There’s a moment midway through ESPN’s episode of ESPN’s “E60” in the Detroit Red Wings-Colorado Avalanche competition, when Mike Vernon recalls advice from his brother: “If you’re in a fight, don’t stop throwing punches.”
It perfectly describes the “Fight Night” that broke out on March 26, 1997, and is a game that, even 25 years later, is embedded in the memories of Wings and Avs fans old enough to see it live. Vernon threw punches at his Colorado counterpart Patrick Roy. Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg, two of the most intelligent hockey players, intertwine, and most famously, Darren McCarty retaliated for a cheap Claude Lemieux hit on Chris Draper.
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YouTube made it easy to watch the main events of that night; ESPN’s “Unrivaled” goes way beyond the legendary controversy. There are excellent interviews not only with McCarty, Lemieux, and Vernon, but with Steve Yzerman, Joe Sackic, Patrick Roy, Brendan Shanahan, Paul Devorsky (who ran the game), Scotty Bowman, Mark Crawford, and many more.
The episode delves into the backstory of the rivalry, exploring how the Quebec Nordic moved to Denver and was renamed Avalanche. Mike Ritchie, who was with the franchise at the time, relays how he and several guys decided on one of their first nights in Denver to go to the cheesecake factory. It turns out that no matter who you are, there is always a waiting: “[The hostess] He said it was an hour, waited 45 minutes. We’re not used to waiting in Quebec – maybe they clear tables for us. That was a culture shock. Joey Sakic hasn’t been able to get us into the cheesecake factory for about two hours.”
Then there’s the Wings’ role in joining Roy in Avalanche: They filled their nets with squash on December 2, 1995, scoring seven goals in 26 shots before Montreal Canadiens coach Mario Tremblay finally pulled Roy. (Roy reveals that he would “never tell his coach, ‘Pull me out,’ but you get in at a second and you still don’t stop the beach ball—come on.) Roy was so angry that he told Canadians president Ronald Currie, ‘It’s my last game in Montreal.'” Four days later, he was traded into an avalanche.
Once again, Richie is great with an anecdote: “I was at a bar on campus in Denver, where all the college students hang out. One kid said, You guys were just trading Patrick Roy. We didn’t have cell phones. I was like, oh my god. I think I bought the whole college bar a round of shots.”
(I don’t want to give the entire episode away, but Vernon has a delicacy to add to Roy’s commercial story.)
Wings fans view Lemieux’s blind blow on Draper in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals as the torch that lit the rivalry, but Avs points to Slava Kozlov’s blow on Adam Foote in Game 3 (Ricci: “We thought it was the dirtiest thing.”) gold Avs to win the 1996 Stanley Cup, and Lemieux said the wingers “must be angry with the way they’ve played the last two years in the playoffs” and not hit him on Draper.
Shanahan reveals what he wouldn’t have posted at the time: Aptly overlooked when he was traded in the wings in October 1996 was the fact that he and Lemio were teammates on the New Jersey Devils in 1990-91. Lemieux shares that he named one of his sons Brendan; Shanahan shared what Lemieux told him before the March 26 game. (Hint: it was tough.)
A significant part of the time was devoted to Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career ended in a limousine accident on June 13, 1997, six days after the Wings won the Cup. Watching it is emotional, I’ll leave it at that.
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The show premieres on ESPN at 1 p.m. on Sunday, but the Wings is holding a free viewing party on Saturday from 6-8:30 p.m. at Little Caesars Arena, with ESPN producers in attendance and a Q&A afterward.
The program is insightful and detailed (as Devorski said: “I had a lot to look at that night”) and above all else, an opportunity for Wings fans to appreciate not only the rivalry but how great a team the Wings have come back and beyond. Seeing Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov—all three draft Wings now inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame—work alongside Konstantinov, Shanahan, Larionov, Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, and many more is a forgiving and joyful memory.
Contact Helen St. James at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed. Read more at Detroit Red Wings and sign up for the Red Wings newsletter. Her book The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Customized copies are available via her email.