The fight heard ’round the hockey world

Fifteen years ago today, a hockey team was born and I missed it — sort of.

It was a Wednesday. I had just concluded a shift on the radio and was headed to Joe Louis Arena to watch the Red Wings take on their hated rival, the Colorado Avalanche.

All week long, Detroit’s hockey press corps, along with many Wings fans, were anticipating this clash between two titans of the NHL — and it wasn’t about hockey.

Simply put, it was about retribution.

Almost a year earlier, during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, Colorado’s Claude Lemieux had mangled the face of Detroit’s Kris Draper with a board check from behind. Draper’s injuries — essentially a broken face — required reconstructive surgery, including his jaw being wired shut and hundreds of stitches.

When I visited Draper in the hospital, I remember blood, bandages and swelling.  His features were so distorted, he could have been a relative of the Elephant Man.

For years, the Wings were labeled too soft and too European to compete for the Stanley Cup. Lemieux’s hit on Draper solidified the notion that Detroit was destined to be “the greatest team that never won anything.”

That all changed on March 26, 1997.

Colorado was Detroit’s nemesis. Whether it was the playoffs or regular season, the Red Wings just couldn’t beat the Avalanche.

Before March 26, Detroit and Colorado had met three previous times that season, and the Avalanche had won all three games by a combined score of 12-6.

That night in late March 1997 was the last opportunity for the Wings to gain some confidence against the Avalanche and settle a lingering score before the playoffs.

After Wings practice the day before the game, players were hounded by the media for some sort of nugget about what the plan was for Lemieux. The game was secondary.

There was one player whom I just didn’t let up on. I kept saying to him, “C’mon you know something is going to happen tomorrow. Can’t you give me just a little hint of what it’s going to be?”

Finally, he turned to me and in a faint whisper said, “I don’t know if anything is going to happen, but if it does, look for number 25.”

Unless you’ve been stationed in Antarctica for the last fifteen years, you’ve either witnessed or heard about what happened the next day.

Late in the first period, unlikely combatants Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg collided, which quickly escalated into the most historic donnybrook in Red Wings history.

Darren McCarty, number 25, hunted down Lemieux with a vengeance and proceeded to hammer him with a machine-gun flurry of punches. Lemieux fell to the ice, covering up in a move known as “turtling.”

It didn’t matter to McCarty that Lemieux had turtled. McCarty kept swinging away and eventually steered the altercation to the boards near the Detroit bench. He then showed off his prey and gave him a few knees to the head before the refs broke it up.

All over the ice there was mayhem. Detroit’s Brendan Shanahan intercepted Colorado goalie Patrick Roy, who had left his crease to help Lemieux. The two pirouetted to the ice. Roy claims that he injured himself in the collision and was never the same.

Adam Foote came to rescue Roy and tangled with Shanahan. Roy soon found himself tied up with Wings goalie Mike Vernon, who pummeled him to the ice.

Once order was restored, there were numerous penalties. Amazingly, McCarty wasn’t thrown out of the game — even he admitted he should have been — and he eventually scored the game-winner 36 seconds into overtime.

As I watched the melee unfold on television, I became extremely upset that I had chosen to watch the first period at the station to avoid the traffic around Joe Louis Arena.

There were other fights and McCarty’s overtime heroics once I arrived for the start of the second period, but I had missed the main event.

Detroit became a team on that fateful night 15 years ago. The Red Wings stood up for one another and sent a clear message that they were done being perceived as patsies.

It was a characterization that was never going to go away until they bloodied the ice. And bloodied it they did. Even more important, they won the game.

A little more than two months later, the Wings captured their first Stanley Cup in 42 years and have added three more since.

Life is odd.  Something as ugly as a hockey brawl has turned into a beautiful ride that continues to this very day.

Happy March 26, Red Wings fans.