Lemieux, Draper set to meet again

As far as Claude Lemieux is concerned, what’s happened between he and Detroit Red Wings’ Kris Draper in the past is over.

Lemieux is more concerned about the present, specifically his on-going return to the National Hockey League with the San Jose Sharks after retiring more than five years ago with the Dallas Stars at the age of 38.

But don’t think there won’t be some mention of Lemieux and Draper when the two teams meet in Detroit on Wednesday in a game between the top two teams in the Western Conference. This will be Lemieux’s first visit to Detroit since his comeback in January.

While playing for the Colorado Avalanche against the Wings in the 1996 playoffs, Lemieux checked Draper into the boards and the Detroit winger needed major facial reconstructive surgery because of the extensive damage from the collision. Lemieux received a two-game suspension and a $1,000 fine from the NHL. The following season, Lemieux became involved in an altercation with Wings’ enforcer Darren McCarty, touching off a full-scale brawl between both teams.

“There’s still four or five guys there (from that series in ’96) and I don’t think it would serve a good purpose to fuel the fire or stir things up,” Lemieux said in advance of the game. “I always said, I never hit Kris Draper. I hit a player that was there. I never went after him. I had no intention of hurting one guy verses the other. It just happened at that time, at that moment, he was there and he got hit and it was never intentional to try to hurt somebody, never mind hurt him. It happened, (in) a fraction of a second. It’s a quick game. It’s not like the guy had done something to me or I was trying to get back at him. There’s been a lot of hockey played since then.”

When word circulated about Lemieux’s comeback, Draper was asked for his reaction.

“I don’t blame the guy for making a comeback,” he was quoted in the Detroit News. “You’re gonna play this game as long as you can. The older you get, the more you realize you just try to stay in as long as you can. He’s back. I wish him luck.

“It was a long time ago,” he added of their past. “I’ve played a lot of hockey since then.”

Kirk Maltby, who with Draper and McCarty formed the Grind Line with the Wings back in their heyday, addressed what the mood may be like if Lemieux is in the lineup when the teams meet.

“I’m sure he’ll get booed (by Red Wings fans) and there might be some signs letting him know how they feel,” Maltby said. “I think a lot of fans in general hold on to things a lot longer than the players do.”

Lemieux, whose comeback began with a stint in the Orient playing for two teams owned by the Sharks and continued in the American Hockey League with San Jose’s farm club in Worcester, has had a modest return to the NHL, playing on the fourth line and receiving about eight minutes per game on average. It took the truculent winger 12 games to record his initial point, an assist on a goal by Milan Michalek. He has also been involved in a fight with Edmonton defenceman Theo Peckham, who was born in Lemieux’s second full season in the NHL in 1987, that has made the highlight reels.

“When I play more, I’m a little bit more comfortable taking chances to create something offensively, not just play strong defence and physical,” Lemieux added of his return. “It reminds me of what it was like when I first started in the NHL. You kind of start in the same place. The difference is I’m confident. I know I can play at this level and be effective, not just go out and stay on the ice 15 seconds and jump off in fear something happens. I can really be an impact and be effective. That makes me feel really good…Ideally if I got 10-12 minutes a game at this stage of my career, perfect. I can handle 15 – I might get it – but when you haven’t played for almost six years, they want to see my conditioning. They’re getting to know me; I’m getting to know them. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.

“They didn’t bring me here to put pressure on me to score or get points. Goals will come, points will come. It’s about everything I can bring to the team, which is leadership and experience and physical presence. You need guys like that on a hockey team, like a recipe – a little bit of everything.”

But Lemieux’s career has historically been more about what he has done in the post-season than in the playoffs,

“My whole mindset is to push myself condition-wise and everything else so that when the playoffs come I’ll be at my best – the best I can be under the circumstances – and be ready to fill whatever role they need me to fill,” he said.

While the removal of the red line and crackdowns on clutching and grabbing are examples of how the rules have changed from his first 20 years in the NHL to his recent return, Lemieux said the game itself is relatively the same.

“It’s more offensive with more scoring chances than in the past, but I think the guys that were productive in the prime of my career would be productive today and vice-versa,” he said.

Lemieux said whatever people are saying about his comeback and how he fares is of no particular interest to him. Several critics called him nuts for trying to return to the NHL after being removed from the game for so long.

“It didn’t matter then what they thought, it doesn’t matter now that they think,” he said. “I didn’t do it to win a popularity contest. I did it because I wanted to play hockey.”

He also wanted to allow his kids from his second marriage – a son, Brendan, 12 and a daughter, Claudia, 11 – to see him play, something they really couldn’t appreciate in their earlier ages.

” I wanted my younger kids to get to know me as an athlete, as the hockey player, not just Dad sitting at home making a few real estate deals and coaching youth hockey,” he said. “That’s a big motivation, plus it’s really good for them to see all the hard work I had to put in to get this and all the sacrifices we make as a family.

“It’s a good life lesson, and I get to play in the NHL. I’m 43. It is what it is. I knew I could do it and it wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided to do it. I thought about it. Where I’m at today (in the comeback), I’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”

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