Team rivalries in sports have been a fixture in the games since their inception. They captivate audiences, motivate players, and make for electrifying atmospheres. There has never been a rivalry that provided that and then some than the one between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche in the mid 90’s to early 2000’s. These were two teams who absolutely despised one another. What makes this rivalry even more tantalizing is the fact that this thing ran deeper than just the hatred between the two franchises.
Local media in Colorado and Detroit were at war with each other, often spewing hateful propaganda about the other team, city, and fanbase. Speaking of fanbases, the hatred between these two reached brand new levels and set a new precedent when it pertains to rivalries.
The big question remained: How did this blow up into one of the most iconic rivalries in all of sports?
Well, we have to go back in time. Back to 1995, to be precise.
Detroit and Colorado were on opposite ends of the NHL spectrum. Detroit was an up and coming team, and despite being swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the New Jersey Devils, the Wings were poised to be Cup contenders for years to come.
Colorado, on the other hand, wasn’t actually Colorado. They were the Quebec Nordiques, and were in the process of moving to the Mile High City. The teams’ future was in serious question in terms of on-ice performance. Murmurs of Colorado’s ability to sustain a competitive and successful hockey team were also in question.
Fast forward to the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Detroit was the best team in the entire league and were seemingly unstoppable. They had set the record for the most wins in a single season (62) and the most points in a single season (131). They were considered the team to beat, and the overwhelming favorite to bring home Lord Stanley’s Cup. It would’ve been the first time in 40 seasons that “Hockeytown”, as Detroit would soon be coined, would bring home the Cup.
However, they had an unlikely challenger in the form of the Colorado Avalanche, who finished first in their division. Although lead by skilled players such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, they were known for two things: their grit and goaltending. These teams would meet in the Western Conference Finals.
This series had a bit of a storyline going in, as Avs’ goaltender Patrick Roy was embarrassed earlier in the season by the Red Wings. Roy, then with the Montreal Canadiens, wasn’t pulled until after he allowed nine goals. That was when Roy walked past Habs president Ronald Corey and told him that it was his last game in Montreal. Four days later, Roy and Candiens captain Mike Keane were dealt to the Avs for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Ručinský and Andrei Kovalenko.
The series was rough and intense from the onset. Kris Draper, former Red Wings forward, recently spoke on the ’96 series in an article he authored for The Players Tribune:
“From the first drop of the puck of Game 1, guys were taking runs, slashing, grabbing, sucker punching, you name it. There’s no point in even going over every incident. We did stuff. They did stuff. If you played in the NHL playoffs back then, you were not coming out unscathed. I’m not glorifying it, but that was the way it was. “
The first “dramatic” moment between these teams occurred in Game 3, when Detroit’s Slava Kozlov shoved the head of Colorado’s Adam Foote into the glass and opened a massive gash in his head. The laceration required 20 stitches, but he returned to the ice and even scored a goal. The drama ensued when Colorado’s Claude Lemieux retaliated with a sucker-punch, and was assessed a two-minute minor penalty. This enraged Wings coach Scotty Bowman, and he let Lemieux know after the game as they were leaving the ice, and even outside of the Avs team bus.
The next day, Avs coach Marc Crawford responded to Bowman, sending in tape of the punch to the league. “I’m not really surprised by it,” Crawford begins. “Scotty Bowman is notorious for taking an incidental factor in the game and trying to create a lot of focus around that. He does it by planting questions in the media. He does it by trying to create an awful lot of controversy. He’s a great thinker, but he thinks so much that he even gets the plate in his head to cause interference in our headsets during the game.”
The plate to which Crawford refers is in reference to a gruesome junior hockey injury Bowman suffered. He needed a plate inserted into his skull after being struck by a stick. Bowman responded:
“Ah, he’s a young coach. What the hang. He’s got a lot of pressure on him. Sometimes your reputation (for playing mind games) precedes you, and sometimes it’s baloney. Am I not supposed to try to win and send in the tape and ask for a review so I can be friends with the other coach? He’s really getting down.”
Lemieux was given a one game suspension following the league’s review of the incident in question.
Most people believe the following incident was the real spark in the rivalry.
Game Six between Detroit and Colorado. The Wings need to win in order to force a Game 7 at home. If the Avs win, and they move on to the Stanley Cup Final. In the first period, this happened:
Colorado took the game and won the Cup a week or so later. However, the drama was just beginning. Dino Ciccarelli uttered this infamous line after seeing Draper’s face after the game:
Draper needed to have his jaw wired shut and didn’t return to hockey for six months. Lemieux on the other hand, didn’t show any sort of regret or remorse. “I got more satisfaction out of this win than any other win. I was sorry to hear (Draper) was badly cut and injured by the hit. That happens every game. I saw it happening (on television replays) after I got thrown out.”
December 17th, 1997, during a game at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, Avs player Rene Corbet and Alexei Gusarov were knocked out by Red Wings players and sent to the emergency room. Defenceman Adam Foote, as expected, didn’t take kindly to seeing his teammates hurt like that. “It was crazy out there,” he said after the bout. “They can’t moan about the Draper hit anymore.”
Red Wing assistant coaches Dave Lewis and Barry Smith were involved in a verbal altercation with Avalanche assistant general manager Pierre Lacroix after the game. “Aside from the serious injuries, it was a wonderful night for hockey,” Avalanche coach Marc Crawford says. “It was probably the most emotional game this year and the most intense for the fans. It was a hard-fought game, but I can assure you that the guys in that other dressing room have got some ice bags on, too. This wasn’t a game for the faint of heart.”
March 26th, 1997. Two things happened this day in the NHL: the league announced the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Vancouver Canucks would open the ’98 season in Japan, and the Detroit Red Wings got revenge.
It started with Detroit’s Igor Larionov and Colorado’s Peter Forsberg. Two skilled players who almost never dropped the mitts. They didn’t really drop the mitts here, as it was more of a wrestling match on the ice. Then, away from the play, Darren McCarty found Claude Lemieux, and chaos ensued:
I apologize for the horrible video quality, but this video captures the hatred between these two teams. After the brawl, controversy took hold. Many felt that McCarty should’ve been ejected from the game, especially the Avs. However, not only was McCarty not ejected, but he returned to score the game-winning goal in overtime.
“It just happens,” McCarty said later. “We don’t plan it. You just put things in your memory bank and then you retaliate if you have to later. It must have been God’s will. I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s a big rivalry right now.”
The Avalanche were understandably upset. They believed the Wings had planned the entire ordeal, citing a local newspaper that featured threatening quotes from McCarty, promising revenge. Mike Keane believed the Wings were “gutless” for doing this at Joe Louis Arena (which, by the way, will be missed) instead of McNichols. “Why come home and play the role?” Keane expressed. “If you’re so mad at him and talk about it for six months …”
Detroit had a renewed sense of self-confidence. They now believed they could beat the Avs when the time came. That time? The 1997 Western Conference Finals, of course. The next big incident happened on May 22nd, 1997, which was Game 4 of the WCF.
Wings forward Martin Lapointe tripped up Avs forward Eric Lacroix (son of the aforementioned Pierre Lacroix). This caused teammate Rene Corbet to retaliate against Lapointe. What followed was a veteran Brendan Shanahan pummeling Corbet, which didn’t sit to well with Marc Crawford:
“His eyes were coming out of his head, so he was pretty excited,” Bowman relays postgame. “Frustration sets in. I can only control my team, not what the other team does. I’m not going to get into any mud-slinging.”
Crawford later apologized and was fined $10k for his outburst. Even more satisfying for the Red Wings, they scored five goals against Patrick Roy,after he claimed that Detroit would “pay the price”. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” he said after the fact.
Detroit went on to win the series and the Stanley Cup that season, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers. Allow me to take a moment to show you one of my favorite moments in NHL history, and it is brought to you with both calls made on the play:
The Red Wings were on cloud nine. That was until a week after the win, as they were struck harder than any punch or blow delivered by the Avalanche. Defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov, forward Slava Fetisov, and trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov were involved in a serious limo accident that left Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov with very serious injuries. “Vladdy” never played a game again, and Mnatsakanov was left paralyzed from the waist down. Fetisov retired following the accident, but played a KHL game in 2009.
Back to the rivalry, we turn our attention to November 11th, 1997. Claude Lemieux and Darren McCarty fought right on the opening faceoff at The Joe.
This scrap actually surprised Avs teammates. Colorado enforcer Francois Leroux said that Lemieux had asked for fighting tips prior to the bout. Leroux’s advice, “Grab and throw, baby.”
“I respect him for (fighting) as a hockey player,” McCarty says postgame. “He had to stand up for himself, and he did. But I still have no respect for him as a person, as a human being.”
The Wings and Avs would brawl a second time on April 1st, 1998, once again at The Joe in Detroit:
The fight between Avs netminder Patrick Roy and his Detroit counterpart Chris Osgood surprised both Roy and Wings coach Scotty Bowman. From Roy:
“The reason I did it is that I just hope it’s going to help our team. Sometimes things like this happen and it’s good for the spirit of the team. I had no intention to fight with Osgood when I went out there. But when he went to the middle of the ice I said, ‘What the heck?'”
Bowman stated “I’m just glad Osgood didn’t get hurt. Who knows why he started it.”
Remember when I talked about the media hating each other in addition to the players? Here is a quote from Woody Paige, then with the Denver Post, via Yahoo Sports:
““In 1805, Detroit was destroyed by a fire. Must have been the first year one of the city’s pro teams won a title. Regrettably, Detroit was rebuilt,” Paige wrote in the Post. “But every time (which is not often) The Automobile & Enema Capital of America gets a championship team, as in 1984 when the Detroit Tigers prevailed in the World Series, the downwardly mobile citizens try to burn it to the ground again. Can’t blame them.
“So Claude Lemieux should be praised—not assailed, attacked and assaulted—in Detroit. The Detroit Fire Department ought to present him with a lifetime achievement award. He saved Detroit from itself.”
“If it weren’t for Lemieux, Detroit would be charcoal. His New Jersey Devils defeated the Red-faced Wings in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals (and Lemieux was MVP), and his new team, the Colorado Avalanche, flagellated Detroit in the 1996 conference finals. Denver celebrates with champagne, Detroit with Molotov cocktails.””
Detroit repeated as Stanley Cup Champions in 1998, and honored the fallen Konstantinov with an amazing celebration, wheeling him out to centre ice, as captain Steve Yzerman forfeited the tradition of the captain raising the Cup first and handed it off to Konstantinov. The team then pushed Konstantinov around the MCI Center in Washington D.C.
Marc Crawford resigned as head coach of the Avalanche after the ’98 season and was replaced with Bob Hartley. The Wings were in prime position for a three-peat. This rhetoric was further cemented at the 1999 NHL Trade Deadline. The Wings loaded up, acquiring winger Wendel Clark (from Tampa Bay), goaltender Bill Ranford (also from Tampa, separate trade), defenceman Chris Chelios (from Chicago), and defenceman Ulf Samuelsson (from NY Rangers).
Colorado didn’t stand pat at the deadline, however, as they acquired forward Dale Hunter (from Washington) and defenceman Sami Helenius (from Tampa).
The Western Conference foes met in the Conference Semi Finals that year and it seemed as if Detroit was well on their way to a three-peat. However, Colorado battled back from being down 2-0, winning four straight and eliminating the Wings. However, this story didn’t have a happy ending for Colorado either, as they were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions; the Dallas Stars.
After the ’99 season, the Avs sent Claude Lemieux back to the New Jersey Devils, who had traded him to Colorado following a contract dispute after the ’95 Finals. The rivalry, while always intense, was never really the same.
These teams met in the second round for the second consecutive year in 2000. Colorado had made a major deadline trade that would soon turn into the NHL’s “feel good story” of the year. They acquired forwards Ray Bourque and Dave Andreychuck from the Boston Bruins for forwards Brian Rolston, Samuel Pahlsson, defenceman Martin Grenier, and a 2000 first-round pick,who ended up being winger Martin Samuelsson.
Colorado defeated Detroit in five games, and went on to capture the Cup in 2001. The celebration brought another memorable moment in hockey history:
The last time these teams met with real animosity between them was 2002, when the Red Wings and Avalanche met in the Western Finals. The teams went blow for blow, refusing to give up an inch to the other side. The series went to seven games, when the most unexpected of endings occurred.
On May 31, 2002, the Wings chased Patrick Roy after scoring seven goals on the future Hall of Fame goalie. This would be his last real hurrah, as he retired in 2003.
The Wings then won the Cup, and NHL commissioner said of the Red Wings team, “When you look at these players, the first reaction is ‘let’s give them the keys to the Hall of Fame..”
That statement really describes the entire rivalry. As of 2015, 17 players from these two teams have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. This rivalry, while certainly bloody, intense, gritty, and everything of the sorts, also brought entertaining hockey. These teams dominated that seven-year span between 1996-2002, when five of the Cups won were either won by Detroit or Colorado.
I decided to write this article because of a few reasons. Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the “Bloody Wednesday” brawl between Detroit and Colorado. That game took place at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. On April 9th, the Wings will welcome the New Jersey Devils and play the final game in The Joe’s history.
The Wings and Avalanche will both not be playoff bound this year. The last time that happened, the Avalanche weren’t even a team, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was only 10, and Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog was just two.
This rivalry will live on in the annals of sports history. The blood, sweat, and tears these men gave to their team, fans, and sport will never be forgotten.
There will never be another feud quite like the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche fought all those years ago.
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Photo Credit: AP Photos
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