The uniform was different, but the feeling inside Joe Louis Arena was vintage 1990s.
Well, almost. Eleven years has a way of calming hostilities, even those toward uber villain Claude Lemieux, who a decade ago was as welcomed in the Brown Bomber’s playhouse as octopi on the ice in Denver.
The images are still clear: Lemieux’s check that sent Kris Draper hard into the boards and then to the hospital with a broken jaw, cheek and concussion — which, even though it came from behind, upon further review looks more accidental then purposeful. And, most famously, the March 26, 1997, retaliation by Darren McCarty 301 days later that sent the Avalanche’s instigator to the ice for protection, which included a scrap between goalies Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy, and a second show of strength four seconds into the second period when Adam Foote and Brandon Shanahan tied up. It was hockey at its best.
The 43-year-old former master of the sucker punch played his first game for San Jose Jan. 20 and has been rewarded with 19 penalty minutes in 15 games, but it wasn’t until he skated against Detroit did his comeback become noteworthy. For better or for worse, after four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, 785 points and 1,756 penalty minutes, Lemieux will be remembered most for the fights he instigated and for the rivalry he helped start. After five-and-a-half years away and seemingly a lifetime since the NHL has seen confrontation in all its former gory glory, the NHL could use a few agitators and retaliators.
In all truth, the league doesn’t need players such as Lemieux or McCarty, who before his groin injury had scored one goal and 25 penalty minutes, all for fighting majors. The league is blessed with international talent that has raised the skill level to unseen proportions. Commissioner Gary Bettman wanted his league to be celebrated for its athleticism and not fisticuffs, and from that aspect it’s been a success.
But the lack of fighting and story-ready characters has caused the league to lose some of its identity and attractiveness at a time when even the NFL is making cuts. The realities of the economy and a salary cap won’t allow teams to employ punch-first-and-ask-questions-later
players such as “Tiger” Williams, whose 3,966 penalty minutes has made him a penalty box legend. The league will never completely go back to the days of paid enforcers, nor should it. Even hockey needs to evolve. But the league does need something or someone to stir the pot and create matchups that make the regular season something more than an 80-game preview to the post-season. It wasn’t going to be Steve Avery and his camera-mugging comments and, as much as the league is trying, it’s not going to be Sydney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovechkin is the game’s best player, Crosby its most-famous and best-marketed. The NHL and its broadcast partners are pushing these two as a latter-day version of Howe vs. Richard, but neither really fits the role. Ovechkin has the jaw-dropping talent, but Crosby is more inclined to hit and hide than menacingly stalk an opponent for a true face-to-face tussle against a force majeure. Then again, saving one’s aggression for a smaller target is standard operating procedure for Broad Street bullies in every city. And for 20 seasons, no one exhibited that belief more than the man named the No. 1 Most Hated Man in the NHL by ESPN in 2006.
Claude Lemieux was a jerk with the marvelous ability to get under the skin of his opponents. Detroit fans should have recognized a similar skill in its own well-loved 6-foot-11-inch, 260-pound Bad Boy. If they did, they’d never admit it. Such is the nature of pests. They are loved in their hometown, despised on the road and needed in today’s NHL — a fact that hasn’t escaped the now calmer vet.
“It’s good for hockey,” said Lemieux in the Detroit Free Press. “I think hockey was at its best as far as TV ratings and the interest of the hockey fans (then). They couldn’t wait to watch those games, and I think we need more rivalries of that kind to develop to promote our game.”
There was a time when Toronto vs. Montreal, Edmonton/Calgary, Islander and Rangers and, yes, Red Wings/Avs meant something more than an evening out and playoff position. It was nearly life and death. The NHL needs to get that back, and Lemieux and McCarty are too old to lead the way.
Though they’ll help any chance they get.