By Shawn P. Roarke / NHL.com Director of Editorial
At the end of the latest installment of the rivalry that defined the NHL for the better part of a decade starting in 1996, the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings mingled on the ice at Coors Field on Friday.
Smiles and shoulder hugs replaced the scowls and shoves that defined the interactions between these teams throughout a contentious, often bloody, past.
As confusing as it may have been to some, it was the perfect ending to the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series Alumni Game.
For two hours, the teams celebrated a shared history by again donning the Detroit reds and Colorado whites to entertain a vocal, jam-packed venue.
It didn't matter that the players were older, greyer and slower. What mattered was that they showed up to add another chapter to a two-decade rivalry that brought so much meaning to so many people.
"These are two teams that have donated a lot of blood to each other," Colorado forward Mike Ricci said. "I think that we always respected each other, but we always knew we had to beat them and they had to beat us. It's a great thing for hockey."
On this night, Colorado beat Detroit, winning 5-2 on the strength of brilliant goaltending from Patrick Roy, a leading light in the story arc of the rivalry, and Craig Billington.
Instead of the enmity that often accompanied one of these games, Friday was marked by a celebration of what the players share. Time may not have healed all wounds, but it did mellow the hard feelings.
"We're getting older," Colorado forward Shjon Podein said, trying to explain the dynamic on display in 2016. "We all have families and kids and jobs, and you start realizing the important things in the world, and you realize more than anything that you don't dislike the red jersey over there, you just have a mutual respect for how much each other has given to push each other to the highest level."
The visuals explained by Podein were on display with about five minutes left in the game. During a stoppage, a video was played, highlighting some of the greatest moments from a rivalry that was defined by five series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a seven-year span from 1996 to 2002.
The players on the ice turned to watch the big board; those on the bench also watched as they labored to catch their breath. The 43,319 fans at Coors Field watched. Then the cheers started, softly at first until they built into an extended crescendo of an unforgettable standing ovation rolling down from the upper deck and over the ice surface. The players were momentarily stunned, again basking in the adoration that was once so freely bestowed. Then they raised their sticks to the fans, saluting them for their support.
"That was the apex of the game, the true respect that each club and organization and the fans had for one another," Podein said.
The fans were often a central tenet of this rivalry. The feeling they held for their team and the hatred they harbored for the other side fueled so much of what made this rivalry so special.
Now, all were united in thanking the men who performed for them and authored the memories that were being celebrated.
"That was kind of neat," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said. "Honestly, down on the ice level it's not as loud in a big open stadium, it carries a bit, but it was really a special moment for us all. It's been a pretty good rivalry and the chants with the fans, everybody in unison, that's never happened before."
Put together, it made for a perfect night for the 43 players who agreed to take part in the epilogue.
"I think everybody in this dressing room pinched their arms," Avalanche forward Peter Forsberg said. "The game was nice, nothing [nasty] going on. It was a good, smooth game. It was nice to see those guys too, because we have a lot of respect for them. They were great players. It was good to play against them and not try to kill them."
But don't be fooled that the game meant nothing to these men who once defined themselves by the results of these games.
Asked what the best part of the event was, Forsberg didn't hesitate.
"Winning," he said, flashing a smile.