The Brawl in Hockeytown


Darren McCarty goes after Claude Lemieux before taking him to the boards as revenge for the hit on Kris Draper.

William Himelhoch, Staff Writer

The Detroit Red Wings have always been notorious for playing dirty and inciting fear into their opponents. During their ’97 playoff run, they showed their strength and started one of the greatest hockey rivalries in the history of the NHL. This fight between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, called “The Brawl in Hockeytown” or “Bloody Wednesday” took place in Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Red Wings, a couple months before the 1997 playoffs.

The Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche were the two teams part of one of the most grueling battles in the history of the NHL. This ongoing beef lasted the span of two seasons, and all started on the fateful day of May 29, 1996, during the Western Conference Finals. One hit would lead to an epic battle between the two teams almost a year later.

The play began normally as the Red Wings controlled the puck in the Avalanches’ zone. The puck was mishandled by Paul Coffey, the Red Wings defenseman, and Kris Draper went back near his own bench to retrieve the puck. Unbeknownst to him, the Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux was hot on his trail and checked Draper into the boards in a nasty looking hit. Draper immediately dropped his stick and fell to the floor, clutching his face. The hit left Draper with a broken jaw, fractured cheekbone, broken nose, and damage to his right orbital bone. The hit also left Lemieux with a target on his back that would not be forgotten.

The Avalanche took the 1996 series in this game 6 and moved on, leaving the Red Wings with a chip on their shoulders and looking to exact revenge for the injury to one of their star players. Almost everyone who followed hockey knew the Red Wings would not soon forget the nasty hit on Draper and would seek to send the Avalanche a message.

On March 26, 1997, the Detroit Red Wings were set to play the Colorado Avalanche in their fourth meeting of the season. The first three games certainly were rough, but no one was ready for what was about to ensue. Not even a full period was played before all hell broke loose. Red Wings defender Darren McCarty had been eyeing Claude Lemieux the entire game and finally saw his opportunity after a short scuffle broke out between the teams.

A seemingly harmless interaction quickly turned brutal as McCarty’s eyes zeroed in on the unsuspecting Lemieux as he skated towards him with a fury. McCarty grabbed Lemieux by his pads and immediately made him pay for the hit on Draper exactly 301 days prior. McCarty went at Lemieux with everything he had and as Lemieux fell to the ice and tried to cover his head, McCarty took him to the boards and began kneeing and punching him while repeatedly shoving his face into the boards and drawing blood.

As soon as McCarty went after Lemieux, both teams came off their benches and the fight began. Patrick Roy, the Avalanche goalie rushed out of his net to go help his teammate, only to be up ended by Red Wings Brendan Shanahan. Soon enough, the Red Wings goalie, Mike Vernon, came out of his net and both goalies were fighting at center ice. The image of two goalies at center ice duking it out is engraved into the minds of hockey fans worldwide. Vernon landed a couple good shots on Roy and quickly took him down to the ice, leaving Roy with a bloody cut down the right side of his face.

The Red Wings had clearly prepared for this fight ever since the hit on Draper and it showed. The Wings barreled through the Avalanche and took game as well as the fight. The Wings went on to win 6-0 and the brawl helped unite them and it proved to be a major turning point in their season as they went on to win the Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers. On their journey to the cup, the Wings also defeated the Avalanche in the Western Conference Final in four games to two.

What began as a nasty cheap shot from behind, resonated and turned into the greatest brawl hockey has ever seen. Claude Lemieux began on his feet and ended in a bundled heap on the ground, with Darren McCarty making sure he never forgot what he did.