"I want to fight him ... We'll set it up at Cheli's Chili Bar afterward. Pay-per-view. It would be awesome. Everyone in Detroit is waiting for something to happen." - Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, joking with the Detroit News about Claude Lemieux.
Chris Chelios and Claude Lemieux were teammates with the Montreal Canadiens, with Chelios recalling recently that Lemieux used to cheat at cards as a young player. "He got under people's skin on other teams as well as his own team, coaches, everybody. That was his thing," Chelios told the media this week.
Of the 24 NHL teams Lemieux hasn't played for, the Detroit Red Wings probably know him best, and not only because Chelios has seen his pockets stuffed with kings and aces.
The Wings have experienced what makes Lemieux one of the most exceptional dichotomies in recent hockey history: He's the postseason scoring machine who won a Conn Smythe in leading the New Jersey Devils' upset of Detroit in 1995, but he's also the cheap-shot artist whose infuriating agitations helped create the Wings/Colorado Avalanche blood feud.
Previous post-Colorado visits for Lemieux were rather uneventful and unnoticed by Wings fans. But those teams weren't looking down at Detroit in the conference playoff seedings. Lemieux and his latest team, the San Jose Sharks, visit Detroit tonight in a game between two teams separated by five points in the standings but not much else on the ice.
At 43, it's miraculous that Lemieux is back in the NHL; but much more predictable is that he's also back as Public Enemy No. 1 for Red Wings fans.
First, a brief reminder of the relationship between Claude and the Wings through the years, both in this great Mercury News piece and in this YouTube clip:
Lemieux told the Mercury News that "they had this white shirt in Detroit with a screwdriver that said, 'Screw Lemieux' ... I bet there were 20,000 of them in their building."
To read some Wings fans writing about tonight's Sharks game, some of these T-shirts might be coming out of mothballs. From the Chief at Abel To Yzerman:
Here's what I'd like: a Kronwall explosion around center ice, early on. A collision that reminds Lemieux what the cold JLA ice feels like against his bloody head. Then? A Wing win, a convincing one. And then tomorrow or the next day? No fanfare, just a small announcement from San Jose that Claude Lemieux's been released. Nice attempt, sir. Good effort. But we brought you here to have an impact against Detroit and all we got out of it was watching you try to pick yourself up like Creed in II after Kronwall blasted you into oblivion.
If you're going to the Joe tonite? Don't feel like you have to hold back because Lemieux's attack on Draper occurred thirteen years ago. Let him have it. And if he needs help leaving the ice after that Kronwall hit? No need for stunned, concerned silence. Nope. Go ahead and cheer because no one deserves it like that piece of trash.
George James Malik, who also has a great rundown of Sharks/Wings links in preparation for the game, believes the Draper incident is also inexcusable enough to decry Lemieux's return to the NHL: "This subjective blogger will never suggest that Lemieux's addition to the rivalry between Detroit and San Jose is 'good for the game, 'juicy,' or that awful, dreadful word used to describe appealing in the context of sports-'sexy.'"
Draper's thoughts on facing Lemieux? From the Freep:
"I've played against him before," Draper said, laughing. "I didn't just play against him in '97 and that was the end of it."
Still, Lemieux, 43, had retired, so, naturally, his return with the Sharks does stir up the old storyline. "Yeah, because of you guys," Draper said, laughing. "You know, why wouldn't you play the game as long as you can? That's the way I look at it. He obviously wanted to make a comeback, he wanted to play, he's playing hockey. There's more to it than what happened back in 1996 or 1997. But I guess it's a fun story line so I get to talk about it today and probably tomorrow and then probably San Jose's media wants to talk about it on Wednesday. So, I'll try to work on my clichés for you guys over the next couple of days."
There won't be any Darren McCarty tonight, because the veteran is on an AHL rehab assignment. If fans are hoping for a Wing to take a pound of flesh (or just pound the flesh) of Lemieux, keep in mind that Detroit has had just three fights from players not named McCarty, and Marian Hossa has one of them.
Reaction from the Wings and Wings fans aside, this is actually a pretty critical moment for Lemieux in his comeback. He has one assist in 14 games and is averaging just 7:18 in ice time, almost none of it on special teams.
Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy is asking, "Is this Claude Lemieux all there is to Claude Lemieux?" With the trade deadline here, that's not exactly a positive development for Claude. Simply being a good story or a veteran presence isn't good enough; he needs to show up in a big game, and there's none bigger than Sharks/Wings.
Oh yeah, there's also a game tonight. It almost seems like people are talking more about Claude Lemieux's return to Detroit than a faceoff between Western Conference titans.
Which proves that, even at 43, Claude's still got it. At least off the ice.