Gave: Proposed Red Wings-Avs alumni game rekindles memories of rivalry
For a brief, improbable moment, when budding Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon came out swinging when he didn't like the way he was checked by Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, anyone in Hockeytown with an extended memory could smile and recall one of the most intense rivalries in Detroit's sporting history.
And it just might have kicked off a tremendous marketing opportunity for the NHL next February. But more about that later.
In the first minute of play Thursday night in the Pepsi Center, MacKinnon dropped his gloves for his first fight in the NHL against a guy who was at least four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier. It personified this rivalry in its heyday nearly two decades earlier, when size never mattered among opponents -- and coaches -- who truly loathed one another.
For several years starting on May 29, 1996, the Wings-Avs rivalry was the greatest in all of professional sports in North America -- and garnered a lot of interest in Sweden and Russia, too, considering the participants at the time. That was the night that Kris Draper had his face rearranged in a dirty hit from behind by Colorado's Claude Lemieux.
Draper had just played the puck near the center red line and was skating backward with his head down toward his bench for an apparent shift change when Lemieux hit him with his left shoulder. Draper fell forward hard, directly in front of Darren McCarty sitting near the end of the Detroit bench. Draper fell face first into the side boards. He lay there as play continued at close range around him. He suffered a broken jaw, a shattered cheek and orbital bone that required surgery, having his jaw wired shut and numerous stitches to close wounds on both sides of his cheek.
It was the worst injury I witnessed in nearly 17 years of covering the NHL, and that includes the night Toronto defenseman Borje Salming had his face filleted when he fell backward onto the ice in a goal-mouth scramble beneath the skate of the Wings' Gerard Gallant at The Joe.
Draper's injury shook his teammates to their core, and it overshadowed the insult of another monumental playoff disappointment for the Wings. After getting swept by New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Finals the previous spring, after a season in which they amassed 131 points and an NHL record 62 victories, the playoffs were supposed to be little more than a coronation for a team bent on ending a Stanley Cup drought of more than four decades.
It ended prematurely, not long after the Draper injury, when Colorado completed the upset in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. The Avs went on to sweep Florida to win the Cup. The Wings came home to a broken-hearted city.
In a somber dressing room after that game, however, players were more concerned about their teammate than their season-ending loss.
"Did you see that kid's face?" defenseman Marc Bergevin, now the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, asked quietly, adding that there's no place in hockey for that kind of play. Only Dino Ciccarelli could be heard above the whispers when he kept repeating, to no one in particular, "I can't believe I shook his (expletive) hand."
Most Wings fans above the age of 30 or so remember vividly how this story ends. The following March 26, when McCarty pounded Lemieux into submission as the Avs forward tried to turtle into his helmet. It ignited a brawl that remains one of the most memorable and endearing moments in Detroit hockey history -- and the event many say galvanized the Wings in a way that propelled them to two straight Stanley Cup titles.
Suddenly, the Detroit-Colorado rivalry captured the attention of the national media in a way that just doesn't happen in the NHL.
Which brings us to the outdoor game the Wings and Avs have schedule for next Feb. 27 at Coors Field. But it's the proposed alumni game the night before that could turn out to be the real marketing coup for the NHL, if the sides are stacked with players from those late-'90s teams.
Imagine Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood taking turns in the Detroit goal, with Patrick Roy in the net at the other end. Would they meet again for pleasantries again at center ice? McCarty and Lemieux have become pals off the ice, but I'm betting there remains enough residual animosity to make this one of the more intense alumni exhibitions ever.
At the very least, it would be interesting to see how Ciccarelli reacts when he the sides line up after the game and he confronts Lemieux with his hand extended.