Sports

New ESPN Doc About Avs, Red Wings Rivalry Scores With Fans

Hockeymania has infected Colorado, with the Avs lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time in 21 years. And although the NHL season is over — aside from the June 30 championship parade and rally in Denver — there's one more treat for local hockey fans to enjoy this summer.

On June 26, ESPN released a two-hour documentary, Unrivaled: Red Wings v Avalanche, that's must-see television for Colorado sports fans and hockey fans in general.

The documentary focuses on the bitter rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche that began in the 1995-1996 season, the first year that the Avs were playing in Denver after moving from Quebec City, where the team had been competing as the Nordiques.

The film includes footage from games and also interviews with players, coaches, staff and journalists who were following the team at the time. Claude Lemieux, who played for the Avs in the 1990s, and Darren McCarty, a forward for the Detroit Red Wings back then, were interviewed by the filmmakers at a recent Red Wings fan event, and relate how the two-team rivalry started at the 1996 Western Conference Finals, when the game was much more violent.

Pundits considered the Red Wings to be the better team, but the Avs won the first two games playing in Detroit. In game three at McNichols Arena, Red Wings winger Vyacheslav Kozlov took a cheap shot at Avs defenseman Adam Foote, slamming his face into the glass and cutting open his forehead. Lemieux, who had a reputation for being one of the dirtiest players in the league, retaliated by sucker-punching Kozlov. The Red Wings won that game.

After serving a one-game suspension during game four, which the Avs won, Lemieux returned for game five and delivered one of the worst hits in hockey history to Red Wings center Kris Draper, delivering a massive blow that drove Draper's face into the top of the board. The impact caved in the side of Draper's face, fracturing numerous bones. While he headed to the hospital for emergency surgery, the Red Wings lost that game and were eliminated from the playoffs.

The documentary shows that hit multiple times. While the game cameras didn't catch Draper's face on the ice, the film shows the aftermath. In Unrivaled: Red Wings v Avalanche, Draper, who still has a visible dent in his check, says what bothered him most about the hit was that Lemieux never apologized. He still hasn't.

And Lemieux kept talking smack about Red Wings players, even after the hit. "I didn't understand why he couldn't just shut up, and why he had to keep talking about it. It was almost like he was proud of what he did and the extent of the injuries I had," Draper remembers.

The Avs went on to win the Stanley Cup that season, sweeping the Florida Panthers in four games and delivering a long-awaited championship to Denver, which had endured years of Super Bowl losses and sports heartbreak. But while Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy were enjoying their newfound stardom in the Mile High City, the Red Wings were stewing in anger, waiting for revenge for Lemieux's hit on Draper.

The film hits its peak during a recap of what happened in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on March 26, 1997.

"Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Deadmarsh and the rest of the talented Colorado Avalanche are in town tonight, providing top-notch entertainment. Great team, good guys. There are rumors they plan to bring along their snippy little towel boy," says Bob Wojnowski, a Detroit News sports columnist, reading aloud from a piece he had written for that occasion. That "snippy little towel boy" was Lemieux, and the column, "A Time for Revenge," featured a wanted poster of Lemieux.

"Boy, I really got into it in this. I forgot," Wojnowski says, laughing, while continuing to read: "Lemieux is a nuisance, a dirtier Bill Lambeer if there is such a thing. He's an agitator, certainly, but he's intimidating like a carjacker is intimidating. You don't know when he'll strike, but you can bet it'll be from behind, followed by sudden flight."

The Avs had security for Lemieux in Detroit, worried that he could get shot by an angry fan.

But he really needed to worry about McCarty, the forward for the Red Wings. Multiple fights broke out in the first period; eventually, McCarty found Lemieux on the ice, knocked him to the floor with a punch and continued to beat him bloody. Lemieux scrunched his body into a ball to protect himself, in what's referred to as "turtling" in derisive hockey-fighting lingo.

Seeing that Lemieux was getting destroyed, Avs goalie Roy sprinted to his defense.

"I just started charging at Patty, and I wanted to get to Patty before he got to those two, and at the last second, I just saw something in his body where I was like, 'He's about to jump,'" Red Wings player Brendan Shanahan says of Roy, who jumped into him before squaring up with Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon.

The sequence of events will remind viewers of just how crazy the NHL used to be, with more hits, fights and blood than a UFC match.

The Red Wings got the last laugh that season during the Western Conference Finals, defeating the Avs in six games, one of which featured Avs coach Marc Crawford directing a profanity-laced tirade at Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman. The Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

And then in the next season, McCarty and Lemieux dropped gloves right after the puck drop in a November 1997 matchup; the fight was much more competitive this time around. And a few months later, Roy fought with Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood at center ice.

"Ozzie did not deserve that. I regret that fight," Roy recalls. "After that fight, I realized that, you know what, what are we doing? Stop that. Just play the goddamn game. At the end of the day, it's about winning hockey games, not winning fights."

From 1996 to 2002, the Red Wings and Avalanche won a combined five Stanley Cups, with the Red Wings taking three of those, the Avs two.

And along the way, Lemieux and McCarty became friends.

The film shows a child decked out in Red Wings gear at the fan event, who asks: "How did you guys, like, put back the anger and all your fighting stuff and come out today and do this?"

Lemieux responds, "The rivalry and the incident and everything else was definitely a dark moment, but to your question, we want to teach our kids that you can compete at the highest level, but you leave it on the ice and you have mutual respect."

But he still owes Draper an apology.