Fight night in Detroit: How Wings-Avalanche brawl at the Joe echoes 25 years later

Detroit News

Detroit — Like everyone else that evening Jeff Blashill was watching.

The Red Wings’ coach was hanging out with friends, watching his favorite team, the Red Wings, face the hated Colorado Avalanche on March 26, 1997.

Blashill and other Wings fans had lived through so many playoff disappointments, watching Colorado win a Stanley Cup, and of course, Claude Lemieux’s hit from behind on Kris Draper in Game 6 of the Western Conference final in 1996.

There were a lot of reasons to dislike the Avalanche in those days.

“I was always a big fan,” said Blashill, “and you kind of go through with the team all the previous struggles.”

Which all led to that fateful evening of March 26 at Joe Louis Arena. All those inequities triggered all the passion, retribution, emotion, all of it was unleashed that evening in the regular-season game, of course.

And 25 years later, hockey fans, Detroit sports fans, remember the date and love the pictures and videos, and know where they were when the madness hit.

“It’s folklore in Detroit,” said Jimmy Devellano, the general manager of those Red Wings teams, and current alternate governor.

It started innocently enough with two players who would never be considered instigators in that regard — Igor Larionov and the Avalanche’s Peter Forsberg. They grappled, then suddenly everything happened.

“The smallest of things could have ignited the biggest thing, and who would have thought it was those two guys,” said Draper, now the Wings’ director of amateur scouting.

Darren McCarty went after Lemieux. The goalies, Mike Vernon and Colorado’s Patrick Roy were swinging. Brendan Shanahan flew from the sky to get after Roy.

Just about everything happened and was happening. Equipment was strewn all over the ice. Venom spewed all over the rink. Revenge had been extracted.

Punches, blood, Joe Louis Arena going nuts. You’ve seen the pictures and videos. They never get old.

“An opportunity presented itself, and something happened,” McCarty said.

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Blashill’s face brightened and eyes got wide thinking back to that evening watching with friends.

“I remember just like any of the fan of the Red Wings, how awesome it was,” Blashill said. “It just seemed like an unbelievable moment that night. I just remembered how exciting it was.”

You could almost sense Blashill sitting there and getting out of his seat in front of the television set alongside his buddies.

“I do remember I was like, ‘This is awesome. Let’s go!,'” Blashill said.

Pretty much everyone who was there, or were watching on television, or listening to the radio, everyone was the same way.

Full-fledged dynasty

Many people have always felt that particular game made the Wings into what they would become, a team that would win two Stanley Cups and become a full-fledged dynasty.

Interestingly, Devellano isn’t so sure.

“I guess I don’t get carried away with that single game as much as people in Detroit do,” Devellano said. “Because they do, I’m happy for them because, obviously, it meant a lot to those fans.

“Was that the reason we finally won the Cup?  A lot of people say it was. I don’t know. If you talk to (coach) Scotty (Bowman) or I, we would maybe buy it, but I don’t know. Did it hurt? No, it sure didn’t hurt. It probably helped.”

Devellano always felt the acquisition of Shanahan earlier that season brought an element of physicality the Wings didn’t have.

“He could score and guys didn’t fool around with him,” Devellano said. “He was a tough guy.”

But it did bond that Wings roster in a way that only a melee like that could.

And given the need for Lemieux to pay for his transgressions, and the dislike Wings fans had for Colorado, all the frustration on many levels that had been pent up, March 26 was a beautiful release.

“It brought the whole team together,” forward Kirk Maltby said. “It just ignited us as a team. The camaraderie of it, and we just became that much more of a team.”

What a debut

How would you have liked to be Mike Knuble that evening.

Mike Knuble played in over 1,000 NHL games but he made his NHL debut that evening as a member of the Red Wings.

“It’s a unique tidbit in my career, something I relish,” said Knuble, now an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings’ minor league affiliate.

Knuble knew the history between the Wings and Avalanche but was more concerned about this being his first NHL game that evening.

“I had my own issues,” Knuble said. “I’m nervous as hell anyway. Anything could have been going on and I had my own freaking out level, freaking out.”

There were a couple of minor fights in the early going that game, but Knuble didn’t sense an explosion was going to happen.

“For me, it was Adirondack against Albany on a Saturday night in the minor leagues,” Knuble said. “It felt like an American League game (with the physicality early on). But there were a lot of undercurrents going on. But, again, I was stuck in my own world and didn’t notice.”

Then, Larionov and Forsberg lit the match.

“It went from 10 to 100 really fast,” Knuble said. “It probably had to do with the score too (the Wings were losing). You had Daren and Claude on the ice at the same time and Mac said, ‘Here’s my chance’ and he was waiting for it.

“You knew you were witnessing history but didn’t know what kind of history it was. For sure Detroit history, but NHL history too. Afterward, you’re like holy crap, did that just happen?”

Ken Kal, the longtime Wings’ radio play-by-play man, was only in his second season in 1997 but he had an inkling there might be some sort of history.

Before the game, when Kal did his pre-game interview with Bowman, Kal noticed a difference in the Wings’ locker room.

“I remember the room was extremely quiet,” Kal said. “Like, really more quiet than normal in the afternoon. You usually hear some buzzing or chirping but it was quiet. It was weird at the time. Nobody was talking.

“I just got the sense it was different and something could happen because of how quiet it was in there.”

Kal remembers the action on the ice, the fights, and related it from a broadcaster’s perspective.

“It was a three-ring circus,” Kal said. “As a broadcaster, you can’t call everything. But you’ve got Forsberg and Larionov going at it and then you have Shanahan intercepting Roy and then everything else going on. It’s hard to describe because so much was happening at one particular time.”

Kal walked out of JLA that evening not exactly realizing the impact of that evening. But he would days and weeks, and now 25 years, later.

“I didn’t think people would remember,” Kal said. “But then, everybody started talking about it.”

Mutual respect

When talking about this rivalry, during that period of hockey, it’s impossible to get past the rosters of both teams and the level of talent.

Because of the salary cap these days, the NHL will never see something like that again.

“The talent on both of those teams was remarkable,” said goaltender Chris Osgood, now a Wings’ broadcaster. “Hall of Famers everywhere, All-Star lineups really. It was amazing.”

When the Wings and Avalanche teams of that era met in 2016 at Coors Field in Denver — arguably the highlight of the weekend — current Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, a star of those late-1990s-early 2000s teams, talked about the quality of those teams and how that played into the rivalry.

“Not only was there some ugly stuff there, but you look up and down the roster, there were some great names, great hockey players on both sides that played up and down,” said Sakic, who admitted neither team liked each other at all. “But you had a of respect for everybody who was part of that.”

Being years removed from the rivalry’s peak, Sakic grew to appreciate being in such a heated, intense, but also elegantly played, hockey rivalry.

“The further you are away, it was a long time ago, I know I speak for myself and probably a lot of players who were a part of that, you look back and you really appreciate being part of something like that,” Sakic said. “It was a special time for the two organizations.”

What a night

Fans still can’t get enough of that game, that evening. But the players involved do, also.

There’s no question it was a symbolic and needed event that evened a score and made the Wings what they would ultimately become.

“It was kind of necessary,” Osgood said. “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.”

The exclamation point, if that evening needed one, was McCarty scoring the winning goal in overtime capping a Wings’ rally, 6-5.

“I’ll never forget coming into the locker room after overtime after Mac had scored, and the excitement in everyone’s eyes,” Draper said. “Not only that we won the game, but what we accomplished on the ice.

“It was something no one will ever forget.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

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