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Alumni Game An Unforgettable Experience

by Samantha Poulos / Colorado Avalanche

Under the bright lights of Coors Field, one of the greatest rivalries in hockey history was once again brought to life, this time for the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series Alumni Game held on Friday, Feb. 26.

Needless to say, the event was a smashing success, kicking off an unforgettable weekend of outdoor hockey.

From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings provided the NHL with intense and viciously entertaining games, as both teams combined for five Stanley Cup championships in seven years (1996-2002) while featuring in one of the most heated rivalries in the sport.

The Alumni Game matchup served as an opportunity to bring back some of the best players in the history of both franchises, an event hockey fans anticipated as much as the Stadium Series game between the current Avs and Red Wings.

“It was quite impressive, and it was pretty awesome seeing all those people there,” Sandis Ozolinsh, the Avalanche record holder for the most regular-season markers (72) as a defenseman, said of the event. “I’m pretty sure we never had that many people at one hockey game when we played, and we were in our best shape then. I think the atmosphere was good.”

The clear sky made for an enjoyable night for the 43,319 fans in attendance, as the game time temperature was 58.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I currently reside right outside of San Jose, California, so the weather saved me,” Mike Ricci, a six-year member of the franchise, said of the perfect playing conditions. “If it was cold, I might not have made it.”

The Colorado roster was highlighted by legends like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Milan Hejduk and Ray Bourque, to name a few. The Red Wings also brought some of their best to the ballpark, with Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shanahan all suiting up for the game as well. In all, 11 Hockey Hall of Famers took part in the contest.

The relaxed atmosphere and smiles on faces of the players almost made fans forget about the many vicious and heated contests once played between these two clubs.

However, the crowded stands caught a glimpse of the past once the puck dropped and the noticeably competitive game began.

“The pace was surprisingly decent for an alumni game,” said Hejduk, a former Avalanche captain who spent his entire career playing for Colorado. “They came out firing. They outshot us, but we had both goalies playing really well, and we scored some goals.”

Fittingly enough, it was Valeri Kamensky—who scored the first goal in Avs history against none other than Detroit—who opened the scoring. Not missing a beat, Sakic, Hejduk, Bourque and Stephane Yelle also lit the lamp, reliving the glory days of Avalanche hockey.

“It was tiring. I believe it now, that we’re a mile up over here,” Ricci said, fresh off the ice. “I think the guys tried to go as hard as they could, but it was still a lot of fun. Thank God I came.”

Roy, in pristine Hockey Hall of Fame form, made 20 saves through two periods before taking a seat to let Craig Billington have a turn. Fans on Twitter ultimately named Colorado’s former netminder and current head coach the top player of the evening.

One of the best parts of the whole experience for Forsberg, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Hockey Hall of Fame member, was the 5-2 win over the Wings.

“It was one of the better nights,” said Forsberg, who picked up an assist on Kamensky’s tally. “It was great weather. Just getting on the ice and skating around, I never thought I would get to play in an outdoor game like this and against the Red Wings too. And [we] beat them.”

“Seeing all these guys after I don’t know how many years and playing against a big rival, it was great,” Hejduk said of the experience. “And then we came up with the ‘W,’ can’t beat that right?”

Another memorable moment of the evening was the video montage that played on the big screen at Coors Field late in the third period. Both teams stopped for a moment to bask in their shared history, bringing chills to many in attendance.

“Looking at the video and pictures from way back, you start thinking about how intense the rivalry was,” Forsberg said. “Unbelievable games back then, and I think most people here tonight got to experience one or two of them. They were fantastic.”

“When it was five minutes left in the game and they did the tribute, we appreciated it also,” said Ozolinsh. “All the people that came and gave us support for this game and for all the years we were playing here, it was a touching moment.”

The Alumni Game highlighted an Avalanche calendar filled with 20th Anniversary events that brought back the franchise’s best for a chance to don the ‘A’ on their chest once more.

“I’m definitely hanging up my skates after this,” Ricci said following the contest. “It might take two weeks to straighten out again; the back’s definitely sore. I know why I retired now. The back and neck are definitely done.”

Ozolinsh, who retired from pro hockey in 2014 age the age of 41, also said his playing days are done for now, “Unless there’s another Alumni Game.”

No matter how long they played for the Avalanche organization or what jersey they retired in, every one of the players on the team was grateful for the opportunity to come to Denver and enjoy another evening playing the sport they love best.

“You can’t thank the Colorado Avalanche enough,” Ricci said with gratitude. “It was a first-class weekend. A lot of guys brought their families. It’s maybe our last hoorah. We’re getting really old. No one is ever going to believe that we played anymore, so thanks to them. I can’t thank them enough, the fans, the organization, it was a lot of fun.”

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