Detroit Red Wings: March 26, 1997 the night everything changed

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI) /

I can’t believe that it’s been 25 years since number 25 for the Detroit Red Wings took matters into his own hands, literally pummeling rival Claude Lemieux in front of a raucous Joe Louis crowd.

Darren McCarty was waiting for the right moment to get revenge on Lemieux, who severely injured his dear friend and linemate Kris Draper the previous season.  Lemieux hit Draper from behind into an open Red Wings bench door, basically disfiguring his face.

Draper suffered multiple facial fractures and needed an abundance of stitches.  The hit came in the Western Conference Finals, and the Avalanche would eventually dispose of the Red Wings and go on to sweep the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Leading up to ‘Fight Night, The Battle Royal, or The Brawl’ whichever term you prefer, the Detroit Red Wings had struggled to unseat the reigning cup winners.  But on March. 26, 1997, everything changed.

The night everything changed for the Detroit Red Wings.

Detroit had played the Avs multiple times that year, and nothing significant in the way of ‘revenge’ happened.  McCarty has since mentioned numerous times publicly and in his book titled ‘My Last Fight’ that he had been waiting for the right moment.

He says he always knew it would happen (the fight), but once when the two teams met during the season in Detroit, Lemieux was out injured; other times, Detroit was in Colorado.  McCarty said he wanted it to happen in Detroit, in the arena named after a heavyweight champion in front of the home crowd.

The only thing odd about the whole thing is how it got started.

Who on earth would have predicted that Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg would kick off what would go down in history as the greatest hockey brawl of all time?  Not me.

When you watch the brawl, you see McCarty pursue Lemieux immediately in all of the chaos.  Avs fans will say McCarty sucker-punched Lemieux, but that’s not true; he saw it coming. The proper assessment is, McCarty, cold-cocked Lemieux, and then Lemieux quickly transformed into a turtle.

You also see McCarty pulling Lemieux over near the Red Wings bench where he’d continue to pound away even with two linesmen trying to stop the onslaught.  In his book, McCarty said it was a calculated decision to drag him over to the Detroit bench so his friend Draper could get a close-up look at the beating.

Another iconic moment was when Patrick Roy was rushing to Lemieux’s aid. Brendan Shanahan launched himself through the air to intercept Roy before Adam Foote came over to fight Shanahan.  That’s when Roy found Mike Vernon, and we got the iconic goalie fight.

A bloodied, wobbly Lemieux needed help to the Avalanche locker room.  A bloodied Roy held a towel pressed against his face, and Foote, with blood running down his cheek, looked somewhat dumbfounded.  The aftermath was quite a scene; it looked like a tornado had touched down on the ice with all of the carnage, gloves, sticks, helmets littered everything across its surface.

Many remember the brawl, but there was much more to this than the fight.  The Detroit Red Wings couldn’t seem to edge out the Avs, but later in the same game, Shanahan set up McCarty for the game-winner in overtime. Detroit won the game 6-5.

Not only did the Red Wings lay a beating on the Avalanche, but they finally beat them. It was significant because it proved they could beat Colorado, something they hadn’t had success doing up until that point.

The two teams would once again meet in the Western Conference Finals, where Detroit would rebound after dropping game one by winning three straight before disposing of the Avalanche in six games.

Detroit would sweep the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals, in turn, winning their first Cup since 1955.

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Don’t underestimate that day in late March.  If Detroit doesn’t beat Colorado on March 26th, they may not have had the confidence to beat them in the Western Conference Finals after dropping game one.  That day should go down in history as the night everything changed for the Detroit Red Wings.