Here, then, is the piece I wrote that night from press row (sitting next to Phil Myre, then a pro scout with Ottawa) - much of it during the action, on a laptop borrowed from work for the night. Some of the writing is pretty hackneyed, but instead of taking further time to edit it, I wanted to let the emotions of the night come through and sent it in for posting right away. I hope you enjoy it...
From In The Crease #18, as stored online at the Internet Archive:
Hockeytown was in a fervor as the Avalanche rolled in on the 26th, marking the first time that the infamous Claude Lemieux played in Detroit since "The Hit" on Kris Draper in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. A local sports talk radio station had been promoting "Screw Lemieux Month", somewhat to the dismay of the Red Wings organization, and fans all over were anticipating a delicious dose of justice to be dished out by the likes of Joey Kocur, Brendan Shanahan, or Darren McCarty. Signs such as "Clobber Claude", "Are You Ready To Rumble?", and another with a gravestone already made up for "Superpest" dotted the arena.
The warm-ups before the game were thankfully without incident, unlike the times that Lemieux has fired things up by shooting a final puck into the opponents net' before heading off the ice. McCarty added to his fan base as he stuck around for a few extra moments to toss some pucks to a grateful group just across the glass, but other than that things seemed quiet. Perhaps, a little too quiet...
"LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR..."
Sure enough, that pre-game lull was much like the momentary calm you get right before the big storm that brings down the trees and knocks your power out for a week (as Detroiters have been all-too familiar with lately). Despite the fact that Kocur was scratched from the game, the fans demanded vengeance, and when Lemieux stepped on the ice he was welcomed with a shower of boos. Another interesting lineup change by Scotty Bowman had Sergei Fedorov starting on defense alongside Larry Murphy. Fedorov had played a handful of games from the blue line last season, and Bowman looked to #91 to spark the offensive transition.
Lemieux's first shift lasted roughly 10 seconds, just long enough for the fans to recognize him out there and get the chants going. The Red Wings sound man, ever topical, played "Somebody's Gonna Hurt Someone". Fedorov got the crowd out of their seats with a dashing end to end rush on an early power play, but failed to score on a wrister from the low right slot - clearly Patrick Roy was up for this game. Valeri Kamensky drew first blood with a goal straight off a face-off less than four minutes in, but frankly nobody at Joe Louis Arena seemed to notice. Somehow, the score of the game just wasn't very important at the time. Early fights involving Jamie Pushor and Kirk Maltby got the crowd excited, despite less than glowing results, particularly for Pushor in his match with Avalanche tough-guy Brent Severyn. After some great pressure by the Wings in the Avalanche zone, however, Shanny brought the crowd to its feet with a thundering hit on Lemieux in the corner, and kept on the Colorado arch-villain all the way up the ice. The crowd smelled blood.
They got it at 18:22 of the first period, when Darren McCarty cemented his place in Red Wings history by getting his mitts on Lemieux and pummeling him in front of the Red Wings bench. Igor Larionov started it all by wrestling Peter Forsberg down to the ice, and players started to pair off. McCarty came right up to Lemieux and started throwing haymakers, and Patrick Roy darted out of his crease to join the fray, but Shanahan literally flew in to take him out, then squared off with defenseman Adam Foote. Lemieux turtled as only "The Fraud" can, but McCarty got in a few good left hands as the main event shifted to center ice, where 5'7" Mike Vernon tangled with 6'0" Patrick Roy, and did his best Joey Kocur imitation before hauling the much larger Roy down to the ice. I've rarely heard the Joe Louis Arena crowd any louder than when McCarty skated off, to a roaring chorus of approval from the Detroit faithful. Lemieux, on the other hand, hobbled to the dressing room bloodied and battered, but would return to the game, unlike Kris Draper who of course spent weeks in the hospital last spring. Colorado recieved a four-minute power play out of the whole mess, but fifteen seconds after the ensuing face-off the Avalanche struck back, as Adam Deadmarsh went after Vladimir Konstantinov. The Russian defenseman is every bit as effective an agitator as Lemieux, but unlike his counterpart he stood up to the challenge well despite losing the fight. This left the teams with four skaters per side for the duration of the first period, which ended with a 1-0 Avalanche lead, but left the Red Wings franchise stronger and prouder than they have been in years.
The second period started off with Foote and Shanahan renewing acquaintances, with Shanny getting the best of the affair. Clearly the intermission hadn't calmed the nerves of either squad. During the break, one NHL team official overheard Avalanche GM Pierre LaCroix calling NHL Vice-President of Operations Brian Burke, complaining that McCarty should have been given a game misconduct for jumping Lemieux. It was surprising that McCarty only got a double-roughing penalty for his part in the fracas, but final word on the incident will certainly come from the league office. Meanwhile the hockey game managed to continue. Fedorov tied the game at 1 with a stick-side wrister after a long break through center ice, taking advantage of the open space resulting from the 4-on-4. Kamensky scored a few moments later to put the 'Lanche on top once again, and after that the Wings got stuck with killing another penalty, this time after a scrap between Martin Lapointe and Mike Keane. Lapointe paid the team back for taking the penalty at 3:08 of the 2nd, finishing off a 2-on-1 with Slava Kozlov by beating Roy from down low and tying the game at 2-2. It actually looked like a free-wheeling, up-and-down game for a few moments, but then a double-bill got underway, with Tomas Holmstrom matching up with Keane (and fighting gamely from his back despite getting hammered), and Aaron Ward taking on Brent Severyn, with Ward and Severyn receiving game misconducts in addition to the fighting majors. After having called 18 penalties in the first period, the refs had decided that the teams should start concentrating on the hockey.
The defending champs pulled ahead once more, this time on a nifty deke from Rene Corbet at the end of a 2-on-1 that Fedorov misplayed badly. Deadmarsh hadn't had enough when he fought Konstantinov evidently, as he dropped the gloves with Darren McCarty, but "Mac" handled himself well and dispatched Deadmarsh with a quick and effective series of blows. Yet again, the Wings ended up on the short end of things when the penalties were sorted out, but the penalty killers did their job, holding the Avalanche to one goal on seven opportunities on the night. Pushor erased the memory of his earlier fight when he took on 6'6" Uwe Krupp and earned a hard-fought draw. Pushor has had some rough outings this year, but you have to admire the young guy's work ethic and willingness to step in against anybody. Deadmarsh, a Red Wing killer all season, put Colorado up by 2 goals at the end of a sloppy play that dislodged the net, and resulted from a clearing attempt by Vernon bouncing off of his own defenseman who was tangled up with Deadmarsh. Colorado had assumed a 4-2 advantage, and throughout the arena the frustration was starting to grow. Nick Lidstrom brought the Wings back within a goal with a blast from high in the face-off circle off a face-off that beat Roy cleanly, making it 4-3 to end the second. Once again, Detroit ended the period losing on the scoreboard, but they withstood every challenge the 'Lanche threw at them. All that was left was to close the deal.
FIGHT TO THE FINISH
Things didn't exactly start off well in the third period. The earlier fight may have taken something out of Vernon, as he was beaten easily on a low wrister by Kamensky to complete the hat trick, and suddenly the Wings were in a two-goal hole again. The fact that Lemieux got an assist on the play only added to the sting felt by the home crowd, which grew eerily silent at a time when they should have instead been supporting their team. Detroit went on the power play at 6:26 of the third, and got several good shots at Roy, but the Colorado goaltender was at his best and seemed on top of everything. Shortly after the power play expired, however, Fedorov launched a blast from the blue line on a foiled Colorado clearing attempt, and Martin Lapointe swiped the rebound into an open net from Roy's stick side to bring the fans back to life. With 11:33 to go, the Wings had crawled back to within one. While announcer Bud Lynch was still calling the goal, Shanahan snuck from behind the Colorado net and tucked a backhander behind Roy's left skate to tie the game at 5-5. Said Shanahan after the game, "I was just trying to pass it in front... I actually saw the fans behind the net pointing at the puck, and then I looked up and saw the red light go on." Hockeytown was rocking once again...
The decibel levels climbed. The chant of "let's go Red Wings... let's go Red Wings..." rang for the rafters for the first time all evening. Suddenly the night wasn't about revenge or fights, but simple victory that hung in the balance between two proud hockey clubs. Lemieux came down and blasted a shot from the right slot, but Vernon stood his ground. Shanahan fired back off a Larionov setup, but Roy turned that aside. The two opponents who had traded punches at center ice so long ago now challenged each other from opposite ends of the rink, making one big save after another. Despite some dangerous opportunities in the final minutes by Detroit, the game headed to overtime.
The game was capped off, of course, by the man who did it all that night - Darren McCarty. A beautiful break down the ice ended with a perfect pass from Shanahan landing on McCarty's stick as he came down the slot and fired a shot past a helpless Patrick Roy. The Detroit bench emptied and joined the crowd in celebrating a great come -from-behind victory over the team that knocked the Wings out last year. All in all, it was a true hero's night for McCarty - he made good with the fans before the game, beat the snot out of the bad guy, and scored the game winner in overtime. While the league office will have something to say about the flagrant knee that he delivered to Claude Lemieux's head in front of the Detroit bench, McCarty earned himself a place in the hearts of many a Red Wings fan with his gargantuan effort.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
The areas for debate surrounding this whole rivalry are rich and varied, but I'll try to touch on a few key points to consider. Many people decry this sort of game as bringing out the worst aspects of hockey, promoting violence in an already too-violent world. To this I would say that Lemieux had crossed the boundaries of respect and honest, straight-up competition that binds all professional hockey players together. Ice hockey, particularly at this elite level, is the fastest contact sport around, and opportunities to cause serious bodily injury to another player occur on virtually every shift. Only mutual respect for each other and the game itself keeps down the number of heinous injuries such as Draper's, despite whatever penalties are handed down by the NHL. McCarty acted to punish Lemieux for a dirty shot against his teammate, and did so by coming right after him, and staying in his face until the job was done - no hit and run here. After the game I asked Kris Draper about getting Lemieux back via a face-to-face confrontation, as opposed to a high stick, or shot from behind. His response was quite different from the taunting and boasting that Lemieux engaged in last year:
"I didn't want to see anything bad happen to any of the guys out there. I wouldn't wish what happened to me upon anybody... It was old-time hockey out there, a fair fight. That was the fortunate thing."
Scotty Bowman raised the issue that if Lemieux had apologized initially for "The Hit", maybe things would not have gotten so extreme, and there is some reason to believe he may be right. In the first game between these two clubs this year Martin Lapointe rode Alexei Gusarov awkwardly into the boards, and Gusarov ended up leaving on a stretcher. Lapointe expressed sincere regret about the hit, said he "felt sick" after watching it on tape, and wished Gusarov a speedy recovery. Colorado GM Pierre LaCroix was apoplectic in his calls for Lapointe to be suspended after the game, but the issue died down within a few days. Had Lemieux shown any such similar concern for a fallen foe, this whole episode might have been avoided. It should be noted that when Draper went to the hospital last spring, two Colorado players, Chris Simon and Warren Rychel, inquired after his well being, and Rychel even called Draper's parents to apprise them of his condition. Neither of those players are with the Avalanche this season.
So how does this game impact the two teams as they head down the stretch to the playoffs? For the Red Wings, they exorcised a pesky demon and regained some of the confidence and swagger that they'll need should these two teams meet in the Western Conference final again. For the Avalanche, who have coasted through most of this season high above the other teams in the standings, this may have served as a whiff of smelling salts, arousing their passion and pride in a way that most regular season contests cannot. What tantalizes most, perhaps, is that between all the fights a tremendous hockey game was played, and in less than a year now we've seen a captivating new rivalry take flight in the NHL.