There may be no one on the list of the top 18ColoradoAvalanche of all-time more controversial, more polarizing, more hated than #7.
Thing is, that was Claude Lemieux’s job – make you hate his guts unless he was on your team. He wanted to get in your head, make you do stupid things, throw you off your game because that’s what his game was all about.
Never one to overly impress with his regular season stats, Lemieux made his name when it mattered: the playoffs. By the time he’d rolled intoDenverfor the Avalanche’s inaugural season in 1995/96, he’d already been battle tested: a pair of Stanley Cup championships (Montreal in 1986 and New Jersey in 1995) as well as a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP during his run with the Devils.
Lemieux, who posted a fantastic regular season (39 goals, 71 points), hadn’t really had all that bad of a reputation by this point. He was a pest, sure, but there wasn’t any real vitriol towards him. That all changed on May 29th, 1996. Playing the Detroit Red Wings in game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Lemieux did this to Kris Draper and his face:
The results? Lemieux got a five-minute major, Draper got a face full of stitches (not to mention a broken jaw, shattered cheek and orbital bone), and Lemieux kicked off one of the most bitter, hateful rivalries in hockey during the ‘90s with just one hit.
He would finish out the post-season with 12 points in 19 games, helping lead the Avalanche to their first Stanley Cup and his third (second in as many years). But by now, Lemieux was more known for the Draper hit and his dirty reputation than anything else.
Heading into the 1996/97 season, everyone knew there would be a time when the Red Wings would come calling for Lemieux’s head. The two teams would play three times (Lemieux was dressed for none of them) before a March 26, 1997 matchup (where Lemieux did dress). What would follow was one of the biggest brawls in NHL history and has several nicknames since then: Bloody Wednesday, Fight Night at the Joe, and Brawl in Hockeytown. Seriously, it was insanity personified:
Over the next couple of years, the Avalanche and Lemieux would continue their bitter battle against their hated rivals and striving to reclaim the Stanley Cup. A pair of trips to the Western Conference Finals, as well as a sterling performance by Lemieux during the 1997 playoffs (13 goals in 17 games) were all fine and well but the team fell short of its ultimate goal.
Lemieux would continue on as the most hated man in the NHL and would take that with him back to New Jersey during the 1999/2000 season, when he was traded for center Brian Rolston.
Finishing up his career three years later, Lemieux would leave the game eighth on the list of all-time goal leaders in the playoffs as well as a dueling reputation of being dirty yet one of the most revered playoff performers of his time.
“Pepe Le Pew”, Lemieux’s nickname (one of many), may have been well earned for his dirty play. But Claude Lemieux, love him or hate him, will be remembered as a pretty talented player who played well in the regular season but became a warrior when it mattered most.
And for that, Claude Lemieux is one of the greatest Colorado Avalanche of all-time.
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