Book excerpt: Nicklas Lidstrom recounts Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry

The Detroit News
Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom

This excerpt from "Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection" by Nicklas Lidstrom with Gunnar Nordstrom and Bob Duff is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. 

The cover of Nicklas Lidstrom's book, "The Pursuit of Perfection"

Lidstrom recounts the battles between the Red Wings and Avalanche, one of the most intense rivalries in sports which saw the teams combine to win the Stanley Cup in five of seven seasons between 1996-2002.

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Colorado Avalanche's  Claude Lemieux (22) takes a shot on Detroit Red Wings goalie Manny Legace (34) as  Kris Draper (33) defends on the play during the third period of their alumni game at Coors Field in Denver Friday Feb. 26, 2016. The Avalanche won 5-2.

Lemieux's hit on Draper

The Red Wings got only two days’ rest before the Western Conference Final against Colorado. It was not enough time to regroup. “We were tired and couldn’t handle Colorado, it was as simple as that,” Lidstrom said.

The Avs jumped on the weary Wings quickly, winning the first two games of the series at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings gained a split in Denver and after a solid 5–2 home-ice victory in Game 5, held to a semblance of hope that they could survive again just as they had against St. Louis. But it was not to be.

The Wings fell 4–1 in Game 6 at McNichols Arena. Another magical season had ended in heartbreak for the Wings, but this time, it also ended with broken bones and bloodshed that would ignite one of the most fiery and bitter rivalries that hockey has ever seen.

Early in Game 6, Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux hit Detroit center Kris Draper with a forceful check from behind that sent Draper crashing into the boards face-first in front of the Detroit bench. Draper suffered a broken cheekbone, a fractured jaw, a broken nose, and several broken teeth, as well as a concussion.

Lemieux was assessed a major penalty and thrown out of the game, while Draper ended up in the hospital and needed 30 stitches to close the facial cuts. His jaw had to be wired shut for weeks and he underwent plastic surgery to repair some of the other damage. Lemieux had been involved in earlier incidents and scrums during the series; he had punched Slava Kozlov after the Detroit forward had slammed Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote facefirst into the glass in Game 3. Foote was bleeding hard, but none of the officials saw the hit and no penalty was called.

Lemieux skated up to Kozlov and sucker punched him in the mouth. Lemieux was suspended for one game after a review of the incident by the league. That suspension caused Colorado coach Marc Crawford to accuse Bowman of manipulating the media, referees, and league officials. This was only the beginning of a heated rivalry; over the next several years, Lidstrom and his teammates would endure many wild and brutal battles with the Avalanche. 

In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, Claude Lemieux of the Colorado Avalance hit Red Wing Kris Draper into the boards from behind, breaking  his cheek, jaw and orbital bone.  On March 26, 1997, the Red Wings got their revenge.  Darren McCarty, right, hit Lemieux with a series of blows, as Lemieux fell to the ice and covered his head. A melee ensued.

McCarty-Lemieux fight

Heading into the next season, there was a feeling that things could escalate quickly between the two teams. Detroit wanted revenge for the hit Lemieux had placed on Draper the season before. Draper’s bloody and broken face was something his teammates would not forget. At least not his close friend on the team, Darren McCarty.

The next chapter in this bloody war came on March 26, 1997, exactly 301 days after Lemieux’s hit on Draper. The scene was Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It started with a scrum between Colorado’s Peter Forsberg and Detroit’s Igor Larionov. The two European players engaged in a wrestling match next to the Detroit bench. It didn’t look like much from the start, but the two skilled stars ignited a brawl that would spread all over the ice.

When Forsberg looks back at that night, he is still confused about how it turned so ugly. “I have seen it on video afterward and it’s kind of funny to watch,” Forsberg said. “We were two guys that had never been in a fight, and then we start this chaos. I did talk to Lemieux afterward and told him that I had no idea that him and McCarty were on the ice at the same time.”

It was McCarty who escalated things. He blindsided Lemieux and started punching him. Lemieux took to the turtle position, down on all fours to try to protect himself, and did not hit back. Then Roy came storming out of his crease and skated to the middle of the ice to fight Detroit goalie Mike Vernon. Brendan Shanahan intercepted Roy, and they both went flying. It was mayhem. “Lemieux used to joke with me and blame me for starting the whole thing,” Forsberg said. “We both laughed about it later on."

Nicklas Lidstrom first thought on the ice was, ‘Oh, this is escalating into something really bad. Yikes.’ But I think it would have happened anyway. Maybe it would have come at the end of the game. Looking back, I think it was good to get it over with early. We were two really good teams who both wanted to win so badly. And we did not like each other.” 

Lidstrom was not involved in any of the rumbles on the ice when things got out of control. Keith Jones, today a color analyst with NBC Sports, was a member of the Avalanche at that time. He offered a simple explanation as to why Lidstrom didn’t get involved. “He never backed off, but he was always above the fray,” Jones said. “You could never draw him into whatever type of chaos was going on around him. He just played his game, and I give him credit for that, because there was a lot of chaos going on in those games.”

Jones’ conclusion is that Lidstrom was so cool that it was impossible to get him off his game, something Lidstrom agrees with. “That’s right,” Lidstrom said. “First of all, my style of play wasn’t that physical, and I also had the ability to control myself. Things were going on all the time out there on the ice, including slashes and yelling expletives. It happened after every stop in the play, but I stayed out of it.”

Avalanche’s Peter Forsberg (21) controls the puck in front of Red Wings’ Jiri Fischer (2).

This blood feud carried over off the ice as well. Fraternization between Colorado and Detroit players simply wasn’t acceptable. Forsberg recalls the tension between him and his friend Lidstrom during this time. “There was absolutely no contact between me and Nicklas during those intense years,” Forsberg said.

“To talk to him was totally taboo. I remember a situation when we had been in Detroit, and my linemate Valeri Kamensky chatted with another Russian player outside the dressing room after a regular season game. He got an earful from Claude Lemieux on the team bus when we left Joe Louis Arena. I was pretty new on the team then, and thought, ‘Hmm, I better not speak to any of their Swedes.’”

“We didn’t trash talk between us on the ice, but we did not hold back with the physical play,” Lidstrom said. “Peter was one of Colorado’s best players, and we needed to keep an eye on him all the time. We were ordered to not give him any space, so as soon as he had the puck, we tried to hit him or interfere with him. He was not allowed to have any time with the puck and set up a play. He was so dangerous.

“I remember how tense the relationship was between us. Even at the All-Star Game, we couldn’t put it aside and act like friends. Once, when the All-Star Game was in Denver and we were on the same team from the Western Conference, I was booed so badly during the introduction it felt like the fans hated me then as much as they did at a playoff game.”

The Red Wings were down by two goals when things got out of hand that infamous March night at the Joe. They turned the game around and won 6–5 on an overtime tally by McCarty. As the Wings moved into the playoffs, they hoped this outcome would be a stepping stone on their path to becoming Stanley Cup champions.

The loss against Colorado in the Western Conference Final in 1996 made Red Wings management aware of the team’s weaknesses. They thought their team had to become tougher and stronger. They knew they needed bigger bodies in the lineup and a better presence in front of the net.

Detroit Red Wings right wing Brendan Shanahan, left, moves the puck from behind the net as Colorado Avalanche center Joe Sakic defends during the third period of the Stadium Series alumni game at Coors Field in Denver on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Colorado won 5-2.

Shanahan the final piece

At the start of the 1996–97 season, Detroit got Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers, a big, strong winger and goal-scorer, and sent defenseman Paul Coffey, forward Keith Primeau, and a firstround draft pick to Hartford. Shanahan had established himself as a power forward after years in the league with the New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, and Whalers. He had racked up points everywhere he’d been and reached 52 goals and 102 points with the Blues in 81 games during the 1993–94 season.

Detroit’s plan was to get a more balanced team on the ice by adding Shanahan’s skill and toughness. They already had the Russian Five and a blooming Swedish defenseman in Lidstrom. Going into the season in the fall of 1996, the Avalanche were the defending Stanley Cup champions and the team to beat. They started the season strong, and it looked like they would be back-toback champions after finishing first in the regular season with 107 points.

Detroit finished third in the Western Conference and fifth in the league with a roster that included players from Canada, the U.S., Russia, and Sweden. Bowman’s love for international hockey and European influences made him the perfect coach to get this mix of talent to work well together. Larionov had been trying to play his successful Russian style of hockey in Vancouver and San Jose but didn’t feel at home until he ended up in Detroit in October of 1995 under Bowman’s leadership.

Coach Scotty Bowman passes the Spirit of Detroit with the Stanley Cup as fans celebrate the Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup Finals victory with a parade along Woodward before finishing with a rally in Hart Plaza on Monday, June 17, 2002.

“Scotty Bowman orchestrated everything,” Larionov said. “He was a big fan of the legendary Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov. Scotty’s biggest asset was his ability to see every player’s skill level and use that to put the puzzle together. He could spot details in everybody’s play and didn’t care what passport you had or what language you spoke. It was all about putting 20 guys on the same page with no restrictions. He respected European hockey and the background of every player. Scotty’s mix was built on chemistry, commitment, respect, and unity. It worked so well.”

When Shanahan had arrived in the Motor City in October of 1996, he had played against Lidstrom for years in the league. But he still was surprised by what he saw. “He was even better than I realized,” Shanahan said. “You had to see Nick every day to appreciate how good he was. Not just in games, but in practice.”

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Canadian could check, fight, and score, and Shanahan became a fan favorite on his first shift at Joe Louis Arena when he fought Edmonton’s Greg de Vries. Lidstrom and his teammates knew right away that Shanahan had arrived and that the Red Wings’ image had changed. They were not a soft team any longer; they had more bite than previous years.

The early exits in the first round in 1993 and 1994, the four straight losses to New Jersey in the Final in 1995, and the heartbreaking loss in the Western Conference Final against Colorado a few months earlier had formed a dark cloud over Detroit. Things had to change. Shanahan was the superstar they needed. Lidstrom had a stellar regular season in 1996–97 with 57 points (15 goals and 42 assists) in 79 games. He was fourth on the team in scoring, behind only Shanahan (87 points), Yzerman (85), and Sergei Fedorov (63).

The playoffs started ominously when St. Louis beat Detroit 2–0 in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, but the Red Wings won four of the next five games to beat St. Louis in six games and then breezed through Anaheim with four straight victories in the conference semifinals.

Next up was Colorado, and it was time for revenge. The Western Conference Final started on May 15 and the hype was huge after what had happened a year earlier. Lidstrom’s assignment was to stop countryman Peter “Foppa” Forsberg. “Scotty wanted us to be as close to Foppa as possible,” Lidstrom recalled.

“He was a key player, so to eliminate his line with Kamensky and Lemieux, you had to stop him. We tried to get under his skin and had Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby irritating him to get him off his game. “I knew that Peter would hit me hard if he got the chance. He was a competitor and never gave up. We both wanted to win so badly, and the friendship was put on hold.”

Colorado won the first game 2–1 at McNichols Arena in Denver, but Detroit came back and tied the series with a 4–2 win. The series moved to Joe Louis Arena for the next two games and a 2–1 win in Game 3 gave the Red Wings a lead in the series for the first time. Roy tried to boost his team with some tough talk before Game 4 and challenged the Detroit players by asking if they had what it would take to beat the defending champions. Roy’s pep talk fell flat. Detroit crushed Colorado with a 6–0 win, and now had a 3–1 lead in the series.

Avalanche coach Marc Crawford argues with the Red Wings bench, including coach Scotty Bowman, during an NHL playoff game May 22, 1997.

At the end of Game 4, Colorado coach Marc Crawford launched into an angry tirade at Bowman between the benches that led to the league fining him $10,000. Lidstrom enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the shouting match. “Scotty and Marc Crawford had some heated discussions between the benches when we played Colorado and the rivalry was at its peak,” Lidstrom said. “They often stood and screamed at each other on the bench. Crawford at one time was hanging over into our bench and just lost it. Scotty shouted back, ‘I know your father and he would not be very proud of you right now.’ That made Crawford totally lose it.”

The next day Crawford issued an apology, saying, “You have a responsibility as a head coach in a prestigious league like the NHL to carry yourself with a lot more dignity than I did. For that, I am sorry. I embarrassed the league, and more important, I embarrassed my team with my actions. There is no way you can justify anything like that.”

The heat was back on between Detroit and Colorado. Crawford’s actions showed that his team was not going away peacefully. And they didn’t. Colorado returned the favor in Game 5 in Denver, winning by the same 6–0 score. Lemieux had two goals and told the media afterward that he believed the Avs could turn the series around.

But that didn’t happen. Detroit closed out the series with a 3–1 win in Game 6 at home. Forsberg came back after missing Game 5 because of a severe charley horse that made it impossible for him to skate. Once more, he was kept under close watch by Lidstrom and his defensive partners on the Red Wings.

“Nick was one of the hardest guys to play against,” Forsberg said. “Not physically. I didn’t have any problems with that part of his game. It was more his ability to read the game and his reach. Anytime you thought you had gained some space away from him with the puck, he was there and closed it. He did not give you an inch. 

“He also was a master at bringing the puck down in the air with his stick. I have never seen anybody else with that eye-hand coordination. Add to all his skills that he played 25 minutes per game, and it felt that you never could get rid of him.”