Come into the way, way back machine to the 1995-1996 hockey season when the Colorado Avalanche debuted for the first time in Denver beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 at McNichols Arena. The game foreshadowed a long and glorious rivalry between the Avalanche and the Red Wings. Star goaltender Patrick Roy joined the team in December on a sweet trade with the Montreal Canadiens (forced by poor player management) along with the team’s captain, Mike Keane.
Over a seven year period, the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings earned five Stanley Cups between them. They met in the postseason six times from that first season until 2008, each team winning three of the series matchups. Depending on how one counts the players, during their decade long rivalry NHL fans saw anywhere from 10-18 Hall of Fame players not known for physical play compete with an intensity which drew blood, incited both fan bases and became a key attraction across the NHL.
The enmity initially began with the Avalanche’s first Stanley Cup run when the two teams met in the Western Conference finals. Red Wing Slava Kozlov slammed Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote’s face into the glass, spewing blood onto the ice and requiring 20 stitches, yet no penalty was assessed. Foote, being one of the toughest defenders in hockey, returned to the game later and scored a goal. Tough-as-nails Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux, in typical old hockey style, retaliated by later punching Kozlov in the mouth and drew more blood. Both coaches fanned the flames of controversy with their post-game comments and inflamed the rivalry. Three games later, the enmity erupted with the infamous Lemieux hit on Kris Draper and there was no turning back.
The competition brought out the best in both teams. The games were fast, intense and without equal. They also led to legendary fights. So when the NHL decided to schedule a Stadium Series game in Denver between the Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the alumni game would hold any fireworks.
The first period launched with an opening faceoff between Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman and Avalanche captain Joe Sakic. And just like that first matchup in 1995, Colorado wing Valeri Kamensky notched the first goal, this time off a nice series of passes from Claude Lemieux and legendary forward Peter Forsberg.
Unfortunately, the evil Yzerman tied the game midway through the first period. Both teams came out with energy yet the Dead Things outshot the mighty Avalanche 7-2 with eight minutes remaining. Shortly thereafter, mighty Joe Sakic, the only NHL player to have scored eight overtime game winning goals, put the Avalanche ahead with a wicked wrister off a great assist by Ray Bourque, a legend in his own right.
The game heated up in the second period as Tomas Holmstrom of the dastardly Wings traded hits with Bourque, who had played for the Boston Bruins in the Boston Winter Classic game earlier this season. Adam Foote checked Detroit’s Chris Chelios into the glass and the Red Wing’s Kris Draper was knocked down from behind. Halfway through the period, Detroit had put over 18 shots on net while Colorado only had five, with none in the second period.
However, four time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Patrick Roy exhibited the same competitive nature that made him both a three time Conn Smythe and Vezina trophy winner by diving to block shots and even doing his famous butterfly moves. While Saint Patty ruled the crease, mighty Joe made an all star pass to Mike Ricci who delivered the puck to Milan Hejduk who showcased his elegant stick work as he scored. Now leading 3-1, Roy robbed Detroit’s notorious Dino Ciccarelli on a diving save, leaving the Red Wing forward to shake his head in disbelief as he headed to the bench muttering. It was a good second period. Roy finished the two periods of play saving 20 of 21 shots and earning .950 save percentage.
Craig Billington took over from Roy for the third period goaltending duties. Bourque made his job easier only a minute in as he notched a goal past Detroit’s Manny Legace from a Kamensky pass, putting the Avalanche ahead 4-1. Not unlike this year’s team, Colorado continued being outshot 22-11 but led the game. Billington showed his own goaltending chops when he stopped a Holmstrom penalty shot. Legace returned the favor shortly thereafter by deflecting a Ricci penalty shot.
The Dead Things, however, did not go down without a fight. Igor Lirionov fed Brendan Shanahan a nice little pass which the Hall of Famer shot in the net. Adam Foote continued to cause Detroit problems as both he and fellow defenseman John Klemm fell to the ice to block shots and create havoc. With five minutes left, the 50,000 fans gave the players a standing ovation after watching the historical highlight video of their rivalry, inspiring both teams to skate onto the ice with their sticks raised in gratitude. Stephane Yelle capped off the evening by sealing the Avalanche victory with the final goal.
As all beloved stories go, the good guys won 5-2 over their hated rivals and chants of “Red Wings Suck!” echoed through the evening air. While there was no center ice fight between Roy and Chris Osgood (who is recovering from hernia surgery), there were plenty of things to cheer about this game. Both teams showed while their bodies may be aging, the competitive juices have not faded and the players elevated the competition beyond the normal alumni game performance. While much more congenial than games of seasons past, they also exhibited the skills and intensity which made their games some of the most exciting in recent memory. The Coors Field post game fireworks offered the finishing touch to a great night of hockey.
Colorado Avalanche forward Dan Hinote summed up the evening best when he was asked about Patrick Roy’s level of play. “Oh my God that was fantastic! It was like the old days where you feel like you could pretty much do anything out there because you had him behind you to clean up your messes.” Yes, one could say that about everyone who played tonight. Thank you for the memories!