[I suppose I'm not entirely MIA, huh? - Joe]
How do you summarize the impact Claude Lemieux had on the Colorado Avalanche, let alone his overall career in the NHL? Do you focus on the clutch playoff performances, or the four Stanley Cups, or the notorious reputation for dirty play? Do you focus on the trophies held high or the hits down low?
I'd rather focus on how much the city of Detroit hates his guts, and always will. Simply recognizing the impact he had on the Avalanche during the late 1990s is enough to send Red Wings fans into frothing fits of outrage. That, my friends, is why Claude "Last Laugh" Lemieux is one of the hallowed Top 19 Avalanche Players Of All Time.
Claude Lemieux's initial impact on the world of hockey was in the QMJHL with the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs (what is it with French and the letters "r" and "s"? Srsly). In 1982-83, at the age of 17, Lemieux 66 points in 62 games. In the 1983 Entry Draft, the Canadiens picked him in the second round, 26th overall. With that pick, Lemieux moved to the Verdun Juniors team of the QMJHL, who were fresh off their President's Cup championship the year before. Lemieux also just missed getting to play with Pat LaFontaine, who led Verdun to that victory and scored 234 points in 104 games.
Lemieux wasn't living in anyone's shadow, though, and started to make a name for himself as an offensive powerhouse. At the age of 18, Claude managed 86 points in 51 games. The next season (1984-85), now with the revamped Verdun Junior Canadiens, Lemieux 124 points in 52 games and helped lead the team to the President's Cup.
In 1985-86, he moved up to the AHL, joining the Sherbrooke Canadiens and scoring 53 points in 58 games. His apparent knack for offense (and harassery™) virtually ensured him a spot in the big league. Sure enough, he was called up to the Montreal Canadiens near the end of that year, appearing in ten games (3 points). His real impact, though, was in the playoffs. He scored ten goals in 20 games and added six assists for good measure, helping to drive the Habs (in front of some kid named Patrick Roy) to a Stanley Cup championship. Not bad for a rookie.
But it wasn't just his timely scoring that made him valuable. Lemieux found it easy to annoy the opposition, and built a name for himself as a pest and cheap shot artist with few equals.
Lemieux's offensive output continued to impress over the next several seasons with the Canadiens, and he maintained stayed above .70 in points per game for three years. But, in 1990 he was traded to the New Jersey Devils for Sylvian Turgeon. It would take him five seasons with the Devils to win the Stanley Cup again, but he did it in amazing fashion. In 20 playoff games, Lemieux scored 13 goals, including 3 game-winners in a 4-0 sweep of the Red Wings. If they didn't dislike him by then, Detroit fans would really hate Claude Lemieux by the very next season.
Included as part of a three-team deal, Lemieux was traded to the newly-moved Colorado Avalanche at the start of the 1995-96 season. One might suggest that the Devils made a mistake trading their Conn Smythe hero, but I'm not complaining. Lemieux immediately took to his new team, and both his offense and his agitation were back to form. His point and penalty minute totals had declined over the past couple of seasons with New Jersey, but his first year with the Avs saw him score 71 points in 79 games and sit in the box for 117 minutes.
It wasn't until the playoffs, though, that Lemieux's dirty tricks really took center stage. On May 29th, 1996, during game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Claude ran Kris Draper's face into the boards at center ice, directly in front of the Detroit bench. Lemieux received a five minute major and Draper received major face trauma. The Avs would go on to win the game, the series and the Stanley Cup. Lemieux won the honor of being the number one hated person in the city of Detroit.
That single incident (which even made one of David Amber's top ten lists), more than anything else, fueled the hatred between the Red Wings and Avalanche that endured until Joel Quenneville and the Lockout drove Colorado into hockey mediocrity.
The most famous event in that rivalry, of course, was the Brawl In Emptytown of March 26, 1997, near the end of the next season. The brave Red Wings waited bravely until the final regular season matchup between the two teams (which was at Joe Louis Arena, not in Colorado, of course), to bravely attack Lemieux with a brave sucker punch from Darren McCarty, the bravest hockey player to ever bravely play hockey. For his part, Lemieux bravely turtled, which is still a source of intense masturbation for Red Wings fans, even though it started with a cheap shot and ended with terrified officials afraid to call a game misconduct or face the wrath of thousands of unemployed, blood-frenzied Murdercity residents.
Anyway, in case you've somehow forgotten what happened:
That kind of insanity carried on for the next several seasons, as did Lemieux's career with the Avalanche. Despite the disappointing loss to the Red Wings in the 1997 playoffs, Claude still scored 13 goals in 17 games, the most goals of any player in the post-season and the second time he reached that total. Four of his goals were game-winners. His final season with the Avs was in 1998-99, during which he scored 51 points and 102 penalty minutes. The Avs' deep run in the playoffs that year ended without another Cup, but Lemieux still contributed heavily to the team, this time with assists instead of goals. In 19 playoff games, he had 11 helpers and 14 total points.
Early in the 1999-2000 season, Lemieux was traded back to the New Jersey Devils for young stud Brian Rolston, who the Avs, in hindsight, really should have held on to. At any rate, Lemieux went "home" to Jersey just in time to help them win another Cup, his fourth. Claude would bang around with the Coyotes and the Stars for a few more seasons after that, but eventually retired from the NHL in 2003. He played one year in a Swiss league and then hung up his professional skates for good.
When he retired, Lemieux was the eighth-highest scoring playoff performer of all time, with a total of 158 points in 233 games (including 80 goals and 19 game-winners). He had also managed to sit in the penalty box for 1756 minutes during his 20 regular seasons. His 212 points scored as an Av ranks him eighth in team history, just behind Chris Drury. Lemieux is tied for sixth in playoff points with Adam Deadmarsh (55).
Though we, as Avalanche faithful, tend to view the Red Wings as the closest thing to an Evil Empire the NHL has, for many years Colorado was viewed as "the bad guys" in the rivalry with Detroit. Why? Claude Lemieux. No other player at the time combined gritty, dirty agitation with unbelievably clutch offense like he did, and no other player was so good at taking out an opponent with a hit and then burying them with a game-winning goal.
Claude Lemieux, dirty or not dirty, will always be a member of the Top 19 Avs Of All Time.
[Highest rating: 7. Lowest rating: 15. Average score: 10.42]