The history behind iconic Red Wings-Avalanche brawl of March 26, 1997

Buildup to ‘Brawl in Hockeytown’ is what made it more than just some hockey fight

17 Dec 1996: Rightwinger Keith Jones of the Colorado Avalanche (left) and Detroit Red Wings rightwinger Mathieu Dandenault tangle up during a game at McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche won the game, 4-3. (Getty)

DETROIT – The “Brawl in Hockeytown” between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche will never, ever, ever get old.

It is one of the most iconic moments in Detroit sports history -- and that’s a long, storied history to be sure -- and one of the most famous scenes in modern hockey history.

There are documentaries about it. There are countless interviews about it. Every single hockey commentator always has something to say about it. You’ve probably recalled it every year since March 26, 1997, and here you are doing it again, likely feeling those goosebumps as you have each year -- that’s how I feel at least:

The imagery itself is amazing, yes -- a total line brawl with the goalies eventually meeting at center ice. There was equipment everywhere, players jumping into other players, bloody faces, and the fans nearly breaking down the Joe Louis Arena glass to get in on the action.

But it’s the context of the event that made it such an emotional moment for the Red Wings and all of their faithful who were dying for the team’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1955.

Leading up to the brawl

The Red Wings were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, falling short in the playoffs each season in the early-to-mid 1990s. They went all the way to the finals in 1995, only to be swept by the New Jersey Devils.

The year before this brawl, in the 1995-96 season, the Red Wings posted a NHL record 62 wins. They only lost 13 games in regulation, a record that still stands -- the Tampa Bay Lightning matched the 62-win total in 2018-19 but lost 16 games in regulation, failing to meet the Red Wings’ 1995-96 points total of 131.

Anyway, you’ll recall what happened in the playoffs that year. Steve Yzerman scored one of the most iconic Red Wings goals of all time in the 2nd overtime of Game 7 in the second-round series against the St. Lous Blues -- Wayne Gretzky, of all players, was involved in the play (this entire brawl backstory is just legendary from start to finish):

And it seemed the wait for Lord Stanley’s Cup to return to Detroit would finally end, right? The stars were aligning. Right?

Wrong. In fact, everything after that goal went wrong for the Red Wings. It was the beginning of the end to one of the greatest seasons in Detroit sports history.

Yzerman ended up getting hurt and missing Game 2 of the Western Conference final against the Avalanche. The Wings fell behind 3-1 in that series and lost in six games. And get this: It was all one big redemption quest for Patrick Roy, who had requested a trade to the Avalanche earlier in the season in the middle of a game against Detroit.

Yeah, that fact adds even more drama -- and I haven’t even gotten to the REAL drama -- to this whole legend. On Dec. 2, 1995, the Red Wings put nine goals past Roy when he was in net for the Canadiens in Montreal. When he was finally pulled out of the net, the broadcast shows he clearly had some choice words for the Montreal GM.

Roy was granted his trade which sent him to the brand new Avalanche, playing their first season since moving from Quebec (Nordiques), and subsequently winning the Stanley Cup (in Colorado’s first year, not fair!), but not before giving birth to one of the best sports rivalries of the modern era.

Lemieux’s hit on Draper in Game 6

As mentioned, that series went to six games, and it was in the sixth game where things took a real turn in the 1st period. Colorado’s Claude Lemieux, who was on the 1995 Devils team that beat the Red Wings in the finals -- Lemieux actually won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year for playoff MVP, so he was already a Red Wings nemesis -- decided it was time for one of the nastiest hits I’ve seen in the NHL playoffs. He rode Detroit forward Kris Draper’s head into the dasher, fully from behind with Draper completely unaware the hit was coming:

Draper’s face was badly injured. He suffered a broken jaw, broken nose, broken cheekbone and a concussion.

His teammate, Dino Ciccarelli, offered us this gem of a post-game bite:

“I can’t believe I shook this guy’s friggin’ hand after the game. That pisses me right off,” said Dino.

Yes, all of us felt the same.

As you can see, Lemieux had been ejected from the game but returned for the handshakes. Unbelievable, really. I can’t believe Dino didn’t punch him in the face. Such restraint.

The Red Wings did not get any kind of redemption then. They would have to wait. We all had to wait.

Next season’s boiling point

Colorado and Detroit had four regular season meetings in 1996-97. The brawl, astonishingly, did not occur until that fourth meeting in March.

Things finally came to the boiling point near the end of the 2nd period. Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov first were involved in a tussle -- two very unlikely brawl initiators, mind you -- and then it got wild. As you can see in the video, Darren McCarty, one of Draper’s best friends, went right after Lemieux. Call it a sucker punch, but Lemieux must have known it was coming. How couldn’t he?

Brendan Shanahan, who famously took down Roy at center ice, had this to say about it years later:

“It all happened pretty quickly,” Shanahan wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2016. “I was locked up with Adam Foote, and I was watching Darren (McCarty) go after (Claude) Lemieux. And then, all of a sudden, I saw that Roy was skating full speed at Darren. He was gunning it. I managed to shake off Foote, and then I took off. The only thing I was thinking was, I got to get to him before he gets to Darren. And then, what’s funny is that I think Roy saw me coming and realized I would get to him before he could get to the scrum. I don’t know how I knew it, but I could tell he was going to jump. I just knew it. So we both just kind of coiled and jumped in the air at the same time ... It’s funny, the following year at the Olympics we were both playing for Team Canada, and Patrick (who I’ve really come to like and respect) told me that he had hurt his shoulder on that jump and that it hadn’t been the same since. I expressed my sympathy, but in my head what I was really thinking was, good.”

What could make this game more legendary? How about McCarty returning from his fighting major (no, he was not ejected, as he might be in today’s game) to score the game winner in overtime? Catch that goal at the end of this video:

It ended 6-5, Red Wings.

Again, Red Wings fans felt like this was the moment. This was the moment the team needed to clear the way for a Cup run. Right?

Finally, yes, we were right.

The Red Wings finished the season with a 38-26-18 record, which was kind of disappointing for the team at the time. They were used to winning at least 40 games. They didn’t even win the division, and they entered the playoffs in 3rd place in the conference.

None of that mattered, though. They had to face Colorado in the playoffs if they were going to win the Cup anyway. This time around, Detroit won the conference final series in six games, keeping Roy’s hands away from the trophy.

McCarty scored this next goal in the final to ensure the Red Wings’ first Cup in more than 40 years:

He’s one of the most special athletes in Detroit sports history. I mean, what a run, always finding a way to rise to the occasion.

Yzerman, after more than 15 seasons in Detroit, finally lifted that silver Cup over his head. The city finally had its parade. The wait was over.

1997 Season: Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman leads teammates around the ice with the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images) (1997 Bruce Bennett Studios)

The Detroit-Colorado rivalry, however, had just started. In fact, the teams had another similar brawl the next season. The Wings won the Cup again in 1998 and 2002, while the Avalanche won again in 2001.

And that is the history behind the brawl and rivalry in a nutshell. There have been other brawls, and there may be more in the NHL. But nothing will ever match this, ever. It’s the buildup that made it more than just some hockey fight.


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