The 20th anniversary: A night that rocked Hockeytown

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Has it really been 20 years?

Has it really been 20 years since the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche ignited one of the best rivalries — or feuds — in professional sports with a game on March 26 that will likely live in infamy?

“I have people all the time come up to me and say they were there,” Kris Draper said.

March 26, 1997.

You mention that date to Detroit sports fans of a certain age and they’ll tell you where they were when the Red Wings and Avalanche went after each other that evening, or what they were doing, or how they were going bonkers.

The entire evening can still produce endless goose bumps just thinking about it. The fights, the goals, the craziness of what was happening on the ice and in the stands — oh yes, and the fights.

All the iconic photos you’ve seen from that evening. Darren McCarty pummeling Claude Lemieux. Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon landing blows. Brendan Shanahan flying through the air.

And this entire flame lit by a first-period collision between Igor Larionov and Colorado’s Peter Forsberg — not exactly two of the dirtiest players to ever play in the NHL.

“Of all people, those two guys,” Draper said.

What a game.

There have been other memorable nights in Detroit sports history, but few were ever better.

But, really, 20 years already?

“Time flies,” Draper said. “It doesn’t feel like it.

“A lot of it, right now, this anniversary happens to be just as it’s the final year of The Joe (Louis Arena). It all ties in together, and let’s face it, for a lot of fans, that’s a game they’ll never forget.”

Draper has been reliving that evening, and that period of hockey between the Red Wings and Avalanche often lately given his role in the feud, the anniversary, and his excellent article about the rivalry for the Players Tribune website.

Draper goes into every possible angle of the feud with the Avalanche.

His being drilled into the boards by Lemieux, causing a broken jaw, broken orbital bone, broken nose and several teeth in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals. The Red Wings’ inability to get over the hump of beating the Avalanche. Fans and media doubting whether the Red Wings could beat Colorado. The buildup leading to the March 26 game.

So much led to that evening.

But the way it played itself out, the way the Red Wings responded and won, might have been the turning point toward the Red Wings becoming who they’ve been ever since.

“Colorado had beaten us in the playoffs (in 1996), they’d won the first three games against us that season (1997), and they just had a swagger about them,” Draper said. “Let’s face it, people were doubting us. We hadn’t beaten them.

“But the way it turned out, the way it all unfolded, that night brought our team together. It was a defining moment.”

Talk to any player from that particular Red Wings roster, and they’ll say they became a much stronger, confident and tighter team after March 26.

“It brought the whole team together,” Kirk Maltby, Draper’s linemate, said. “It wasn’t like we were playing poorly, but we were just going about our business.

“That night just ignited us as a team. The camaraderie of it, we just became that much more of a team.

“It was season-turning for us.”

Said Chris Osgood: “Everyone expected it to happen, and how we got there wasn’t good, but it was an accumulation of a lot of games. It was kind of necessary. It was probably one of the last steps for us to take, to come together as a team and the fact we stood up for each other, going into the playoffs.”

To this day, Draper hasn’t forgotten the feeling in the locker room, the pure exhilaration after the game, which many people tend to forget was a 6-5 Red Wings overtime victory with McCarty scoring the winning goal.

“The fact Mac scored the winning goal, that was unbelievable,” Draper said. “Just the excitement in the room, the look in everyone’s eyes, it was something else.

“And it carried us.”

It carried them to a Stanley Cup that season, the following year, yet another one in 2002. The Red Wings organization won yet another in 2008.

Hockeytown, indeed.

Thanks, in large part, to March 26.

What a game.