March 26, 2017 marks the 20-year anniversary of one of the most beloved moments in recent hockey history, which is kind of awkward because that moment involves a lot of people punching each other.
Today’s fans aren’t supposed to like brawls, especially ones that involve blood, sucker punches and flying goaltenders. We’re supposed to be above that these days, with fighting on the decline and the days of true bad-blood rivalries all but over. The game has evolved, we’re told. This is a good thing, we’re expected to reply.
So you may experience some cognitive dissonance when your caveman brain tells you that this was just about the greatest thing ever:
Yes, Sunday will mark two full decades since the infamous Red Wings/Avalanche brawl at Joe Louis Arena. The fight served as payback for Claude Lemieux’s hit from behind on Kris Draper the year before, and was the catalyst for what would go on to become quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history.
We'll save the philosophical debate about whether everything that happened on March 26, 1997, was good or bad or somewhere in between. Instead, let's agree on this: It was crazy. Madness. Flat-out hockey insanity, the likes of which we'll almost certainly never see again.
So today, let's celebrate shake our heads disapprovingly at the events of nearly 20 years ago in a manner befitting the moment: By assigning insanity rankings to anyone and everyone who was involved in the Red Wings/Avalanche brawl.
Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov
Their role: They started it.
Well, I mean, they didn't really start it. Lemieux did, back in the 1996 playoffs, and there had already been some fallout between the two teams in their previous matchups during the 1996–97 season. That included this game itself, which had already featured a pair of fights and several scrums.
But still, out of everyone who you'd expect to light the fuse that eventually blew the whole rivalry sky-high, two guys who'd get plenty of Lady Byng votes over the course of their careers were an odd choice. Forsberg and Larionov's wrestling match barely involves any punches, but it's enough to draw the full attention of the crowd, most of the players and all four officials. As we'd find out a few seconds later, that last part turned out to be kind of important.
Insanity index: 4/10. Jut for the sheer weirdness of these two being the undercard for everything that was to come. (Although, for the record, when it came to the Red Wings rivalry Forsberg was never exactly a saint.)
His role: Innocent bystander minding his own business and/or notorious cheap-shot artist who was about to finally get what was coming to him, depending on your perspective.
His hit on Draper and everything that followed came to be the defining incident of Lemieux's career, but it's worth remembering that his reputation among hockey fans was already a divisive one well before any of this happened. He was a good player who'd won a Conn Smythe, and was seen as a guy you could tolerate just as long as he was on your team. Fair or not, he was also known as an occasionally dirty player, not to mention a diver and a faker, and more than a few fans already had him on their "most hated" list
Despite a starring role in this brawl, Lemieux doesn't actually do all that much. He gets suckered by Darren McCarty and then immediately covers up. He was widely mocked for turtling, but later explained that McCarty's first punched had concussed him.
Insanity index: 1/10. You can think what you want about Lemieux, and maybe he should have been ready for whatever was to come on this night. But once McCarty drills him, covering up seems like a pretty reasonable choice.
(For what it's worth, Lemieux answered the bell for a more-even tilt with McCarty the following season.)
His role: The classic enforcer who's doing his job.
This is where things get a little dicey, and we're going to run into a generation gap between fans. Anyone who did what McCarty did in a game today would face a major suspension, not to mention generating dozens of reputation-stomping think pieces in the process. Just ask Shawn Thornton.
But right or wrong, things were different in 1997. Enforcers were still expected to police the game, and that meant extracting payback. McCarty saw an opportunity and he took it. And to be clear, he's absolutely trying to hurt Lemieux here – in his book, he admits to trying to slam his head onto the ice, and claims he intentionally dragged him over to the benches so the players could see the blood. At one point, he even seems to be trying to knee Lemieux in the face.
Through the lens of today, it all looks brutal. Back then, most of us agreed that it was just a guy fulfilling his job description.
Insanity index: 10/10 by today's standards, but more like 5/10 at the time.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Alexei Gusarov, Valeri Kamensky
Their role: Innocent bystanders.
We'll get to the main event in a bit, but first, let's take a moment to recognize the supporting cast. They don't do much other than stand around and stare, but every great battle scene needs a few extras. It's a talented group – it's not like the coaches had sent out the goon squad for this shift – and we thank them for their contribution.
Insanity index: 2/10. In case you're wondering, five of the 12 players on the ice for this massive and brutal line brawl ended up as Hall of Famers. And yes, that includes the guy we have to get to next...