of the players on both teams, it still seethes.

Fight night at The Joe

20 years ago, Claude Lemieux and a boy named Brendan
created a serious dilemma for Red Wings’ Shanahan

By KEITH GAVE

In the first period of a game that may forever stand as the most memorable moment in the history of soon-to-be-shuttered Joe Louis Arena, Igor Larionov was carrying the puck up the ice, still in the neutral zone, when he felt a whack, then another one, then one more on the back of his helmet. They were more than love taps, too, from Colorado’s feisty star center Peter Forsberg – who played the game like a Swedish Vladimir Konstantinov. Larionov expected to hear a whistle, with the official calling a penalty for Forsberg’s liberal stick work. While the amped-up crowd of 19,983 roared its disapproval, referee Paul Devorski had apparently swallowed his whistle.

“I’m controlling the puck. It’s on the blade of my stick and the referee didn’t see that?” Larionov said. “That’s when I decided, ‘Well, how many times can he hit me?’ You have to be patient. You can’t take penalties in games like that, but at the same time. . . one, two, three, four, five times you get hit? And it’s not being noticed by the referee? So I decided to turn around and at least do something.”

What he did was shocking, even to his closest teammates.

“I think if you took a pool, with everybody writing a name suggesting who’s going to start that brawl, Igor would probably have the worst odds,” teammate Brendan Shanahan said. “It happened organically, but the right people were on the ice.”

Larionov, the crown prince of puck possession, let the puck go. Frustrated in a way that he’d never experienced on the ice before or since, he turned, and with his glove still on his left hand, he landed the first and only punch he had ever thrown in his Hall of Fame career. He didn’t back off, either. Not when Forsberg jabbed back. Not when they threw their arms around one another neck and fell to the ice. That started it.

“And once it started. . .” Shanahan said.

“All hell broke loose,” said mild-mannered defenseman Nick Lidstrom, who was trailing the play.

Immediately, 20,000 strong rose to their feet, including a jam-packed press box full of reporters from across the continent in two countries who had come to witness and chronicle an epic chapter in one of the most vicious rivalries in sports. They would not be disappointed.
. . .
As he always did before 7:30 p.m. starts at home, Kris Draper – the guy at the epicenter of this showdown – arrived at Joe Louis Arena at 5 p.m., but there was nothing routine about what was awaiting him as soon as he walked through the doors.

“Right away, there’s about 4-5 cameras filming me,” he said, “so I kind of new something was up, that there was a lot of expectations of how this game was going to be. There was just an eerie feeling before the game, getting dressed, and you kind of knew. There might’ve been 20,000 fans at the warm-up, so I think they kind of knew, too.”

Draper was right. The Joe Louis Arena stands were full an hour ahead of the opening face-off, and everybody in the building felt the buzz. Everybody around the National Hockey League did as well. That’s why all those cameras were in his face.

“Yeah, there was a bit of an elephant in the room, for sure,” Brendan Shanahan said. “Three games had gone by already. This was the last time that we were facing Colorado, and nothing had been done yet.”

Three games over 301 days, to be precise.

Hockey players have long memories. They take their work seriously with an eye-for-an-eye mentality. It was now or never for the Detroit Red Wings. Would they finally take retribution for that cheap and disgusting play in that season-ending game the previous May 29? All the Red Wings knew for sure was that a one-game suspension was far too mild compared to the justice they had in mind for Claude Lemieux. Even Igor Larionov, a certified pacifist, understood that.

“By that time, we knew we lost to them three times so far in the course of the year, and we knew this was going to be the last game we play them in the regular season before we go into the playoffs and meet them down the road,” Larionov said. “So at some point, we have to send them a message, let them know that we are not that team who is going to give up easily.

“We have unfinished business, and we have to show that in this game.”

The punch Larionov threw was the spark that set the arena ablaze and turned the ice red.

As Shanahan mentioned, the right people just happened to be on the ice. They paired up quickly, although not everyone was satisfied with their dance partner. Anyone with half a mind for the moment knew the one guy in a Detroit uniform most likely to extract the kind of revenge on Lemieux that fans wanted. . . needed. . . craved. That’s why the biggest, strongest guy on the ice for Colorado, defenseman Adam Foote, grabbed Darren McCarty.

Shanahan and McCarty were the wingers on Larionov’s line for that shift. Forsberg was centering Lemieux and Valery Kamensky, who paired off with Lidstrom. Before Shanahan could even find a partner, and he was eyeing his old pal Lemieux with some serious mixed feelings, he heard McCarty’s voice.

“It all happened so fast, like in a second, but I heard Mac screaming my name,” Shanahan said. McCarty was trying to untangle himself from Foote. “I knew what he wanted. He was trying to get loose, and Foote had ahold of him. I sort of knocked Foote’s arm free and Darren went right at Lemieux.”
. . .
That’s not to say Shanahan couldn’t. Or wouldn’t., despite his relationship with a former teammate who became one of the more unlikeable players in the NHL for the way he played – and Public Enemy No. 1 in Detroit for what had transpired the previous spring.

On May 29, 1996, after setting an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, the Wings were in a must-win situation, trailing the Avalanche three games to two in the Western Conference Finals. At 14:07 of the opening period at Denver’s decrepit McNichols Arena, Draper was skating toward the Detroit bench for a shift change, his back to the action. He had stopped competing. For Lemeiux, he was an easy, defenseless target – his favorite kind. Lemieux skated up and cross-checked Draper in the back of head. Draper fell forward, his face hitting the edge of the boards in front of his bench before crumpling to the ice.

Lemieux was assessed a five-minute major penalty, a game misconduct and a match penalty for the hit, resulting in an automatic ejection. Draper didn’t return, either. In fact, he didn’t play again until the middle of the following season. He needed the time to heal, and spent much of his off-season on a liquid diet, his jaw wired shut. He had suffered a broken jaw, a shattered cheek and orbital bone that required surgery, many, many stitches, and a lot of dental work.

The Wings lost that game, 4-1, yet despite the ugliness of the series they fulfilled one of the game’s longstanding and honorable traditions by lining up to congratulate the Avs, who were on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Draper returned from the hospital to McNichols Arena in time to meet up with his teammates boarding a bus for departure. His face looked like something out of a horror film, swollen and discolored with a jagged line of stitches. His teammates were shaken. One of them, Dino Ciccarelli, was infuriated – mostly with himself. “I can’t believe I shook his fucking hand,” he kept mumbling to himself and anyone within earshot.

To a man, the Wings were outraged by the Lemieux hit on their defenseless teammate. The immense disappointment of again falling short in their quest for the Stanley Cup was compounded by the necessity for retribution, which would have to wait.

“You win 62 games, a record that will never be broken, and the next thing you know you’re out in the conference finals,” McCarty told Joshua Riehl, director of the documentary film, “The Russian Five” scheduled for release in the fall. “That was our biggest reality check. And obviously with the Drapes thing and that being the last game, we know it’s going to fester all summer.

“It fired up a lot of guys. It was like, ‘Fuck them. That’s ours. We’ve got work to do.’ So everybody was bound and determined when we came back to training camp that we’ve got one goal in mind. That’s to win. And guys came back pissed off. Pissed off!”

But the Wings were nothing if not patient. And as luck would have it, they added more muscle just before the home-opener in the fall of 1997 when the Wings brought Shanahan to Detroit in a trade with Hartford for Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey. Suddenly thrust into a malevolent feud, Shanahan knew his allegiance might be tested.

For him, this was personal in a very human way. He and Lemieux were teammates for a season in New Jersey in 1990-91, and again for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey tournament in 1996. It was then that Lemieux introduced his wife, Deborah, to Shanahan, explaining, “this is the guy I told you about, my teammate from New Jersey, Brendan.”

The first name was all Deborah Lemieux needed to hear. The couple had recently had a son, and when they were struggling pick a name, Claude said to his wife, “You know, I played with this guy in New Jersey, and I really liked the name Brendan. What do you think of that?”

Deborah Lemieux beamed when she was introduced to Brendan Shanahan. “She came over and gave me a big hug,” Shanahan recalled nearly two decades later. “I sort of felt like, you know, that they had named their baby after me. We were friends.

“And then I go to Detroit, and I know that’s gotta stop, which is fine. I have no problem separating things on the ice and off the ice. So when we played, I was trying to run Claude Lemieux like everyone else. He was the enemy now.”

But a good, clean body check – or even a shot that skirted the rules when the referee wasn’t looking – was one thing. Dropping the gloves and pounding a guy into submission was something else. And here came a moment of reckoning for Brendan Shanahan.

Retribution was at hand. The right people, as he said, were on the ice, but one of them started off with the wrong partner.

“Shanny! Shanny!” McCarty was screaming as he was trying to release himself from Adam Foote’s grip. Shanahan managed to untangle his teammate and, to his relief, McCarty skated in a beeline toward Lemieux.

“Something was going to get done, and I was going to do it,” McCarty said. “Nothing was said, but everybody knew. Everybody in the world knew!”

“To be perfectly honest, part of me was happy that I didn’t have to go after Lemieux,” Shanahan said. “There was a part of me that, as much as I was a Red Wing, I still didn’t want to be the guy on top of Claude Lemieux.”

No, that would be Darren McCarty, who skated up to Lemieux and dropped him to the ice with a single shot with his devastating right fist. He called it “a coldcock. That’s when you look at a guy right in the eyes and hit him as hard as you can. He told me later that’s the hardest he’d ever been hit. I was literally trying to take his head off with my fists.”
Meantime, as Shanahan tried to square off with Foote, he faced another distraction.

“I saw Patrick Roy coming at us in full stride,” Shanahan said. “It’s an unbelievable scene, what happened next, with all of us jumping in the air. It was like ‘The Matrix,’ we were all fighting.”

As soon as Roy left his goal-crease, Detroit goaltender Mike Vernon left his to even things up, and soon – after sticks, blockers and catch gloves went airborne – the fists started flying. They traded haymakers at center ice. Vernon was shorter by five inches, but he was far scrappier and the much better fighter. Roy ended up with a bloodied face.

At the same time, McCarty was raining punches on Lemieux, who instead of fighting back went to his knees, shielding himself beneath his helmet, like a turtle. McCarty ripped the helmet off, dragged Lemieux over in front of the Detroit bench and continued punching, going to his right fist when his left arm got tired.

By the time linesmen Ray Scapinello and Dan Schachte could intervene and separate them, the ice looked like a war zone, tinted dark red after Lemieux rose above a pool of his own blood. Roy and Forsberg were bloodied, too. While Devorski was sorting out penalties after four fights and 30 minutes in penalties to both teams in the period, the linesmen spent several minutes using their skate blades to scrape off a layer of red ice so the final minute-and-a-half of the period could be played.

By the time McCarty got to the penalty box, his shoulder pads hanging out of his sweater, Larionov was already there. He put his arm around his teammate and grinned, saying, “way to go, little buddy!”

It didn’t end there, of course. Four seconds into the second period, the fighting started again. This time, Foote was bloodied in a fight with Shanahan. That was the first of five fights in the period.

“That was the night our unity came,” Larionov said. “We had twenty soldiers dressed for this game, and every one was important. You gotta win the battle. You gotta win the war. We lost three battles before that (against Colorado that season), and this was our final one before the playoffs. We have to establish ourselves. Everybody on the team knows this.”

Between all the fisticuffs and bloodlust (nine fights, 38 penalties for 148 minutes), there was a pretty good hockey game. Kamensky’s third goal of the game gave the Avalanche a 5-3 lead early in the third period. The Wings, who had trailed 3-1 earlier, kept fighting back and managed to score two late goals from Martin Lapointe and Shanahan to send it into overtime. Larionov started the winning sequence.

“Igor made a great play at the blue line, sent Darren and I in on a little bit of a break,” Shanahan said, reciting the choreography as though it happened minutes before, not nearly two decades. A tic-tac-toe play ended when McCarty one-timed a pass from Shanahan behind Roy, who had made 41 saves that night. Detroit outshot Colorado, 47-19.

“Darren was the star of the show,” Shanahan said. “Amazingly, he was the one to score the winning goal.”

“The way that it played out? Hollywood!” McCarty said. “That whole game was Hollywood!”

What McCarty did to Lemieux that night was historic in terms of Detroit’s ascendency in that era, but it was secondary to finally finding a way to best a repulsive nemesis, Shanahan surmised.

“Winning that game was even more important than winning the fights,” he said. “I don’t know if that game brings our team together as much if we don’t also get the victory.”

To a man, Shanahan’s teammates agreed with him.

“We came into the dressing room after that game and we knew,” Draper said. “We knew we did something special that night, for us. It was a big moment for that 1997 team.”

“That was the night that, while it wasn’t really said, you could just look around that dressing room after the game and you knew you had something special, with a special group of guys,” McCarty said.

“It kind of turned things around mentally and physically for us,” Larionov said. “It gave us the proof that we can beat anybody.”

An interesting post-script to that evening came a few minutes after the game, when the last of an army of news media filed out of the dressing room and players jammed the coaches’ room.

“We said we wanted to see the winning goal,” Shanahan said, “but we really wanted to see the fights.”

Now the players could join the cheering, watching Roy and Shanahan colliding in mid-air, the goalie fight, listening to the game’s TV broadcasters, their voices rising several octaves, trying to describe the action as fists were flying on different parts of the ice-surface. But for McCarty, seeing it on the video screen was like experiencing it for the first time.

“He had no idea any of it had occurred,” Shanahan said. “He just thought it was him and Lemieux. He had no idea Vernon was fighting. He had no idea any of this was happening – and he played the whole game thinking that the whole riot was just him on top of Lemieux. He didn’t realize the crime scene that was going on around him – with the highlight being little Mike Vernon throwing a wild haymaker and cutting Roy above the eye.”

And two decades later, Larionov confessed that he has some mixed feelings about his role in igniting the fireworks in that game.

“Never in my life did I have any fights, and I’m not proud about that situation,” he said. “But there are certain times when you must stand up for yourself, you know? So it was nice to get some relief, to get through that hump before the playoffs, to show everybody who was at that game, ESPN and the whole audience, that Detroit was not the easy team to break. We can bend, but we’re not going to break.”

The message had been sent – and received. “It just gave our team the momentum, knowing we could beat Colorado,” Lidstrom said, adding that he and his teammates were pretty sure they would meet the Avalanche again in the playoffs that would begin in just a few weeks.

He was right.
. . .

Flash forward to the Western Conference Finals, Detroit vs. Colorado, the sequel. Hatred was in full bloom. Early in Game 1 on May 15, Shanahan heard it. He felt it. Felt it nearly 20 years later, too, when he recalled an unsettling moment.

“My buddy, Claude Lemieux, looked at me at one point and said, ‘You’re a loser, you haven’t won a thing,’” Shanahan said. “And I remember thinking, there was part of me that just went, ‘Thank you. You have just released me from feeling any form of obligation to friendship with you.’ He was right. He reminded me that we have to win, that none of this matters unless we win.

“It’s not that we didn’t respect those guys, we just really didn’t like them. We still don’t like them very much, which I love, because Ted Lindsay used to tell us how, when he played, they really didn’t like the guys on the other team. And those guys? The things they were saying about us, the things they were saying to us – they were the Stanley Cup champs and they were calling is losers. They were saying we were chokers. It pissed us off. But it gave us incentive.”

The Wings lost the opener in Colorado, 2-1, but went on to win the next three games and four of the final five games of the series to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the “big, bad” Philadelphia Flyers. Four games later, they were sipping champagne from a big silver trophy.
. . .

Flash forward once more to February, 1998, in Nagano, Japan.

Newly crowned Stanley Cup champions Steve Yzerman and Shanahan are at the dinner table with Patrick Roy, their Team Canada teammate, all striving for Olympic Gold in the first Winter Games that featured NHL players competing for their countries.

Hockey players from opposing sides are nearly always an inch away from friendship, too, though an enormous chasm still exists between many players on either side of the Detroit-Colorado rivalry. The three were yucking it up as best they could, the wounds still fresh – literally, it turns out – from that brawl 11 months earlier on March 26 at The Joe.

“Patrick mentioned that he sort of permanently damaged his shoulder when he and I leaped into the air. I said I was sorry.”

At that, Yzerman leaned into Shanahan and whispered into his ear, “You’re not sorry.”

“I know I’m not sorry,” Shanahan confessed to Yzerman afterward. “But we were at dinner. I’ve got to be polite.”

Twenty years later, Shanahan couldn’t help but admit: “You know, I have to say: I did get some joy out of that.’

Note: Portions of this story have been excerpted from the pages of the book “The Russian Five, How They Charged Up a City and Changed a Game,” by Keith Gave, scheduled for release this year.