Down Goes Brown: Insanity rankings for ’97 Red Wings-Avalanche brawl

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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.)

Claude Lemieux

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.)

Darren McCarty

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…

Patrick Roy

His role: Being Patrick Roy.

Sorry, I can’t come up with any better way to put it. This wasn’t just the defining moment in a classic rivalry; it was Roy’s transformation from occasional hot head to maniacal psychopath. Sure, it was a caricature, but it fit, and Roy didn’t seem to mind. And it all begins with his full-speed sprint to centre ice in defence of a teammate.

Fun fact: Roy was in goal for Montreal on the night that Ron Hextall jumped Chris Chelios. You can see him lurking at the blue line halfway through this clip, but he never went any further. I have a pet theory that he always regretted that missed opportunity to have a teammate’s back, and swore it wouldn’t happen again. Eight years later, he got his chance.

He doesn’t quite make it to McCarty – more on that in a moment – but that hardly dissuades him. He eventually finds Mike Vernon, and off we go for the most famous goalie fight of all time.

Insanity index: We can’t do a rating out of 10. That wouldn’t do Roy’s role justice. The standard 10-point scale is for mere mortals. For stuff like this, we need a new scale that ranks the madness from Not Patrick Roy to Patrick Roy. Today’s rating: Maximum Roy.

Incidentally, Roy would achieve that rating again and maybe even surpass it a year later, when he hunted down Chris Osgood for round two.

Brendan Shanahan

His role: He’s initially paired off with Adam Foote, although that’s less of a fight and more of Shanahan trying to run interference so that McCarty can do what he needs to do. But his role changes quickly when he’s the first player on the ice to notice Roy’s mad charge. You know that scene in a horror movie where the first kid figures out that the situation is way worse than anyone else thinks? That’s him.

At this point, Shanahan realizes what’s about to happen and attempts to stop the brawl by leaping directly at an incoming Patrick Roy, which from a strategic standpoint is a lot like attempting to stop an out-of-control passenger plane by leaping directly into the propeller.

Insanity index: 10/10. The synchronized leaping attack was the inspiration for the Matrix movies and you can’t tell me differently.

By the way, I know we all think of Shanahan as a thoughtful and level-headed voice for player safety thanks to his time as the league’s suspension czar, but can we just point out that his career resume includes:

• The Punch-up in Piestany at the 1987 World Juniors.

• The free-agent deal with St. Louis that sent Scott Stevens to New Jersey, where he spent the next decade concussing everyone.

• Being traded straight-up for Chris Pronger in the deal that sent Pronger to St. Louis, where he spent the next decade injuring everyone.

• Starting a brawl that ended up with Scott Daniels fighting on the other team’s bench.

• Organizing that rules summit in 2005, which kind of makes him indirectly responsible for both the shootout and trapezoid.

• Showing up in Detroit in 1996 and immediately corrupting a room full of kind and decent young gentlemen into brawling psychopaths.

• Making the Maple Leafs good again.

Like, are we completely sure that Shanahan hasn’t secretly been a super-villain this whole time? He sure seems to be patient zero for an awful lot of regrettable things, right? The guy is basically the Forrest Gump of hockey mayhem, and I’m pretty sure that if you analyzed grainy news reports of the Richard Riots, you’d find a still frame of a grinning Shanahan throwing the first smoke bomb.

Adam Foote

His role: The secret to great comedy is to always make sure to have one straight man, a sort of everyday Joe who stands in the middle of the chaos with a look on his face that says, “Wait, am I the only one who realizes that none of this makes sense?” For this brawl, Adam Foote is basically Graham Chapman.

His main role is to pair off with Shanahan early on. But he lets him slip away for the big mid-air collision, for which all of us are forever in his debt. By the time he catches up with the action, he somehow winds up getting tackled by Mike Vernon, which becomes the catalyst for the big goalie fight.

Later, we see him and Shanahan paired off again, but they don’t even bother to pretend to fight. They’re too busy watching the goalies and (it sure seems) trying not to laugh.

Insanity index: 6/10. By the way, Shanahan and Foote didn’t waste much time getting down to business for real once the second period started. It would not be the last time.

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Mike Vernon

His role: The Red Wings’ goalie responds to Roy’s charge by rushing out to centre ice, and ultimately ends up squaring off with his fellow goalie in a battle for the ages. He wins.

Insanity index: 8/10. On the one hand, Vernon doesn’t really do anything here beyond follow the well-established code. The other goalie comes out to get involved in an altercation, so Vernon has to go out and even the odds.

But it’s easy to forget that the two goalies wind up getting separated after their initial pile-up, and at one point it even looks like Roy might be ready to let the matter drop. That’s when Vernon ends up involved in the Foote/Shanahan scuffle, which is what draws Roy back in.

Thought experiment: If Vernon simply skates away after the initial scrum and doesn’t get involved with Foote, does the goalie fight that became the signature moment in this epic rivalry ever really happen?

(Remembers that the other goalie was Patrick Roy.)

Yeah, it totally would have. It may have been in Vernon’s kitchen later than night after a wild-eyed Roy popped out of his refrigerator, but it was going to happen.

Marc Crawford

His role: The Avalanche coach was the perfect counterpoint to Scotty Bowman, with his fresh face and short temper balancing perfectly with Bowman’s “been there, done that” demeanour.

According to a recent piece in the Players’ Tribune, Crawford spent a good part of this brawl yelling, “You started all this, Draper!”

Insanity index: 8/10. I love that quote. “You started this, guy-who-got-his-face-mashed-into-the-boards-by-my-player.” I mean, in the purest technical sense, he’s not wrong.

Scotty Bowman

His role: Bowman’s running feud with the much younger Crawford was always an underrated part of the Wings/Avs rivalry. The legendary coach gets into it verbally with his counterpart here, although it doesn’t rise to the same level it would a few months later, when Bowman dropped the “I knew your father” line.

His best moment on this night comes after the game, when he goes full Godfather by calmly explaining that all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided if Lemieux had simply apologized.

Insanity index: 7/10. “I don’t think any player in the league is trying to injure another one.” Yeah, those knees to the face were probably just supposed to tickle.

Pat Karns

His role: He’s the Avalanche trainer who calmly stitches up Roy’s face and then sends him back out to keep playing, just as soon as the linesmen scrape up all the blood. Just another day at the office.

Insanity index: 3/10. Wait, Roy was allowed to stay in the game after that fight? Why yes he was, because of one last participant who deserves a mention…

Paul Devorski

His role: He’s the referee for this whole mess, and he could not be any less impressed with any of it. You can see him at various points, calmly observing the action like a bored lunch monitor.

Hey, here’s a fun game: Try to guess how many penalty minutes Devorski gave out for everything we just watched. Remember, the Senators and Flyers got over 400 PIM a few years later for one good line brawl followed by a parade of awkward wrestling matches. What’s your over-under on what Devorski dropped on the whole Wings/Avs debacle? Can we set the starting point at roughly 7,000?

The answer: 22. He gave out 22 penalty minutes. Combined. For the whole thing.

Insanity index: 10/10.

TWENTY-TWO! Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp got a combined 60 minutes by throwing three punches and immediately falling down, but Devorski figured 22 minutes would just about cover it for what probably stands as the most famous line brawl in the history of hockey.

No ejections. No random misconducts just to send a message. He didn’t toss either goalie, even though both left the crease for a secondary fight. Shanahan somehow didn’t get anything at all; only five of the 12 players involved did. Maybe most amazing of all, Devorski didn’t even give McCarty a major; the Wings’ enforcer got just four minutes for his assault on Lemieux and stayed in the game.

McCarty eventually scored the winner in overtime, because of course he did.