Fighting has long been part of the fabric of hockey. Rule 56 in 1922 even established ground rules for “fisticuffs.” Fighting peaked in popularity in the 1970’s with the reign of the “Broad Street Bullies” and the movie Slapshot.
Note: Any blog about hockey fighting is required to reference Slap Shot.
After peaking at 1.17 in the early eighties, the number of fights per game has gradually declined, but is not zero.
Hockey fighting typically occurs for two main reasons: retaliation and intimidation. The Red Wings’ Gordie Howe used his fists and physical play to intimidate opponents and produce 803 career goals. A Howe hat trick is famously known as a goal, assist, and fight in the same game. While Howe and the Wings dominated hockey in the fifties, the Wings were in steady decline in the seventies and eighties, nicknamed the “Dead Wings” instead.
After the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, the Wings dubiously owned the longest championship drought in professional sports. Launching the Hockeytown marketing campaign, they brought in an influx of European players with a premium on skill. After being swept in the Cup Finals in 1995, they cruised to a then NHL record 62 wins and 131 points in 1996, finally looking poised to finally hoist the Cup in triumph.
The Colorado Avalanche had a different plan, however, beating the Wings in 6 games in the Western Conference finals on their way to the Stanley Cup. In the series clinching game, Claude Lemieux checked Kris Draper face first into the boards breaking his jaw, nose, and orbital wall. The Wings limped into the off-season licking their wounds still trying to prove they were tough enough to win a championship. They kept winning in 1997, but so did their new rival, the Avs, who swept the first three games of the season series. The Wings desperately needed a victory…. and revenge.
Tensions were high for the fourth game at Joe Louis Arena on March 26. There were four fighting majors in the first ten minutes. Late in the first period, Darren McCarty exacted revenge on Claude Lemieux. He launched a right haymaker sending Lemieux to the ice in full turtle mode and continued to throttle him. Lemieux never even threw a punch. It was a full scale melee as the goalies, Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy, skated to center ice to square-off, ending with Vernon on top of the bleeding Roy.
While the Wings were clearly winning on the fight card and in the penalty box, they were still losing the game 5-3 in the third. They battled back to force overtime, where Darren McCarty (who somehow only received a double roughing penalty earlier) scored the game winner at 39 seconds. The instant classic since dubbed Fight Night at the Joe or Brawl in Hockeytown featured 11 goals, 10 fights, 39 penalties, and 148 total penalty minutes.
The Wings proved their mettle that night and went on to hoist the Cup for the first time in 42 years. The Wings and Avalanche rivalry continued over the next decade. Both franchises would combine for five Stanley Cups over a seven year span. Rivalries are intense and occasionally emotions build up and boil over. The images and energy from Fight Night at the Joe would be etched for eternity in Wings lore. It was a slice of old time hockey that Gordie Howe would be proud of.