BLOODY WEDNESDAY AT THE JLA
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, April 3, 2023
Photo credit – Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press
BLOODY WEDNESDAY AT THE JLA
It can be said that the decade of the 1990s in hockey belonged to the Detroit Red Wings. By the end of the decade, they were indeed a powerhouse in the National Hockey League. But it took them a while to find their feet. Certainly, at the beginning of the decade, they weren’t much of a contender at all. In fact, in the 1989-90 season, under coach Jacques Demers, they found themselves in fifth place in the five-team Norris Division with just 70 points over the course of the 80-game schedule.
The next year, under new coach Bryan Murray, they improved to 74 points and moved up to a third place finish in the Norris. They were still not a .500 team though. Their captain, Steve Yzerman, had always been one of the league’s most gifted offensive players, and that pattern had been consistent through the first part of the ‘90’s. But he had to develop his two-way game.
Certainly, getting cut by coach Mike Keenan before the 1986 and 1991 Canada Cups drove that point home in a big way. Yzerman had always been the quiet leader – a man who was more content to let his play on the ice speak for him than any ‘rah-rah’ speech. The disappointment of not being able to play for his country pushed him in a way that nothing else could.
With Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Jimmy Carson as their centremen, Ray Sheppard and Paul Ysebaert putting pucks into the net and Tim Cheveldae anchoring the netminding duties, the Red Wings found themselves at the top of the Norris Division by the end of 1993-94. Their excellence continued over the next few seasons and in the spring of 1995, they worked their way to their first Stanley Cup Final series since 1966. They would face the upstart New Jersey Devils.
The Devils had started their NHL life back in 1974-75 as the Kansas City Scouts. The best thing anyone could ever say about the Scouts was that they had really nice uniforms. By the summer of 1976, the team had moved to Denver and had become the Colorado Rockies. Again, the best thing about them was their threads. Oh, and they had Don Cherry as their coach as well.
By the fall of 1982, they had moved to the Meadowlands and Brendan Byrne Arena and wore the red, green and white as the Devils of New Jersey. About the most famous, or infamous thing that anyone ever said about the team was that they were “a Mickey Mouse organization”. That was not me saying that. Someone named Wayne Gretzky referred to the team that way after his Oilers demolished them 13-4 in a game in November of 1983. They were either awful or nondescript for a number of years after that as well.
It wasn’t until Jacques Lemaire came along as the coach of the Devils in the summer of 1993 that they finally achieved some sort of real success. Lemaire installed an intense defensive system called by some the ‘neutral zone trap’, while others referred to is as the ‘left wing lock’. Regardless of the name, Lemaire and his crew achieved some serious success with their stifling style of play and managed to make it to the Eastern Conference Final series against the New York Rangers in the spring of 1994 before falling in seven games to Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, Steve Larmer, Mike Richter and that team of destiny.
By the spring of 1995, the Red Wings had established themselves as one of the elite teams in the NHL. The Devils had been okay in the 1994-95 regular season, but with their defensive system now firmly ensconced in their repertoire, they proved that they were one of those teams that was good enough to get into the playoffs, but were even better when the going got tougher, more physical and more defensive.
New Jersey’s winning percentage during the regular season was a rather pedestrian .542 with just 22 wins in 48 regular season games. Their first-round opponent was the Boston Bruins, who finished the season with 27 wins. Jersey dispatched them in five games. Next up was the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins. Lemaire’s team won that series in five games as well. They then met the Flyers, who had Eric Lindros as their captain and had finished at the top of the Atlantic Division eight points ahead of the Devils.
This time, it took six games, but Lemaire’s Devils won again and were about to face the President’s Trophy winning Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. It was not pretty and it never seemed to be in question. The Devils, with their trap, neutralized Detroit’s offense and swept the series to win their first ever Stanley Cup. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the most valuable player in the playoffs that year, was Claude Lemieux. Keep that name in the back of your mind, because it will come up again.
In the 1995-96 season, the Red Wings came out like a team on a mission. By the end of the season, Detroit under Scotty Bowman won 62 out of 82 games for a whopping 131 points. No other team in the league was even close. Their winning percentage was .799! Colorado wound up with 104 points. The Flyers had 103 and Pittsburgh ended up with 102. No other team had over 100 points. In the Western Conference final, the Red Wings and Avalanche met with a Stanley Cup berth on the line.
This was the Avs’ first season in Denver. In the summer of 1995, the Quebec Nordiques had moved south, out of La Belle Province, to the anger and dismay of many Quebecois and Canadian hockey fans. Le Colisee was seen to be substandard as an NHL arena and without any kind of concrete plan for a new rink, and an alleged lack of corporate sponsorship in the city, the team was moved to the Centennial State. In their last season in La Ville de Quebec, the Nordiques finished with 30 victories in 48 games and 65 points, five behind Detroit.
The 1996 Western Conference final opened in Detroit with the Red Wings heavily favoured to win. But the Avalanche took the first game 3-2 as Mike Keane scoring the winning goal 17:31 into overtime. That loss proved costly for the home team. Detroit had gone the entire season without being shut out, but there comes a time in every series when a goalie imposes himself on the game and Patrick Roy proved to be the difference in Game 2 as the Avs won 3-0 and took a stranglehold on the series as the teams headed back to Denver.
Detroit was facing a must-win situation as the third match began. Darren McCarty opened the scoring and added an assist later in the game. Also in that first period, though, Adam Foote attempted to hit Slava Kozlov. Kozlov evaded the oncoming Foote and at the same time, shoved the Avs’ defenceman’s face into the glass, opening a cut on his forehead. No penalty was called and Colorado players point to that as the moment that their emotions elevated.
“It was a nasty cut – blood everywhere”, Avs’ Mike Ricci said on ESPN’s Unrivaled about the facial injury Foote suffered. “Obviously, we wanted to kill Kozlov. We thought it was the dirtiest thing in the world. Things picked up after that. We were out for blood after that. We didn’t goon them. They gooned us, really, and we just had to respond.”
Claude Lemieux had a similar opinion. “They pulled him out on a stretcher and I go over to Footie and I said ‘Footie, I’m gonna get him.’ And so, late in the game, I purposely sucker-punched Kozlov. After the game, I figured I’d be suspended, I’m walking out of the arena with my wife and her dad and our son, Brendan, who was just a few months old at the time. I’m walking right by the Red Wings’ team bus and the doors open and Scotty Bowman sticks his head out of the bus and starts chirping me. It was like ‘Nice sucker punch, I hope you get suspended’, only with a lot of expletives mixed in.”
“So I handed Brendan over to my father-in-law and I proceed to the Wings’ bus and I put one foot through the door and I said ‘You got a problem?’ and, oh man, you should have seen that bus. I knew the tough guys all sat at the back. The skill guys are always at the front near the coaches and the tough guys are in the back drinking beer. So I knew I probably had a few moments before they could get to me. I was running a little hot and I thought, ‘This coach is not just gonna chirp me in front of my family and I’m not gonna do something about it.’”
“The next day, we have the hearing with the league. I go in early. I’m walking in and there’s this teeny hallway in the arena, probably five feet wide. There’s nobody else in this hallway and Scotty Bowman is coming the other way. It’s just the two of us. I looked at him and say, ‘You got anything else to say now?’ He was quiet.”
Brian Burke was the Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL at the time and was the man in charge of player discipline. His feeling on the Kozlov hit on Foote was different from the Avalanche players. “I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m using the terminology we used at the time with the Players’ Association: a shaving cut, it was ten stitches or less. It’s very different now, of course. But back in the day, you shrug, go get your stitches and get back out there.
At the 17:41 mark of the second period, it was 5-2 for the visitors. The Avs scored twice in the last minute of the second frame to make it a one-goal game, but Nick Lidstrom put one past Roy in the first minute of the third period. That made the score 6-4 and it ended that way. The Red Wings were back in the series.
The good feelings that the Wings might have been experiencing after the third game were quashed after the next match as the Avalanche dumped Detroit 4-2 as they headed back to the Motor City. The Wings’ Russians played a big role in this one. Detroit never trailed as Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov all scored and the home side took this one 5-2 to remain alive in the series. The teams went back to McNichols Arena in Denver.
Lemieux had always been one of hockey’s great villains. But after Game 5, Avs’ coach Marc Crawford felt that Lemieux had played tentatively and he told his player to stop playing “like a ballerina”. In this game, he established himself in that pantheon of heels. Three and a half minutes in, he took a penalty for interference. No big deal. Five minutes later, Nick Lidstrom did the same thing. About a minute after Lidstrom stepped out of the penalty box, Joe Sakic got the Avalanche on the board with his 16th goal of the playoffs.
A little more than two minutes after the Sakic marker, events turned dark.
With Colorado leading 1-0 just over fourteen minutes into the game, after a faceoff in the Avs’ zone, the puck came out over the blue line. Detroit’s Kris Draper picked the puck up and fired it back in while skating backwards along the boards to avoid the check of Sakic. As he turned, he was watching the dump-in and Lemieux hit Draper high and hard in the back causing his face to crash violently into the top of the dasher board in front of the Red Wings’ bench. Draper had never seen Lemieux coming in behind him and he went down to the ice in a heap.
Immediately, a penalty was called. Draper did not move. Other players had kind of all careened into the area at the same time and as players were pushing, some were trying not to be pushed on to the prone Draper. At this point, no one knew the damage that had been done to the Wings’ player’s face.
Draper himself had no idea how badly he had been hurt until the Detroit trainer, John Wharton, told him. Wharton covered Draper’s face with a towel and he and Keith Primeau helped the injured Red Wing off the ice. McNichols Arena maintenance staff were busy scraping all the blood off the ice.
“I’d been injured before...broke a wrist, dislocated a thumb, knees...you feel that,” Draper told the Detroit Free Press in a 2020 interview. “I didn’t feel that hit. I just remember being on all fours.” What he “didn’t feel” was a broken jaw, a fractured cheekbone, a broken nose and damage to his right orbital bone. But in the moment, Draper had no idea any of this had happened.
He was somewhat lucid but he had very little memory of what was going on in the aftermath of the hit. “I just kept thinking ‘get to the door, get to the door’. Next thing I know, I woke up on the doctor’s table. I remember seeing the doctors and then I blacked out again. The next time I came to, I sat up. They had stitched me up and I remember getting up and my first reaction was, like most hockey players, I was looking for my gear to get dressed and go back out there. That’s when they walked me over to the mirror and said ‘You’re done for the night’.”
Lemieux got a major penalty for hitting from behind and a game misconduct. The Wings did not have the opportunity to gain any kind of retribution on the Avs’ pest. Paul Coffey scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game, but three second period goals by the Avalanche put the game and the series away. Colorado went on to sweep the Florida Panthers in the Cup Final.
After the handshakes following the game, the Red Wings’ Dino Ciccarelli referred to Lemieux as he told reporters, “I can’t believe I shook this guy’s friggin’ hand after the game. That pisses me right off”. For his transgression, Lemieux received a two-game suspension and a fine of $1,000. Fans and players in Detroit were incensed, feeling that, given what Lemieux had done to Draper, he deserved much more of a penalty. The anger was palpable.
At the very least, Draper wanted an apology from Lemieux. He never got one.
Darren McCarty was probably Draper’s best friend on the team. He was particularly upset by Lemieux’s hit on Draper. His feelings boiled up to the surface even years later. “It was so frustrating. The gravity of losing and the season ending after winning 62 in the regular season and wondering ‘Are we ever gonna win a Cup?’, and then looking at Drape’s face and going ‘They did this to us.’ And it’s so frustrating because you can’t do anything. And the attitude that Claude had, that’s what really f***ing set me off. He was like Drago in Rocky IV – ‘If he dies, he dies’. We realized to win a Cup, the first thing we had to do was get through them.”
The Wings and Avs met four times during the 1996-97 season. Their first match was at Joe Louis Arena in November. The Avalanche went into Detroit and came away with a 4-1 win. Claude Lemieux didn’t play so, again, there was no opportunity for the Wings to get any kind of revenge. The game ended though with some level of fisticuffs as Martin Lapointe and Adam Deadmarsh engaged in some fighting. But, for this game anyway, the Red Wings and their fans were unable to get any satisfaction from the final result.
A week before Christmas, the teams convened in Denver. By the 8:28 mark of the second period, Detroit held a 3-1 lead. But Colorado answered with three straight goals and took the game 4-3. There were no fights in this one, but the game sheet was littered with roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. For the second time in as many tries, though, the Wings were unable to get a win against their rivals.
On March 16, 1997, Detroit again paid a visit to McNichols Arena for what would be a spirited affair. Lemieux dressed for this one and the Red Wings seemed to spend as much time trying to get a piece of him as they did in trying to get a puck past Patrick Roy. Brendan Shanahan did get the visitors on the board first scoring a power play goal at 14:30 of the first period. But a few minutes earlier, Shanahan and Bob Rouse made an attempt at getting at the Avs’ evildoer and the three went off for roughing. Later in the period, Martin Lapointe and Peter Forsberg had a fight and the frame ended with Draper, Lemieux and Kirk Maltby all out with ten-minute misconducts.
Two second period goals by Adam Deadmarsh put Colorado back into the lead, but that frame also featured roughing, charging, high sticking and slashing fouls. Even Steve Yzerman went off for roughing in that middle stanza.
Just over a minute into the third, Sergei Fedorov tied the game, but Avalanche goals by Keith Jones and an empty netter by Jon Klemm iced the victory for the home side. The frustration was beginning to mount for the players and fans from Motown.
Ten days after that third game, the teams had their final meeting of the regular season. It was at Joe Louis Arena and in Detroit, this one was about gaining some form of retaliation. It seemed that everyone was aware of who was coming to town on March 26, 1997. All around Metro Detroit, t-shirts were being sold that had “Screw Lemieux” on them. The Detroit News printed a ‘Wanted’ poster with a prison number under Lemieux’s picture.
“It was the sounds that I’ll never forget,” Kris Draper told ESPN. “You could hear the fans from our dressing room. By the time the warmups started, there was close to 20,000 fans already in the building. But inside our locker room was an eerie silence. There wasn’t much being said. You just knew this was going to be a night.”
Paul Devorski was the referee that night. He could feel the urgency as the game approached as well. Everyone knew that something could happen. “You could tell,” Devorski told the interviewer from Unrivaled. “It was like a big volcano erupting. It was just a matter of time. It was in the papers, on the news, everybody was talking about it. Nothing had erupted yet. Everybody in the hockey world was waiting for it to finally erupt. There was a buzz in the air. That arena was humming and everybody was on their toes and ready to go. And deep down, probably Claude Lemieux knew it was going to happen.”
Scotty Bowman had wanted his team to play with a bit of an edge so he used Lemieux’s hit on Draper and his lack of an apology as a spur to get the Wings’ riled up. But when the Avalanche scored three and a half minutes into the game, that spur began to dig in. About a minute after a Valeri Kamensky goal made it 1-0, Detroit’s Jamie Pushor and Colorado’s Brent Severyn dropped the gloves. Crawford described this as ‘the undercard’.
At the 10:14 mark, Draper got two for roughing and Kirk Maltby and Rene Corbet fought each other as well. Late in the first period though, everything came to a boil. It all started, strangely enough, with Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov mixing it up in front of the Detroit bench. After Forsberg knocked Larionov on to his backside, Larionov got upset and as he tried to get back up, Forsberg punched him in the head.
Adam Foote looked at what was going on between Forsberg and the man his Wings teammates called ‘The Professor’ and saw that McCarty was the closest guy to him so he grabbed him and held on tight. McCarty couldn’t move. “In that moment,” McCarty told the Unrivaled crew, “Shanny (Brendan Shanahan) had to choose – bust me loose or go after Claude himself.”
But Shanahan and Lemieux had played together in New Jersey. The two had been great friends. Lemieux named his son after Shanahan. But, on the ice, life outside the rink gets suspended and opponents are just that -- opponents.
“I remember feeling a bit strange, and then there was a moment in a game against Claude,” Shanahan told ESPN. “I had gotten into it with somebody and Claude skated by and he looked at me and he said, ‘Ah, you’re a loser. You haven’t won anything’. I was yelling at him and I remember thinking, like, he’s completely released me of any feelings of regret or apprehension of what I’m willing to do to win.”
Foote’s grip on McCarty loosened for a moment and Shanahan grabbed the Avalanche player. That allowed McCarty to get loose and immediately, he landed a punch, with his glove on, to the temple of Lemieux. That rocked Lemieux and he went down right away. McCarty continued to throw punches at the downed player. At that point, Lemieux tried to turtle, but that didn’t stop the Wings’ enforcer from raining blows upon him.
McCarty felt like he was being carried by a higher force as he pummeled his opponent. “When I pulled that fist back, I had the power of the city of Detroit and the power of a million Wings fans in that fist. I didn’t even feel it. When you his someone perfectly on the button like that, it feels like butter. Oh, it felt so good.”
The linesmen were occupied with other fights that were going on and so, McCarty was free to just keep punching Lemieux as much as he wanted. He had opened up a gash on Lemieux’s face and, as he told ESPN, “I got his helmet off and I picked him up and I just f***ing wailed on him with a left uppercut or two, and that’s the punch that cut him.”
At that point, Patrick Roy had seen enough and he bolted out of his crease to go and help his beaten teammate. He was skating hard toward McCarty and Lemieux. Shanahan saw Roy and where he was going so he got loose from Foote and tried to stop the Avs’ goaltender from reaching his destination. Roy and Shanahan both, for whatever reason, jumped and dove and collided in the air.
The hit damaged Roy’s rotator cuff and shoulder. Meanwhile, Mike Vernon was also surveying the situation and he and Roy ended up engaging in a classic fight. At the end of it all, Roy was bloodied and his body was never the same for the rest of that season.
While all that was going on, McCarty pulled Lemieux up on to his feet to show his bench, and Kris Draper in particular, his handiwork. Devorski was watching what McCarty was doing and for a brief moment, turned to look at the goalies and Foote and Shanahan. In that narrow window of time, McCarty planted his knee into Lemieux’s head. That was never seen by the referee. Lemieux was pretty much out cold by this point and, to this day, doesn’t remember much from that game.
When all was calmed down, 148 minutes in penalties were assessed. Strangest of all was that all McCarty got was a double minor penalty for roughing. No fighting major. No instigator penalty. Just a double minor. Colorado ended up with a four minute power play. Marc Crawford was livid at the call and let Devorski know it.
“Marc Crawford and my linesmen were a little upset that I didn’t throw McCarty out,” Devorski told Unrivaled. “So I went over and explained to Crawford that, yes, McCarty should definitely have been thrown out. For some reason, I didn’t give him the instigator and I should have. To this day, I really screwed up on that game. But in my heart, I just said ‘You know what? Payback is a bitch.’”
For his part, Vernon was sure he had been ejected from the game. After the fight, he had been sitting in his locker with his upper body armour off and someone yelled at him to get dressed again. He had to get back out there and play.
While everything was occurring during the fights in the dying minutes of that first period, Brendan Shanahan and Adam Foote stood together and watched the show. At one moment, Devorski saw them and told the not to fight, and if they did, they would be ejected. So they didn’t fight, but they agreed to meet up in the second period, so they could stay in the game.
And sure enough, five seconds into the second frame, Foote and Shanahan squared off and fought. It wasn’t crazy like the first set of fights was, but it just kind of teed up what was coming in the rest of the middle period. In the Detroit room between periods, a few of the Red Wings players were in a coach’s office looking at replays of the fight. But in the Avs’ room, they were angry. They worked themselves into a boil and came out flying at everything in a red and white jersey.
About three and a half minutes after the Foote-Shanahan fight, Aaron Ward and Brent Severyn duked it out. Both got majors and game misconducts. Also, Tomas Holmstrom fought Mike Keane. Four minutes after that, McCarty and Adam Deadmarsh dropped the gloves. McCarty also got an extra two minutes for roughing. Four minutes after that fight, Uwe Krupp and Jamie Pushor engaged in some fisticuffs.
After forty minutes, the Wings had avenged what had happened to their teammate, Kris Draper, from almost a year before. But, on the scoreboard, they were behind 4-3. They could not allow themselves to get swept over the season by their hated rivals. And then, a little over a minute into the third period, Kamensky scored his third goal of the game to extend the Colorado lead to 5-3.
Shanahan remembered one of the coaches saying something on the bench at this point to the effect that “If we’re not going to win the game, we have to REALLY send them a message”. The players replied by saying “Screw that. We ARE going to win this game”.
Detroit started pouring everything at the Avalanche net, eventually outshooting Colorado 47-19. Roy, who had been trying on the shoulder braces of many of his Avs’ teammates back in the first intermission, may have begun to feel the effects of his now-wonky shoulder. The Wings got two shots past Roy within 26 seconds halfway through the third and tied the game.
The game went to overtime. In the first minute of the extra frame, Shanahan was skating back and stripped the puck from Lemieux in the neutral zone. Larionov picked it up and skated deep into the Avs’ zone. He slid the puck back to Shanahan in the face off circle. Roy came out to challenge Shanahan. Out of the corner of his eye, Shanahan spotted McCarty open on the other side of the net. He slid it over and McCarty deposited the puck into the yawning cage.
The Wings had not only gotten even with their rivals when it came to what Lemieux had done to Draper. They came back from a two-goal third period deficit and outplayed and defeated them on the scoreboard as well. The Joe was pure pandemonium. McCarty was the unlikely hero.
“I slayed the dragon,” McCarty told the ESPN television audience all these years later. “We met up after the goal behind the net and everybody in the world who was a Red Wings fan, we all got the same body shock of energy and electricity at the same time. You could feel the earth shift.”
John Wharton was the Wings’ trainer. According to him, that game was more than just two points in the standings for Detroit. “March 26, 1997. That was the day a champion was born.” Crawford understood the importance of that game for his opponents as well. “That game galvanized the Wings.”
Adrian Dater was covering the Avalanche back then. He saw it too. “Total humiliation for the Avalanche. It changed everything. The Avalanche were never the same. The Avs lost their psychological edge over Detroit after that night, no question about it.”
Bob Wojnowski was a columnist for the Detroit News. He looked at that game as almost karmic happenstance. “The fact that McCarty wasn’t kicked out and was in there to score the winning goal, that tells me that even the NHL, from a distance, allowed justice to happen and condoned it.”
I’m not sure they condoned it, Bob, but it was one of those moments that, had it been written into a Hollywood movie, would be too wild to believe.
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