The year is 1999. The Colorado Avalanche are ahead in the game 4-2 against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, Detroit Red Wings. It's game six of a best of seven series and the Avalanche have come roaring back from a two games to nothing series deficit to on the cusp of knocking off the defending champs in the second round of the playoffs. The clock reads just over 6:30 left in the third period when Peter Forsberg steals the puck from Igor Larionov and flies past him all the way to a beautiful backhand, forehand shot to score and clinch the series for the Avalanche. Larionov hooks Forsberg all the way, but the generational talent fights his way through the hook and scores, ending up in the net after the goal. Forsberg gets up out of the net screaming in exaltation. The Avalanche have dethroned their hated rival, the Detroit Red Wings.
It took three years to get to this point in the rivalry. Three years of angry and hateful hockey, but three years of pure talented hockey. The Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry of the late 1990's and early 2000's was a rare rivalry in that it was not a rivalry based on divisional matchups or geographical proximity, it was a rivalry based purely on top-notched competition. From 1996 until 2002, the Avalanche and Red Wings combined for ten conference finals appearances, five Stanley Cup appearances and five Stanley Cup championships. Over that seven-year span, the two teams faced each other five times in the playoffs, three of those times being in the Western Conference Finals. For a span of seven years, they were the two best teams in hockey, and they hated each other because of it.
I grew up on the Avalanche side of this rivalry. I was five years old when the rivalry began. The first opponent the Avalanche faced in regular season play was the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings were just another NHL team then. But when the Avs took on the menacing Detroit Red Wings, a team that had won a historic 62 games that season in the Western Conference finals in 1996, one of the biggest rivalries in NHL history would be born. Experts will point toward Claude Lemeuix's hit on Kris Draper in game six of the series the Avalanche would win that night as the main trigger of what would become a major rivalry. As a young Avalanche fan, I never saw an origin to the rivalry. There were just some things that were. There was good and evil in this world just as there was the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings.
My belief in this as an Avalanche fan came out in 1999 when just a few miles east of my childhood home tragedy struck. Two high schoolers orchestrated a large scale shooting at Columbine High School killing 13 and leaving several more injured. I remember visiting the high school a few days after the shootings. A fence was littered with signs and flowers. One of the banners hanging there was from the San Jose Sharks, the Avs' first round opponent in the playoffs that year. The note of condolences from the Sharks humanized the team, but if the action came from the Avs' second round opponent, well it would have been unthinkable. The Red Wings through my eight year old eyes were evil incarnate. Bad things could happen in the world, because there were Detroit Red Wings fans. The two were one in the same.
When Forsberg got up after that goal, he was yelling, because he had slain evil. To an eight-year-old raised Roman Catholic, Forsberg was an exorcist of sorts and he was ridding the world of those wheeled wing demons. No longer would hockey's most precious prize be in the clutches of Satan himself.
Though the Avalanche would go on to the Western Conference Finals that year, they would lose to the eventual cup winners in the Dallas Stars (though in Buffalo, the game goes on). Nearly 17 years have passed since Forsberg scored that goal, and things have changed. For the four years following that 1999 meeting, the Avalanche and Red Wings would continue to battle for NHL supremacy. The following year they would again meet in the semi-finals and again the Avalanche would come out victorious only to fall to the Dallas Stars in the Conference Finals. In the summertime, the two teams would blow their budgets and bid on the next batch of Hall-of-Famers to hit the free agent market. Finally, in 2002, the two teams would meet again in the Conference Finals and play an epic seven game series filled with 13 current Hall-of-Fame players. The dreaded wings would come from behind to take that series, however, and take the prize from its true owners, the righteous defending champion Avalanche.
Little did we know that that 2002 series would be the end of an era. In the 13 years since that series, the Avalanche and Red Wings have faced each other only once in playoff competition and it was a series that most Avalanche fans would prefer to forget. Three years after that 2002 series, the landscape of the NHL changed. An entire NHL season was lost to a lockout and a salary cap was put in place to balance out the competition; to bring the mighty Avalanche and Red Wings back down to the rest of the competition. No more could the two teams battle out for the best free agents and load their teams with future Hall-of-Famers to battle out against each other. The NHL was changing and so were the two teams that had dominated it for the last decade.
For the Avalanche, they lost several foundational players. Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg went away in free agency. Others were traded. Suddenly, the Avalanche didn't quite look like the force they once were. They didn't disappear right away, but slowly the Avs slipped their way down the standings until they missed the playoffs all together. When the Avs and Red Wings finally did meet again in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, it was clear that the once magical rivalry was long gone. The Red Wings had played the transition right. They maintained playoff appearances all the way to their current 25-year streak and they swept the Avalanche in 2008 on their way to another Stanley Cup championship. One year later, the Avs' captain, Joe Sakic would retire and a rebuild would begin. The names would change and soon the players that played in the uniforms once occupied by those Hall-of-Famers in the late nineties were less familiar and harder to love or hate for reasons of pure absolutes.
I've grown up since then. I'm no longer a child that knew the Red Wings as the embodiment of the sinister. The curtain of hate has been unveiled from my eyes and I now see the Red Wings as just another NHL team. Between the movement of the Detroit Red Wings to their proper Eastern Conference position and the passing of time, the angst that myself and other Avalanche fans had has faded. The players on both teams have had no part in the blood baths that once raged against the two teams. But even today, the media still loves to bring out the videos of goalie fights and full ice brawls that took place nearly two decades ago between the two teams and declare that the current game taking place between the two teams is one of the greatest rivalries in sports. And to those media personalities I say no.
This once great rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings is no more. While for a period it was perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports, all it is now is just another game on the docket.
In one week, the Coors Light Stadium Series will be in full effect in Denver. Thousands will flock to Coors Field to see the Red Wings and Avalanche horn be trumpeted once more. On Friday, the players we once saw when good and evil were well defined will lace up the skates for one last hoorah. And on Saturday, we can return to the state of gray we know now as the new players embrace the outdoors and an old overplayed rivalry.
Like a wedding, we have something old and something new for the last weekend of February. But though the once great rivalry may be as over as the careers of the players that will play Friday night, I say we embrace it for one last time.
This final weekend is a weekend for nostalgia. As the Avalanche continue to celebrate their 20th anniversary in Denver, we the fans are invited to tap into our younger selves. Hockey outdoors is meant to tap into the roots of the sport of hockey, so we the fans may also tap into our roots. Remember why you became an Avs fan in the first place. When those of you that can go to the Stadium Series events next weekend go, don't forget your love for everything Avalanche, your warm clothes, and most of all, don't forget your hatred for the Detroit Red Wings. Only when you've done that will you truly be able to party like it's 1999.