NHL history: Remembering the epic Avalanche and Red Wings line brawl

23 years ago, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings had bad blood from the previous season boil over into an epic line brawl. It was one of the craziest moments in NHL history.

Fighting in the NHL is quickly declining. Knowing what we know about concussions, CTE, and brain injuries, that’s probably a good thing. But deep down, a lot of hockey fans, whether they want to admit or not, are suckers for a good old fashioned line brawl. 23 years ago, on March 26, 1997, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings had perhaps the most famous line brawl of all-time in NHL history.

This led to the two sides really hating each other and sparked one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history. It was like John Cena versus The Rock, except it was actually good and the two parties weren’t ashamed to admit they hated each other’s guts.

What Led To It

Like any good rivalry, the tensions between the Avalanche and Red Wings took some time to build up. Anyone who ever had Claude Lemieux play against their team shouldn’t be surprised the pesty, physical wing helped start the feud.

In the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs during the Western Conference Finals, the two sides started hating each other. Game 3 saw Red Wings forward Vyacheslav (Slava) Kozlov hit Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote‘s face into the boards. Lemieux took exception to that, sucker punching him from behind shortly after. That punch got him a one-game suspension.

Lemieux delivered a late hit on Detroit Red Wings center Kris Draper. Draper hit the boards hard and was hurt quite badly.

The Red Wings already hated Lemieux from the previous season when he helped lead the New Jersey Devils to a title by sweeping the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, partly because he had two goals in four games against Detroit. Lemieux was traded from the Devils to the Avalanche during the summer. After breaking Draper’s jaw and causing numerous other facial injuries, he was officially public enemy number one in Detroit.

Obviously, the Red Wings took exception to the hit. But since the Avalanche won the game (and series) and they didn’t know just how badly Draper was injured until after the game, they had to let their hate marinate for almost an entire year. Dino Ciccarelli had this to say after the game.

“I can’t believe I shook this guy’s friggin’ hand after the game; that pisses me right off.”

Though Lemieux did get suspended for two games due to the hit, the Red Wings clearly weren’t satisfied. It didn’t help that Lemieux didn’t even apologize to Draper for breaking his face.

This beef was supposed to be settled fairly early in the 1997-98 season. However, Lemieux got injured in the second game of the season, which put the beef back in the oven to bake some more. The first meeting between the two saw the two teams combine for 40 penalty minutes. Their second meeting in December, saw the Red Wings start to exact their revenge, even without Lemieux playing. Martin Lapointe was the center of attention, as he knocked out Avs defenseman Alexi Gusarov.

The two rivals next faced each other on March 16, 1997. This was also Lemieux’s first game against the Red Wings since injuring Draper. The two sides had an affair filled with penalty minutes, with the two sides combining for 90 penalty minutes. 30 of those minutes were dedicated to misconducts given to Lemieux, Draper, and Red Wings forward Kirk Maltby. 10 days later, the two teams met again.

The Brawl

ESPN aired the game between the Avalanche and Red Wings on March 26. The game was held in Detroit and the Avs needed a police escort to get to the game because Lemieux got numerous death threats sent his way.

It didn’t take long for things to get ugly. The first 10 minutes saw two fights between the two rivals. At the 18:22 mark, things got especially crazy. Detroit forward Igor Larionov and Colorado forward Peter Forsberg got into it. Red Wings forward Darren McCarty saw his opportunity and went after Lemieux.

Avs goaltender Patrick Roy took exception to this, and skated out to confront McCarty. However, Brendan Shanahan got to him first, knocking Roy to the ground. Foote confronted Shanahan. Across the ice, Mike Vernon skated out to help Shanahan. Roy caught wind of it and challenged Vernon.

After all of this, it only took 15 second for another fight to happen, as Avalanche forward Adam Deadmarsh and Red Wings defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov went at it. The second period saw five more fights, bringing the total to nine fights. That’s right folks, a hockey game had roughly as much punching as a boxing card. The Red Wings won 6-5 in overtime and the two teams combined for 148 penalty minutes.

The Aftermath

The two teams met again in the Western Conference Final, with the Red Wings coming out on top. They went on to win the Stanley Cup, but there was still quite a bit of meat left in this beef. The two sides had bad blood for many years, but I’ll touch on a few of the highlights.

A year later, Roy got involved with another Red Wings goaltender. This time, it was Chris Osgood. In 2002, Roy infamously showboated a save but dropped the puck instead, allowing the Wings to score.

Dominik Hasek and Roy nearly fought each other, but Hasek tripped on the way there, so sadly, there was no goalie fight. The two sides have since gotten rid of their beef. It died when the Red Wings eventually got out of the Western Conference. But by then, the hatred was mostly gone.

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It’s crazy how one game from 23 years ago led to so much hatred between the Avalanche and Red Wings. In today’s game, I can’t see that happening. Enforcers aren’t employed by most teams, so everything LaPointe and the other enforcers involved did would probably never happen. Also, keep in mind players change teams more frequently, so it’s hard for a beef to last as long as the one between the Avalanche and Red Wings did.

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