Twenty years later, Kris Draper not looking back in anger at Fight Night at the Joe

1997 was a good year for Kris Draper. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

DETROIT -- His face started it all.

The Red Wings' Kris Draper getting smashed by the Avalanche's Claude Lemieux into the boards in the 1996 Western Conference finals -- resulting in a broken nose, orbital bone, jaw and cheekbone -- led to the night 20 years ago that Detroit Red Wings fans are celebrating a little extra harder this year.

It was March 26, 1997 -- Fight Night at the Joe -- when the Red Wings got revenge for the hit on Draper, wiping out the notion they were soft, proving they could beat the Colorado Avalanche and heightening what might have been the best rivalry in hockey from the last two decades.

Draper, now a Red Wings executive, arrived at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday and was celebrated by fans. He was wished a happy anniversary. Fans have been telling him they remember exactly where they were for the infamous game, like it was the moon landing.

There was a lot of physical pain for Draper following that hit from Lemieux, but now in a full suit and holding a coffee while watching the Red Wings fans fill the seats before the game against the Minnesota Wild, he said he wouldn't trade the suffering for anything.

The end result was worth it.

What's the anniversary like for Draper?

He smiled.

"It's certainly not painful, I can tell you that," he said. "The thing I like is how much it means to Red Wings fans."

Anytime the game is shown on the scoreboard at Joe Louis Arena, it's met with huge cheers. One fan held up a sign on Sunday marking the anniversary of the "Turtle Pounding," with a drawing of a turtle that referenced Lemieux turtling as Darren McCarty got retribution. It never gets old for the Red Wings fans. On the way to their seats, they could even buy a signed, framed photo with McCarty fighting Lemieux that night, autographed by both.

Draper once joked to McCarty that he'd better have made a lot of money signing those prints.

"It shows the passion these fans have, how they related to that 1997 team," Draper said. "We had a lot of skill, but we were a hard-working, hard-fighting competitive hockey team."

It all clearly means a lot to him too. The way McCarty defended him by beating Lemieux into submission that night 20 years ago. The way it ultimately gave the team the confidence later that spring to raise its first Stanley Cup in almost half a century.

In a year of reminiscing about Joe Louis (the Wings are moving to a new arena next season) fans chatting with Draper jump to the conclusion that Fight Night was his favorite moment in the old barn. He laughs. It was a great moment, but it still didn't beat raising the Stanley Cup on home ice in 1997.

But perhaps one doesn't happen without the other.

Longtime Red Wings television analyst Mickey Redmond, who enjoys a good scrap or two, laughed while recalling that night. In those days he interviewed the players between periods, so before the fight broke out, he hustled to the elevator to try to get down to the dressing room for intermission.

While in one of the two Joe Louis elevators, he heard a roar. He thought maybe he missed a goal.

But he also knew retribution was bubbling at any moment.

"Sure enough, by the time I get down to ice level, all hell was breaking loose," Redmond said. "It was on, and I'm caught without a microphone or headset."

He hustled to a dressing room where the fight was being shown on a small monitor. He grabbed a microphone and jumped back into the broadcast.

That's how long this scrap went on.

"I thought, 'Well, I'm here. I can't miss this,'" Redmond said. "'Turn me up, let's go.' I started calling the fight [from] down there. It was amazing."

When Colorado was in Detroit on March 18, the fights were shown on the scoreboard during a break. Redmond looked down at the young players on the Avalanche and Red Wings benches and laughed when he saw the looks on their faces.

He quickly called the truck to make sure they got a shot of the current players watching the melee from 20 years ago.

"These kids are sitting there looking at the clock going, 'Are you serious? No way,'" Redmond said. "The looks on their faces were priceless."

For many of today's young players entering the NHL, raised on a game that features speed and skill while eliminating bloodbaths like this one, this might as well have been a different sport.

It was 20 years ago, but in terms of how the sport has evolved, it's a lifetime. Watching those old clips, it felt like another time completely.

Redmond nods in agreement.

"It was the best time," he said.