Mercurial Red Wings-Avs rivalry was sports’ best—for six years

The roots of one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history can be traced to May, 1995.

The roots started to take hold in early-December, 1995. They were firmly in the ground come the following May.

The Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche will be playing in yet another one of those outdoor games on February 27, in Denver.

Sadly, the alumni game that will take place the day prior to the game is likely to have more juice than the real thing.

The Red Wings and the Avs were the Hatfields and the McCoys of the NHL. Heck, maybe in all of professional sports.

Their bitterness toward each other was fleeting and mercurial, however. But for about six years, nothing was a hotter ticket than a Red Wings-Avalanche game, whether it was played in Detroit or Denver.

You can have your Yankees-Red Sox. You can have your Lakers-Celtics. I’ll even give you Pistons-Celtics and Pistons-Bulls. Same with Flyers-Rangers or Canadiens-Maple Leafs.

You can have them all, but what the Red Wings and Avalanche did to each other from 1996-2002 trumps everything those teams did. For six years, it was must-see TV.

But that was a long time ago.

The Red Wings-Avs rivalry can’t truly be put up there with the greatest of all-time, because it didn’t last very long.

The Red Wings kept being good—winning another Stanley Cup in 2008—but the Avs had some playoff trouble in the years after capturing their last Cup, in 2001.

The teams met again in the post-season in 2008, but it wasn’t a competitive series whatsoever; the Red Wings swept the Avs by mostly lopsided scores.

The alumni game on February 26 will be a trip down memory lane for those who were enthralled by the drama and subplots that seemingly every Red Wings-Avalanche contest provided.

In those days, everything would spill over to the playoffs, where the teams met five times in the seven seasons between 1996-2002, with the Red Wings capturing two series, the Avs three series. Three times the squads faced off in the Western Conference Finals, with the Red Wings winning two of those.

But again—a long time ago.

The NHL is trying, I would imagine, to get some TV eyeballs on the outdoor game on February 27 because of the Red Wings-Avalanche brand name.

But today, the teams aren’t even in the same conference anymore. Most Red Wings fans likely couldn’t name three players on the Avalanche roster, without the help of the Internet.

That’s why the alumni battle will be fun. But of course, it’s not the same as when the players genuinely hated each other.

Claude Lemieux, of course, wore the biggest black hat in Detroit.

Patrick Roy’s lid was pretty large as well.

Which gets us back to the root of the issue—pun intended.

The Quebec Nordiques were a pretty good hockey club in 1995, but they were in financial trouble.

Owner Marcel Aubut tried like mad to keep the team in Quebec City, but the red ink was too deep and the Province of Quebec rejected Aubut’s proposal for a bailout.

Aubut had no choice but to sell “Le Nordique” to COMSAT Entertainment Group, which owned the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. COMSAT moved the Nordiques to Denver and dubbed them the Avalanche, prior to the start of the 1995-96 season.

Denver was a prior NHL loser, having had the Colorado Rockies from 1976-1982 before the team moved to New Jersey and became the Devils.

But the Rockies were 13 years ago in 1995, and the NHL felt comfortable giving Denver another chance—especially since the team was highly competitive.

The move from Quebec City to Denver was announced in May, 1995. So there’s your first roots of the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry.

In early-December, the Red Wings, with what would be tremendous irony, torched Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy in an 11-1 shellacking at the old Forum. Roy surrendered all but two of the 11 goals.

Roy had battled with coach Mario Tremblay, and when Tremblay left Roy in to suffer the humiliation of the 11-1 loss to the Red Wings, the Canadiens goalie had had enough. He demanded a trade, right then and there—behind the Montreal bench. Roy sought out Canadiens President Ronald Corey, seated near the team’s bench, and announced that he’d just played his last game as a Hab.

Roy was traded forthwith—to the Colorado Avalanche.

A rivalry’s roots started to take firmer hold.

The Avalanche, for one, moved to the Red Wings’ conference because of their geographical relocation to Denver.

As fate would have it, the Red Wings would set a new all-time record for most wins in a season (62), and in the conference finals, who were waiting for them but the Colorado Avalanche—with their new goalie, Patrick Roy.

Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face with a brutal, illegal hit in the Conference Finals, which the Avs won in six games.

Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli lamented the post-series handshake after Game 6.

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Claude Lemieux, leaving the scene of the crime in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

“I can’t believe I shook that [expletive]’s hand,” Ciccarelli seethed of Lemieux, who had been suspended for the clinching game because of the Draper hit, and who joined his teammates on the ice in an Avs t-shirt for the handshake.

The rivalry was now on!

Back and forth the two teams went for the next six years, slugging it out on the ice—twice the goalies got into it—with each team one-upping the other. But the head that wore the rivalry’s crown lied uneasily. Neither team really dominated, or went on any long winning streak against the other.

That was, of course, part of what made Red Wings-Avs so delicious. It was like MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” series.

But after 2002, the teams didn’t have very many memorable regular season contests, as they used to. And in that 2008 playoff series, the Avs were totally outclassed.

The Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, which means the two teams hardly play each other.

But for six years, we were treated to the best that pro sports rivalries can give.

There were heroes and villains, subplots and drama. Even a mental image of an Avs sweater would make a Red Wings fan seethe, and vice versa.

When the Red Wings ousted the Avs in Game 6 of the 1997 Conference Finals, it was like when the Pistons finally eliminated the Celtics in the 1988 Conference Finals after years of torment; that 1997 series victory almost meant more than winning the damn Cup—which the Red Wings hadn’t done for 42 years.

The rosters for this month’s alumni game were announced a few weeks ago and as you would expect, the names that dot them are a Who’s Who of vintage Red Wings-Avs storylines.

But there won’t be bloody battles. There won’t be black hats. There will only be the names of yesteryear on the backs of the sweaters.

There’ll be too much smiling on the ice, number one.

As for the real game on February 27 between the Red Wings and Avs of today, you can have it.

All this is, is a reminder that sometimes in sports, you can never go back.

But you have the memories, and those will have to suffice—and they will.

McCarty Confirms It: He Wanted to Hurt Claude Lemieux

In Gordie Howe’s day, revenge on the ice was much easier to meter out at your own pace.

The NHL was a six-team league for much of Gordie’s career, and the seasons were 70 games long—which meant that you played every team 14 times.

Patience was a virtue in those days of Original Six hockey. Games against opponents were like public transportation; if you missed getting a guy back in a match, you just waited for the next game to come down the pike. Many times, you didn’t even have to wait 24 hours.

Stan Mikita found this out first hand, and not the easy way.

Mikita, as a young player—and as he tells the story—got Howe good one night. The Blackhawks center caught Howe with a blind side elbow, knocking Gordie hard to the ice.

As he skated off the ice following the shift, Mikita was grinning. His teammates were not.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” one of them said. The teammate knew of Howe’s penchant for acting as judge, jury and executioner—on his schedule.

Mikita shrugged.

Many Red Wings-Blackhawks (actually, it was Black Hawks in those days) games came and went. Howe didn’t so much as glance at Mikita, who thought he had gotten away with one.

No way will Howe get me now, Mikita thought. Too many games have gone by. He must have forgotten.

Wrong.

Weeks later, at Olympia in Detroit, Mikita says he made a pass—and then woke up on the dressing room table.

“Who was it?” Mikita asked the trainer.

“Number 9.”

Mikita groaned. “That damned Howe!”

Gordie exacted his revenge—when Gordie saw fit to do it.

Darren McCarty, in 1997, didn’t have the opportunities that Howe did to make things right on the ice.

Former Red Wing McCarty writes about it, in his new book, “My Last Fight.”

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“It” was McCarty’s payback to Colorado’s Claude Lemieux, for Lemieux’s brutal hit on Detroit’s Kris Draper in the 1996 Conference Finals, when Lemieux rammed Draper so hard into the boards from behind that Draper’s face was rearranged, literally.

McCarty writes that he made the promise to Draper to get Lemieux back, when McCarty picked his teammate up from the hospital.

But McCarty didn’t have 14 chances to get Lemieux back. The Red Wings and the Avalanche played just four times in the 1996-97 season.

The date of the payback was March 26—the last of those four meetings. That was the night that McCarty exacted his revenge on Lemieux and forced the Avs forward into the famous “turtle” posture on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. During a scuffle on the ice—and there were 18 fighting majors called that night—involving other players, McCarty homed in on Lemieux.

“Even though I fought close to 200 times during my professional hockey career, it’s fair to say that I brought more intensity and anger to the Lemieux confrontation than any bout I ever had,” McCarty writes, as published by the Detroit Free Press as a book excerpt.

“Years later, Lemieux told me that the first blow I delivered was the hardest punch he ever received,” McCarty continues. “During my career, there were other times when I wanted to pound the crap out of an opponent, but I’d never wanted to hurt anyone as much as I wanted to hurt Lemieux.”

So there you have it. Darren McCarty was, indeed, out for Lemieux’s blood on March 26, 1997.

It was a thrilling game, won by the Red Wings, 6-5, in overtime after rallying from  a 5-3 deficit in the third period. McCarty scored the game-winning goal.

Howe used to tell of Ted Lindsay’s advice to him: always know who’s on the ice with you—from the other team.

McCarty knew all too well that Lemieux was on the ice when gloves were dropped by other players. The time was right to attack and pummel. McCarty even said that he dragged Lemieux to the Red Wings bench so Draper could see—like a hunting dog bringing his dead prey to his master.

McCarty is like so many Red Wings fans who point to that 3/26/97 game as the night their team turned the corner toward a Stanley Cup.

“What is sometimes lost in the memory of Bloody Wednesday is that we won the game,” McCarty writes. “To me, that was the most important aspect of what occurred on the ice. If we had won the battle, and then lost the game, it would not have had the same impact on our team. We needed to prove to ourselves that we could physically dominate them and also beat them on the scoreboard.”