Darren McCarty and Claude Lemieux sat side-by-side in a Detroit Metro bar on the 25th anniversary of one of the most memorable fights in hockey history, exchanging barbs instead of punches, joked Jeremy Schaap, host of E60’s “Unrivaled.”
Addressing the crowd, McCarty says, “The player and the person are different” and introduces Lemieux. They hug and shake hands.
“In 2022, Claude Lemieux is my friend,” says McCarty.
“I made sure I had a police escort,” jokes Lemieux.
Twenty-five years earlier he did.
“Unrivaled,” the two-hour special about the bitter, bloody rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche, debuted Sunday on ESPN with insightful interviews, compelling clips of key games and moments, stunning photos, and compelling behind-the-scenes stories.
Here are some highlights:
The hit that started it
When the Red Wings faced the Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference Finals after winning an NHL-record 62 games, there was no indication the series would get so heated. Hostilities escalated in Game 3 after Slava Kozlov slammed Adam Foote into the glass, causing a 20-inch gash in the defender’s forehead.
“We wanted to kill them,” says Avs striker Mike Ricci. “We thought it was the dirtiest thing in the world. After that we went looking for blood.”
Lemieux later hit Kozlov in the head with a sucker and was suspended for Game 4.
“I said to Footie, ‘I’m going to get him,'” says Lemieux.
This led to a post-game confrontation with Scotty Bowman near the Red Wings bus as Lemieux walked out of the arena with his wife, father-in-law and two-month-old son.
“The doors open, Scotty sticks his head out and starts chirping,” says Lemieux. “I went to the bus, I said, ‘Do you have a problem?’ “
Lemieux noted that the tougher players tend to sit in the back of the bus drinking beers, so he figured he had some time before they came up front to get involved.
Still, Red Wings-Avs might have been a short-lived feud if Lemieux hadn’t hit Kris Draper in the dasher board from behind in the deciding Game 6 at McNichols Arena. Draper suffered numerous facial injuries and was hospitalized for several days. Lemieux was ejected and suspended for the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals where Colorado defeated the Florida Panthers.
“It was something that wasn’t aimed, it happened quickly,” says Lemieux. “If I could have taken it back, I would have taken it back. I just knew it wasn’t good.”
Former Red Wings coach John Wharton said Draper had “an imprint of the boards on his face.” He wanted Draper off on a stretcher. Draper refused and was helped by Wharton and Keith Primeau before passing out two feet from the coach’s table.
While serving as best man at Draper’s wedding that summer, McCarty told his best friend that he would take care of it and “would beat Lemieux within an inch of his life.”
The Red Wings were furious not only at Lemieux’s refusal to apologize, but also at his demeaning remarks.
“It seemed like he was proud of what he did,” says Draper.
Shanahan and Lemieux
The Red Wings’ acquisition of Brendan Shanahan early in the 1996-97 season was a pivotal move that helped transform an underperforming playoff team into back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
Shanahan and Lemieux were close as teammates in New Jersey.
“It was sort of my deep, dark secret that we were friends,” says Shanahan, who liked Lemieux’s style as a disruptor but said “he had a big heart.”
“I absolutely loved that kid,” Lemieux said. He even named his son, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Kings, after Shanahan.
But Lemieux ran by in his first game against the Red Wings since Shanahan joined them and said, “You’re a loser. You didn’t win anything.”
Shanahan said it reminded him that Lemieux was a “ruthless competitor” and the Red Wings needed to be the same.
March 26, 1997
This is a date Red Wings fans will never forget. It was as McCarty exacted revenge on Lemieux in a battle-filled night that ironically ended with McCarty scoring a 6-5 overtime win at Joe Louis Arena in a game one fan aptly described as necessary for the Red Wings denoted .
It was Lemieux’s first appearance in Detroit since scoring (he was injured and didn’t play during his team’s earlier game at JLA). The Avalanche received death threats and were concerned for their safety amid a heavy police and security presence.
“I didn’t want to be shot, but it definitely crossed my mind,” says Lemieux.
It seemed only a matter of time before fists started flying in a game that was crisp from the start. At 5:53 in the first third, the unequal competitors Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg got into a fight. Luckily, McCarty was on the ice with Lemieux. He broke away from a linesman to level Lemieux before continuing to pound him while the Avs forward rolled.
“If you’re thinking about something for a long time and it suddenly pops up in front of you, you hit it with all your might,” says McCarty. “That, my friends, is a cold rooster.”
That set off a wild scene that saw everyone on the ice go head-to-head, including Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy in a memorable goalie clash.
“The hit, the lack of regret, everything I’ve been through, I’m glad it happened and glad it happened that way, glad Lemieux was wrong,” says Draper.
Lemieux said he regrets his teammates had to fight his battles and shed so much blood on his account.
Bowman vs. Crawford
The teams met again in the 1997 Western Conference Finals where the acrimony followed.
Things boiled over in the Red Wings’ 6-0 win in Game 4 at the Joe, giving them a 3-1 lead in a row.
Crawford, enraged that Shanahan initiated a fight with Rene Corbet during a hand-to-hand fight, yelled expletives at Bowman while leaning between the benches and being restrained by his assistant trainers.
“None of my prouder moments,” says Crawford.
The Red Wings won the series and then defeated the Philadelphia Flyers to end a 42-year championship drought.
A short-lived festival
Crawford said Vladimir Konstantinov was a better defender than Nicklas Lidstrom, who would go on to win seven Norris Trophies.
“A perfect defender,” Bowman said of Konstantinov, a fearless, hard-hitting force known as “The Vladinator.”
“He was a soft, kind-hearted person at home,” says his daughter Anastasia.
Unrivaled features video of the Red Wings golf outing at the Orchards in Washington Township six days after they won the cup.
Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov left early. Limousines were waiting for everyone. Konstantinov says to Shanahan, “Shanny, are you coming?” Shanahan stayed to play other cards.
A short time later, a grumpy Sergei Fedorov received a call and handed the phone to Steve Yzerman. He was informed of the accident in which they later learned that Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov suffered debilitating injuries.
“We were in the biggest moment of our career and with the accident everything became irrelevant,” says Yzerman.
“When I got to the hospital, everything that had happened clicked for me,” says Anastasia, then just a child. “I kind of knew it wouldn’t be the same.”
Vladimir Konstantinov, who has since required 24-hour care, is interviewed in the show, which shows him playing Uno with his daughter.
A special moment
The Red Wings’ motto for the 1997-98 season was “Believe” as they dedicated their efforts to repeat to their fallen comrades.
They defeated the Washington Capitals in the Finals, and Yzerman, after being presented with the trophy by Commissioner Gary Bettman, immediately presented it to Konstantinov, who had joined his teammates on the ice in a wheelchair. They rolled him across the ice with the cup on his lap.
“You had to fight back tears,” says Colorado captain Joe Sakic. “I thought it was so classy. That was the only time you were a Detroit Red Wings fan because they handled it.”
Said Konstantinov: “Good memory.”
(“Unrivaled” will re-air Monday (8 p.m. ESPN2) and Thursday (9 p.m. ESPN). An expanded version with exclusive content will be available for on-demand streaming on ESPN-Plus.)
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