Detroit — The roar was fierce, a reverberation from the attack on Kris Draper 10 months earlier.
The shout of resounding approval from the crowd at Joe Louis Arena rang down like the cry of ancient, resentful hordes, urging retribution against a reviled adversary.
Vengeance is said to belong to the Lord. But in a pivotal episode from one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the NHL — indeed, in all of sport — Darren McCarty laid explicit claim to it.
As McCarty skated with vindictive resolve at Claude Lemieux on March 26, 1997, in the early moments of one of the most riotous hockey brawls of the last 20 years, the 20,066 officially packed into the steeply rising rows issued a fierce exclamation, like some primal battle yell emanating from the guts of the metropolis.
It was an instinctive, uncontained reaction to one of the most violent episodes in one of the bitterest rivalries: Lemieux’s unseemly, unforgiven cross-check and boarding of Draper in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference finals.
Some rivalries are proclaimed in marketing by broadcasting networks. Some are matters of geography.
Others are intense and celebrated.
But once upon a time in the NHL, a rivalry manipulated the soul and stirred the marrow of bone.
The Red Wings and Avalanche.
Friday night (7 p.m., FSD), outdoors in a ballpark in Denver, the timeworn combatants gather again.
That they are older is welcome deterrence, though none is likely needed. In the code of this sport, when rivals age, a respect once veiled is made plain, even celebrated.
They were the two most talented, accomplished teams for several years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. In their eyes and those of many hockey fans across North America, their rivalry was the best hockey.
“When you sit back and think about it, to have been a part of what is seriously, in sports history, a rivalry that is among very few and everyone knows it — it’s something really special,” McCarty said.
“It was the Hatfields and the McCoys. It was back and forth, for years.
“But what folks need to understand: It was a hall of fame rivalry. I mean, it’s like every year, someone from each team is going into the (Hockey) Hall of Fame, it seems like.”
Evidence of the point is the fact that the uncontrolled fighting in Detroit that night 19 years ago, dubbed by some “Fight Night at The Joe,” began with two of the most-skilled, least combative players on the ice, Red Wings center Igor Larionov and Avalanche center Peter Forsberg.
What led to violence between two players prone to skilled, almost ballet-like offense, distant from any jurisdiction of the Marquess of Queensberry?
“Ah, you know what? It was a lot of voice, a lot of questions,” Larionov said of the pre-tussle dialogue.
“But I can’t really tell you why,” he said, smiling. “Privately, I can.”
“But it was good; it was good. I think it helped us to get together as a team before the playoffs, and get us going.”
Such is the significance of the rivalry that, to a man, former Red Wings of the era believe the wild melee, especially McCarty’s retribution, transformed the franchise from an also-ran to champions tilting toward dynasty.
For a franchise without a Stanley Cup in 42 years at the time, the brawl birthed champions.
“Oh, we are talking now about a big chapter in the book!” Larionov said.
In the game in which Lemieux mugged Draper, the Avalanche ousted an outstanding Red Wings team, which finished with 131 points (62-13-7) that season, from the playoffs.
The attack peeled back skin from Draper’s face like rind off an orange. It broke his jaw, cheek and orbital bone, and sent him into reconstructive surgery. Draper’s family was burdened with the specter of near-tragic misfortune.
Then, six months into the following season, a perennially powerful Wings team lost the first three games to the Avalanche and began to appear, once again, like an enormously talented disappointment.
“When you are going into the playoffs and you lost three games to them in the season and you go into the last game with them — after you lost to them in the conference finals a year ago — it reaches a point,” Larionov said.
“So that was a crucial game for us to kind of overcome the trend and send them a message, and to make the NHL face what was going to come ahead for us.”
To Larionov, Joe Kocur and many of the retired Red Wings, March 26, 1997 was the day it all turned. Three months later, more than a million people provided full-throated witness to the Red Wings parading the Stanley Cup down Woodward.
“I think that was the most important thing that the team ever accomplished together,” Kocur said of exacting revenge and asserting force.
“Winning the Stanley Cup was the most important for us and the fans and everything. But when that night had happened, there was just a different team in that locker room, a team that felt that they had grown together and could win the Stanley Cup.
“And we went on a good roll, after that.”
Similarity breeds contempt
For Draper, games against Colorado were noted on the NHL schedule the moment of its release.
“Obviously, you talk about, you know, the brawl and the rivalry and the hatred and everything that goes along with that,” he said. “But the bottom line is: Two organizations who put a lot of guys in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“There was some unbelievable hockey.
“And both teams could play any style of hockey, as well. If you wanted to run-and-gun, they could do it, we could do it. Obviously, if you wanted to play a physical style of hockey, too.
“I think that’s what made this rivalry exactly what it was. For me, from the end of ’96 through 2002, in professional sports, I don’t think there was anything like it.”
The two teams were not only closely matched, they were similarly composed.
“Both teams were kind of built the same way,” Kirk Maltby said. “Both teams had a lot of skill, great goaltending. Defensively, we were as good as anybody. And we had toughness.
“We were well-balanced, they were well-balanced.”
Adding to the rivalry, of course, was the pursuit of the ultimate goal, something unseen in Detroit for a generation.
“We knew we’d have to go through them to win the Stanley Cup,” Maltby said. “We knew it was going to be a grind. We knew it was going to be a battle.”
Until McCarty battered Lemeiux, and other Wings paired off against other Avalanche on fight night, Detroit had not won much.
“You know, the way that happened, we were 0-3 against them, coming into that game here,” Draper said. “They were the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“We were both three weeks away from the playoff, and we were yet to beat them.”
Immediately after Larionov and Forsberg tumbled in a violent embrace, McCarty arrived at Lemieux.
With an abrupt, contemptuous right hand, he reduced the hulking Lemieux to a crumpled, vanquished victim, on all fours, face down on the ice.
One blow, and Public Enemy No. 1 was too dazed to continue, as it turned out.
As Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy sprinted to center ice to intercede, Wings forward Brendan Shanahan intercepted him.
Meanwhile, Wings goaltender Mike Vernon rushed from the crease to peel Roy away from Shanahan. And bruising Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote, known as one of the strongest men in the game, engaged Shanahan.
By then, all 12 players on the ice were fully involved. The officials scarcely knew which scrap to attend first.
The crowd was frenzied.
To a player, the retired Red Wings say it forged the team that won the next two Stanley Cups, and carried on with two more in the next decade.
“Just the way everything kind of played out here on March 26, with the brawl and Lemieux turtling and Shanny and Roy kind of meeting each other at center ice in midair,” the avenged Draper said. “And Vernie and Roy fighting. And Shanny and Foote fighting — I mean, it was unbelievable how it happened.
“And from there, we ended up finding a way to tie up the game and win it in overtime. And who scores the overtime goal? It was Mac, with everything he just went through.
“It was electric in this building. You could feel it from the fans.
“And then, certainly, when we came into the dressing room, we could feel it. That was something that we needed.
“I think it was statement to us in our dressing room, and I think it was a statement to the Avalanche, as well, that we were going to do whatever it takes to get our team to the next level.”
NHL Stadium Series
Red Wings vs. Avalanche
Faceoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Coors Field, Denver
Faceoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Coors Field
RED WINGS ROSTER
Goaltenders: 29 Ty Conklin, 34 Manny Legace
Defenseman: 2 Jiri Fischer, 5 Nicklas Lidstrom, 24 Chris Chelios, 28 Steve Duchesne, 55 Larry Murphy
Centers: 8 Igor Larionov, 19 Steve Yzerman, 21 Boyd Devereaux, 23 Stacy Roest, 33 Kris Draper
Right wings: 11 Mathieu Dandenault, 14 Brendan Shanahan, 17 Doug Brown, 20 Martin Lapointe, 22 Dino Ciccarelli, 22 Mike Knuble, 25 Darren McCarty, 26 Joe Kocur
Left wings: 18 Kirk Maltby, 96 Tomas Holmstrom
Coaches: Dave Lewis, Barry Smith, Mickey Redmond
Goaltenders: 1 Craig Billington, 33 Patrick Roy
Defensemen: 4 Rob Blake, 7 Dreg De Vries, 7 Curtis Leschyshyn, 8 Sandis Ozolinsh, 24 Jon Klemm, 29 Eric Messier, 52 Adam Foote, 77 Ray Bourque
Centers: 9 Mike Ricci, 19 Joe Sakic, 21 Peter Forsberg, 26 Stephane Yelle
Right wings: 13 Dan Hinote, 22 Claude Lemieux, 23 Milan Hejduk, 25 Mike Keane
Left wings: 12 Chris Simon, 13 Valeri Kamensky, 25 Shjon Podein
Coach: Adam Deadmarsh