The Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings have had a rivalry dating back to the mid-1990s, but that dynamic never involved 19-year-old forward Nathan MacKinnon. Just 44 seconds into Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Wings, all that changed.
The crowd of 18,087 fans at Pepsi Center erupted from their seats as the highly anticipated game turned into a full-on battle after a play in the Detroit zone.
The youngest player on the ice, MacKinnon was not amused when Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson hit him into the boards and sought retribution. MacKinnon, listed at 6-foot-0, 195 pounds, landed several punches in the ensuing tilt against the larger Ericsson, who stands at 6-foot-4 and is 25 pounds heavier.
“I think it was a headshot in the corner, and I think that’s what started everything. Obviously, I’m not in favor of MacKinnon fighting, but I guess he had his reasons,” said Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy. “I’m certainly not going to encourage any player to fight, but at the same time sometimes those things happen in a game.”
MacKinnon is known more for his speed, quick hands and offensive skill, so dropping the gloves was a rare sight for fans, players and coaches. Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told the Associated Press he was impressed with the youngster taking a stand.
“I didn’t expect MacKinnon to be fighting. You’ve got to give the kid credit, he stood up for himself,” he said.
Memories of one of the most intense rivalries the NHL has ever seen resurfaced Thursday, as big hits and several penalties offered a glimpse of the past.
Talent, speed, and size continuously pitted the Red Wings and Avalanche against each other during that time. Five Stanley Cup Championships were nearly split between the two powerhouses. The Red Wings took home three during the 1997, 1998, and 2002 playoffs, while the Avalanche won the trophy in 1996 and 2001.
The games were intense and jam-packed with excessive physicality. Tempers reached an all-time high during Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Final at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver when Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux sent Detroit’s Kris Draper face first into the boards. Draper suffered a broken cheekbone, multiple facial fractures, and he received 30 stitches.
Frustrations grew the next year at McNichols Arena as well, with two Avalanche players leaving a game against the Wings unconscious and on stretchers.
Multiple fights, including the goalies, game suspensions, fines for conduct, and 18 fighting majors—all in one game—were just a few of the more gruesome highlights of the five-year Stanley Cup race.
The two team’s heated rivalry died down immensely as NHL rules grew stricter over the years, putting the focus back on the game itself, and as the original players moved on. Although the driving force behind Thursday’s fight between MacKinnon and Ericsson was not based on their teams’ past history, the emotional tie with each club’s legacy always adds a deeper element whenever they get together.
"It was in the heat of the moment, for sure," MacKinnon told Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post. "Right now, I don't feel like fighting anybody, but it was a big game, and I asked him to fight. He said yes.
“It was fun.”