During this lockout, our patience has definitely been tested as we all desperately hope that the NHL can figure this out and give us our season back. Until that happens, I figured I might as well go back and share some of my favorite memories of hockey and maybe you all would be inclined to share yours with us! I’ll apologize in advance as a majority of my memories include the Red Wings and the Western Conference, but i do have a good number of memories that involve great players and great teams around the league. My first memory is of the very first hockey game I ever saw. Funnily enough, it was probably the most important game I had ever seen played – I just didn’t know it at the time.
For most of the younger generation, if you were to ask them to describe the Detroit Red Wings in one word, some of the answers you might expect include: dynasty, winners, champions, etc. But as recently as 1996, this team carried a label that no sports team wants to carry – choke-artists. From 1990 to 1996, the Red Wings went 265-145-48 (.631 Win %), but had a playoff record of just 35-34, winning just 6 playoff series in those 6 seasons. The Wings made one Stanley Cup Final appearance and were promptly swept by a team that had won 11 fewer games than them in the regular season. The Wings posted an NHL record 62 wins one season, only to fall short in the Western Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche. In the first period of the final game of that series, the Avalanche’s Claude Lemieux laid a devastating (and highly illegal) hit on the Wings’ Kris Draper, leaving him with a concussion, broken jaw, broken nose, broken cheekbone, and nerve damage. Even that hit couldn’t rally the Wings to play harder in the final 45 minutes of that contest. After the 1995-1996 playoff failure, the Wings were labeled as “soft” and “choke-artists” – the two terms you never want to be associated with as a professional sports team.
Heading into the 1996-1997 season, the Wings were determined to get tougher, so they acquired gritty forward Brendan Shanahan, a guy that could score, hit, and fight. The Wings knew that they would have to get tougher to overcome the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Colorado Avalanche. However, early on, the results were just not there. In the first three matchups with the Avs that season, the Wings lost 4-1, 4-3, and 4-2. The Wings had one final matchup left with the Avs – March 26th, and they knew they would need to make a statement with the playoffs just 3 weeks away.
In the week leading up to the game, fans in Detroit received the wonderful news that Claude Lemieux would be making his “triumphant” return to Detroit, almost one year after wrecking Kris Draper’s face. He had missed the previous meeting in Detroit, but it was confirmed that he would be at this one. More importantly though, Wings fan knew that this was the last shot at Colorado before the playoffs and a confidence boost was a must.
Right from the get-go, you knew this was going to be a chippy one. There were two fights in the first 11 minutes. However, despite the atmosphere, the aggressiveness, and the attitude from the Wings, they still found themselves trailing 1-0 late in the first. With 1:48 left in the 1st, Red Wings forward Igor Larionov and Avs star Peter Forsberg got tangled up near the Red Wings bench, and the two began wrestling. At this point, all hell broke loose. With the refs attention being occupied by Larionov and Forsberg, Wings forward, Darren McCarty quickly located Claude Lemieux and began to pulverize him. McCarty destroyed Lemieux, causing him to “turtle” to protect himself. McCarty managed to drag Lemieux over to the boards, where he proceeded to punch him a few more times and the knee him in the head before being pulled off of Lemieux. Simultaneously, Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon decided to dance and we had one of the greatest brawls in the history of hockey. McCarty-Lemieux, Roy-Vernon, Shanahan-Foote were all happening at once and for a moment, you could see that the refs did not know what to do.
The refs quickly remembered that they were supposed to be officiating this brouhaha and pulled McCarty off of the bloody pulp that was now Claude Lemieux. Wings goalie, Mike Vernon, at 5’9”, 167 lbs managed to bloody up the 6’1” 210 lb Patrick Roy. For 10 minutes this brawl lasted and the Wings got the better of every skirmish. You could just tell that the Wings were not just getting revenge for the Lemieux hit, but that they were also making a statement to the rest of the NHL that, yes, they were tough enough.
However, at the end of this fight (the 3rd of 9 that night), the Wings were still down 1-0. All of this, all of their efforts, would be for naught if they could not defeat the Avalanche. The Wings came out firing in the 2nd period, scoring just 35 seconds in, but they were quickly answered by the Avs 37 seconds later. The Avs pushed the lead up to 4-2 with 6:26 left in the 2nd and again, it just seemed as if the Wings did not have enough to beat their rivals. The Wings had outshot the Avs 22-7 thus far in the 2nd period and 31-13 for the game, but still found themselves down 2 goals. However, this was a new Wings team, inspired by their physical victory earlier in the game, and they were determined to win. With 20 seconds remaining in the 2nd period, Nicklas Lidstrom found the back of the net for the Wings, bringing Detroit to within 1 heading into the 3rd period.
The Avs though, were the defending champs, and knew how to win games like this. Just 1:11 into the 3rd, Valeri Kamensky notched his 3rd goal of the game, putting the Avs up 5-3. Detroit answered 7 minutes later, with 2 goals in 36 seconds to even the game with 11 minutes to play. The final 11 minutes saw some furious action as the teams finally settled down and began to play up-and-down hockey. However, neither team was able to break the deadlock. This game would have to be decided by overtime, and really, would you have it any other way?
Looking back on this game now, I can’t imagine this game ending any other way than the way it did. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The fans of Detroit wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the game may not have had the same significance if it did not end the way it did. Just 39 seconds in, the Wings executed a perfect 3 on 2 breakout. It was Larionov…to Shanahan…to McCarty….for the win. 6-5, Red Wings win. The three forwards who were a part of the most important fight in Red Wings history teamed up for the winning goal. The man who stepped up and destroyed Claude Lemieux was the man who finally got Detroit a win against the Avs after 7 consecutive losses.
Years later, when asked about this game, many Red Wings players said that this was the game that allowed them to become champions. They say that this game showed them the kind of fight that they had within them. It showed them how hard they could play. It gave them the confidence to beat their rivals (which they did in 6 games that playoff year). It gave them the confidence to dream big. March 26th, 1997 – the game that turned the Wings from chokers into the NHL’s modern day dynasty. Without this game, that fight, that physical and mental victory, who knows if the Wings would have won a single championship? Would Wings captain Steve Yzerman have been traded after 3 consecutive postseason failures? Who knows what would have happened? All I can tell you for certain is that the Wings would not have been the 1996-1997 Stanley Cup Champions without winning that game. Below is the video to the full game for those that would like to relive it or experience it for the very first time.