Today marks 18 years (or 19, if you’re reading this in 2016) since Darren McCarty doled out a healthy measure of street justice upon Colorado Avalanche winger Claude Lemieux. We’re marking the occasion by looking back and recounting exactly how one of the wildest moments in Detroit sports history ever came to fruition.
June 17, 1995 – Claude Lemieux got a one year head start on haunting the Red Wings. As a member of the New Jersey Devils, Lemieux and company rode the wave of an overpowering neutral zone trap en route to a four game sweep of the Wings in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.
After contributing 19 regular season points in a lockout shortened regular season and scoring two goals during the finals against Detroit, Lemieux was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team deal involving Wendel Clark and Steve Thomas. The Avalanche just happened to be entering their first year alongside the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference, having spent the previous 23 years of their franchise’s history masquerading as the Quebec Nordiques.
December 2, 1995 – The Red Wings played an unintentional role in the formation of their future super rival with an early season 11-1 shellacking of the Montreal Canadiens. On the receiving end of nine of those goals: Patrick Roy. After being mercifully pulled by coach Mario Tremblay, an embarrassed Roy retreated to the bench where he revealed to team president Ronald Corey that he would never play for Montreal ever again.
Four days later, Roy had joined Lemieux in Colorado.
May 29, 1996 – Barely 14 minutes into Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals, Red Wings forward Kris Draper drifted into the neutral zone. Unbeknownst to Draper, Claude Lemieux was closing in from behind, ultimately slamming Draper’s face into the corner of the Wings’ bench.
The hit left Draper with a broken jaw, shattered cheek, and broken orbital bone. The injuries required reconstructive surgery involving his jaw being wired shut, resulting in Draper eating through a straw for the majority of the 1996 offseason.
Meanwhile, Lemieux’s lack of remorse did not sit well with the Red Wings. Following Colorado’s series-clinching victory, Dino Ciccarelli famously said of Lemieux, “I can’t believe I shook this guy’s frigging hand after the game. That pisses me right off.”
March 26, 1997 – Nearly 10 months to the day since Claude Lemieux’s unrepentant shot on Kris Draper, the Colorado Avalanche set foot inside Joe Louis Arena for the first time since the fated 1996 playoffs. An impending sense of revenge and bloodlust had cast its cloud over the city of Detroit and carried over to Red Wings fans spread about the state. They all knew something would happen, they just didn’t know what.
We got our answer at 18:22 of the first period.
A seemingly innocent dust-up between Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov served as the powder keg that blew the roof off the Joe. While Larionov and Forsberg stole the officials’ attention, Darren McCarty took the opportunity to seek and destroy Claude Lemieux. Approaching Lemieux from the front right, McCarty landed a gloved right cross that immediately dropped Lemieux to the ice. A subsequent lefty upper cut induced a duck-and-cover response from Lemieux, absorbing McCarty’s pummeling with interest only in turtling self-preservation.
As goalie Patrick Roy rushed to the aide of his fallen teammate, he was intercepted in mid-air by relative newcomer Brendan Shanahan, who was acquired (in exchange for Paul Coffey & Keith Primeau) only after the Lemieux-Draper situation had already transpired the previous spring. Shanahan’s flying-squirrel attack served as his symbolic initiation into the Red Wings brotherhood.
The brawl came to a head when Roy eventually went toe-to-toe with Red Wings goaltender Mike Vernon. The two mismatched pugilists (Vernon stood 5’9” to Roy’s 6’2”) exchanged blows to the face before Vernon ultimately wrestled a bloody Roy to the ground, unleashing a triumphant, Gladiator-like response from the home crowd.
Bonus ESPN2 footage (featuring a rare wide shot of Shanahan’s gnarly takedown):
McCarty added insult to injury with some overtime theatrics later in the evening:
Following the game, Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman summed it up best:
June 7, 1997 – For the Red Wings, the Brawl at the Joe served as a rallying point. Brotherhood was cemented, focus was sharpened. Detroit blazed through the first three rounds of the playoffs with a combined record of 12-4, exacting further revenge upon the Avalanche with a six-game victory in the Western Conference Finals.
By then, the Wings were a near unstoppable force. Their Stanley Cup Finals opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers, found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Detroit coasted to three consecutive victories out of the gate, and when attempting to complete the sweep in Game 4, a familiar face re-emerged for the 1997 Stanley Cup’s defining moment:
At long last, Detroit’s 42-year Stanley Cup drought had been broken.