DETROIT – For roughly a decade, it was the greatest rivalry in pro sports.
When the puck dropped between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche, especially when a spot in the Stanley Cup finals was on the line, players on both sides were fueled by contempt and fans were filled with resentment for the other side.
This was like no other rivalry in its era.
From 1995 to 2002 the bitterness boiled as two Western Conference foes transcended the National Hockey League as ESPN and others began talking hockey. And it was all because of the heated battles between the Red Wings and Avalanche.
“You were on the edge of your seat,” Ken Hitchcock recently recalled.
More than 20 years ago, Hitchcock, who was in his first season behind an NHL bench with Dallas, found himself and the Stars entangled with the Wings, Avs and Blues for supremacy in the Western Conference.
But when it came to Detroit-Colorado it didn’t matter if it was the regular season or playoffs, Hitchcock was riveted to a Barcalounger just like every other hockey fan.
Back then, the Wings and Avs were the reality stars for must-see TV.
Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Sakic, Roy, Forsberg. They were the NHL’s stars of the day.
“When you were watching Detroit and Colorado you knew it was one shift from just blowing up,” Hitchcock said.
Rivalries aren’t built in a day. They span decades as legends and lore are seasoned over time. The Canadiens-Bruins, Yankees-Red Sox, Broncos-Raiders, and Michigan-Ohio State have forged histories stretching generations.
But the Detroit-Colorado rivalry was like a streaking meteor through a night sky. Now you see it. Now you don’t.
During the height of the rivalry, the two clubs met 59 times, including 30 postseason games, spanning two conference semifinals and three classic conference finals. Those conflicts – three won by Colorado and two by Detroit – were ammunition for what would be a seven-year war.
Then there are the notorious events of March 26, 1997 that sent the rivalry into a higher stratosphere when the teams duked it out at Joe Louis Arena with a combined 18 fighting majors.
The Wings-Avs Seven-Year War
However, the rivalry’s roots preceded Bloody Wednesday when Darren McCarty famously avenged Kris Draper’s broken jaw, nose and cheekbone by pounding on Claude Lemieux as he turtled on the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
“Kris getting hurt probably intensified it, acted really as the final straw,” said Jim Nill, the Red Wings’ assistant general manager from 1997-2013. “But really you have to go back to two great teams, high-skill, high-end intensity. It started probably years before then.”
The DNA of the Detroit-Colorado rivalry can be traced to Dec. 2, 1995 when 12 different Wings skaters collected at least two points each and shellacked the Canadiens, 11-1 at the Montreal Forum.
The lopsided loss led to Patrick Roy demanding a trade out of Montreal.
“A goalie ends up getting traded because of a situation and it was Detroit that caused it,” Nill recalled. “We always talked about it – Kenny (Holland), Jimmy (Devellano) and me – we always said that that might have been the worst move we made because we blew Montreal out so bad, caused a trade that sent one of the best goalies in the world to Colorado and it started our biggest rivalry.”
And of course, there’s May 29, 1996, the night that Colorado’s Lemieux became Public Enemy No. 1 in Hockeytown.
In Stan Fischler's 1999 book The Ultimate Bad Boys, Draper said, "that entire issue did not have to happen. I've never met Lemieux, and I don't ever want to meet him. The way he handled it just shows the kind of person that he is."
|Four days after the Red Wings humiliated him in Montreal, Patrick Roy was traded to Colorado, where he became a center piece of the Avalanche's championship runs. (Photo by Getty Images) |
Four days after he suffered the most humiliating loss of his career, Patrick Roy received his wish. The 30-year-old, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy twice for leading the Canadiens to Stanley Cup victories in 1986 and 1993, was now on his way out of the City of Saints.
Roy allowed nine goals on 26 shots to the Wings, including three goals to Vyacheslav Kozlov. But it was the way Roy was treated by Canadiens coach Mario Tremblay that led to his exile.
Tremblay left his starter in the game until the middle of the second period, and by the time he lifted his goalie the irreconcilable damage was done. When Roy arrived at the bench, he charged past Tremblay only to take a step back to say something to Canadiens president Ronald Corey, who was seated in the front row of the Montreal Forum.
Roy was traded to Colorado, where he joined up with the Avalanche, who was also new to the Rocky Mountains after relocating from Quebec a few months earlier.
Roy was seen as the last piece to a Cup-contending squad that was being assembled since the Nordiques traded Eric Lindros three years earlier. Roy was the All-Star goalie sought by the Avs to go with such offensive catalysts as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Valeri Kamensky, and yes, Claude Lemieux. All four forwards finished with 30 or more goals in leading the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup in their first season in Colorado.
“It was a hot, steamy rivalry, plain and simple,” said Devallano, the Red Wings senior vice president. “They had a real good club, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, they had a good club. We had a good club as well, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom, Scotty Bowman, and we played a lot of playoff series and we were in the Western Conference and there was a big rivalry because the clubs were pretty close in ability.”
Roy led the Avs to one more Stanley Cup, defeating the Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals en route to the 2001 championship. It was the fourth Cup title of his 20-season NHL career.
“When you put Patrick into the mix,” former Wings forward Kirk Maltby said, “you obviously have one of the best goalies to ever play the game.”
FUELING A RIVALRY
|The horrific injuries sustained by Kris Draper in the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs took the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry to a whole new level. (Photo by Getty Images) |
Needing a win to send the 1996 conference finals back to Detroit for a seventh game, Kris Draper was looking to make a play that might help the Red Wings even the score at a goal apiece before the first intermission.
Then, with 5:53 showing on the clock at McNichols Sports Arena, the unthinkable happened.
Draper was retreating to the bench, skating backwards slightly as he swept the puck toward the Avs’ zone. But before he could reach the door Draper was slammed from behind by Lemieux.
This was the same guy who six nights earlier was suspended for Game 4 following a sucker punch to the back of Kozlov’s head in Game 3. Now, Draper was a victim of another blind-side attack by the unapologetic Lemieux.
But this hit was far worse.
This hit did tremendous damage to Draper’s face, which was left in a mangled mess of broken bones and blood seeping out of his mouth and right eye socket. The collision launched Draper face-first into the edge of the boards in front of the Wings’ bench.
“All I can remember was thinking I'm about to watch a car crash in slow motion, and I can't believe it's happening,” McCarty told Adrian Dater in his 2006 book Blood Feud. “I could see Lemieux coming from 20 feet away, and I kept waiting for him to slow up. I kept thinking, 'he's going to stop, right?’ ”
Not a chance.
As Draper crumbled to the ice, the arena fell silent.
The team trainer hopped over the boards to Draper’s aid, assisting him across the ice to the visitors’ entrance and into the dressing room. The white towel pressed against Draper’s face was red, drenched in blood before he reached the other side of the rink.
X-rays weren’t necessary to know he had serious injuries. Broken teeth accompanied fractures in his nose, jaw, cheekbone, and right eye socket.
As Draper’s teammates proceeded through the series-ending handshake line following the 4-1 loss that night, most were unaware of the severity of his injuries.
It wasn’t until they got back to the dressing room that many of them saw the horrific reality of what occurred to a teammate, prompting Dino Ciccarelli to voice the most famous quote of the rivalry, “I can’t believe I shook this guy’s friggin’ hand after the game. That pisses me right off.”
As for Draper, who now works as a special assistant to Wings’ GM Ken Holland, he says it didn’t take long for him to get over what happened on May 29, 1996. In nearly 20 years, the two men have rarely crossed paths, though there was a short encounter last June in Florida.
“There’s basically been two and a half minutes of contact between him in 20 years,” Draper said. “The extent of it was at last year’s draft. He came up to me on the draft floor. We drafted a player, who is represented by his agency. … That’s really the history between myself and Claude.”
The rivalry may have ended in 2002, but the stories and legacies of those who played in it will live for generations.