I didn’t know my face was caved in, but I knew it wasn’t good.
I knew it wasn’t good from the sound my cheek had made when it hit the dasher above the boards. I knew it wasn’t good because the referee had blown his whistle so quickly. I knew it wasn’t good because our trainer, John Wharton, had jumped over the boards right away to check on me.
I saw the blood on the ice, but I didn’t know the right side of my face was caved in.
My only thought was, O.K., this is a bad one. How many stitches?
It was Game 6 of the ’96 Western Conference finals against the Colorado Avalanche. We had to win the game in their barn to keep the series alive. The whole series was a bloodbath. To say “there was no love lost” between us would be an understatement. I rarely ever use the word “hate,” but I’ll use it here. We hated them. They hated us. That’s just the way it was.
Moments before, I had collected the puck along the boards and made a pass, and I was drifting backwards right by our bench. The next thing I knew, I got hit from behind. I felt my face hit the top of the boards. Everything went black for a second. I was on all fours, trying to get up, but I couldn’t.
I looked up at our trainer and he was blurry, but I could see this look of horror on his face. I’ll never forget that look. He put a towel over my head to hide my injuries. The last thing I remember is him and Keith Primeau helping me to my feet and escorting me off the ice to the dressing room.
Then I blacked out.
The next thing I remember is waking up in the dressing room, and looking up at our trainers and our doctor, and finally feeling the pain.
Then I blacked out again.
The next time I came to, I sat up and the pain was gone. I didn’t know it, but I was on some serious painkillers. So I started trying to put on my shoulder pads so I could get back on the ice.
Our team doc said, “Kris, what the hell are you doing?”
I said, “What period is it? Am I stitched up?”
He said, “Uh … Kris, you better take a look at this.”
And he walked me over to the mirror.
The right side of my face was caved in.
He told me the damage: Broken orbital bone. Broken cheekbone. Broken nose. Broken jaw.
That was not the worst news.
I asked, “What’s the score?”
“It’s 4–1. Colorado.”
Then I asked, “Who hit me?”
March, 26, 1997.
Say the date to anybody in Detroit or Colorado and they’ll know exactly what you mean.
March, 26, 1997.
Exactly 301 days after I broke my face.
It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago this month. But if I just tell you the story of that brawl, it won’t do it justice. A 21-year-old reading this right now was just a baby when it happened. If they’ve only seen the YouTube videos, they probably think we were all a bunch of animals. But the reason things got so out of hand on March 26, 1997, is because of everything that happened before and after that brawl.
See, we have to go back.
Everybody involved in that fight had a story. For me, you have to go back to Career Day when I was in sixth grade in West Hill, Ontario. The teacher went around the room and asked every kid what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher. Veterinarian.
Everybody smiled and nodded.
When it was my turn to go, I said, “I’m going to play in the NHL.”
I was a small kid, so there was some laughter in the room. After school was over, I was sitting outside on the portable step, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live: This kid (who shall remain nameless), came up to me and said, “Ha! You’ll never play in the NHL.”
Just the way he said it, with such certainty, always stuck with me. I used it as motivation. I’d picture his face, and just the way he said it, and I’d think, Oh yeah? I’ll show you.
My mentality was that I was going to do whatever it took to make it to the NHL, and for the first few years of my career, it was a real struggle. I spent four years in the Winnipeg Jets’ system, mostly toiling away in the minors before they traded me to the Red Wings in ’93, just as Scotty Bowman was taking over as head coach.
So one night I’m playing for the Adirondack Red Wings in the AHL, and I score a hat trick. I come out of the locker room after the game, and there’s Scotty with a few Red Wings scouts. I had no idea they were in the building.
I’m thinking, Finally, they saw the hat trick. Now they know what I can do. Now I’ll get my chance.
The first thing Scotty says to me is, “Do you know how many face-offs you won tonight?”
Face-offs were just starting to be kept as an official stat, especially in the AHL.
So I said, “No, sir, I’m not really sure.”
Scotty said, “You won 19 of 21. Can you do that in the National Hockey League?”
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Six weeks later, I got called up to the Detroit Red Wings. The implication was pretty clear. If I wanted to be one of Scotty’s guys, I had to grind. I was 5′ 10″, 180 pounds and I was joining a team with unbelievable skill guys — Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Slava Kozlov, Keith Primeau, Vladimir Konstantinov, Paul Coffey, and a young Nick Lidström. So my mindset was that I was going to be the biggest pain in the ass you ever played against. I definitely knew my place. But I didn’t know my exact value until we played the Sharks in the ’94 playoffs. After we beat them in Game 3, I was getting interviewed by a reporter from a San Jose newspaper. After he finished up, he turned to me and said, “Hey, not bad for a kid who was traded for a dollar, huh?”
And he started to walk away.
I said, “Excuse me … what did you just say?”
He said, “Yeah, a dollar. Winnipeg traded you for a buck. Now you’re playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pretty good … Wait, you don’t know the story?”
I turned and looked at our public relations guy, totally confused.
He said, “Uh, yeah, Kris. It’s true.”
I’m like, “What? I was traded for future considerations.”
He says, “Yeah, well, you know, when Scotty called you up from the AHL, they still hadn’t worked out the considerations, officially. So Bryan Murray called Mike Smith and … well … you were traded for cash considerations.”
Whenever somebody tells me I was traded for a bag of pucks, I have to politely correct them — because a bag of pucks would’ve been a lot more expensive. But I loved it, because the whole story just added to my underdog mentality.
We ended up losing that first-round series to the Sharks in seven games, which was bitterly disappointing. Then in ’95, we felt like we were so close to the promised land, but we got swept by the Devils in the Stanley Cup finals. That’s when the questions started.
A lot of people don’t remember this now, but at the time, we were getting a tremendous amount of heat for not being tough enough to win a Cup. The media was questioning the leadership of guys like Yzerman and Fedorov, if you can believe that. They were questioning the way our whole team was built. The implication was that we were skilled but soft.
So we came out in ’95–96 with a gigantic collective chip on our shoulders. The first two months of the season, we were on fire. With our speed and skill, we overwhelmed teams. Then, on December 2, 1995, we went into the old Montreal Forum to play Patrick Roy and the Canadiens. That night, something happened that changed hockey forever.
We came out hot. Roy let in four goals, then five, then six….
For whatever reason, they wouldn’t pull him.
Seven. Eight. They still wouldn’t pull him.
We were all kind of looking at each other on the bench like, What’s the deal here?
At one point, the crowd did a mock cheer when Roy made a save. It was ridiculous, because he was such an incredible goalie.
Finally, after nine goals, Roy had had enough and just pulled himself. Later on, it came out in the press that when Roy got back to the bench, he turned to the president of the Canadiens and said, “This is my last game in Montreal.”
Roy was traded to the Avalanche a few days later. That was the moment when the whole rivalry between us and Colorado got its spark. He never forgot what we did to him at the Forum. From that moment on, he took it to another level when he played us.
It felt like destiny that we would have to go through Colorado in the playoffs that season. And, wouldn’t you know it, who was waiting for us in the ’96 Western Conference finals? Roy and the Avalanche.
This is the part of the story where things get a little crazy.
Most people think that the feud started when I broke my face in Game 6. But it started way before that. From the first drop of the puck of Game 1, guys were taking runs, slashing, grabbing, sucker punching, you name it. There’s no point in even going over every incident. We did stuff. They did stuff. If you played in the NHL playoffs back then, you were not coming out unscathed. I’m not glorifying it, but that was the way it was.
Early in Game 3, Slava Kozlov rammed Adam Foote’s head into the glass and cut him pretty good. Later on in the period, Claude Lemieux snuck up behind Slava and sucker punched him in the back of the head to get revenge.
Our bench went crazy. And then the whole game went crazy. And then the whole series went crazy. Everything turned into a battle. We were battling over loose sticks from the benches.
Game 3 was the moment when the rivalry rose to another level entirely. We wanted to win that series so, so bad. Colorado was not a team full of goons. That’s the thing. They were an unbelievable team that had everything you could want — pure skill with Sakic and Forsberg, grit and experience with Lemieux, Kamensky and Ricci. And, of course, they also had Roy.
They had everything we had. They were a tremendous team, and we didn’t like them one bit.
So when I looked in the mirror after I got hit from behind in Game 6, and I saw my broken face, I was kind of numb.
But when the trainers told me that Colorado had won, and that the series was over….
I was beside myself. I was so disappointed.
The doctors advised me to stay in Colorado to have surgery right away, but I wanted to be on the plane with the guys. I wanted to be back in Detroit. So I draped a towel over my head and walked out of the building, and I got on the plane and waited for the guys.
My teammates didn’t actually know how bad my injuries were until they got on the plane and saw me. So they had gone through the whole handshake line not knowing my face was caved in. That’s the backstory for Dino Ciccarelli’s famous quote about Lemieux: “I can’t believe I shook this guy’s friggin’ hand after the game. That pisses me right off.”
I still remember sitting at the front of that plane with the doctors, and all my teammates getting on and tapping me on the shoulder and telling me it was going to be alright.
When we got back to Detroit, I was in the hospital for four days. I couldn’t eat solid food for six weeks because my jaw had to be wired shut. Having your jaw wired shut sucks, but it sucked even more in 1996 because they didn’t have all the protein shakes and fancy smoothies in every store like they have today. For the most part, I was drinking Ensure. Sometimes I got lucky and they’d let me have a chocolate milk shake.
I wish this story could have Smell-O-Vision, because if you could only smell a vanilla Ensure right now, you’d know how miserable I really was. But the worst pain, by far, was knowing that the Avalanche were dominating the Panthers in the Stanley Cup finals.
I couldn’t stand to watch. It’s still the only Stanley Cup finals that I’ve never seen a single second of.
As I was sitting in that hospital bed, I promised myself two things:
- I wasn’t going to let the hit affect me mentally.
- It wasn’t to change the way I played.
You have to understand what hockey means to me. It was always my joy in life. I was a small guy to start with, and I made it to the NHL by playing a certain way. If I took my foot off the gas even just a little bit … if I was even just a little bit timid because of that hit, I wouldn’t be effective. I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting the city down. The people of Detroit were in my corner every single day of my recovery. I mean, the response from fans was so overwhelming that I had to get two hospital rooms: One for me, and one to store all the flowers, cards, and stuffed animals that people sent to me. There was so much that I couldn’t take it all home. I donated all the stuffed animals to the pediatric ward.
Detroit is such a blue-collar town, and they love their Red Wings so much.
We had to get back to the Western Conference finals. We had to beat Colorado. We had to win a Stanley Cup.
I would close my eyes and picture the weight room and think, Soon.
As I was leaving the hospital, my doctor gave me a pair of pliers.
“Keep these on you at all times,” he said. “Whenever you leave the house. Whenever you go to bed.”
I couldn’t speak. I just shook my head, confused.
“If you get sick and have to throw up, you’re going to have to cut the wires to keep from choking.”
So I went home with my pliers and my cases of Ensure. It was a long road. I ended up losing almost 20 pounds over the six weeks that my jaw was wired shut.
I’ll never forget the day they came off. My first meal was at Andiamo on the riverfront in Detroit. I ordered the angel-hair pasta. But I still had to have these restrictive bands on my teeth, so I sat there eating it noodle by noodle for like an hour. My friends were on dessert by the time I made it to the 10th noodle, but it was the best feeling ever.
That was the end of June. I had two months to gain 20 pounds back before camp. Whenever I needed motivation to drink an Ensure, I’d just think of The Joe on opening night, and the feeling of walking down the dark tunnel and taking that first step onto the ice.
To be 100% honest, I rarely thought of getting revenge on Lemieux. It wasn’t about that. Unfortunately, Detroit did not feel the same way. It was like the entire city took the hit personally. When the season started, and I was back in the lineup, all anybody wanted to talk about was our first game against Colorado. But, as fate would have it, Lemieux wasn’t in the lineup for our first two games. The third game in Colorado got very heated — you could feel the tension — but the referees were on top of it. Nothing major happened. But you could feel the hatred building and building….
Right up until March 26, 1997.
When it all exploded at The Joe.
I pulled into the parking lot of the arena that night and a TV cameraman followed me from my car to our dressing room. Camera guys never followed me. They’d always follow Yzerman or Fedorov. That’s when I knew: O.K. Here we go.
You could feel it in the dressing room before the game. You could feel it during warmups. They were 3–0 against us that season. They were No. 1 in the division. This was our last game against them going into the playoffs. It was a huge moment.
But the game was relatively tame for most of the first period. Until….
Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg, two of the most skilled guys in the league, got into a wrestling match by our bench. At first it was nothing — just a small scuffle. The refs came over to break it up. The building was quiet.
And then you just heard this incredible roar out of nowhere.
I look to center ice, and there’s Mac.
Darren McCarty, the guy who visited me in the hospital every day. Mac is reigning punches down on Claude Lemieux right in front of our bench. Lemieux’s helmet pops off, and he goes down on all fours, trying to turtle to protect himself.
And then another huge roar — louder than the first one.
Patrick Roy leaves his net. Mike Vernon leaves his net.
They’re skating toward one another from across the rink, like a Wild West movie.
But then, out of nowhere, Brendan Shanahan intercepts Roy and they both go flying.
Next thing I know, Mac is dragging Lemieux over to our bench, as if to say, I told you I’d get him, boys.
Then Vernon and Roy finally make it to one another, and they start brawling at center ice. Not just tying up, but throwing haymakers.
In the middle of all this pandemonium, Marc Crawford, the Avs coach, is yelling at me, “You started all this, Draper!”
And then Scotty Bowman starts yelling at Crawford, “Don’t talk to my players! Don’t you ever talk to my players!”
When the refs finally got ahold of everybody, there were helmets and sticks and gloves and jerseys and blood all over the ice.
What can you say? You just say the date, and everybody knows.
March 26, 1997.
Exactly 301 days after I had my face caved in, my teammates stood up for me. We settled it. But this is what a lot of people don’t remember: For the players on the ice, that night wasn’t just about the fight. That night was about proving that we could beat Colorado on the scoreboard.
After the refs cleaned up the ice, there was still a game to be played. We were down 5–3 in the third. If we lost, and Colorado swept the season series, then the fight would have meant nothing. But we started chipping away at their lead, and we tied it up at 5–5 to send it to overtime. In OT, who do you think came out and buried the game-winning goal?
We couldn’t have scripted it any better.
The brawl was one thing. But us winning that night changed everything. It gave us the belief that we could beat them in the playoffs. We knew we’d see them again in the Western Conference finals. We just knew.
When they dropped the puck in that series, the tone had already been set. The vibe was different. As soon as Lemieux turtled at The Joe, everything changed.
We beat them in six games, and I got what I really wanted — what I had burned for since I was in the hospital. I got the handshake line. I got to look every one of them dead in the eyes, and I got to shake their hands knowing that I was going to the Stanley Cup finals, and they weren’t.
In the finals, the Flyers were heavily favored to beat us. They were “too big, too strong, too fast.”
First shift. Game 1. Philly comes out with the LEGION OF DOOM. Lindros. LeClair. Renberg.
Everyone expects that.
But nobody expected who Scotty sends out.
The Grind Line.
Me, Joe Kocur and Kirk Maltby.
What a feeling. Almost exactly a year to the day that I was laying in a hospital bed with my jaw wired shut. Now I’m starting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
We came out flying. After finally beating Colorado, we were not going to be denied. We took Game 1 on our way to a sweep.
That first time you touch Lord Stanley, after so many years of burning for it, your life flashes before your eyes. Your whole journey plays like a quick film in your mind. I wanted that Cup so bad, for so many reasons. But mostly I wanted to prove to myself that one hit wasn’t going to define my career, or change the love I had for the game.
We won again in ’98, 2002, and 2008.
Now, we’re known as champions. But on March 25, 1997, we were called “soft.” Our leadership was questioned. Some people wanted to blow up the team.
Do we still win the Stanley Cup without that brawl? Maybe. But I know that it certainly didn’t hurt.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Over the years, Lemieux and I never spoke about what happened. He never apologized, and I didn’t need him to. They won Cups. We won Cups. Even if I didn’t like him very much, I actually respected how clutch he was as a player.
Then, a couple of years ago, I was at the 2014 NHL draft as a member of the Red Wings’ front office. My whole family was there with me — my wife and three kids. When the draft was over, we were waiting outside for a taxi to take us to the airport, when my wife’s face suddenly went pale. She was looking right through me.
She said, “Lemieux’s walking towards us.”
I wasn’t going to turn around. I didn’t think I had anything to say to him.
Sure enough, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn around and it’s Claude.
He says, “Oh, is this your family?”
My son, Kienan, has watched every single YouTube video in existance of the Wings-Avalanche rivalry. He knows the whole story. So he was looking up at Claude with these big eyes, like, Oh, my God. Here he is, in real life.
Claude bent down and shook his hand, and my son just kind of looked at him in awe. Claude politely introduced himself to my whole family, and shook everybody’s hand.
And that was it. We went our separate ways.
I’m glad we had that moment. For everything that we went through during that rivalry, the beauty of our game is that at the end of the day, as (much older) men, we are still able to shake hands.
Now that it’s the final year for The Joe, people have been talking about their favorite memories of the place. We won two Stanley Cups in that building, and yet every time I meet a Wings fan, you know what they want to talk about?
March 26, 1997.
Those gongshow days are gone now, and it’s probably for the betterment of the game. But ask anybody from Detroit, and they can tell you exactly where they were when that brawl went down. Long after that arena is torn down, people will still remember that night.
It defined a rivalry, and it defined my career for a lot of fans.
But for me, when people ask about my favorite memories of The Joe, I always give a boring answer. And I do it because it’s the truth: It’s the Stanley Cups. The sacrifice it takes to lift one Stanley Cup is almost beyond words.
I went on to win four of them with teammates who I consider brothers. They can never take that away from us.
So, to a certain sixth grader in West Hill, Ontario, from a very long time ago, I’ll say it again: Oh yeah?