The Stadium Series game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings is just days away. It will be the second, and final time that the Avalanche and Red Wings play each other over the course of the season. It’s funny, the two teams that had one of the bloodiest and prolific rivalries in all of sports now see each other just twice a year. No longer do the fan bases immediately notice the other jersey from across the bar and instantly lock eyes, ready to go at the drop of a hat. The bad blood between the teams themselves certainly is no longer existent which leads to far less-spirited, even cordial match-ups. But with the arrival of this special game, in Colorado’s 2oth Anniversary season, I thought it would be appropriate to re-visit what is arguably the best rivalry in the last 20 years.
The Old Days
The Colorado Avalanche moved to Denver from Quebec City at the start of the 1995-1996 season and were an instant sensation. Denver hadn’t just inherited a hockey team, they inherited a Stanley Cup contender with amazing talent and a savvy front office making acquisitions that just kept making the team better. It quickly became apparent that the Avalanche would have a more-than-formidable opponent vying for top honors in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit ran up an impressive 131 points in the standings that year and were all but penciled in to the Stanley Cup Finals.
From 1996-2002, the Avalanche and Red Wings played each other in the playoffs five different times, with the Avalanche carrying a 3-2 edge in the series during both team’s best years. The Wings hold the advantage of Stanley Cups in that time period by the same 3-2 margin. There simply were not two teams better during that time period and it was widely accepted that the road to the Stanley Cup would have to go through Detroit or Colorado and, when we had the fortune of seeing those two teams match up themselves, they would go right through one another.
If possible, take the bad blood out of this series and think about the amazing names that were a part of this rivalry. Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Peter Forsberg, Niklas Lidstrom, Patrick Roy, Sergei Fedorov, Adam Foote, Brendan Shanahan and more. The fact that two teams of this caliber played each other so often is often overshadowed by how much they hated each other. Even without the fisticuffs and melees, from a purely hockey perspective, this was still arguable the best rivalry out there.
Yes, the sheer hockey talent made the rivalry and games exciting and entertaining, but what made this rivalry so special was the unadulterated hatred these teams had for one another. The epicenter of it all began in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in 1996 with the infamous hit from Claude Lemieux on Kris Draper. Lemieux was suspended for the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals for the hit, which seems paltry in comparison to today’s standards, but he was actually the first player to ever serve a suspension during the Stanley Cup Final.
The talk of retribution began immediately and ran rampant throughout the regular season before the two teams met again. Lemieux was dealing with injury at various points through this season, so Detroit would have to wait for a bit before they got their revenge, but get it they did when Darren McCarty spotted Lemieux gliding back to the bench and delivered the mother of all sucker punches, which ignited the first of the famous Avalanche/Red Wings brawls.
The following year, the Avalanche were looking for a little retribution of their own; especially Claude Lemieux, who jumped McCarty just as the opening face-off was dropped.
It didn’t take long before it was clear that this game was going to be a lot like the previous year, and the team’s didn’t disappoint. The second brawl and goalie fight combination solidified this as the biggest and meanest rivalry going at the time. There was no other way to explain the way the teams felt about each other than loathing. It’s definitely the type of rivalry that neither team has seen since, especially with any type of longevity. Sure, they have teams they don’t like, but nothing, save possibly the short time after the Todd Bertuzzi assault on Steve Moore, that Vancouver was close, but it didn’t last. Even the hated Minnesota Wild of today come nowhere near the level of vitriol of the Avalanche and the Red Wings.
There was one other element to this rivalry that often goes undiscussed, or is basically thrown in as a footnote, and that is the respect that these two teams had for each other. They knew that it was going to come down to the two of them basically every year to decide the Stanley Cup, and these two teams had some of the fiercest competitors ever to play. Make no mistake that, even though these guys hated the very sight of the other jersey, they knew the caliber of player that was across from them. The best part was that this type of fierce competition didn’t just mean for good hockey, it meant that we knew each of these teams were going to elevate their play even more and deliver something extra special, which they managed to do more times than not.
The hate that was there during the playing days has definitely melted, as many of these players have delivered tributes to each other upon retirement. Here in Colorado, Steve Yzerman gave a video salute to Joe Sakic the night his number was retired, and Brendan Shanahan did the same for Adam Foote on his special night. They know how special this rivalry was, and you get the feeling of that every time these players have been asked about it leading up to the Stadium Series game. There is not a rivalry going now, and may not be another one ever, that has the exceptional combination of hockey talent, hatred and respect that came out every time the Colorado Avalanche played the Detroit Red Wings.