March 26, 1997 bore witness to the single greatest regular season NHL game of all time. What began as simply another battle in the rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche quickly escalated into what has become widely known as The Brawl. This was a game that not only proved to have an immense impact on the teams and players involved, but also the entire hockey community. Also known as Bloody Wednesday and Fight Night at the Joe, the game is most notable for the many fights and brawls that took place. However, what many fail to realize is that this wasn’t just a fight-fest, it was a game that had everything. It was a close, hard-fought affair with tons of offense and an intensity normally reserved for important playoff games. It had highlight reel goals, great goaltending, occasional blunders, and was capped off with a come from behind victory in overtime. You couldn’t ask for more.
Let’s go back in time to before the date in question and look at what lead to this. The 1996 playoffs featured the first matchup between the two clubs in league history. More important, it was the Western Conference Finals, meaning the winner would go on to play for the Stanley Cup. Both teams had just completed tough 2nd round victories and this series would be no different. Eventually the Avalanche would come out on top, moving on to the finals and once there winning the Stanley Cup, but not before creating the spark that ignited the greatest rivalry of the 90’s. During the series deciding game with just under 6 minutes left to go in the first period, Claude Lemieux laid a vicious hit from behind on Kris Draper, driving his head into the boards. Lemieux was assessed a 5 minute major and a game misconduct penalty for the hit, while Draper was immediately rushed to hospital with a broken jaw and a shattered cheek and orbital bone. Obviously this did not sit well with the Red Wings, and while Draper would make a full recovery, vengeance was clearly on the table, though not in the immediate future.
The next two meetings between the clubs during the 96/97 season were largely uneventful and both resulted in Avalanche victories. However, the 3rd meeting between them, March 16, 1997 in Colorado, would be the first with Lemieux back in the lineup for the Avalanche. The league was worried and even sent a supervisor to talk to both coaches before the game. Though it was a chippy, physical game and the refs had to separate players a few times due to Detroit constantly trying to get at Lemieux, it was also largely uneventful and merely resulted in yet another Colorado victory. Detroit had yet to defeat Colorado this season and the next game between the two would be their last meeting before the playoffs.
That brings us back to March 26, 1997 in Detroit. The air was electric and both teams went into the game in need of a victory. Colorado was still in a battle with Dallas for the Conference lead and Detroit just wanted to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Avalanche. The game began with some high octane chances at both ends, followed by Patrick Roy holding down the fort while Colorado killed off a penalty. Immediately following the penalty kill, Detroit iced the puck and Valeri Kamensky scored on a bullet one-timer off the ensuing faceoff to put Colorado in the lead early.
Soon after this goal, at the 4:45 mark of the first period, Jamie Pusher squared off with Brent Severyn in the first fight of the game. It wasn’t much of a fight, but it gave Detroit some momentum, forcing Roy to come up big on a Brendan Shanahan breakaway attempt and again during another penalty kill. Shortly thereafter we saw a bit of a scrum at 10:14, followed by a fight between Rene Corbet and Kirk Maltby that the linesmen quickly separated. Colorado ended up with a PP after this, but Detroit had the better chances and Roy had to stop Shanahan on yet another breakaway. The great back and forth action continued from there until, with a little under 2 minutes to go in the opening frame, all hell broke loose.
Peter Forsberg dumped Igor Larianov, prompting immediate retaliation and as the two wrestled to the ice the linesmen attempted to separate them. Darren McCarty saw this as an opportunity to finally get back at Lemieux for what happened in the playoffs, immediately leveling him with a right hook and following it up with continuous blows to the head while Lemieux turtled on the ice. This prompted Roy to charge out of the net in an attempt to help, but Shanahan intercepted him just in time and sent him sprawling into Adam Foote. When Foote and Shanahan begin to tussle, Mike Vernon charges out of his net to help. Soon after Roy hauls Vernon away from Foote/Shanahan and the two engage in one of the best goalie fights ever. The crowd has officially been whipped into a frenzy.
The aftermath from this was numerous bloody players, roughing minors, fighting majors, and a very pissed off Marc Crawford. But that wasn’t the end to the chaos in period number one, as soon after play resumed Adam Deadmarsh and Vladimir Konstantinov dropped the gloves. Once that was over, things calmed down just enough to get through the final minute of the period.
The second period got underway with an immediate fight between Shanahan and Foote, both looking to finish what they started earlier. Once again this gave Detroit a jolt and Sergei Fedorov tied the game by streaking down the ice and ripping one past Roy. But Martin Lapointe quickly killed Detroit’s momentum with a roughing penalty, giving Colorado a 5-on-3 that they were quick to capitalize on as Jones setup Kamensky for his second of the game. However, this lead would be short lived, as when Lapointe stepped out of the box it created a 2-on-1 for Detroit and Lapointe himself finished off a nice passing play to tie the game at 2.
Soon after play resumed yet another scrum broke out, while behind the play Mike Keane and Tomas Holmstrom started a nasty little fight. Back up ice there was also a battle being waged between Aaron Ward and Severyn, with Severyn practically being naked by the end of it. More great back and forth action followed, with Detroit having the better opportunities and Roy bailing out Colorado each time. But a mistake by Detroit resulted in a breakaway for Corbet, who deked past Vernon to score on the backhander.
Another fight soon followed as Deadmarsh and McCarty squared off in an entertaining bout. Once play resumed Detroit continued to carry the momentum, but couldn’t get another goal past Roy. Soon enough another scrum occurred, followed by yet another fight, this time between Pushor and Uwe Krupp. Play resumed with Detroit again applying pressure and some timely big hits, but Colorado was able to stretch their lead to 2 when Deadmarsh scored a questionable goal after Vernon was pushed down in the crease.
The original call on the ice was no goal by the referee, but after review it was determined the puck was knocked in by Tomas Sandstrom and not kicked in by the Colorado player. This put an end to the fighting (but not the physicality), as now Detroit just needed to get back in the game. Another Detroit PP opportunity just after the Deadmarsh goal gave them their first chance, but once again Roy shut the door on numerous attempts. This was followed by more great back and forth action, until Scott Young took a hooking penalty to put Detroit back on the man advantage with under 2 minutes to go in the period. Finally, with only 20 seconds left in the period, Steve Yzerman was able to win a faceoff straight back to Nicklas Lidstrom, who blasted the shot past Roy to cut the deficit to 1.
The 2nd period then ended without incident and when play resumed in the 3rd Detroit immediately went back on the offensive. But Kamensky had other ideas, as he snapped a wrister past Vernon to complete the hat trick and restore the 2 goal lead for Colorado. Now with roughly 19 minutes left to play, Detroit was again down by 2 and pressing, staging an all-out assault on the Colorado goal. From a pure hockey perspective, this was the most entertaining period. It lacked the fighting of the previous two periods, but because of this there were far fewer stoppages in play, allowing for near constant action and scoring chances for both sides. Detroit nearly cut into the lead when back on the power play, but instead McCarty clanged it off the post. However, just as time was expiring from the penalty, Lapointe scored his 2nd of the game, shoveling a rebound into an open net.
The fans were ecstatic now with a tie game within reach and 10 minutes to go. But they didn’t have to wait very long at all, for a mere 30 seconds after the Lapointe goal Shanahan ended up with the puck behind the Avalanche net and banked a fluke goal in off of the back of Roy’s leg. This was a costly mistake by Roy, who had otherwise played a rock solid game. Now with the score tied at 5, the fans were back on their feet once more and they would remain that way for the rest of the game. Plenty of offensive chances followed, with both goalies having to come up big on numerous occasions. With roughly 5 minutes to go, Colorado’s largely inept power play to this point got another chance, but it came to an abrupt end when Sandis Ozolinsh was called for tripping. Four on four solved nothing, nor did the preceding Detroit PP. In the final minutes Colorado fought to hang on by icing the puck multiple times, probably hoping that getting the game to overtime would give them a chance to recoup. Detroit had a few more chances in the dying seconds, but Roy stopped them and the game went to OT.
It didn’t take long for a legend to be born. 35 seconds into overtime, Detroit entered the Colorado zone and none other than McCarty himself finished off a beautiful passing play to give Detroit the victory.
This would go down as one of the greatest and most important goals in regular season history. Detroit had finally defeated Colorado in the regular season with a thrilling come from behind victory, while also getting revenge for the Lemieux hit on Draper in the playoffs. Not only that, the aftermath of this game had long lasting implications for both clubs.
The Brawl is widely believed to be the turning point in the Red Wings season, that it brought them together in time for the playoffs and prepared them for their eventual Western Conference finals rematch against the Avalanche. It was another hard-fought series, but this time Detroit came out on top and went on to win their first of back-to-back Stanley Cups. This ushered in the true beginning of the Red Wings dominance over the NHL that has largely lasted to this day.
The Brawl also fueled a rivalry between Colorado and Detroit that lasted for years. They would meet in the playoffs four more times from 1997 up until the lockout, with each team winning twice. Each series was just as tough as the last, with plenty of nastiness. This would continue to carry over into the regular season as well, making any matchup between the two a must see event.
The lockout that cancelled the 04/05 season helped to put an end to the rivalry, as did the loss of many key players by both teams to free agency, trades, or retirement. But it lingers on in the hearts of many fans and may one day be ignited again.