Paybacks Are A Bitch (An excerpt from ‘Vlad The Impaler’)

The son of Ukrainian and Irish immigrants who settled in Guelph, Ontario, Paul Devorski was one of two referees to preside over Stanley Cup Finals series games between Detroit and Pittsburgh in 2008 (when the Wings won) and 2009 (when the Wings lost).

He also had the honor of officiating some classic international games, including the men’s Bronze Medal Game in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, and the men’s Gold Medal Game between Sweden and Finland in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

His career highlight? “Man, I have to say that Gold Medal Game in Torino,’” he said after a pause. “That was such an honor.

“After that, to this day, that Detroit game is No. 2.”

That Detroit game, eh? We all remember that one. March 26, 1997. Devorski was in the eye of that hurricane that night, and for the first time here he tells his side of that story.

The morning after one of the most challenging, chaotic – and memorable – games of his career, referee Paul Devorski’s phone rang, just as he nervously suspected it would.

He had a good idea who might be calling, and he was right. The big boss, Brian Burke, was on the other end. Not good. Devorski knew what was coming.

“Devo,” said Burke, then the NHL’s executive vice president and director of hockey operations – and the league’s chief disciplinarian, “do you think you might have been able to call just a few more penalties last night.”

“Well, yeah,” Devorski acknowledged. “I guess I maybe could have, sure.”

“OK,” Burke responded. “Just checking.”

And that was the end of it, to Devorski’s immense relief. But the message was received in no uncertain terms.

The night before, on March 26, 1997, he had called 148 penalty minutes in the fourth and final regular-season matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche – to the surprise of absolutely no one who was paying even remote attention to hockey in those days.

The Red Wings had a score to settle dating to the previous spring, when the teams met in the Western Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup tournament. In a Game 6 the Wings needed to win to stay alive, Avs forward Claude Lemieux hit a defenseless Kris Draper from behind. Draper fell forward, hitting his face on the dasher boards right in front of the Detroit bench. The result: a broken jaw, fractured cheekbone, broken nose, damage to his right orbital bone, several missing or broken teeth – and, at least temporarily, the ruination of Draper’s ever-present smile.

Eventually, the Avs added insult to injury, scoring the final three goals against a shaken Detroit team to dispatch the Wings, move on to the finals – and sweep the Florida Panthers for their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.

“I can’t believe I shook his fucking hand,” Detroit’s Dino Ciccarelli said later, referring to hockey’s time-honored series ending tradition. Which pretty much summed up how all of Detroit felt about the cheap-shot artist who rearranged Draper’s face.

Lemieux was slapped with a checking-from-behind major and ejection with a game misconduct penalty. Burke suspended him for two games. Draper took his meals through a straw for the better part of the off-season as his wounds healed around a broken jaw that had been wired shut.

The teams had played each other three times previously without serious incident, but everyone knew that if the Wings were ever going to have their revenge, it would be in this game. Certainly Brian Lewis, the NHL’s supervisor of officials, knew it. He’s the one who choregraphed the schedule for officials. Devorski and his two linesmen got their assignment for the game in Detroit about five weeks in advance. But early that afternoon, Lewis phoned Devorski to give him a heads up, that this likely would be a difficult game to officiate.

“Just be ready,” Lewis told him. “These teams really don’t like each other.”

Which explains why Devorski did more tossing and turning than resting as he tried to take his customary pre-game nap.

The NHL didn’t institute a two-referee system until the start of the 1999-2000 season, so Devorski would essentially be the sole judge, jury and executioner in this game. It was a power he took seriously, a power he wielded resolutely – and it would ultimately have far-reaching implications.

Less than five minutes into the game, tensions flared in a battle of defensemen when Detroit’s Jamie Pushor fought Colorado’s Brent Severyn. At about the halfway mark of the period, forwards Kirk Maltby of Detroit fought the Avs’ Rene Corbet.  

Then all hell broke loose at 18:22, when Detroit’s Igor Larionov, who had had just about enough of Peter Forsberg sticking him from behind as he was trying to carry the puck, finally turned and threw the first and only punches of his Hall of Fame career. The two fell to the ice, tangled up. Forsberg injured himself and wouldn’t return to the game.

But in that serendipitous moment, Darren McCarty looked around the ice, saw Lemieux and made a beeline, only to be intercepted by Avs defenseman Adam Foote. But as the two squared off, McCarty was calling for reinforcements. No, he didn’t need help fighting Foote. Rather, McCarty had a promise to keep, and this was his opportunity.

Immediately, Brendan Shanahan tapped McCarty on the shoulder and said he’d take this dance with Foote. And McCarty turned his savage, pent-up attention toward Lemieux, who immediately surrendered, falling  to his knees and covering his head with his arms in the classic turtle position.

If Lemieux thought McCarty might hold back since he was essentially surrendering the fight, he was regrettably mistaken. Using his right hand to pull Lemieux up from the ice, McCarty landed several punches to the face and head before dragging Lemieux to the boards directly in front of the Wings bench – giving his best pal Draper a front row seat – then kneed Lemieux in the head, leaving him lying there in a thickening, sickening pool of blood.

Of the three on-ice officials that night, Devorski was the lowest-ranking member by seniority. He was in his eighth season. Linesman Ray Scapinello, later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was in his 26th season and his partner, Dan Schachte was in his 15th.

The two had their hands full with all 12 players on the ice paired off. The main undercard among all those bouts was at center ice in what is widely considered to be the best goalie fight in NHL history. Colorado’s Patrick Roy, thinking McCarty and Shanahan were about to double-team Foote, skated out of his crease to even things up. That’s when Detroit’s Mike Vernon came out to greet him. Despite being five inches shorter and weighing 23 points less than Roy, Vernon battered and bloodied his opponent.

While overtaxed medics immediately jumped over the boards to tend to Lemieux, the linesmen ushered the parade to the penalty box – but wondered what to do with McCarty. Both had turned Devorski, saying almost simultaneously, “Dude, you’re going to throw him out, right? McCarty’s done, eh?”

“Nope,” Devorski said without pausing to think about it. “He’s staying in.”

In fact, McCarty didn’t even get the requisite 5-minute fighting major. Instead, he was assessed a double minor for roughing. And Lemieux? He wasn’t penalized at all. Not even a 2-minute minor for refusing to fight back and getting his ass kicked.

“Believe me,” Devorski said in a telephone interview more than two decades later, “if I could have assessed something like that, I would have.”

But it was his explanation for not coming down harder on McCarty that was both astonishing, refreshingly candid and sincere.

“My memory was. . . I just couldn’t forget what happened to Kris Draper,” Devorski said. “I’m getting ready for the game, and they’re showing the highlights on TV – Kris Draper’s face after he got hit. I’m thinking, ‘Holy fuck.’

“I’m being honest with you: McCarty should have been thrown out. He should have got 2-5-10 and game [misconduct], and be gone. But my just gut told me, ‘This guy (Lemieux) had it coming.’ I wouldn’t let it go. I couldn’t. So I told the linesmen, ‘No, I’m keeping him in the game.’”

In all, there were nine fights in the game, all in the first two periods. While the Wings got the better of most of them – Foote and Roy were bloodied along with Lemieux – Detroit trailed 5-3 with less than 12 minutes to go before mounting a furious and unforgettable.

Martin Lapointe scored his 14th of the season at 8:27 of the third with assists from Sergei Fedorov and Larry Murphy. And Brendan Shanahan tied just 36 seconds later with his 46th goal of the season, with assists from Igor Larionov and Jamie Pushor.

The Wings needed a hero in OT, and the guy who turned up to score the winning goal, by all retrospective accounts, should never have even been in the game. Larionov made the play with a spectacular move just across the blue line. He then passed to Shanahan, who one-timed the puck to McCarty breaking into the slot, and he redirected it past Roy from just outside the left post.

Game over. Delirium overwhelmed the crowd of 19,983. At the other end, Mike Vernon celebrated the 300th victory of his career. And Devorski skated off the ice thinking the last thing he needed was that guy to be the hero.

“Yeah, overtime, then Darren McCarty sticks it up my ass by scoring the winning goal,” Devorski said. “I knew there would be some, uh, discussion about that afterward. Every time I see that goal – it’s on TV all the time, eh? – I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit.’

“Bottom line, though? Everybody knows, paybacks are a bitch, eh?”

Right or wrong – and many hockey lifers of a certain age saw nothing wrong with Devorski’s call given the way justice was long-administered in the NHL, he knows a referee in today’s game would never survive a decision like that.

“If I made that call today,” Devorski said, “I’d get fired on the spot.” 

And therein lies the difference between the kind hockey many of us loved – and miss desperately – and today’s game administered by Green Peace and assorted other pacifists who are running it into a slushy ditch.

. . .

There’s a post-script to this story, again told by Devorski: On retiring as a referee, Devorski was elevated by the league to serve as a supervisor of officials, essentially monitoring the games, grading refs and linesmen on their performance and offering guidance on how they might improve.

One assignment, during the COVID-19 pandemic when teams were playing to empty, cavernous arenas, took Devorski to Detroit. He typically would be assigned a perch in the press box, far above the ice surface. On this night, though, he found a comfortable spot a bit lower. It happened to be the section where Red Wings alumni congregate when they attend games.

“So I’m sitting there watching the game, and all of a sudden this guy walks in – the place is empty, right? – and sits about five seats away from me,” Devorski said. “I look over, and it’s Darren McCarty.”

McCarty looked over, too, and recognized the former ref.

“The period ends, and Darren comes over to me and wraps his arms around me, giving me a great big hug,” Devorski said. “And he says, ‘I love you man. Thank you. . . Thank you.’”

-30-

Excerpted from a new book, “Vlad The Impaler, More Epic Tales From Deroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest” [scheduled for release in April and available for preorder now through Amazon and other booksellers] by Keith Gave, the former Free Press hockey writer. Gave is also the author of Amazon best-seller “The Russian Five” and a writer-producer of the award-winning documentary film of the same name. His third book, “A Miracle of Their Own,” written with co-author Tim Rappleye tells the story of Team USA’s improbable upset of Canada in the inaugural women’s Olympic ice hockey tournament at the Nagano Games in 1998. It, too, is available for preorder.

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