Red Wings vs. Avalanche: The NHL’s last great rivalry

Puck Daddy
AP
AP

Darren McCarty unloaded on the back of Claude Lemieux’s neck, hoping to crack the turtle’s shell. Every punch carried the weight of their teams’ rivalry, whose intensity was measured in broken bones and pints of blood. 

A punch for Kris Draper, McCarty’s Red Wings teammate and best friend, and his mangled face courtsey of Lemieux's hit a year ago. A punch for every profane word exchanged between the teams, even between coaches. A punch for the fans going berserk at the Joe, the ones who gleefully clipped out “WANTED” posters with Lemieux’s face on them from the local newspaper.

With other players engaged in their own battles, McCarty kept wailing away. So Patrick Roy, the Colorado Avalanche goaltender, skated out with the intent of pulling McCarty off Lemieux. Brendan Shanahan of the Red Wings saw this, and saw McCarty with his back to Roy. So he broke free of his scrum with Adam Foote of the Avalanche, and took off towards Roy.

“I don’t know if Patrick saw me, but at the end he did because we both kind of jumped. It was a WWF move,” Shanahan recalled in Adrian Dater’s definitive book on the Red Wings vs. Avalanche battles, “Blood Feud.”

As McCarty dragged Lemieux to the Red Wings’ bench – and if you needed a better indication of Lemieux’s loathsomeness, McCarty was only given a double-minor for roughing – Foote tracked down Shanahan and started pummeling him.

Mike Vernon, the Red Wings’ goalie, joined the fray to pull Foote off of him. Then Roy returned to engage with Vernon, and two tossed fists in the most infamous goalie fight in NHL history.

It was March 26, 1997. Three-hundred and one days after Lemieux plowed Draper from behind into the boards during a chaotic playoff series. It was eight days after defenseman Larry Murphy parachuted into the most intense rivalry in professional sports at that time.

“I didn’t realize until I got on the ice how intense it was. How competitive it was. It caught me by surprise – I knew there was bad blood between the teams, but I had no idea to what extent it would go to,” Murphy recalled.

“I’ve never been involved in anything that had so much spite.”

Nor will any other NHL player, going forward.

The Red Wings and the Avalanche had the last great rivalry. There can not be another.

***

One of the most remarkable things about the Red Wings vs. Avalanche rivalry was how it began. 

“What impressed me was that most rivalries are based on geography and history. This one was based on a series of events that took place, and the thing just exploded,” said Murphy.

The 1996 Western Conference Finals involved the Avalanche, in their first season n Denver following relocation from Quebec, against the Red Wings, the best team in the NHL that had yet to win a Stanley Cup to validate the claim, having been embarrassingly swept by the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Stanley Cup Final.

The series was immediately brutal. Look no further than another “WWF move,” as Slava Kozlov slammed defenseman Adam Foote’s head against the glass:

The Avalanche had long contended that the Red Wings fired the first shot in this war with plays like that, rather than the Lemieux hit on Draper.

“That’s what the media thinks started it. For us, it started earlier in the series,” said Foote. “There were hits going on … I don’t want to discuss it, but I took a bad hit in that game from Kozlov. A lot got let go during the playoffs. And the referees didn’t get a handle on it during the series.” 

In fact, it was Lemieux’s retaliation for that incident – a sucker punch to Kozlov in Game 4 – that resulted in his first suspension of the series. After the game, Lemieux and his family were walking past the Red Wings team bus when coach Scotty Bowman started profanely yelling at him about the hit.

Lemieux actually came on the Red Wings bus and challenged him to a fight.

Those were the days.

Still, it was the Lemieux hit on Draper that set off the powder keg.

“I heard his face pop,” said McCarty, who was sitting on the bench in front of the incident. “That was my brother.”

Draper’s face was literally broken: His jaw and his cheek shattered, his orbital bone broken. Reconstructive surgery was needed. His jaw was wired shut. His face looked like someone tried to remake it using putty.

Lemieux was given a two-game suspension after the incident, costing him two Stanley Cup Final games. According to "Blood Feud," he actually asked NHL disciplinary Brian Burke to suspend him for half of the upcoming regular season if it went not missing games in the Final. Burke declined.

Even then, the two games felt like a soft punishment for a heinous act. Which led to McCarty playing judge, jury and executioner 301 days later.

***

Beyond the hatred and the violence, Foote said an integral part of the rivalry was just how damn good the teams were.

“When you play in the playoffs, things are going to happen. That’s were it started,” said Foote. “Some rivalries take decades. This one started immediately, because we were two great hockey clubs. Superstars, great goaltending. Two great teams that had to get through each other to hoist the Cup.”

The Red Wings and Avalanche met again in the 1997 conference final, which the Red Wings won. They met in the 1999 semifinals, which the Avalanche won. They met in the 200 semifinals, another Colorado win. And then they met in the 2002 conference final, a victory for the Red Wings.

In between were some of the most anarchic incidents in the NHL at the time. The May 22, 1997, battle in Game 4 when Bowman and Marc Crawford viciously screamed at each other, in which Crawford referenced the female anatomy in registering his protest.

There was Nov. 11, 1997,  when McCarty and Lemieux went at it again. There was April 1, 1998, with another line brawl and a fight between Roy and Osgood at center ice:

There were death threats to Lemieux, to the point where he had to have security guards stationed outside his hotel room door in Detroit. There were columnists in both cities stirring the natives with hyperbolic reporting.

A reading from the poison pen of Woody Paige of the Denver Post: 

“In 1805, Detroit was destroyed by a fire. Must have been the first year one of the city’s pro teams won a title. Regrettably, Detroit was rebuilt,” Paige wrote in the Post. “But every time (which is not often) The Automobile & Enema Capital of America gets a championship team, as in 1984 when the Detroit Tigers prevailed in the World Series, the downwardly mobile citizens try to burn it to the ground again. Can’t blame them.

“So Claude Lemieux should be praised—not assailed, attacked and assaulted—in Detroit. The Detroit Fire Department ought to present him with a lifetime achievement award. He saved Detroit from itself.

“If it weren’t for Lemieux, Detroit would be charcoal. His New Jersey Devils defeated the Red-faced Wings in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals (and Lemieux was MVP), and his new team, the Colorado Avalanche, flagellated Detroit in the 1996 conference finals. Denver celebrates with champagne, Detroit with Molotov cocktails.”

Incredibly, the bile being spilled by the media was only eclipsed by what was being spilled between the players. Even to this day.

"How I feel about Lemieux? Honestly, I don't know him," Draper said recently. "We never talked about that and I don't feel [anything] about him, I guess. It was 20 years ago.”

Draper said the incident defined him “as a person and as a hockey player” for the rest of his career.

“It created a heck of a rivalry with two high-end organizations, and a lot of people embraced it," he said. “You know walking into their rink that you didn’t like them. You hated them. I’ve got to figure they had the same feeling. That's what made those games so special."

Special, in the sense that we’ll never again see a series of blood-drenched hate-a-thons like these games.

“Oh, it’s gone now,” said Murphy.

***

The NHL understands that rivalries sell. The problem is creating the conditions for them to thrive.

When the League scrapped its conference-based playoff format for a divisional one, it was to create more early round playoff games between rivals. The NHL’s outdoor games are peppered with traditional rivals. NBCSN has “Rivalry Night” every Wednesday, even if its definition of “rivals” is sometimes stretched to absurd lengths.

Sure, we’ve had a few good rivalries since then: The Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks with their playoff-based animosity; the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins with their cross-state hate.

But none of them feel like Red Wings vs. Avalanche did. None had the urgency, the stakes or the sacrifice. 

“I think the game has changed,” said Murphy. “It seems like there’s no more villains anymore. The League’s gotten to the point where it’s based on competitiveness but not on always having a bad guy. The team wearing the black hat coming to town. You want to beat them, but also show you’re tougher.

As the product on the ice has improved, the danger has decreased. The Department of Player Safety has diminished the kinds of hits that spark rivalries. We know more about the lifelong impact of injuries. There is a concussion lawsuit that necessitates a draconian response to violent acts.

All of this makes sense, of course. The push is for safety, and Foote believes it’s a marketing push.

“They’re trying to sell the game in the States. The rough stuff’s going out of it. The concussions to young kids … they have to show these people that we’re trying to get the violence out of hockey,” he said.

But the players are different, too. Not many teams, for example, have a line like Detroit’s Grind Line – McCarty, Draper and Kirk Maltby – to increase the heat in an intense rivalry game. 

“We were worried about McCarty’s line, and Draper and Maltby. It was almost like Bowman was poking the bear [with them],” said Foote. “We were young. We had a young coaching staff. A year or two later, we put in our room: We have to stop taking penalties against that line. We have to be more physical with Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman. Not let them be a distraction.”

“When we didn’t worry about them, it was almost like they were less effective. Bowman had the upper hand on us. We were way too committed to getting those guys back, getting in their face.”

It’s not just the personnel that’s different. Wages and long-term contracts have risen while players willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of rivalry have fallen. The salary cap has made keeping rosters consistent through the years: Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Adam Foote, for example, were a part of the rivalry in 1996 and in 2002.

“It’s hard with the way the League established a salary cap. You can’t keep your teams together anymore. It’s amazing to see what the Chicago Blackhawks have been able to do,” said Foote.

Said Brad Richards of the current Red Wings: “As a kid, you watch those teams because of all that talent. They had, like, eight of them on each team. And obviously they juiced it up a little bit with some of their stuff they were doing.”

The NHL is nicer. The NHL is safer. The NHL is parity. The NHL is more calculated and forced.

This NHL can’t have another Red Wings vs. Avalanche.

But for one night, they’ll have it again

***

Even reading the Red Wings and Avalanche alumni rosters for their Friday night game at Coors Field was nostalgic.

Mike Ricci! Dino Ciccarelli! Hey, remember Stephane Yelle?

It’s like when Vince McMahon digs up a wrestler from the "Attitude Era" to main-event a pay-per-view. Everyone’s older and slower and rounder – well, save for Chelios, on all accounts. But there’s something inherently thrilling about seeing these names on those jerseys. It’s not simply nostalgia for those classic battles, but nostalgia for a time when this rivalry, scars and all, could thrive. 

It’s something that resonates, no matter how many years have passed. To wit: Murphy and Foote are participating in a ceremonial “beer summit” presented by Coors Light on Saturday at Denver’s ViewHouse Bar (3-4 p.m.) to celebrate the rivalry and, well, bury the hatchet.

“It’s a long time ago. People have moved on. But it was a special time and a great experience to go through,” said Murphy. “Since I’ve been here [in Denver], you can feel this great sense of mutual respect.”

“We were all lucky to be a part of great hockey clubs,” said Foote. “It’s good to get us all together, to reminisce and talk about it.”

And a chance for us all to revel in the last great NHL rivalry one more time. Because it was classic. Even for the guys who suffered the most through it.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” said Draper.

“I had some injuries. They healed.”

--

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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