Rivalry fueled by many motives

The Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry began with a hit from behind. It's known for so much more.

Updated: January 19, 2004, 4:08 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

A huge picture of Patrick Roy in the prime of his playing days hangs in the Quebec Remparts' equipment room, directly behind and above the rack of jerseys. That's not all that surprising, since the retired goaltender is co-owner and general manager of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise in his hometown.

So what does the picture show? Roy in one of his four Stanley Cup celebrations? Roy jumping for joy after his record-breaking 448th victory? Roy making a terrific save?

Nope. Roy is being escorted off the ice by a linesman in Joe Louis Arena, and blood is dripping down his face after his fight with Detroit goaltender Mike Vernon was in one of the rings in the multi-ring circus that was the Red Wings-Avalanche game on March 26, 1997.

Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon
Patrick Roy's bout with Mike Vernon was only one chapter in the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry.
Roy wants his teenage players, the Remparts, to see him as a warrior. If they never play a game in the NHL, that's something to which they can aspire, or emulate in the QMJHL.

Today, the Detroit Red Wings-Colorado Avalanche rivalry has taken a turn back to the conventional -- bitter, sharp-edged, acrimonious, often with the high stakes that go with a matchup of teams that have won a combined five Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons.

But for a time, it was something more, and Roy's fights with Vernon and then Chris Osgood the next season remain part of the folklore, and the often recycled video and audio.

It was about vengeance, retribution, and counter-reactions. The NHL long ago all but legislated the bench-clearing and multiple-scrum fights out of the game, so there were nights in this rivalry when it seemed to be a throwback. And there was no disputing that the tacit tolerance of fighting in the game, and its lingering role as a form of accountability, deterrence and vengeance, was at the heart of the mayhem.

It began in the 1996 playoffs, when Claude Lemieux belted Kris Draper into the boards at McNichols Sports Arena. The extreme views were that it was either a heinous, deliberate, gutless cheap shot or a fluke accident of unfortunate geometry, depending on who was doing the evaluating.

Draper suffered severe facial injuries, and after the Avalanche won the game to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, the Wings' Dino Ciccarelli uttered the famous statement about Lemieux after the traditional postgame ceremonies:

"I can't believe I shook his freakin' hand!''

Perhaps as bad as the hit itself, Lemieux didn't ever try to display public or private contrition, not even with something along the lines of how he hadn't hurt Draper deliberately and he was sorry he had been so severely injured. He didn't try to contact Draper, whose uncle was the Avalanche's chief scout, to say that, either.

That had bothered McCarty as much as the actual hit.

But it took nearly a full season for McCarty to go after Lemieux, and the Avalanche cynically would note that he didn't do it until the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between the two teams -- and in Detroit.

The funniest part about the brawl, something that has been overlooked over the years, was the two players who got into a shoving match and got it all going: Colorado's Peter Forsberg and Detroit's Igor Larionov. With those two tangled up at the blue line and the attention on them, McCarty began throwing punches at Lemieux, who turtled, didn't fight back and was tossed against the boards at various stages of the ensuing mayhem.

FIGHTING WORDS
Kelley: Fighting for a change
Berra: A bunch of Boy Scouts
Debate: Does fighting belong?
Buccigross: Talking to kids

Kelley: Rob Ray's rule
Notes: Fighting etiquette
Ferraro: Clearing the benches
Burnside: A perfect role model

Frei: Two seasons of bad blood
Hradek: Learning the ropes
Frei: A college kid's education Frei: The beginning of an end?

SportsNation Poll: Decide fighting's fate
McCarty, who drew only a double-minor for roughing from referee Paul Devorksi, joked that it was "God's will" that he was matched up with Lemieux.

"No, it just sort of happened," McCarty said that night. "Guys just square off. You gotta get a partner, eh? He was the closest one to me. I didn't really realize it was him."

Was it a sucker punch, as the Avalanche maintained?

"No, because he was looking at me," McCarty said. "I didn't hit him from behind. It was face to face."

Lemieux later said: "I got sucker punched. I obviously got sucker punched. I wouldn't have been in that position on the ice if I hadn't been."

Lemieux also said that he had turtled because the first punch opened a 15-stitch cut to the back of his head.

Anyway, seeing all of this, Roy charged out of the crease.

He collided with the Wings' Brendan Shanahan, went flying to the ice, and then got into the fight with Vernon. After the fights ended, Roy took butterfly stitches, went back to the crease and remained there through what turned out to be the Red Wings' 6-5 overtime victory (on a McCarty goal). Fights broke out periodically the rest of the night, and the penalty minutes totaled 148.

McCarty had gotten vengeance for his buddy, Draper. Lemieux, with the shots of him turtling being shown around the world, had been embarrassed.

The teams met again in the Western Conference finals, and this time the Wings won in six games, heading toward the first of two consecutive Cup titles. Lemieux reached his hand out to Draper, but Draper -- angry that Lemieux wouldn't make eye contact or say anything -- didn't shake it.

The next fall, it was Lemieux's turn to salvage some pride and honor. At the opening faceoff of the team's first meeting of the season, on Nov. 11 in Detroit, Lemieux asked linemate Jeff Odgers to change sides, lined up with McCarty, dropped the gloves and went after McCarty.

"That was the perfect matchup," Lemieux said. "If you're going to do it, do it right off the bat ... I'm not going to hire a bodyguard. I can take care of myself. I've done it for 13 years and I did it tonight. I had five guys who would have been willing to go and go after him, but that's not the way to go. The guys last year in that fight when I was down, fought their heart out. That was my payback."

McCarty called it a "return coldcock. I respect him for what he did. He's got to stand up for himself and his team, and you respect him for that as a hockey player. But I still have no respect for him as a person, as a human being."

I can't believe I shook his freakin' hand!
Dino Ciccarelli, after shaking Claude Lemeiux's hand after the 1996 Western Conference final
Where was Roy that night? Watching. Craig Billington got the shutout in a 2-0 Colorado victory.

Roy didn't get his chance to play in Detroit that season until April 1, and he did more than play. The Avalanche had a decent record, but there were problems, and everyone -- including Roy -- knew it. The Red Wings were up 2-0 late in the third period, and Colorado's Tom Fitzgerald and Detroit's Martin Lapointe got in a scrum along the boards. Roy skated out and briefly tried to intervene, then skated to center ice and waved down to Wings goalie Chris Osgood.

Especially in retrospect, it was a move of theatrical desperation, an attempt to energize a team that was in big trouble. And it was not one of the high points of Roy's career. The previous season, at least he was trying to defend a friend. This time, it was a stunt. But give him credit for this: He did it for the "right" reason. He wanted to energize his team, and not just for that night. In that sense, he was no different than any other player trying to swing momentum in his team's favor by picking a fight. He believed the Wings had turned around their season when McCarty pummeled Lemieux the previous year, and he was frustrated.

Roy and Osgood threw a few punches. Osgood suffered a welt on his forehead, but it wasn't anywhere near the rout it became in Denver legend.

"I'm not there to fight," Roy said. "My job is to win hockey games. I understand on our team right now, it's tough. Sometimes when things like that happen, it helps to stick together. That's what Detroit did last year, and they won the Stanley Cup. Sometimes scrums like that can jell the team, and I hope it will be positive for us."

It wasn't.

The Avalanche lost to Edmonton in the first round that year.

The rivalry didn't turn into a marshmallow roast after that, but the "worst" was over. Fighting -- and all the elements of honor and retribution that accompany the dropped gloves -- was at the heart of it.

Although the casts have changed considerably, the footage still gets played darned near every time the teams meet. It's almost as if we expect Patrick Roy to come out of retirement, or jump out of that big picture, and start throwing punches again.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."