The best dollar ever spent: How the Red Wings got Kris Draper

Kris Draper played 17 seasons for the Detroit Red Wings, appearing in more than 1,000 games.

Seven men have played more than 1,000 games for the Detroit Red Wings. Most of them are household names. That list includes Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alex Delvecchio, Tomas Holmstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg. The seventh name is Kris Draper, who was so unwanted, so undesirable that he was sold for the ho-hum sum of $1.

After becoming a Red Wing, Draper quickly went to work proving his critics wrong, earning the nickname “The One Dollar Man” and helping Detroit to four Stanley Cup titles.

Draper stood out as a tough defender at the center position as a young hockey player in Toronto, and the was selected by the Winnipeg Jets late in the second round. However, after the Jets got a look of him at training camp, they loaned the 18-year old to the American Hockey League for a few years. But the Jets never took a liking to Draper’s offensive game and in 1993 after he’d played more than 300 games in three different leagues and never sniffed much of a chance with Winnipeg, the Red Wings grabbed him. Winnipeg basically wanted to cut Draper loose for nothing, but league rules demanded that in order for Detroit to get him on their roster immediately, they need to give the Jets something in return. That’s why the Jets got a check for $1 in exchange for the 23-year old skater.

Draper joined the Red Wings during a turning point in franchise history. It was Scotty Bowman’s first season behind the bench, the roster was being flushed of dead weight, and the team was scouring the circuits for unrecognized talent. Most of all, Bowman desired gritty players who had something to prove. “The Rain Man” had a blueprint for rebuilding the Wings, and Draper fit his ideas.

Bowman attended an AHL game to scout Draper along with two of his scouts. Draper had a great game but didn’t know he was being watched.

“I score a hat trick. I come out of the locker room after the game, and there’s Scotty with a few Red Wings scouts,” Draper recalled in an article for The Players’ Tribune. “I had no idea they were in the building. I’m thinking, Finally, they saw the hat trick. Now they know what I can do. Now I’ll get my chance.

But Bowman was more interested in his ability to get the puck.

“Do you know how many face-offs you won tonight?” Bowman asked Draper. Draper did not.

“You won 19 of 21. Can you do that in the National Hockey League?”

A few weeks later, Draper was in a Red Wings’ sweater.

A left-handed shooter, Draper was not flashy with any part of his game. He wasn’t known as a great puck-handler, he wasn’t considered an exceptionally fast skater, and his slap shot was average at best. But Draper’s instincts and toughness were off the charts. He was known for his knack for winning face-offs. He eventually earned the admiration of fans and teammates for his tough-minded play and winning attitude. He became the center piece of Detroit’s famed “Grind Line” along with wings Kirk Maltby and Joe Kocur.

Bowman modeled the “Grind Line” after New Jersey’s “Crash Line” and utilized his trio to wear down the opposing team’s top-scoring line. Draper, Maltby, and Kocur (and later Darren McCarty in place of Kocur), agitated and pestered the top scoring lines of enemy teams, tiring them out. The strategy helped the Wings to the best record in the NHL in the 1990s and four trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in Bowman’s eight years as head coach.

Because he was asked to bump and physically dominate the opposing line, Draper was never expected to think of scoring first. As a result, he was never a big scoring threat until later in his career. In only one season (2003-04) did he scored as many as 20 goals.

The defining incident of Draper’s career proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of the dynasty of that era. On May 29, 1996, during Game Six of the Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Avalanche, Draper was checked from behind into the boards by Claude Lemieux. The Wings were eliminated from the playoffs that night, but worse for Draper was the fact that he suffered a broken nose, broken cheekbone, broken jaw, facial lacerations, and a concussion. The play, even by NHL standards at the time, was ugly and dirty. Draper blacked out twice after the play and had to be carried to the locker room. The ice was red with his blood. After the game, the Wings and Avs completed the traditional handshake line, but the injuries to Draper made his teammates sick.

“I can’t believe I shook his friggin hand,” Dino Ciccarelli said, “that pisses me right off.”

That anger was still stewing the following year in Detroit when the two teams met at Joe Louis Arena. In what became known as “Fight Night At The Joe,” Lemieux was pummeled by Darren McCarty in a melee early in the contest that erupted into a brawl with several fistfights all over the ice. Even the two goalies exchanged punches. Lemieux famously fell the ice and curled up in a “turtle” position to stave off the furious pounding he was receiving from McCarty, Detroit’s enforcer. It was payback time for the Draper check into the boards nearly a year earlier.

When the fight was stopped the ice was riddled with gloves, sticks, players, and blood. The Wings trailed 5-3 at the time but came back to tie the game in the third period and force OT. In the overtime session McCarty scored the winning goal in an emotional victory. The win propelled Detroit into the playoffs where they defeated the Avs in the Conference Finals and won the Stanley Cup over the Flyers a few weeks later.

Draper played 17 seasons for Detroit, finally retiring in 2011 after a few final skates with Maltby and McCarty on the “Grind Line” for old-time sake. He was a four-time champion, a tough competitor.

That’s probably the best dollar the Red Wings ever spent.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.