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Looking back at the bloody Avalanche-Wings rivalry

by Rick Sadowski
There wasn't a fiercer rivalry in sports than the one waged between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.

Fists flew and more than a few drops of blood were spilled when the teams met, but they also played high-quality hockey, combining for five Stanley Cup championships in a seven-year span from 1996-2002.

Only a few players remain from when the rivalry was at its peak, and the animosity and tension that existed among Avalanche and Red Wings players has diminished considerably in recent seasons.

Here's a look back at some of the rivalry's more memorable moments:

May 23, 1996: Game 3, Western Conference Finals, McNichols Sports Arena, Denver -- Red Wings forward Slava Kozlov slams Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote face-first into the glass in the first period, opening a large gash on Foote's forehead. He bleeds profusely and needs 20 stitches to close the cut, but he returns and scores a goal. None of the on-ice officials see the hit, so no penalty is called. Colorado forward Claude Lemieux is assessed a minor roughing penalty for retaliating with a sucker punch that bloodies Kozlov's mouth. The Red Wings win 6-4, cutting the Avalanche's series lead to 2-1.

After the game, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman shouts obscenities at Lemieux from the team bus as Lemieux walks through the parking lot with his wife and child.

May 24, 1996: Off-day following Game 3, McNichols Sports Arena -- Avalanche coach Marc Crawford is asked about Bowman's request that the NHL review Lemieux's punch against Kozlov. "I'm not really surprised by it," Crawford answers. ''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 reference is to a head injury suffered by a teenaged Bowman, who suffered a cracked skull when struck with a stick.

Bowman is surprised by Crawford's comment. "Ah, he's a young coach,'' he responds. "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." Following the review, Lemieux is assessed a one-game suspension.

May 29, 1996: Game 6, Western Conference Finals, McNichols Sports Arena -- The incident that ratcheted the rivalry takes place in the first period when Lemieux checks Kris Draper from behind in front of the Red Wings bench. Draper hits the boards face-first and suffers a broken cheekbone, a fractured jaw and nose, and several broken teeth. Lemieux is handed a major penalty and game misconduct. The Avalanche go on to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-1 win, after which Lemieux says: "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." Lemieux claims he was trying to apply the brakes before hitting Draper. "He was skating backwards and we were shoulder to shoulder,'' Lemieux says. "I was coming in and I was trying to stop and it just happened to be a bad hit. I should know better."

Draper, who needs 30 stitches to close facial cuts, rips into Lemieux. "I just hope the League saw my face," he says. "I didn't know who did it. When I found out, I wasn't surprised. I have two friends over there (on the Avalanche) and I'm not going to tell you who. They came over to see how I was and they told me it was a classless act."

Following the traditional post-series lineup at center ice after the game, Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli says of Lemieux: "I can’t believe I shook his freakin' hand."

The NHL suspends Lemieux for the first two games of the Final against the Florida Panthers.

Dec. 17, 1996: Regular-season game, McNichols Sports Arena -- Tempers flare during and after the Avalanche's 4-3 win, and Lemieux doesn't even dress because of an abdominal injury. Colorado forwards Rene Corbet and Alexei Gusarov are knocked unconscious by Red Wings hits, placed on stretchers and whisked to a hospital to be held overnight for observation. "It was crazy out there,'' Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote says. "They can't moan about the Draper hit anymore."

After the game, Avalanche General Manager Pierre Lacroix gets into an obscenity-laced shouting match with Red Wings assistant coaches Dave Lewis and Barry Smith in a hallway. "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 26, 1997: Regular-season game, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit -- The busiest people at the aptly named arena are the maintenance folks given the task of scraping blood puddles off the ice during the Red Wings' 6-5 overtime victory. In the most vicious game yet between the teams, Detroit's Darren McCarty blindsides Lemieux and pummels him late in the first period to precipitate a brawl in a contest featuring 18 fighting majors and a bout between goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. McCarty bloodies Lemieux's face and drags him along the ice as the sellout crowd of 19,983 stands and cheers. Fights break out throughout the game, and it doesn't take much to set them off.

"They were after Claude and we expected it," Roy says. "McCarty's a big guy and he should face him at least, stand up and go after Claude if he wants to do something."

It's quite a night for McCarty, who only receives a double roughing minor for attacking Lemieux and scores the winning goal in overtime. "It just happens," McCarty says. "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 call McCarty's action premeditated, basing their claim on a Detroit newspaper column that pictures a Lemieux mug shot with a bogus prison identification number, along with quotes from McCarty threatening revenge.

Avalanche forward Mike Keane, meanwhile, calls the Red Wings "gutless" for not going after Lemieux when the teams met March 16 in Denver. "Why come home and play the role?" Keane says. "If you're so mad at him and talk about it for six months …"

May 22, 1997: Game 4, Western Conference Finals, McNichols Sports Arena -- This time Crawford and Bowman get into the act, exchanging heated words from the benches in the final period of a 6-0 Red Wings rout that gives them a commanding 3-1 series lead.

"His eyes were coming out of his head, so he was pretty excited," Bowman says after the game. "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 is considerably calmer in his post-game interview. "You say some stupid things, and he said some stupid things," he says. "Nobody is proud of it; it's just part of the game." Crawford later apologizes and is fined $10,000 by the NHL for his behavior.

Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy boasted the day before that his team would play its finest game of the series while challenging Detroit "to pay the price." The Red Wings respond by scoring five goals on 25 shots against Roy, who is replaced by Craig Billington to begin the third period. "Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't," Roy says.

Nov. 11, 1997: Regular-season game, Joe Louis Arena -- Eight months after "turtling" while getting battered by McCarty, Lemieux initiates a fight with the Red Wings forward three seconds after the opening faceoff in a bout that ends in a draw. "A lot of our guys fought their hearts out for me in that game last year, and this was my payback," Lemieux says.

McCarty insists his opinion of Lemieux hasn't changed much. "I respect him for (fighting) as a hockey player," he says. "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."

Lemieux's fight takes his teammates by surprise. He recently had asked Francois Leroux, an Avalanche enforcer, for some fighting tips, but Leroux had no idea why. "I just told him, 'Grab and throw, baby,'" Leroux says after the game, a 2-0 Colorado win.

April 1, 1998: Regular-season game, Joe Louis Arena -- Referee Terry Gregson whistles 228 minutes in penalties during the Red Wings' 2-0 win, which includes a third-period fight between Roy and Detroit goalie Chris Osgood. Roy challenges Osgood to meet him at center ice. He lands a couple of punches and misses with a left before Osgood wrestles him to the ice. "The reason I did it is that I just hope it's going to help our team," Roy says of an Avalanche squad that has lost three of its past four games. "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?'"

Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman isn't pleased. "I'm just glad Osgood didn't get hurt," he says. "Who knows why he started it."

May 31, 2002: Game 7, Western Conference Finals, Joe Louis Arena -- The Red Wings embarrass Roy and the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 7-0 rout to advance to the Final. Detroit fans mock Roy, who takes a seat on the bench at 6:28 of the second period after allowing six goals on 16 shots. "I guess the tank was pretty close to being empty,'' Roy says. The Red Wings score on their first two shots and take a 4-0 lead in the opening 13 minutes.

"We thought coming in, be prepared to go into overtime, or it would be a 1-0 game or 2-1 game," Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman says. "After the first period it's 4-0 and we're thinking, this isn't the way it's supposed to be. We're as surprised as anybody."

May 1, 2008: Game 4, Western Conference Semifinals, Pepsi Center, Denver -- Red Wings forward Johan Franzen collects his second hat trick of the series in an 8-2 thrashing to complete a four-game sweep. Detroit outscores the Avalanche 21-9 in the lopsided series. Franzen becomes the sixth player in NHL history to collect two hat tricks in one series, and the first since Edmonton's Jari Kurri in 1985. "It's not often you see a player score like this," teammate Henrik Zetterberg says. "He's been working hard and it's great to see him score."

Colorado plays without a half-dozen injured regulars, including Peter Forsberg, Ryan Smyth, Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski, but was expected to put up much more resistance. Avalanche goalie Jose Theodore is replaced by Peter Budaj after giving up three goals on 15 shots in the first period.

"It's a great hockey team over there," Avalanche captain Joe Sakic says. "They're deep throughout the lineup and every player was going. They exposed us out there. They were great. They were firing on all cylinders."

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