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When asked to write about my favorite Avalanche moment, my head began to swim with images and sounds of Avs past: Bourque and the Cup, No More Rats, Foppa's hatty, Sakic heroisms, draft day fist pump, Uwe threading the needle, Mission 16W, and on and on.
But then I asked myself, "What one thing from the past has endured as part of the Avalanche identity since its inaugural season?" The answer was clear, and rather than one moment, it is a series of moments that come together as one big beast all its own: the Avalanche - Red Wings rivalry.
It's been called one of the best sports rivalries of all time. Adrian Dater coined it a Blood Feud in his book chronicling the history of the rivalry. The term blood feud dates back to the medieval era when clans would clash in retaliation for the murder of their kin. And that's exactly what happened between the Wings and the Avs: an escalating series of retaliation for attacks on members of the respective hockey clans.
It's said this feud between the teams started long before the Avs became the Avs. Quebec had its own issues with Detroit, and a bit of that carried over when the team relocated to Denver. But the biggest foundation of the clash between the teams was talent. The two teams sported multiple sure-fire Hall of Fame players which drove the teams to match up in the playoffs five times, three of which were in the Western Conference Finals.
Yet it was the personal aspect of the conflict that made the feud so violent. During the 1996 conference finals, Claude Lemieux checked Kris Draper into the boards in what many called a dirty hit. Draper left the game with a broken jaw and shattered cheek and orbital bones. The Avs ended up winning the series and taking home the Stanley Cup.
The hit burned in the minds of the Detroit players, and on March 26th the following season, all hell broke loose. Darren McCarty attacked Lemieux in retaliation for the hit. He hit Lemieux with a right hook to the side of his head, continuing to hit him until he fell to the ice. In an effort to stave off the blows, Lemieux dropped to the ice and covered his head. McCarty didn't stop, though, and eventually kneed him in the head before officials ended the battle.
Not one to let an attack on a teammate slide, Patrick Roy bolted out of his net to come to Lemieux's defense. He was intercepted by a hit from Brendan Shanahan, who subsequently got into a tangle with Adam Foote. Coming to Shanahan's aide was Detroit's goaltender, Mike Vernon. Roy took exception to that and squared off with Vernon in one of the most infamous goalie fights in hockey history.
Those weren't the only fights to occur in that game, a game which has been dubbed many things including Bloody Wednesday, Fight Night at the Joe and Brawl in Hockeytown. There were nine fights in total, including the two mentioned above and the following (listed Avalanche player - Red Wings player):
- Brent Severyn and Jamie Pushor
- Rene Corbet and Kirk Maltby
- Peter Forsberg and Igor Larinov
- Adam Deadmarsh and Vladimir Konstantinov
- Mike Keane and Tomas Holmstrom
- Severyn and Aaron Ward
- Uwe Krupp and Pushor
The blood scraped from the ice would not be the last between these two teams.
On May 19th, 1997, during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, another team-wide brawl broke out. That one was followed up the next season with a rematch between Lemieux and McCarty. More battles—both in the way of fights and skill—continued, including another infamous goalie brawl between Roy and Chris Osgood.
The rivalry faded as the members of the teams went to play for other clubs or retired. The decline in the Avs' success also contributed to the demise of the feud . . . at least on the ice. Fans of both teams are still divided and, although the intensity of the hate may lessen, the venom between the two fan bases will never die completely.