Joe Louis would have been especially proud that the brawl took place in the arena bearing his name.
It was March 26, 1997, and even “The Brown Bomber” would have had his fists full that night when multiple fights broke out on the ice between the Detroit Red Wings and visiting Colorado Avalanche. The spectacle that resulted in blood being splattered all over the ice came to be known as “Bloody Wednesday” or “The Brawl in Hockeytown” or, more aptly, “Fight Night at The Joe.”
These were two teams that hated each other. Really. No love was lost between the players on both sides, and for that matter, the head coaches and team officials didn’t like each other either.
The previous spring, Colorado’s Claude Lemieaux had slammed Detroit’s Kris Draper into the boards during the Avalanche’s series clinching win over the Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Draper’s face was literally smashed – he needed reconstructive surgery to repair a broken cheekbone, a broken jaw, a fractured orbital bone. Draper, one of the most popular players on the team and one of the most respected players in the NHL, had to have his jaw wired shut for weeks.
After that loss, after the Red Wings and Avalanche exchanged traditional handshakes to conclude the series, Detroit’s Dino Ciccarelli was incensed. “I can’t believe I shook his freakin’ hand,” Dino said, referring to Lemieaux.
Lemieaux was the Bill Laimbeer of the NHL, a player you loved if he was in your team sweater, but hated if he was on the other side. Long before the Draper incident, Lemieaux had a reputation for dirty play, even by hockey standards. He was considered one of the best fighters in the game. Though he apologized for the voracity of his hit on Draper, he maintained that it had been an accident, and that he had been trying to decelerate when he hit the Red Wing player.
Detroit would have nothing of it, and they had the entire summer to stew over it. Each time the Wings played the Avs, players, fans, and officials held their breath, waiting for retaliation. Ironically, in the first three meetings between the two teams in the 1997-1998 season, Detroit did not specifically target Lemieaux. Thus, as the March 26th game approached, anticipation was at a fever pitch. The Detroit Free Press printed a special pull-out section about the rivalry that included a photo of Lemieaux represented as a mug shot, with inflammatory comments from Wings’ players.
Late in the first period, after several fights had already taken place, the Wings finally got Lemieaux. Detroit enforcer Darren McCarty, known throughout the league as a big puncher, attacked Lemieaux after a collision between Red Wing center Igor Larionov and Avalanche forward Peter Forsberg. Lemieaux was at a disadvantage as McCarty rained punches down on him. Quickly, McCarty had him on the ice, where he continued to attack Lemieaux. The Colorado tough man balled himself up into what hockey players call “The Turtle,” where the player lowers his head under his chest and covers up to avoid being hurt. As the Detroit crowd screamed in satisfied delight, McCarty dragged Lemieaux to the boards and kneed him in the head before officials halted the melee.
Meanwhile, Colorado goalie Patrick Roy skated to his teammate’s defense, but before he could get there he was slammed by Detroit’s Brandon Shanahan. Then, Detroit goalie Mike Vernon got into the act, facing off with Roy. The two goalies dropped their gloves and pads and beat each other for a solid 40 seconds. Other skirmishes also took place at the same time. Roy was eventually felled by a Vernon punch and the home crowd went crazy.
It took several minutes to restore order, long after a bloodied Lemieaux had been led from the ice. More fights followed in the game, notably simultaneous fights between Avalanche winger Mike Keane and Red Wing winger Tomas Holmstrom, and between Brent Severyn and Red Wing defenceman Aaron Ward 3:34 in (Severyn and Ward were ejected for a secondary fight), McCarty and Deadmarsh at 7:24 (McCarty also received a roughing), and between Pushor and Avalanche defenceman Uwe Krupp at 11:26.
In all, there were nine fights during the game, with penalties and misconducts awarded to each side. The game, somewhat forgotten, was a real doozy too. It ended in a 5-5 tie.
Rubbing salt into the Avs wounds, McCarty scored the winning goal against Roy in overtime to give Detroit an emotional 6-5 win. The Wings would go on from that game, which Vernon insisted had “brought the team together” to win the Stanley Cup title. In th Conference Finals in May, they would eliminate the Avalanche in six games. More fights were featured in that emotion-packed series.
But it was the brawl in March that would symbolize the rivalry between the two teams. It wasn’t just a bloody war, it was a war for hockey supremacy. From 1996 to 2002, the Avalanche and Red Wings combined to win five of the seven Stanley Cup titles. Still, the feud remained bitter, with head coaches Marc Crawford and Scotty Bowman even getting into the act in the 1997 playoffs.
“It just happens,” McCarty said. “We don’t plan it. You just put things in your memory bank and then you retaliate if you have to later. It must have been God’s will. I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s a big rivalry right now.”